Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crisis Communications taken by storm

As public agencies nervously prepare for the worst of California's storms and the East Coast growls at a snow forecast from heck, it's a timely reminder about that one thing we tend to forget: Crisis communications planning.


Since it's currently raining snakes over my house, it's too late for planning. Now (borrowing from one of my favorite movies), it's more like: "Effie, Brace Yourself."

Below are four tips for last-minute crisis "bracing" as they relate to disasters or other approaching events that can turn ugly quickly:

Boot ready. Sounds silly, but do you have waterproof hiking boots? You'd be surprised how many times this piece of clothing comes in handy. What else? Warm, rainproof jacket. Extra clothes and socks. A hat. I have a backpack ready to go, stuffed with a charged netbook (and portable modem with my Verizon wireless account - assuming wireless won't be accessible) and flashdrives with important contacts, documents, sample press releases. Extreme measures? Put a tent and sleeping back in the car, along with some non-perishable food. This could take a while.

Connect ready. Is your Blackberry/iPhone/Evo/? currently charged? Do you have a plan on how to reach people if a cell phone dies or the cellphone system goes down? In an earthquake or major disaster, the hands-on team crisis team knows it must go into "automatic" mode and keep managing the situation without electronic communications. If the company email goes down, does everyone have everyone's personal email addresses? (Been there, done that with my Yahoo account).

Geographic ready. Will you rely on your Garmon to get you to a disaster scene? What if Garmon (I have VZ Navigator on my Blackberry) goes down? Do you have an old-fashioned map (in LA, we used to love those bulky Thomas Guides)?

Body ready. At a case study presentation, I was impressed by the story of a PR manager who knew a storm was coming...and headed to bed to grab few winks. Why? Because he knew that in a few short hours, he probably will be awake for a very long time. He knew he would be his best with a few hours of sleep. A sharp mind is critical in these cases - whether to offer advice or when speaking to the news media. Too many PR folks will stay up....waiting, monitoring, prepping... and forgetting to rest.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A fiesty newspaperman leaves us

Sad news today that Mike Tetreault, a former colleague at the LA Daily News, passed away Sunday night from a battle with cancer.

He was, simply, a great editor. He loved newspaper work.

I had the privilege of working for Mike and alongside him for a brief time. As an editor, he was among the tough ones. He questioned everything in your story, which was his job. His editing advanced your story. It wasn't a wordsmithing effort just to please his own sense of style. He treated every story on its own unique merits. He simply wanted to make sure the story was, first, factual, then read well.

He was, as others have said, "wickedly funny." I was the victim of a few of his jokes and pranks. Such as the time when I left the office for an assignment and also remained logged into my computer. We had clear instructions to log off if we were leaving our computers. I'm sure, back then, there were good reasons for this. Seizing the opportunity and, perhaps, wanting to make a point the hard way, Mike began sending Daily News staff some very peculiar messages under my name. I got the point.

As an editor, Mike rarely had a byline. He was behind the scenes, but his role was critical to the Daily News publishing credible stories and sending reporters off to cover events that he knew mattered to the public. For this, I had much respect for Mike.

Tetreault (pronounced without the "ult" at the end) will be missed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to make enemies

As a young newspaper reporter, a wise editor once offered some great advice. If someone calls you, upset about a story you did and accuses you of libeling them or printing false statements - don't go into a defensive mode. Instead, calmly listen to the complaint, tell the caller you will look into it and, if true, will discuss a possible apologize and possibly print a correction.

It's not about your ego, he said. It's about conflict resolution.... which weren't the exact words he used, but essentially it meant the same thing.

It's much easier to diffuse a touchy situation than to keep your guard up, do battle and really tick off the other party. The harder stance and more defensive you become could lead to a lawsuit. The "understanding" stance will bring the heat level down by several notches. Angry people file lawsuits or find other ways to make your life miserable.

"Diffusing" the situation is advice I've given multiple time to clients. Sometimes in the course of everyday media relations, sometimes in the heat of a crisis.

I was reminded of this after reading a story in The Wall Street Journal about financial support for Lance Armstrong and U.S. cycling.

In this story, it becomes clear an early supporter of Lance and his quest for Tour de France titles later became an enemy bent on revenge after a business dispute. The dispute is now very visible, which has put Lance under more intense scrutiny (about doping allegations. Based on what you read, which is all we have, it appears the initial steps in this business dispute could have been handled differently - and, if so, Lance may not be facing a more public, broader set of allegations. (For the record, I am a Lance supporter. The guy worked his tail off and won 7 TDF titles - after beating cancer.)

Sure, examining the dispute - via a news article - is second guessing and arm-chair quarterbacking. And, who knows? Even if the parties were more gracious at the start, the results may have stayed the same.

There is, however, plenty of other similar examples where diffusing a tricky situation at the start saves you plenty of headaches later.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The worst crisis scenario?

Update: 1:50 p.m. see below
Disasters occur daily, but the worst involve death.

Perhaps the worst crisis communications scenario for death is an officer-involved shooting (OIS in police lingo).

Yet, many police departments are limited in how they can communicate a response.

Consider an OIS shooting this week in Long Beach. A man is shot dead by police after the man pointed at them what they thought was a real gun. It turns out the man was holding a garden hose nozzle.

Here is the official news statement. The news reports, while factual, are highlighting the obvious. The reactions from family, the general public..are predictable. See video for more. This is not the first time someone was killed by police for pointing something that "looked" like a weapon.

