Peak Communicators
April 30, 2015

A Communication Failure Can Turn a Crisis into a Public Relations Catastrophe

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” is the famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke.   It best sums up the Marathassa – Burrard Inlet oil spill and points to a critical failure we often see in a crisis. In planning for a crisis, organizations forget the importance of communication, not only in dealing with the crisis, but also when informing the public.  They plan how to deploy resources and deal with the crisis internally, while often forgetting what exists outside of their organization.

A timeline in the Globe and Mail  shows several communications failures that lead to delays in calling out cleanup and containment crews in the Marathassa spill.  Once deployed, the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC) teams did an excellent job, cleaning up 80 per cent of the oil in 20 hours, but the communication delays turned what might have been a minor incident into a major event.  Those internal communication failures were then compounded by a failure to inform the City of Vancouver until 12 hours after the spill was first reported.  This turned it into a major story.

Rather than being praised for its response, the Coast Guard faced a storm of criticism for an inadequate response and cleanup effort.  The public was unhappy. Local politicians were unhappy.  The Provincial Government was unhappy.  This could not come at a worse time for proponents of expanded crude oil shipments out of the Port of Vancouver.  Oil spill prevention and a world-class response are central to gaining public support.  Public and political sentiment is that this was not world-class. Poor communications lead to a slow response, which let the crisis get out of hand.

The Coast Guard’s prime stakeholder in a crisis situation is not the Federal Government or Coast Guard management in Ottawa.  The Coast Guard’s number one stakeholder in a crisis is the public who they are charged with protecting and that includes local governments who represent all of us.  That stakeholder was forgotten.

So how do you avoid making the same mistakes in your crisis?  Here are seven things to think about:

1) Have a crisis communications plan. Crisis planning is not complete without a crisis communications plan. Who to call (or tweet), when to call (or post on Facebook), what to say, and how to best get your message out.  To be seen to be effectively responding, you have to tell someone about it

2) Alert your communications team right away. Don’t wait until the story is out of control—get the communications team working on the crisis from the outset.   Bringing in heavy hitters from Ottawa didn’t save the Coast Guard’s reputation, nor change the public perception of the crisis.  By then the story was written by the public, the media, and the critics.  The story was “clean up was a failure,” “world-class spill response was anything but” and “Coast Guard cuts made the problems worse.”

3) Prepare your statements in advance. Have fill-in-the-blanks templates for media advisories, statements and news releases for predicted events so you can get those out to the public quickly.  It should include social media channels and your website as well.

4) First out with the information controls the message. The first voices set the narrative, the tone of the story.  It’s your crisis so you know the most and you know first.  Use that to your advantage.  Become the source of accurate information.  Media and the public go to who can provide the best information.  In an information vacuum, they go to who screams the loudest.

5) Know who your stakeholders really are.  Make a list.  Make a list and have it as a key element of your crisis communications plan.  Who they are and how to reach them.  If the public isn’t on the list, they need to be there and the best way to reach them is through the media: both social media and traditional.

6) Define each potential crisis in advance. You should have a list of potential crises, each given a crisis rating based on seriousness and a planned response for each level of crisis.  That way in the heat of the moment you can just follow the plan and effectively manage crisis communications.

7) Exercise the plan often. The worst thing you can do is create a plan and never practice it.  If you regularly deal with minor events, get in the habit of pulling out the plan, assessing the seriousness and whether to call in the communications team.  It’s free practice! Follow the same steps until they become routine.  Use the templates mentioned above.  It should become second nature so when a major crisis happens you know what to do.  If you don’t have regular minor occurrences, then you need to do formal practice until you are confident in your ability in a crisis.

Look at the oil spill and relate it to a crisis your organization could face.  Would you do better or make the same mistakes? If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, or if you have a plan but don’t know how to use it or where it is or who to contact and how to do that, then expect bad news.  A crisis defines your organization.   Your response to a serious event is revealing.

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April 16, 2015

Visuals, Social Media, and Hillary Clinton, oh my!

