© 2005 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions.
Leonardo Da Vinci
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
The I-Reporter -- Born of the Web
by Jonathan Bernstein
Welcome to Crisis Management in the 21st Century and to Internet: The Ultimate Medium. A cross between tabloid journalism and a gladiator competition, between Pollyanna and Pandora, where minds meet and merge, clash and clamor, and where you can get more of anything you want than was EVER available at Alice's Restaurant.
The Internet has become the largest media outlet in our known universe. Interactive print, audio and video communications are all available, with the line between "amateur" and "professional", "traditional" and "untraditional" media blurred almost beyond ken. This massive medium has spawned what I am calling "The I-Reporter."
Consider these realities:
- Anyone can be an I-Reporter.
- While some I-Reporters compete for commercial gain, others compete simply for the joy of recognition. Just as traditional media reporters want to show up on page one of a newspaper, or at the top of the broadcast news, I-Reporters want their material showing up on page one of a Google search and - better yet - staying there for a while.
- Often, I-Reporters are also their own publishers and site promoters, or work in small teams to provide these functions, and through their skill can get better search engine placement and more attention on the Internet than "competing" entities.
- Search engine ranking has very little - and sometimes nothing - to do with quality or accuracy of content.
- Information posted on the Internet propagates virally - it finds a "home" via links or reprinted pages on websites run by people of like mind, and even misinformation is blatantly re-reported at websites operated by supposedly legitimate organizations.
- Some I-Reporters are constrained by the conditions of their employer, some are constrained by a sense of ethics, and some are completely unconstrained except by law - where it can be enforced.
Throw into that cauldron the fact that the general public still hasn't fully realized how easy it is to misrepresent information on the Internet, and the witches' brew has now become the most difficult environment challenging many ethical and honest organizations.
Organizations have always had individuals who disagree with their policies, dislike their products or services, are disgruntled former employees, or just had a bad experience with a receptionist. In the past, unhappy individuals could call or write letters to the company, contact the Better Business Bureau, or even seek the help of their local Consumer Reporter. Today, as or more quickly, they can just launch their own website.
Try this fascinating demonstration, given to me by a client recently. In a Google search bar, enter the word "socks" only substitute a "u" for the "o." I am being obtuse so that readers' spam-filters don't delete this article! There were something like 23 million results as I write this article, and almost all of the first 20 Google pages - 200 entries (which is as far as I looked) - were complaints about companies or products.
How does today's crisis manager deal with this when his or her organization is under fire? Here are some strategic considerations, offered as do's and don'ts:
- Do not depend solely on the Web-based tactics to correct information that has been misreported on websites of any kind (Web pages, blogs, wikis, etc.) Use direct-to-stakeholder communications.
- Do your best to balance the results of a search for the keywords important to your organization, but remember that a totally balanced search - just like a totally balanced traditional news story - may be, at best, only 50 percent "your side" of a story when there is any controversy already brewing.
- Do not automatically think that you have to respond to every Internet critic.
- Do monitor critics to see if they either (a) draw the attention of your stakeholders and/or (b) start to achieve high search engine ranking. Then have your crisis team meet to discuss the pros and cons of PR and legal responses which could force inaccuracies off the Web or demonstrate to concerned stakeholders, on your own Web pages and/or through off-line tactics, why they have no reason for concern.
- Do not engage in debates with critics on "neutral" sites which allow such interchanges. There are ways to defuse those bombs that don't make you a target for yet more negativity.
- Do consider getting more aggressive from a PR and legal perspective if allegations have already propagated widely, with considerable damage and the promise of worse damage.
- Do insist, as the top executive officer of any organization, that legal actions against hostile websites not be implemented without professional consideration of the PR implications, and that PR actions against hostile websites not be implemented without legal consideration.
- Do be sufficiently aware of the thoughts and feelings of your stakeholders - internal and external - that you know when and how severely Internet-centered negativity is impacting them. If you do, you will also know when they think you're doing a good job responding to such negativity.
Virtually all of the crises to which I've helped clients respond in the past five years have had a Web-centered/Internet component, with the impact of the Internet on crisis management strategies and tactics growing exponentially every year. While many organizations have "IT people" on staff or on-call, IT expertise often does not translate to "Internet Communication" expertise. With the growth of the Internet, companies were very quick to experiment with it and sometimes learn how to use its capabilities to PROMOTE their products and services, to build brand awareness and enhance their reputation.
