Friday, December 30, 2011

Occupying our minds

One of the foundations of public relations is understanding and evaluating your audience. We conduct countless surveys, analyze news articles and polls, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on research to make sure our message, our efforts are going to be received by a receptive audience. We build complex communications strategies based on this important research.

It strikes me, therefore, that the Occupy folks have not opened one book on public relations. If they did, they would realize that a protest at the 2012 Rose Parade will likely do more to hurt their cause rather than help it.

The Rose Parade is sacred ground for the legions of loyal followers. Which, in this case, includes tens of millions of Americans who are both the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The parade is the annual time for millions to be enchanted by the color and pomp (and occasional technological wizardry) of the floats, the back stories about the bands that held cookie sales to finance their journey from some small town in Iowa, the history of a particular breed of horse and the innocent beauty of the Rose Queen and her court.

It's the exact annual moment of the year when the country is trying to escape - from a hangover, from the things that went bad the year before, from the dread of what's to come. We want to smile and be awed. We're willing to risk a cold sleepless night along Colorado Boulevard for a spot to see the parade in person, to hear the bands and see the flowers.

Naturally, when news surfaced that the Occupy folks were planning to protest at the Rose Parade, there was universal feelings of: "No. Not my Rose Parade." The common reaction was bordering on feeling violated. The average person felt like they owned the parade. One of the last remaining treasures untouched by scandal, a few hours of pure fun and joy with a warmth of nostalgia was about to be the stage for a political protest. The reaction has been negative on a universal level.

So, why would Occupy folks whose goal seemingly is to gain mindshare, approval and sympathy choose a path that will do the exact opposite?

In public relations, we often are in the business of telling a client "no." What may seem like a great idea will backfire. Even with research that tells us it's a bad idea, some clients will go ahead with an event or announcement - with the negative results we predicted.

In this case, we would have to tell the Occupy folks that in spite of the potential to reach an international TV audience, your message will not be heard or accepted. In fact, you are likely to do more harm to your campaign. Any hope of gaining sympathy for the cause will vanish.

The audience research tells us you picked the wrong time and place.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Be thankful

The tragic, senseless shooting last Friday (Dec. 9) in Hollywood is a reminder to cherish each day.

These were the words from one of the unsuspecting motorists whose car was hit by gunfire from a man standing in the middle of Hollywood and Vine. And it was a statement that a TV news team recognized was different enough to stay in the broadcast story.

Sadly, one of this gunman's victims died today - music industry producer John Atterberry. A chance encounter for this poor man, leaving a bank unaware of what was transpiring around him and getting shot by this crazed gunman.

On one hand, the prophetic advice from an almost victim is something we are all heeding - or should be soon. Live life like there is no tomorrow.

On the other side is our curiosity about the event itself.

Like many, I've been following this story since it first broke. First, the video clips from witnesses brought to life an incredible scene. Then we heard stories from individuals who either came to the aid of Mr. Atterberry, or from the drivers of cars that had their windows shot out.

Then we wanted to know: Who was this crazy gunman and why did he do this?

The answers trickled out in pieces, almost in a timed cadence.

TV news outlets have appeared to be out-hustling their counterparts in print to get the details. For instance, we learn the gunman actually reloaded - he fired 20 rounds, not 10 as we first heard. His former girlfriend told TV stations he was "stressed out" lately, upset by their recent break-up and allegedly met someone else who was giving him drugs that changed his mood and behavior.

This is a story that has captured the attention of most of Southern California, possibly beyond. Why? For many of the same reasons we professionals in public relations recognize are the elements of a compelling story.

  • It's local. Even if we never had driven through the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, we know a lot about this famous, iconic location. We know tourists from around the world venture to this place. We know it's busy. We can readily identify with it.
  • It shakes our sensibilities. This time, we were shaken in a bad way. Our sense of "peace" was shattered. It could have been one of us. When it's good news, we in the PR profession also try to awaken a person's senses, but in a favorable way. If we can capture a specific human reaction, if it's unusual enough and upsets the path or boundaries we walk with every day, then we have "reached" people.
  • It touches a nerve, a raw emotion. We all like to think we're immune to things the world throws at us, that we're built to handle the tough stuff. But for an event or announcement to really capture our attention, it needs to break through these immunity barriers.

There are a string of other factors that examine the human condition and its predictive nature when reacting to events and information, or in how we manage an emotional conflict that unwillingly takes us from our comfort zone. (I'd suggest reading the "Switch" and "Made to Stick"books by the Heath brothers.)