On Sunday April 12th, 2015, Hillary Clinton finally announced her much anticipated run for presidency. When this news broke, the conversation did not seem to focus on her qualifications, her platform, or even the possibility that she may become America’s first female president; the chatter was all about her campaign logo.

Within hours, social media was ablaze with critiques and comparisons to her block-letter “H” with a red arrow running through it: some saying it resembled hospital signage, while others stated it looked like something created by a 10 year old on MS Paint.
To be fair, Hillary is not the only political pundit to be on the receiving end of this type of “crowdsmashing”, a term coined by Paul Ford to describe how social media has allowed people to rally in a mob-like fashion to pick apart something they are not pleased with.

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Crowdsmashing can be even more vicious if a well-known entity decides to undergo a rebrand. People do not like change, and social platforms allow them to voice that displeasure, and find out who else shares in their unhappiness.
This whole debacle surrounding logos and social media got me thinking about two facets of communications I deal with on a daily basis:

1. Our world is becoming increasingly visual

Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram currently lead the way in terms of fastest growing social media platforms. What else do these three platforms have in common? They’re light on text and heavy on imagery. In a digital era where our attention is so fleeting, we are placing increasing value on things that are visually appealing to us. If we don’t like what we see almost immediately, we are clicking/swiping/scrolling on to something better.
This phenomenon can also be extended to something like your company website. You may be the best and most innovative at what you do, but if your website appears dated, unorganized and difficultto use, it will be seen as a reflection of your business and users will start looking elsewhere. Remember that 55% of users spend as little as 15 seconds on your homepage, so your website has to catch their eye in order for them to stick around and potentially use your service.
In terms of media, TV places an extremely high value on great visuals. If your pitch to TV outlets doesn’t offer imagery that will entice their viewers to continue watching, don’t expect to have it picked up.

2. Everyone’s a critic

When a client story is told on any outlet type, the content is typically shared across social channels, or is open to comments online. You could be telling the happiest or most factually correct story possible, but there’s likely someone out there who wants to point out something negative, or who claims to know even more than you (I’m sure all the people critiquing Hillary’s “H” have years of graphic design and branding experience).
One negative, anonymous commenter on a story likely isn’t something to sweat about; however it is important to continuously monitor the chatter surrounding your brand online. Whether you’re running a social media campaign or a news story about your company just broke, following along with audience sentiment is vital in informing you of what aspects are and are not working, and whether or not you need to get out in front of a crisis before it starts to escalate.
When it comes to day-to-day social media responsibilities, if your company is receiving questions or complaints, it is important to respond to them quickly and professionally even if you find them trivial or know them to be incorrect. Ignoring these public comments will make it appear as though you have something to hide, or are neglectful of customer needs.

So whether you’re trying to become the President of the United States or just trying to generate business, understanding what is visually appealing to your audience and monitoring the conversation surrounding your brand online is important.

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March 31, 2015

Keeping Your PR Toolbox Up-to-date

The public relations and social media landscapes are constantly changing and, sometimes, it’s hard to keep up. One way to help stay up-to-date with new techniques and tools is by learning from bright public relations and social media professionals around you.  I recently attended a YVR PR Roundtable – a casual meet up group for public relations (PR) pros in Vancouver – and the crew introduced some interesting PR and social media tools that are worth sharing. Although there are many more uses for each tool listed below, I wanted to give an example of how each tool could be used in a PR campaign.

Social Mention

o   What it does: aggregates user generated content from across the web into a single stream of information.

o   Useful for: when a crisis happens  it’s great for tracking sentiment, and getting a good snapshot of what’s being said.

Muck Rack

o   What it does: Muck Rack’s mission is to make journalists, PR pros and marketers more successful by connecting them through its platform.

o   Useful for: finding and pitching the right journalist.

