Archive for the ‘Crisis Communications’ Category

A study in crisis: Blazin’ Blazek

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

iStock_000011508802_SmallUPDATED 26 Feb:  If you’re a PR/Comms pro in NE Ohio, you know about @NEOHcommjobs, run ably by one Kelly Blazek.  She recently was honored by IABC Cleveland as its 2013 Communicator of the Year.  You also probably know by now that Ms. Blazek flamed the bejesus out of a young PR person who reached out via LinkedIn, responding with an email best described as more than tart.

KB abides strongly by the LinkedIn credo that you should LinkIn only with those you know well. Thus, a passing acquaintanceship on social media, or mutual “friends” is highly unlikely to meet with a favorable resolution.  Back a few years, I reached out via LI and got a nice note back outlining her policy in that regard, along with the hope that one day we might indeed work together.

I’ve got no truck with that.

Well, as this post outlines, Blazek went off on said young one and impugned the professionalism of all like her in the process.  The process to even join the Yahoo! group that gets you an email summary of NE Ohio jobs in our field requires a brief email to include some background and why you want to join.  Apparently, failure to follow directions to Blazek’s satisfaction is strike one, with a LI invite worth two strikes, two additional outs, and a “blazing” email — which then the offended party shared with several close friends…wait for it…on social media.


@NEOHCommJobs is shut down, as is Blazek’s LI.  Bruce Hennes says there are Villains, Victims and Vindicators in any crisis scenario. Right now, it’s all Victims and Vindicators — all that’s missing is the Red Queen shouting, “off with her head!”

Go read the post (it includes images of the offending missive), or watch WKYC-TV and tell me —  Should IABC Cleveland go through with the honor?  And, excuse me, Ms. B., but where is your voice in this?

What should IABC Cleveland do? What should Kelly Blazek do?

UPDATE — In a story on by @janetcho, Ms. Blazek apologizes. It’s fairly textbook, and it doesn’t seem to be a “non-apology apology” that you hear from sport figures and politicians.  I do wonder (as do others who’ve commented on Facebook) about its true sincerity. If it’s true that this was, as one person told me, “standard operating procedure” and “the most open secret” then you have to assume that only the social media scrutiny brought about the rejection, no?  If we apply an ethics lens to this, however frustrating it might be to receive off-topic notes from people who aren’t in the target market, and who perhaps are a bit presumptuous in asking for help without first attempting to create a relationship, you don’t have license to be rude, in my opinion.  I try to be understanding and kind, well, all the time. Sometimes I don’t succeed, and when I’ve been a snarky dude I own up and apologize. Because I’ve got a rep as a nice guy, people know I’m sincere. I’ve declined LI and FB invites from people I know only tangentially, but lately I tend to be more open just because I know how hard it is to get connected with the right people.

But seriously — given the fact that people can take offense rather easily (not speaking of this current situation, as I do not know the principals well), is it right to share your outrage publically?  Does KB deserve to be blackballed, banned, placed in stocks in Public Square? What do you think?





Summing up: IABC Heritage Conference a Winner

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Conf_BrochureI’ve given serious thought in recent months to letting my IABC membership lapse. With all the drama earlier this year, it crossed my mind more than once. But then, I attended the Heritage Region Conference, Oct. 13-15 in Indianapolis.

The IABC International is huge — 1,500 isn’t out of the question — and its venues, large hotels in big cities (New York, Toronto, etc.) makes for a spendy trip for the likes of a sole proprietor. But the regional conferences are more compact, are in smaller cities, and yet offer terrific programming.

This year was no exception.

I’m a little biased, as I had the chance to speak once again, but the quality was wonderful — Jim Lukaszewski held court for three hours, evangelizing on the concept that communicators need to be much more business-centric than communication-centric, particularly in times of crisis.  We know that we get more popular when it’s time to sweep up after some sort of conflagration, but too often, Jim averred, we see communication as the solution to every problem.

Case in point at my own expense:  Jim asked why the CEO of BP — Tony Hayward, of “I’d like my life back” fame — lost his job in the wake of the oil platform explosion that killed people and brought the US gulf coast to its economic knees.  I piped up instantly — blame-shifting, insensitivities, cluelessness

Jim said I was wrong – it’s just how things are done. The disaster happened on his watch, and so he paid the price. He’ll be OK, Jim added, because these guys get paid no matter what. But he’ll never lead as large or important a company as BP.  Jim’s point: we communicators need to better understand how business operates, not just the role that communicators play in it. There’s more, of course, including Jim’s gentle good humor, phenomenal stories and exceptional insight that comes from doing this work for 40-odd years.

