Crisis Preparedness:  Lessons from a Kidnapping

On October 25, 2011, a young American humanitarian aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, was in Somalia teaching children how to avoid landmines when she and her colleague were kidnapped for ransom by Somali bandits. They were held in the desert at gunpoint for 93 days before they were rescued by Seal Team 6.

Buchanan will be the keynote speaker at the International Crisis Management Conference, April 5, in Boston. After watching Buchanan relate her kidnapping trauma and dramatic rescue on 60 Minutes and hearing her interview with Rob Burton on the PreparedEx podcast, I tried to think about what Buchanan’s lessons might be for crisis preparedness. She did, after all, become a very unwilling participant in an ultimate, life-threatening crisis.

Buchanan herself pointed out one huge lesson that she unfortunately learned too late. In her interviews, she related that just days before she was kidnapped, she felt that something was not safe. These were not the nerves of a security novice. Buchanan had been living in Somalia and several other dangerous countries for the last several years, and was very familiar with security measures. But this time was different. She even had a dream about kidnapping the night before it happened. “My intuition was loudly screaming at me,” she said. “You have to listen to yourself.”

So why did Buchanan not follow her own rule? Because, she said, she had become desensitized to the dangers. The day-to-day routine of security led her to become accustomed to the ever-present dangers. She became so used to the routine of security that she simply dismissed her internal discomforts that were warning her that a crisis was imminent.

Perhaps most significantly, Buchanan said that she was in a field office during the kidnapping, not her normal headquarters office. There, she was forced to depend completely on security advisors whom she did not know.

Taken together, these would be among the lessons for crisis planners from Jessica Buchanan’s harrowing, life-changing experience:

  • Stay vigilant and sensitive to red flags. These warnings can appear in various forms, from a gut feeling that something isn’t right, to small security lapses that cumulatively could make a crisis more possible. These red flags must be addressed and corrected before they have a chance to blow up.While in an unfamiliar field office, in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Buchanan said she was unsure of that offices’ security measures. She should have requested and received a security review from security experts before her arrival at the field office. And, she should have received another briefing upon her arrival. During such reviews and briefings, she and security experts might have been able to identify security gaps that could have been corrected. Maybe there was insufficient intelligence about bandits and terrorists operating in the area, or if certain routes were considered less safe than others. If red flags such as these had been identified and then not addressed, that would have been sufficient reason not to venture out in the field.
  • A field office’s crisis preparedness and security measures must be as rigorous and as well-tested as those at the main headquarters office. That’s a lesson for many organizations with far-flung satellite facilities. A less-then-prepared field office or facility is a major vulnerability — a dangerously weak link — for the entire organization as well as to its individual members.
  • Listen closely to your intuitions and resist urges to dismiss them. “No one knows better than your gut,” says Buchanan. But what does “listening to your gut” really mean for crisis planners? It means that some thoughts have not yet been formulated clearly enough to be put into words, and they remain in the realm of instinct or intuition. Crisis planners should think long and hard about their “sixth sense.” Upon careful reflection, the reason for their discomfort might be identified and put into words so preventive measures can be taken and improvements made to the crisis plan.
  • Vigilance can become routine, so hold surprise drills. Routines can lull a person into a false sense of security, as Buchanan was to learn. Crisis planners must work hard not to let their organizations become complacent in their vigilance. Holding surprise crisis drills that test your plan and your crisis team’s performance is one very effective way to keep your organization alert.

As crisis planners, we all owe Jessica Buchanan our gratitude for sharing with us the lessons that she so painfully learned. Thank you, Jessica.

Weasel Words Scream Insincerity

In his Feb. 28th newsletter, Erik Bernstein pointed out some valuable crisis management lessons from the way Price Waterhouse Coopers handled communications after its mega-flub on Oscars night.

PwC’s U.S. chairman, Tim Ryan, did indeed employ some effective crisis messaging in his interview the next day with the NY Times, successfully conveying his sincere regret. But PwC’s formal statement of apology undermined both Ryan and, more importantly, the firm’s brand. Here’s the formal statement (which, BTW, is nowhere to be found on their website):

We sincerely apologize to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected.

Weasel words in an apology jump out because they often come in passive voice constructs that deemphasize or hide the doer of the action. WHO made the error? WHO gave presenters the wrong envelope? Elves? God? PwC’s deliberately vague language evades responsibility and erodes the crucial brand attribute of integrity that any accounting firm would want to protect.

Being unclear about who’s making the mistakes screams insincerity. It works against an apology’s supposed intent, which is to convey honesty, declare responsibility, calm the waters and make amends. Ducking responsibility with sham sincerity is exactly what you don’t want to do if you expect your apology to be accepted by the victims of your error. The infamous “mistakes were made” construct inflames rather than soothes.