Meerkat & Periscope

o   What they do: live-stream video through Twitter. Meerkat was all anyone could talk about at SXSW this year!

o   What’s the difference:  although they are very similar apps, Meerkat was first on the scene, while Periscope is owned by Twitter.

o   Useful for: raising the profiles of thought-leaders and CEO’s. For example, Hootsuite recently used Periscope to live-stream an AMA (Ask Me Anything Session) with Ryan Homes.

meerkat-app-hed-2015

Coverage Book

o   What it does: grabs coverage, crunches all the data and designs an impactful showcase that best presents a client’s brand.

o   Useful for: curating earned media hits, and handing a beautiful, client-ready report.

Product Hunt

o   What it does: curates the best new products on one website; the most popular products are positioned at the top of the site.

o   Useful for: gaining momentum for product launches.

Sharing-Knowledge

These are just a few of the many PR and social media tools on the market today that help communications pros garner top tier results for their company and clients.  To keep up with the latest PR and social media trends, connect with YVR PR on Facebook and Twitter.

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December 4, 2014

The Powerful Vaccine Against the Bad News Flu

People often think of public relations only in marketing terms. How can we use PR to build our brand? If they don’t see an immediate payoff, they ask  why bother? They are missing the link between positive PR and saving the brand during a crisis. Positive PR is like getting a flu shot, it won’t guarantee you don’t get the bad news flu, but it will make the symptoms less severe.

When a crisis hits, the first step reporters take is to type your name and your company’s name into Google. They are looking for a general impression. What another reporter has said about you will be given a great deal of weight. Reporters trust other reporters above all others.

Step two for a reporter is to search your name and the key crisis words like “fire,” “layoffs” or “complaints,” whatever best describes the crisis. They are looking for how you handled previous events and if there are any stories about your preparedness or lack thereof.

They will search all your social media channels, personal and corporate. They will dig hard and they are really good at it.

Within a few minutes they will form a picture of your corporate or personal character and that will frame an approach to the story in the hours, days, or weeks ahead. It is a picture you will find very hard to change during a crisis. For media there is no grey. It’s black and white, you are the good guy or the bad guy, the victim or the perpetrator.

what are they saying about youTry it right now. Search your name, your company’s name. Now search again and add in a crisis word or two. See what comes up. That’s what a reporter will know about you today if bad news strikes in the next few minutes. If you have been keeping a low profile, not telling your positive stories, then reporters will find a void. This void will be filled with bad news when disaster strikes. Your bad news flu just became pneumonia. It might be fatal.

The most overlooked component to effective crisis management is building a positive public reputation in advance of any crisis. You can’t control when a crisis will strike but you can control how you build your reputation in advance of the bad news. This reputation will be the foundation you stand on during the crisis. Create a public perception of your company as a positive member of the community. It will help shape how media and the public will view the crisis story and your efforts to deal with it.

There is an old saying in politics, “If you don’t define yourself, your opponents will define you.” Business is no different. If you don’t define yourself now, the media, your critics or the crisis will do it for you.

Online-Reputation-Management-Like_DislikeAn organization with a good public reputation will take a hit but will weather the crisis better than one that the public first hears about when a crisis has struck and the blame game is in full swing.

Now is the time to get your bad news flu shot.

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July 2, 2014

Email Etiquette 101

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By now everyone knows to be careful what they share on social media.

Potential and current employers may be monitoring your online activity, or it may be brought to their attention by others who deem your posts inappropriate or offensive. Even corporate social profiles have a heightened sense of what they share after the US Airways NSFW image fiasco, and more recently the Delta Airlines giraffe debacle (get it together airline social media!)

When we share on social channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we know our posts will be broadcast to either the public or to a list of followers we have approved. Emails, however, we often assume are private. Like a phone call, they are typically not intended to be viewed by the general public.

Evan Spiegel, the 23-year-old founder of the billion-dollar app SnapChat, learned that this isn’t always the case, when a number of blatantly sexist emails he sent out to his fraternity during his college days, were publicized on Gawker.com and nearly every major business and technology publication in the days following. I am not here to condemn Mr. Spiegel on his less-than-eloquent language, as it may be argued that he was, and is, a 20-something frat boy uneducated in the impact of language. What I am here to do is remind us that we too could fall victim to embarrassing email mishaps, and provide some simple steps on how to prevent them.