Tim McCleary of The Involvement Practice keynoted Monday morning, offering not only a valuable speech, but a couple of fun exercises demonstrating how we can move from informing to involving people.  Establishing the central objective, then helping people understand it through real dialogue, then immersing them in the world of the new so that they own that objective and finally activating the power of the internal network (the What, Why and How of communicating change), was clear, intuitive and actionable.

Kent Lewis of Anvil Media, and serial entrepreneur, talked social media analytics — but not in a dry, statistical way. He shared stories of how to measure effectively — key performance indicators, metrics and goals for each platform, content strategies, etc. — that resonated well with attendees. Two big reminders for me — YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine, so having content on that platform is critical; and that SlideShare adds immeasurably to both search performance and sharing content effectively. One more from Kent — LinkedIn is essential in B2B, and one’s company page needs to be robust, clear and urgent.  I need to get on that right away!

That’s just a couple of examples.

The point is that about 150 attendees really got the chance to network. I met at least five people I’d not met before, and I reacquainted myself with dozens more.  The seven-person dinner Monday night at the Dine-Around was terrific, even if Harry and Izzy’s shrimp cocktail blasted my head (and everyone else’s) into a tear-streaked paroxysm of anguish and bliss.

IABC might be struggling to right itself, but they might have kept me in the fold thanks the Heritage Region team’s great work.  Check out the Twitter stream at #iabchrconf.


Wait. How can this be?

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The airline industry, especially the majors, is corrupt and evil. So goes the meme. But lately, I’ve had GREAT service, even though the end result has been less than desirable.

First, on my way to NYC for PRSA’s leadership confab (quite excellent, BTW), on Delta we leave horribly late due to weather at LGA, circle for an hour, run out of fuel and are redirected late to Albany, NY, whereupon I spend a short, tough night and catch an early train to the shindig. But, the Delta folks at Albany and the flight crew are total pros, doing their thing with a minimum of drama, and I appreciate it quite a lot.

Secondly, CLE to ATL for a day trip is horribly late (yep, 3 hours) which would have meant missing the bulk of the meeting and probably turned me around to take conference calls at home  (hmm, not a bad result, but really, we needed to meet in person.)

Delta, in response to my polite request, books me on the United flight, and I’m in the ATL on time. Sweet!

So, for the night return, again, for the third straight trip, Delta is horribly delayed. So I hie meself off to the club, content to pay the rather steep fee for a little quiet time. When I tell my story to the agent, she waives the fee and says, “you will be my guest.”

What industry is this? Customer service in airlines is dead, and the bigs are the worst. Yet, Delta took darn good care of me, and now I’m wondering whether they deserve the first call on my air purchase search!  So, Delta Club at Gate 37 in ATL, and gate agent very early this morning in CLE:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Perhaps the rumors of death are rather exaggerated.


What’s the matter with IABC?

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

It’s happened to a lot of organizations.  Business shifting under their feet, departure of key exec, search for new leader, struggle to change without losing customer base, new leader leaves sooner than expected after difficult tenure.

It shouldn’t, however, happen to a membership organization comprised of professional communicators.

The drama over Chris Sorek’s departure after less than a year at the helm of the International Association of Business Communicators has to have been avoidable.  We counsel our execs and clients about this. Books are written, conference presentations, academic papers all say the same thing: “Tell the truth, tell it first and tell it all,” according to Bruce Hennes of Hennes/Paynter, the crisis management firm based in Cleveland.

The tragicomic saga opens when Sorek takes over, succeeding Julie Freeman.  Julie, who held the post for 10 years, communicated quite effectively, in my book. She was visible, involved, supportive. Sorek was a little invisible, a little remote, seemingly more comfortable out of the spotlight in his 11 months. That’s fine; not every leader is an ENFP.

But as the changes began, including massive staff layoffs and restructuring, I believe the numbers were 15 of the 32 employees, Sorek still hung in the background. The always excellent David Murray had a good summary and analysis, as did, all without a word from the executive director.  In corporate life, we often call that, “insulating the CEO” from delivering bad news. But hey, this ain’t a corporation, its our bloody (and bloodied) association.

On IABC’s web feature, “IABC in the news” Sorek hasn’t been present since an interview in August 2012.  Freeman often took to the IABC Cafe, the blog platform. Sorek never did.