A senseless shooting is tragic. Very tragic. Life life to the fullest every day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why speed kills

Southern California and other parts of the state were hit last week (Nov. 30-Dec. 1) by a weather system with all the resulting damage resembling a major tornado in the Midwest.

Take a moment to visualize this. Thousands of trees blown down, many onto power lines, cars, homes and streets. Roofs blown off homes. Large metal canopies toppled. Damage expected to be in the millions of dollars, but even officials are reluctant to come up with more exact estimates. Winds topping 150 mph over mountaintops, but probably higher because the machines could record faster speeds.

As a former journalist who has covered disasters across the country, this event had all the severe markings of an F1 or larger tornado. A disaster not as bad as the Northridge Earthquake or this past April’s tornado outbreak – there were no deaths, thankfully - but much greater as average natural disasters go. Certainly, worse than most floods or brushfires. A “tornado-like” scene is a phrase I would have chosen to use if I were still writing newspaper stories.

Currently, as a veteran public relations professional who prepares crisis preparedness and crisis communications plans for public agencies and private companies, the shoot-from-the-hip criticisms and questioning we recently heard from public officials and others are, sadly, to be expected and planned for in our modern era of unrealistic expecations.

Rather than learn from this experience, use this as an ideal opportunity to remind residents about preparing for a major disaster and draw comparisons to recovering from a tornado, one of the first major public statements we hear from elected officials is a loud chastisement of electric utilities for such silly things as not effectively communicating with its customers about the status of restoring power.

Does the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors really need to chew out a utility just days after a disaster and while they are still trying to make repairs on a 24-hour basis? Does the California Public Utilities Commission really need to investigate Southern California Edison for a “prolonged power outage?” This wasn’t a typical “power outage” where we find when a few transformers blown up. This was widespread destruction.

Where do such critical responses – a seemingly growing bash fest – come from? It is very likely because of what behavioral scientists have been telling us: Changing perceptions and expectations skewed to the here-and-now thanks in part to speed-of-light technology. We now live in an era where we expect instant results and rely on immediate communications. We can’t wait for answers so we make fast conclusions (Thank you, TMZ and Fox News). We want our opinions to be heard (Thank you, Facebook and blogs). Our expectations are now so maladjusted that acceptable behavior includes making broad, baseless accusations before we wait for more information and more facts (Thank you, Twitter and the “comment” section at the bottom of news stories on the web). A recent Newsweek article (“Money Brain”) discussed the impacts of the Twitter generation, that one-click shopping and instant messaging encourages a desire for instant gratification. Even comedians joke about impatience – the Lewis CK YouTube video “Everything’s Amazing, but Nobody’s Happy” has registered more than 5 million views because he skewers, among many targets, a spoiled, impatient airline passenger who lost Internet service.

And do impatience, instant gratification and skewered expectations affect memory? How soon did we forgot the early warnings from Southern California Edison and others that this “severe wind event” was significant enough that it would take “several days” to repair electrical lines? How soon did our own county officials forget that they regularly affix their names to emergency preparedness statements that, for example, advise residents that they may have to assume they will “be on their own” for several days in a major disaster? These warnings further advise resident not to expect contact with authorities or from utilities because they are placing all their efforts at restoring power, water and gas.

Expectations. We all know the images from the Midwest when a tornado cuts a path across a town. We don’t blink an eye when we hear, weeks later, that people are still recovering from the disaster. Yet, in a wind storm that remained severe for two days and wiped out power to nearly one-half million people (not a Midwest town of 30,000, mind you), the current state of expectation is: Why are you not moving faster? Why have you not catered to my need to get twice-a-day or more frequent updates on the situation? As a professional communicator, I must now advise companies that should they experience a crisis they will be forced to expend considerable resources to provide constant updates over multiple platforms, spend money on advertisements apologizing for not performing at super-hero speed and cater to “stakeholders” they never knew existed. And the statements they make must be short and lack any forward-thinking phrases so as to avoid a possible lawsuit.

Seventy years ago, it was hours before the mainland United States heard the news that Pearl Harbor was bombed. If the same happened today, millions would have known about it in seconds via Twitter. A former General Motors Chairman said he could take up to a week in the 1970s to make an important decision. Today, CEOs of major companies are under the pressure from a global market that never sleeps to act on major issues within hours, sometimes minutes.

It’s all about meeting expectations skewed by a faster moving and more demanding society. Somewhere along the way, patience was replaced by indignation.