Would it have been more forthright, and hence better crisis management, for PwC to have used the active voice? “PwC sincerely apologizes for our very regrettable error…” Maybe communication pros did urge the company to do so, but, as often is the case, they may have been over-ruled by company lawyers arguing against any admission of fault. Legalistic concerns of course have legitimacy, but those concerns must be weighed against the damage to brand equity a mealy-mouthed apology is likely to provoke.

Even active voice constructions can be weaselly and insincere. Here’s a recent example in a news release issued by Takata after the company reached a settlement agreement in January with the U.S. Department of Justice in relation to its dangerously defective air bags. “Takata deeply regrets the circumstances that have led to this situation and remains fully committed to being part of the solution.”

It’s in active voice, but nevertheless is one of the most obfuscating sentences ever to ooze out of a boardroom. “…regrets the circumstance that have led to this situation…” would be laughable except for the fact that the “circumstances” of the “situation” were criminal activities of Takata engineers who covered up known defects in their airbags causing fatalities when they exploded.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell in 1946 in his oft-cited essay, “Politics and the English Language.” The dishonesty of murky language that Orwell railed against in the political sphere shows up way too often in corporate apologies. More often than not they antagonize victims, damage the brand and worsen the crisis.

Ultimate Crisis Planning:
A Cyber Attack Against Our Electrical Grid

Veteran newsman, Ted Koppel, is gaining a lot of attention for his new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. In it, Koppel convincingly argues that a cyber attack against our nation’s computer- and Internet-dependent power grid by declared enemies of the U.S. poses an unprecedented and grave danger. It would shut off our lifeblood of electrical power over wide swaths of the country for very long periods of time.

Backup generators keeping vital infrastructure running would soon run dry. Clean water, food and sanitation would become unavailable; no heating fuel; no pumpable gasoline; pervasive breakdowns in security; millions of deaths. And, writes Koppel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has not planned adequately to meet this threat.

Sadly, this nightmarish scenario is by no means farfetched. “Multiple sources in the intelligence community and the military,” writes Koppel in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, “tell me that Russia and China have already embedded cyber-capabilities within our electrical systems that would enable them to take down all or large parts of a grid.” He goes on to say that Iran and North Korea are rapidly accumulating the know-how necessary to do likewise, and it’s a sure bet that ISIL will be following their lead.

For the past several years, the President and others, from both sides of the political spectrum, have been warning about the strong possibility, and in some cases, probability of such an attack, yet very little has been done.

Many power executives do acknowledge that action needs to be taken. As Tom Gjelten of NPR reported back in 2013 after attending a power industry conference, the consensus among the power executives was “that such attacks are probably inevitable.”

Nonetheless, the industry as a whole has been resistant to taking action. Gjelden cited a survey of electric utilities taken in 2013, directed by then Rep. Edward Markey (now a U.S. senator) and former Rep. Henry Waxman. What they found, wrote Gjelden, was that “…most of the companies had failed to implement voluntary cybersecurity standards recommended by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., an industry organization.”
“Some companies might calculate,” wrote Gjelden, “that the necessary investments to guarantee grid security might not be justified, given their assumptions that a major attack is still unlikely.”

Fast-forward two years later, and not much has been done. USA TODAY’s investigative reporter, Steve Reilly, reported on the issue last March after extensively researching the dangers of cyber attacks as well as physical attacks on the grid by “drawing on thousands of pages of government records, federal energy data and a survey of more than 50 electric utilities.” He wrote that the industry, through its lobbyists, has successfully staved off government moves, such as the proposed Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or GRID Act, aimed at eliminating the industry’s current state of self regulation. “Congressional lobbying disclosure records show industry-funded groups spent millions lobbying about the GRID Act since 2010,” Reilly reported.

Obviously much more needs to be done to defend our power grid against cyber attacks. As for emergency planning if such an attack were to occur, Koppel says that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the other groups responsible for protecting us, aren’t doing their jobs. He charges that the agencies continue to see a cyber attack on our grid as a relatively short-term affair, as if a cyber-induced blackout would be similar in duration to the blackouts caused by a natural disaster or a malfunction. According to Koppel, plans simply do not exist for what would be a much longer-term blackout.

Koppel writes, “When I asked former secretary of homeland security Janet Napolitano what the chances are that an aggressor could knock out one of our power grids with a cyberattack, she replied, ‘Very high — 80 percent, 90 percent.’ Yet she acknowledged that there is no specific plan to respond to a disaster of that magnitude.”

At the end of Koppel’s op-ed, he wrote, “It is surely time that the vulnerability of our power grids to cyberattacks and the absence of a national plan to deal with the consequences become a part of our national conversation.”