Who was that masked man?

Meanwhile, IABC’s LinkedIn group is full of members and nonmembers asking about what was happening at our association (I’ve been a member near continuously since, well, a long time ago). The International Executive Board (IEB), a volunteer leadership group, did its best to fill the void, but the paid head of our association was strangely reticent, leaving the spokes duties to our IEB chair.

I am wondering whether I need IABC anymore. I’m active in other groups — PRSA’s Employee Communication Section for one, the Institute for PR Commission on Research, Measurement and Evaluation, for another, and have a strong community of outreach via social media.  Add to that the desire to speak and write less for my communication family and more for senior execs in industries that might need my professional help, and we’re coming to an inflection point.

In the end, I’ve opted to stay in IABC, at least for 2013. I have a few personal frustrations — despite a long history of chapter leadership and good experiences with the Heritage Region Conference, the International has been a tough speaking nut to crack. As a small business guy, I need to make good decisions about how I spend my time and money.

This latest imbroglio, including a request from our IEB chair to “stick to the speaking points” was a real tale of the cobbler’s children. Seriously?  IABC tried to tell it first, but the technology didn’t cooperate. It didn’t tell it all because of privacy concerns (and a desire to avoid feeding voyeurism, according to one comment).  That made it seem like IABC wasn’t telling the truth — the failure to explain reasons behind decisions makes people believe they’re being deceived, as Joe Williams teaches.

Now, the search for an executive director begins all over again. The question is, who wants that job?  It better be someone who knows how to connect with membership from the very start, who will do a good job of listening to membership and who can exude confidence about the plans for the future.



When the story is just so bad…

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Crisis communications doctrine often seems to say that confronted with a giant, stinking pile of horse manure, there has to be a pony in there somewhere. But for the past four-plus years, there haven’t been any ponies for the banking and finance industries.

Witness the current mutual smackdown in the presidential election – which, by the way, has barely started by historical measures. We still have the two coronations-come-conventions to endure, then the sprint to the finish with debates, endless TV and surrogate campaigners.  How’d you like to be the PR rep for Chase? Bank of America?  A private equity firm?

There doesn’t seem to be any chance to win.  The story line of the financial crisis has been set — it’s the evil bankers who are to blame. Private equity outsources jobs and destroys companies. Wall Street is a bunch of greedy b@stards  who pushed the economy over the cliff and got sweetheart bailouts from their pals in government.

Truth is secondary to the narrative – nuance is avoided in favor of simplistic sound bites, and the thought is that the shadowy players pull the strings while the rest of us dance.

How do you combat that?  In Star Trek, it’s a Kobyashi Maru – a no -win scenario.   Maybe the problem is the “defense” part.  Maybe these industries should stop shouting against the waves and just go about their business — communicate internally, with clients, and never mind trying to convince the uninterested (if not hostile) news media.  Go direct and forget trying to win the argument.

What do you think? Is it worth fighting so hard?




Verdict on American Airlines’ Bankruptcy Comms – Good So Far

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Courtesy AA.comDuring my putative lunch today (29 Nov) the erstwhile Roula Amire of asked if I’d write a quick post on the bankruptcy communications coming out of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines.  At first I said no, too busy, but as my home office was still captive to contractors, I quickly reconsidered and wrote something (thank you, Panera wi-fi!).

Bop over to read my piece. I’ll tell you this much — given the requirements of lawyers and the, I don’t know, 12 different constituencies they needed to satisfy, I think they did a good job.  I like the Facebook video from AMR’s CEO, and the customer service Twitter stream pointing people to FAQs.

This is another case of “Dirt-sandwich-and-everybody-has-to-take-a-bite.” There’s not much we can do but smile and chew.




Herman Cain as Crisis Lesson

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Others have already written on this topic, so I’ll offer just a few things to consider when discussing Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain.  Foremost is the distinction between legal advice and public relations advice: they’re not the same thing.

There are four women who’ve claimed that Cain offered unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances during the 1990’s, when Cain led the National Restaurant Association. All four were employees of the NRA, though one was no longer an employee when she claimed the harassment occurred. Two filed complaints and received cash settlements. To others did not file complaints. Legally, payment of settlements is not proof of guilt. PR-wise, most people would say they are.