Double check who you’re sending to

A certain member of my family who shall remain nameless once told me how he responded in a not-so-favourable manner after finding out that one of his colleagues would be taking charge of a major project, not realizing that the same person had been cc’d on the email. This resulted in a 45-minute phone call of back pedaling and apologies.

Proofreading the body of an email is second nature for many, but it is also important to make sure you check who exactly you are sending a message to before hitting send.

Image_business man_mistake

Know your audience

You may be quite chummy with clients, reporters or coworkers, but at the end of the day you are involved in a working capacity and a level of professionalism must be maintained when communicating over work email. Be aware that what you share and how you present yourself to these people could have an effect on your rapport with them.

Be wary of your formatting

Tying into the previous point, how you format an email to your mother or best friend should be different to how you format a business email. A proper greeting and signature, punctuation, and a clean font can say a lot about the quality of your work. It’s difficult to take someone seriously in Comic Sans.

Think before you hit send (or at least be prepared to stand by what you say)

At the end of the day, be it on social media or in an email, don’t send something you’d be embarrassed to have publically shared. I’m sure Mr. Snapchat figured his messages would never go beyond the inbox of those in his fraternity, but in a leadership role with his Stanford University chapter there was an expectation of him to have a  level of professionalism, and his subsequent success made him an easy target for dirty laundry airing.

Though most of us won’t go on to create wildly successful phone apps, everyone wants to have a good reputation in the working world. If you are going to say something risqué, be confident in backing that statement if it is ever brought to light.

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March 17, 2014

Kelowna Seminar: Making Communications Work For You

Peak Communicators - Okanagan Seminar for Businesses: “Making Communications Work for You”

Peak Communicators is excited to be partnering with the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce to host two half-day seminars on building, enhancing and protecting your reputation through strong communications initiatives.

Taking place on April 16th at the Capri Hotel, attendees can learn the secret sauce behind building your brand and business. The session will also discuss how to protect your good reputation by identifying an issue before it becomes a crisis and delivering strong messages to internal and external stakeholders and the public.

Other topics to be discussed include:

  • Building a brand and profile through public relations and media initiatives
  • How to find and tell your news and your story
  • Why a crisis communications plan is necessary and how to develop one
  • Issues management and crisis communications
  • Using social media tools to build, enhance and protect reputation

The session will be hosted by two senior Peak consultants, Alyn Edwards and Chris Olsen. Both were news reporters for 30 years and are experts in helping companies tell their stories.

Date: April 16th 2014

Time: Two time options: 8am – midday or 1pm – 5pm

Location: The Capri Hotel, 1171 Harvey Avenue, Kelowna, BC, V1Y 6E8

Room: The ‘Vineyard’ room at the Capri

Cost: The seminar cost is $195 per person or $149 for Kelowna Chamber of Commerce members

Registration: Available online through the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce

Parking: Available on site

If you’d like further information or have questions, please call Peak Communicators on 604.689.5559.

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July 18, 2013

A Picture is Worth Several Hundred Thousand Tweets

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A picture is still worth more than 1000 words.  The furor over the cover of the Rolling Stone proves that once again.

The cover depicts accused Boston Marathon bomber Jahar Tsarnaev but unlike the 1970’s cover of Charles Manson which showed a demonic killer, this cover shows someone who could be the latest teen heartthrob.

Reaction has been swift and damaging to the Rolling Stone’s reputation, a reputation founded on the cache of being on the cover as much for the often profanity laced articles inside.

The PR mistake that Rolling Stone made was failing to understand that emotions were still raw surrounding this terrible event. The editors forgot PR 101, lesson one, people react emotionally to what they see and not what they read.

What they saw and are fixated on is the picture.  The words “bomber” and “monster” don’t come close to balancing that, even in bold, large print.

A picture is still worth more than 1000 words.  In this case it’s worth hundreds of thousands of tweets threatening never to read the magazine again, and some retailers pulling the magazine from circulation so as not to offend their customers.