Public relations professionals prepare countless clients for the worst, including death. Potential litigation prevents some information from being revealed right away. If a situation turns into a crime scene or police investigation, a company's communication options are further limited.

In the corporate world, PR pros many times tussle with attorneys about what can be disclosed and when.

Now, consider the greater frustrations for a communicator within a police department.

The investigation will take a while. With a long absence of updates and details, the outcries can get louder and the speculation more rampant. Our PR training and experience frequently counsel clients to provide regular updates as quickly as possible - to fill the void and not let a situation get out of control.

An investigation will conclude the shooting and officers' conduct were justified - or not. A lawsuit will follow. The tragedy will be publicized many more times. The department's reputation will be battered for weeks, perhaps months, maybe years.

As unfortunate as this is, there are many predictable cycles to this crisis situation.

Some police departments have responded well to these type of incidents. In some cases, policies need changing or improved training is required. The public can more readily accept these steps because they have the appearance of contrition, accepting blame and responsibility and a desire to perform better. However, if a shooting falls within department policy, many will still demand change and the time to rebuild trust and reputation will take much longer.

Unlike most other crisis situations (like an oil spill or bank failure), an "OIS" holds a special place in the minds of the public - because we "see" them weekly on TV shows. The plethora of TV crime shows has, in effect, infused the public with a perception about what happens on the streets. This has given rise to "arm chair quarterbacking" and second-guessing. Add in the number of shows that portray "bad cops" and, well, the public is now more inclined to assume the worst when real-life police shootings occur. Sure, there are real-life incidents of wrongful deaths and "bad cops" but statistics show there are fewer and fewer of these. And, as police departments will tell you, there are also cases when an officer hesitated and was killed.

So what additional PR steps can police departments take?

Community meetings are known to help, because these settings permit police leaders to explain things outside the immediate emotions of the latest incident. Ride-alongs with reporters used to work when more people read newspapers, and were able to get a more in-depth look at the risks, dangers and split-second decisions that cops make daily. There are balances to be struck between seeking sympathy and simply wanting greater understanding.

And, I'm sure, there are plenty more options for departments. Branding? Yes, police department associations have examined this, as well as other measures to improve their overall public image.

But in the case of an OIS resulting in death, it would seem departments would - at a minimum - need to develop a specific strategy that includes multiple objectives and tactics.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

A legend passes

I never had the opportunity to truly learn directly from Joe Cerrell.

But his lessons were easy to find.

Cerrell's passing this past week brought praise from many corners of the world.

As a Republican, I was usually prevented from piercing the "club" of Joe and his tight circle of Democratic friends. But it was clearly evident - both as a journalist and later practicing my craft in the same arena where Joe was held in high regard - that most people held very positive opinions about Mr. Cerrell.

The praise was not by accident.

Like many I hold in high regard, Joe was down-to-earth and accessible. He personally greeted you as if you were lifelong friends. He would provide a thoughtful response to your question. He would be concerned for the bigger impact of his actions or the actions of his clients. Any photograph of Joe Cerrell would immediately tell you that you were observing a friendly, caring individual.

Joe's stature and influence could have easily been used recklessly and ruthlessly in the high-stakes game of California politics. It's not that Joe didn't know how to wield some "tough influence" when needed, but it wasn't to demoralize or dehumanize, to belittle or to humiliate.

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of living, accessible examples of Joe's character and principles. I hope they remain visible for a long time. These are valuable lessons.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What would you do with $$

Newspapers can right the wrongs. A journalist gets a call from an angry member of the public or a whistleblower (usually because the person hasn't received "justice" from an organization or government agency) and the battle is under way.

Sometimes, no, check that, most times these stories engage public relations professionals.

Case in point with today's Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (one of my favs). His column focused on a homeless vet who found a wad of cash (nearly $1,000), turned it in to authorities (LA's bus agency) and was hoping to claim it after the 30-day waiting period.

Of course, these stories only appear because things didn't go according to plan or logic.

The actual bus agency policy, as Lopez found out, does not return found money to the finder if no one else claims it. Lopez, who has a special place for homeless (remember "The Soloist"?), pursued this story with the intent of helping the homeless vet. Had he been on a mission to discredit the bus agency, this story could have turned out a lot worse for the agency.

Lopez' pursuits eventually took him to Marc Littman, a PR pro in the executive offices of the bus agency. Littman is a true veteran of managing many significant stories at one of the nation's largest transit agencies. In this case, Littman apparently realized this story needs his boss' attention.

As one might imagine, public agency policies occasionally defy logic. (I know, I worked a public agency). If what Lopez wrote was true, the reasons behind the found-cash/don't return policy were right up there is the head-scratching stratosphere.

Whether through PR counsel or his own calculations, the bus agency CEO did the right thing. He returned the found money to the homeless vet and vowed to change the policy because it didn't make sense to not reward honesty.

PR pros know this was the right choice. They would almost universally have counseled this decision in this direction.

However, the story also points to another issue at the bus agency: Internal communications. Again, if Lopez was on a mission, he really could have blasted the bus agency for not making sure their employees know policy. A front-line customer service representative thought the original policy was to give the money back to the finder. Hopefully, the communications staff at the bus agency will make sure the word on the new policy is clearly articulated, reaches all critical staff and is clearly understood by all who deal with the public.