Legal-beagles are no doubt telling Cain to deny these incidents occurred. No one can prove otherwise, legally.  Sexual harassment seldom occurs with witnesses present. Ask President Clinton about his experience with these matters. His alleged behavior while governor of Arkansas was orders of magnitude more egregious — state troopers acting as spotters? Dropping trou to Paula Jones? And then there’s Monica Lewinsky — hmm, leader of the free world and white house intern?

Under the law, sexual harassment has two potential proof points — hostile work environment or quid pro quo. Pattern of harassment that creates the hostile environment or swapping sex for employment. Under the law, being a boor isn’t a crime.

So for an attorney, there’s no evidence of sexual harassment. For a PR counsel, that simply doesn’t matter. Who here believes that these four women made all this up, especially the two who filed complaints and received cash?  One publicity-seeking money-hound is one thing. Four is another.

Meanwhile, Cain denies, and the story is hot every day. What if Cain’s news conference had featured this statement:

My fellow Americans, as much as it pains me to say it, there was a time in my life when I behaved less than admirably regarding my relationships with women, and the allegations you have seen and read lately stem from that dark period some 15 years ago. By the grace of God and the support of my family, I was able to recognize that though my actions did not fit the legal definition of sexual harassment, they were still inappropriate and wrong. I deeply regret my actions and have sought support and guidance from my family and my faith to become a better man, a better Christian.

We could wordsmith this to death, of course, but where does the media go after hearing this? Cain could have taken questions, and to each that asked for details, reply that there’s no point in rehashing the incidents, and that he is very sorry for the pain he caused to the recipients of his unwanted attentions.

Of course, the whole thing flares up again if there are additional allegations from after the NRA, particularly Godfather’s Pizza, where he was CEO. The other thing to keep in mind is that the case against President Clinton was more substantive on par — more people, the Troopergate material, and a continuing pattern.

Chances are, Cain won’t get the nomination anyway — but I don’t think it’s the end of his campaign.



Some Crises Are ‘No-Win’

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

In a balanced article in the 22 August New York Times, writer Peter S. Goodman talks to a heap of PR folks about the Goldman Sachs, Toyota and BP communication nightmares. It’s a good piece, especially one graf:

“Which raises a question: Are some crises so dire that public relationship victory is simply not on the menu? And, if so, what’s an embattled company to do?”

After living through the financial crisis with a regional bank, I can tell you that we did wonder whether there was anything we could do differently to try and make our sow’s ear into a silk purse. Or even just a paper bag, anything except what we were getting.

The question of visceral hatred that we see for Goldman Sachs and BP isn’t equaled for Toyota. Of course, the corporate reputations of both Goldman and BP weren’t near as positive prior to their crises as Toyota’s. In the Goldman case, was public opinion merely scapegoating a convenient target? We didn’t much like the idea that this company was busy racking up big profits whilst the average Joe saw 401 (k) collapses, layoffs and strife. BP had held itself out as a new breed (Beyond Petroleum). Meanwhile, Toyota had become the largest auto company in the world on the strength of perceived exceptionally high quality. There was more goodwill built up around Toyota, and although they had a few bumps, they seem to be returning to their lofty status.

One expert quoted in the article said when the facts are horrible, “the best PR fix may simply be to absorb the pounding and get back to business, while eschewing the sort of foolish communication gimmicks that can make things worse.”

We see, however, how heavy the pounding can get when companies decide to stonewall or be overly parsimonious in their statements. But I agree that sometimes, the news is just so bad, so damaging, that there’s no way to win. So, the question becomes, just how much crisis medicine are you willing to take?


Amazon’s Recovery from Kindle Content Deletion Crisis Evaluated

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

In the middle of 2009, owners of e-reader Kindle got a nasty surprise when Amazon snatched back e-books that it turned out were supplied illegally. Amazon’s supplier didn’t have the rights to distribute the content, so Amazon accessed Kindles and deleted it.

Seems like no problem to me, but then, I don’t have a Kindle. Amazon got to enjoy seven days of flame and shouting for its trouble.

Drs. W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay of Eastern Illinois University (kind of a hotbed of pithy PR scholarship), presented a paper about Amazon’s week from hell at the 13th International PR Research Conference.  Dr. Coombs is a preeminent theorist on crisis communication, the author of several books and papers about it, and a good presenter who carries a quick wit with his slide rule.  He a smart dude.