Having created its own “PR Crisis” the steps that Rolling Stone have taken are good ones:

  • Publishing the entire article so that people can read for themselves that the article does not glorify a “monster”.
  • Giving away its cover story,  so that Rolling Stone is not seen to be benefiting from the controversyRS Charles Manson
  • Acknowledging the bombing victims at the top of the article and explaining why they pursued the story

The article is legitimate. TV entertainment shows do this all the time.  Sometimes entertainment news just becomes news.

In 1970 Rolling Stone published a Charles Manson cover story, but the picture demonized Manson. This one didn’t.  It showed the boy next door or the newest rock star.  The public wanted to see the devil and they saw themselves.

It has been 40 years since Dr. Hook released “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” a song which immortalized what it meant to get on the cover. The public hasn’t forgotten what that means.

If Rolling Stone had a do-over they would pick a different cover.

Will it do permanent damage?

Only time will tell.

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February 28, 2012

Think Integrated, Simple and Achievable

I had the privilege of being a panel expert at NEXT Marketing & Design Agency’s unique BRAND CHATTER event earlier this week. BRAND CHATTER™ is the name coined by NEXT’s CEO, Sandy Gerber – something she uses to describe the buzz around a brand. I joined four other experts in social media, networking and broadcast media. An interesting discussion ensued that gave the 80-strong audience of business owners and marketing directors food for thought. I think the discussion accurately reflected the ever-evolving communications industry – how social media is now a necessity and not really a choice and how the value of traditional media and campaigns is being scrutinized more closely. Business owners now want the most cost-effective options that will create the most buzz and engagement for their brand. So, what’s the answer?

Here are some key take-aways from the discussion:

  • Integrated campaigns are key. As seasoned communications consultants, we should be recommending campaigns that have a mix of traditional PR, social media and, depending on the brand and its objectives, an element of advertising. Word of mouth and networking is still crucial to a brand’s success and should also not be ignored. A lot of brands need to reach multiple audiences so leveraging different channels will help achieve this. That said, it’s important to ensure that communications are always clear and consistent, regardless of the platform.
  • Keep it simple. Be realistic – you can’t be everywhere all the time. And, if you’re a small business, you will have to prioritize what’s best for your brand. Just because other brands are now exploring Pinterest and Google+, shouldn’t automatically mean that you also have to be there. Perhaps Twitter is your best option at present, along with a simple media relations campaign. Building a brand’s reputation takes time and patience.
  • There’s no set formula or template. We were often asked, “where should I be” and “what should I be saying and when?”. The important thing for business owners to realize is that there’s no winning formula that can be applied to every brand. Ultimately, it comes down to what is going to bring you the best ROI. A good consultant should review your vision, objectives, audience, budget and resources and make recommendations off the back of that.
  • Content is still king. It’s an old one but a good one. And it won’t go away. However sophisticated a campaign may sound or cost, it must include compelling and regular content that engages a brand’s audience and makes them want to come back for more and share it with others.
  • Don’t just broadcast your message. Listen to your fans, followers, readers…Whether it’s through social media or more traditional focus groups, letters to the editor, surveys or blog comments, brands should be responding to the needs of their markets and not just shouting how great they are. If you go with the latter, it may well be falling on deaf ears – you will never know. Ambassadors can be a great way to create BRAND CHATTER – they garner interest and credibility – something that can prove priceless.
  • Metrics – this is something every communications professional should feel accountable for. Campaigns can be relatively easy to measure – i.e. number of coverage hits, circulation, readership or the equivalent advertising cost – or metrics can be more difficult to define, especially in the social arena. Still, it’s important that metrics are agreed upon at the outset of a campaign so that everyone involved is aware of what is being used to define success.

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January 17, 2012

FedEx Caught on Camera

You may have seen the shocking YouTube video of a FedEx delivery man throwing a computer monitor over a customer’s gate, uploaded in December.

Within 24 hours, it had received 200,000 views. The story then featured in the Daily Mail and the number of views soared to 4.5 million. Today, the total stands at over 8 million and it has been ‘liked’ 17,000 times.