But now, just as it was "pre-Web," the purpose of crisis management is to PRESERVE what has been gained through promotion. To, ideally, prevent crises from happening but, when that isn't possible, to minimize damage. In the 21st Century, crisis managers need a new paradigm and an expanded skill-set to help their organizations or clients achieve that critical goal.
Make Sure You Can Pass The "Snicker Test"
by Judy Hoffman
No, not the "Snickers" test - HalloweÕen is over. This is the test where you say something completely serious and the reaction of those who hear it is a lot of snickering - or outright guffawing.
The latest example of someone who did not give this much thought before making an announcement is ex-FEMA head Michael Brown. I simply could not believe it when I read that he is starting up a disaster preparedness consulting firm! I was way past snickering. I practically choked!
Does he not see how ridiculous this is? DoesnÕt he have any friends or family members who will take him by the shoulders and shake him? Most of us thought he was out of touch BEFORE - when he wasnÕt even aware while being interviewed on TV that there were people at the Convention Center in New Orleans who had been there for several days in desperate circumstances. Now I am convinced that he has almost entirely lost touch with reality.
Sure, he couches it in terms of "to help clients avoid the sort of errors that cost him his job" as it said in the Associated Press story of November 25th. In his press release to the Rocky Mountain News he said, "If I can help people focus on preparedness, how to be better prepared in their homes and businesses...then I hope I can help the country in some way."
I donÕt know many people who think he has even a rudimentary grasp of what it takes to be prepared for a crisis or a disaster. He wasnÕt a professional emergency manager to begin with. He had very little education and real-life experience to draw on when he accepted this political appointment. How could he possibly have learned enough in the past three months to qualify him to advise others?
In other situations, Mr. Brown might just be the butt of jokes - dismissed as someone with an inflated view of himself and what he has to offer. As a matter of fact, this past Monday evening, this situation made it to David LettermanÕs monologue. He said, "IsnÕt having Michael Brown advise you on emergency preparedness a bit like hiring Robert Blake to be your marriage counselor?"
People laughed. Sadly, there are too many people who are still paying a terrible price for the fact that Michael Brown and the agency he led (and I use that term loosely) were so unprepared. They apparently had no idea what they needed to do during that last week of August as Hurricane Katrina bore down on a vulnerable city or after it passed by and the levees broke.
Surely he alone is not to blame. It will be interesting to see what is finally revealed about who didnÕt do what when. But for him to think that he now has the credibility to teach others how to prepare for a disaster just shows how out of touch he really is. IÕm hearing of a number of professional emergency managers who are truly insulted by this announcement.
So I come back to the idea - where are the people in his life who will look him in the eye and say, "Mike, this is a bad idea - at least right now. The timing is all wrong. ItÕs too soon. MAYBE later on, when youÕve had a chance to really study and learn what should have been done. Not now."
Timing is very important. There are many other cases where the timing has been all wrong and has led to at least snickers, but, more likely, outrage. In recent weeks I have seen these stories in the newspapers:
- Politicians decide not to fund some government programs for health and education - and, at the same time, give themselves a hefty salary hike
- A major manufacturer cuts thousands of jobs - and pays big bonuses to top executives
- A railroad that raised ticket prices and instituted parking fees to close a "huge deficit" several months ago now finds a big surplus, so they offer reduced rates for trips to New York City over the holidays
You have probably heard or experienced similar stories. Avoiding such embarrassments is yet another reason to talk over your plans with a group of people who arenÕt afraid to speak up. You donÕt want "yes people" around all the time. You need people brave enough to ask you to consider what this idea will sound like when announced to the public. Of course this requires that the decision-maker is not the kind of person pictured in one of my favorite workshop cartoons-- the fellow sitting at the head of the table who says, "All those opposed to my idea, signify by saying ÔI quit.Õ" I usually enjoy the good-natured laughter among the participants that follows the showing of this cartoon - except for the one time nobody laughed and all eyes went immediately to the CEO! (I found out later this fellow was brand new in his job and no one knew much about him yet.)
It will be interesting to see who Mr. Brown gets to sign up with him as a client. I am just imagining the person who tells a colleague, "We have hired former FEMA director Michael Brown to advise us on how to prepare for a disaster." Talk about snickers...
Judy Hoffman is a crisis communications consultant, corporate trainer, speaker, and author of "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat: Dealing Effectively with the Media in Times of Crisis", available at www.judyhoffman.com.
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Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to email@example.com.
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