Apparently, the “Kindle Community” was pretty angry about having “their” stuff unceremoniouslyyanked. Amazon’s notification statement lacked complete information, or ordinary human compassion, according to those who read it:

“The Kindle edition books Animal Farm by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) and 1984 by George Orwell, published by MobileReference (mobi) were removed from the Kindle store and are no longer available for purchase. When this occurred, your purchases were automatically refunded. you can still locate the books in the Kindle store, but each has a status of not yet available. Although are rarity, publishers can decide to pull their content from the Kindle store.”

Commenters went ballistic, and before you could blink, there were boycotts threatened. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted an abject apology, saying in part: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.” He beat on his company pretty hard.

Coombs and Holladay found that the florid, nearly over-the-top apology worked very well. 71 percent accepted the apology, nearly 16 percent accepted it conditionally, and just 13 percent rejected it.  More important, more than 21 percent indicated they were more likely to buy from Amazon versus 10.5 percent said they were less likely to buy.

So what’s that mean? It means that Coombs’ main theories of crisis communication are holding steady in the online world — the process of admitting you’ve done wrong, taking steps to rectify the situation and ensure it won’t happen again, and beating yourself up a bit in the process result in restoring positive feelings among your stakeholders.

There surely are crises where this won’t happen — some things are just too bad — but this study gives additional support to the basis for advice during crisis times.

Watch for the complete paper in May when the IPRRC proceedings are released.


Washington’s Blame Game

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Ever since the financial markets first froze in mid-2007, nearly collapsed in Sept. 2008 and rode a roller coaster in 2009, a tidal wave of anger has washed out rational discourse on the topic. My friend Mindy quipped, “They want heads on pikes. They want to see blood.”

This so-called “populist” anger at banks and “Wall Street” has a familiar tone to it. Fat Cat Banker is a standard phrase. President Franklin Roosevelt blamed the bankers for the Great Depression, and any significant downturn since has rekindled the fires of main street fury, some of it well-deserved.

But I’m troubled by the willingness to apportion the greatest share of blame to banks and bankers. Neither the cause of nor the solution to the financial crisis still gripping the U.S. and the developed world can be understood with examining the role of government.

The U.S. government wants more people to own homes — “The Ownership Society” is one where more people have skin in the game, a vested interest in their domiciles that makes them more stable, more involved citizens.  For many years, government has insisted that banks lend to people at the margins of financial capacity, a legacy of the shameful process of “redlining.” Redlining withdrew banks from lending in a given area, regardless of the potential creditworthiness of borrowers in that area. Add lending policies that were openly racist and you’ve got a problem that needed to be fixed.

The government, however, wasn’t content. It still wanted more people to get loans and buy things, because that’s how our economy has operated during the last 30 years. No consumer spending, no prosperity.  Getting people to buy during a period when their incomes weren’t rising much if at all means they need to borrow — and what better way to borrow than to take advantage of soaring real estate values?

So the government creates programs to shift lending risk — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — so that banks could make loans and get repaid very early, even as they retain the servicing rights to the loans; you’re still writing the check to the bank, but your loan is no longer on the books. Fannie and Freddie then sell blocks of loans to investors, further removing the bank and the agencies from the risk. The investors love the stable returns and hedge their risk by buying insurance — credit default swaps or “derivatives” — to insulate their income stream from the original borrower’s ability to pay.

When the borrower hits hard times, what happens? Who is to blame when the interrelated instruments start to fall apart?

Some blame does go to the banks. They bought the securities and created the derivatives. Some blame goes to the government, for fostering a climate that led to a bubble in real estate and writing laws that led to a wild west risk environment. Some needs to go to borrowers who bought too much house with too much debt.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, a story about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s political travails talks about a frame that makes him — a lifelong public servant — into an apologist for and a tool of Wall Street.  The financial bailout of the banks was a horrible moment, he says, but it worked. It stabilized the financial system, prevented what could have been a disastrous run on the banks (that’s really what put us into the Great Depression” and it’s costing a fraction of the $700 billion budgeted for it. The banks are doing better financially, and they’re paying the money back to the Treasury with interest.

But we live in a “fact-irrelevant” society these days, and in Washington, few seem to care about making good government. The Congress — with its desire for public hangings, preferably of bankers — seems willing to abrogate contracts and violate its own laws in order to put heads on pikes, spinning.  And they’re relying on half-truths, mis-characterizations, and crafted frames to do it.

Our public relations toolkit shouldn’t be used in this fashion. It’s dishonest.

Besides, why invest so much effort in revenge? Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”