So how did FedEx deal with the situation?

In the first statement, FedEx condemned the employee’s actions, stating that executives were ‘shocked’. They said the handling of the package was ‘unacceptable’ and vowed to track down the employee responsible.

This is a good initial response. FedEx probably learnt about the incident at the same time as the press so they wouldn’t have had time to investigate. FedEx was also right not to protect the employee; instead they distanced the company’s brand from the individual’s actions.

FedEx’s next move was smart. They created a YouTube video in response – within 48 hours. The speed of their response was critical, helping curb speculation about the incident.

In the video Matthew Thornton, Senior VP at FedEx, said they had met with and apologized to the customer. The company deserves kudos for this; in difficult situations, companies typically communicate with customers via telephone or in writing. Meeting face-to-face is personal and proves FedEx cares about its customers.

Thornton also answered the question everyone asked: what happened to the employee? He explained ‘they’re working within their disciplinary procedures and the employee is not working with customers’. This is a mediocre response. Customers and journalists alike wanted reassurance that the guilty party had been fired. I suspect HR procedures prevented FedEx from providing a stronger response.

Thornton then reminded viewers that the company’s motto is to ‘make every FedEx experience outstanding’. This is good; he uses a difficult situation to reinforce the company’s key messages and its commitment to customers.

Despite this, the footage still damaged the company’s reputation – and consequently it was listed by Forbes as the ‘most brand-damaging viral video of 2011’.

FedEx’s YouTube video also received less than half a million views, a sixteenth of the original video. Clearly bad news travels faster than good.

This incident won’t go away for FedEx and any reoccurring issues will be closely watched by the public eye. However, FedEx can be commended for responding quickly, using YouTube as the channel to respond and meeting the customer face-to-face.

What are your thoughts on FedEx’s response?

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December 21, 2011

PR Predictions for 2012

As another New Year begins, it’s time to consider how PR will change in 2012.

PR is one of the fastest-paced – and fastest changing – industries in the world. The evolving role of the Internet, social networks and new technology affects how people digest news. PR professionals need to respond to this change to ensure clients’ messages reach their intended audience.

So what will happen next year? Here are our predictions:

Content: As the saying goes, ‘Content is King’. This will remain true in 2012. Brands, PRs and journalists alike will strive to source or create unique and compelling content that can be shared, ‘liked’, or re-tweeted via social networks.

Exclusives: Given that breaking news is posted instantaneously online, we expect an increased demand for ‘exclusives’ from print publications. Holding a story until the morning is becoming ever-more important for newspapers.

Print won’t die: There has been much speculation about ‘the death of the newspaper’. This won’t happen in 2012, if ever. People love flicking through a newspaper on a Sunday; the experience cannot be replicated online.

Online content may come at a cost: The Wall Street Journal and The Times are trialling ‘paid-for’ only access to their online content. Given the current dependency on advertising and the looming double-dip recession, we may see Canadian newspapers follow suit to increase their cash flow.

Consumer power: Consumers now have a platform to quickly and collectively lobby companies via social networks; expect to see them capitalize on this opportunity with increasing frequency.

Crises: With the increasing speed of information dissemination, the number and pace of crises will intensify. Companies that do not respond immediately will be criticized.

ROI: The need to demonstrate ROI will increase with the uncertainty of the economy; budgets will tighten and C-suite executives will want clear evidence of ROI before investing further in PR. New tools for measurement may be developed as a consequence.

Pitching: Expect to pitch to journalists more regularly via Twitter and Google Plus; it’s an easy way to get journalists’ attention.

Gadgets: Tablets, particularly the iPad, are changing the way people read news. More magazines will develop apps where readers can interact with the content (e.g. clicking on a revolving image to get a 360 degree perspective).

Government regulations: Expect greater transparency in lobbying activity, particularly in British Columbia. This follows a public education campaign by the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists raising awareness of the hefty fines lobbyists face for not registering their undertakings.

Do you have other predictions to add?

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