After being so persuasive about the enormity of the danger, merely having a “national conversation” seems too weak a response. If in fact these issues are national security threats of the highest order, we should be acting accordingly.

Takata: How to turn a manageable product recall into a disaster

The Takata airbag crisis is a case study of how mishandled communications can transform a serious, but still manageable, product recall into what may very well become an ultimate catastrophe for the company. No one can say at this point if Takata will ever fully recover after damaging its relationships, seemingly voluntarily, with pretty much every one of its constituents — car manufacturer customers, the US Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), shareholders, and the general public around the world. The company currently faces a potential U.S. criminal investigation, more than 20 class action lawsuits, a U.S. Congressional investigation and probes by Japan’s industry ministry.

The problems the company faces are now on daily display in all news and social media: Airbags made by Takata have been shown to have had serious problems with their inflator propellant chemicals since the 1990s. In some cases the inflator mechanisms exploded when the airbags deployed, shooting metal debris into vehicles, killing at least five people and injuring more. More than 20 million vehicles around the world from 11 automakers have been recalled since 2008.

Still, Takata continues to state that its airbags are safe. That statement is belied by the troubling trail of patent applications. Takata filed over the past 20 years, one as recent as last year, indicating company concerns over its propellant chemicals. The applications show that the propellants in the inflator mechanisms can become unstable and could even explode when exposed to moisture and temperature changes. Furthermore, former Takata employees involved in the company’s airbag tests have come forward to confirm the concerns documented in the patent applications. Some also claim that some of the company’s test data were purposely destroyed.

Perhaps most damaging to the company is its refusal to comply with NTHSA’s order to expand its airbag recalls in the U.S. beyond geographical areas of high heat and humidity, such as Florida and Puerto Rico.

The company’s decision defies common sense. In effect Takata is arguing that people who live, say, in the northeast and drive every year to spend the winter with their car in Florida wouldn’t need to have their cars recalled. Takata customers, including its largest customer, Honda, disagree and have nationwide recalls underway for their cars equipped with Takata airbags.

Overall, Takata’s communications relating to its airbag problem just don’t jibe with either its actions or its own previous branding messages and declared values. The statement by Takata’s chairman and CEO, Shigehisa Takada, that was issued as a press release on December 3rd, is a case in point.

The first half of the chairman’s statement is in line with best crisis communications practices. For example, he voices deep regret and tries to confirm the company’s humane values. He declares four steps the company is taking to “demonstrate our commitment to public safety,” including hiring well-credentialed, highly respected third parties to investigate the company’s manufacturing procedures and others to advise the company. Well and good so far.

But then comes a glaring problem. The statement reads:

We recognize that NHTSA has urged Takata and our customers to support expansions of the current regional campaigns in the United States. Takata remains committed to cooperating closely with our customers and NHTSA to address the potential for inflator rupturing.

But the fact is Takata is simply not going to comply with the NHTSA’s order, and nothing in the statement addresses this truth. Takata’s non-cooperation now tarnishes what could have been a far more manageable recall, doing perhaps irreparable harm to the company’s reputation and bottom line.

The geographically limited recall directly conflicts with Takata’s often-stated commitment to safety and transparency. Takata has single-handedly given reason to every one of its constituents, from car manufacturers to governments to the general public, to doubt its credibility and the safety of its airbags. As NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman scathingly put it, “We cannot simply trust the information Takata gives us.”

And, as is sometimes the case with very serious crises, Takata’s self-inflicted damage may spread to affect an entire industry. Keith Crain, editor-in-chief of leading trade pub Automotive News, wrote in an editorial, “You wonder if Takata’s reluctance to be transparent is hurting the entire category of suppliers as well as general public faith in airbags. … Takata has become a prime example of how not to handle a serious recall.”

On December 16, Takata announced it has hired PR firm Sard Verbinnen and Co., ostensibly to help it regain its communications footing. Time will tell how well this works, but as any child can attest, after a great fall, even all the kings horses and all the king’s men…

A Crisis Limps Into the ER:  First, do no harm

When your organization encounters a crisis, say a fire, you’ll of course take immediate steps to put it out. But depending on how big the fire is, it could mean a prolonged crisis, and you’ll want to have some way of measuring its seriousness so you can act accordingly.

Just as a doctor doesn’t want to under or over-treat a sick patient, effective responses to a crisis must be similarly gauged. Under responding will worsen the situation – think of a doctor who mistakenly treats a serious condition with aspirin instead of an antibiotic. Over-responding to a crisis could also worsen the situation, like applying a tourniquet to treat a paper cut. The crisis response must be proportional to the degree of severity the crisis actually presents.

So the first thing for the crisis response team to do when a crisis limps its way into its ER is to stanch the bleeding – put out that fire. But then you’ll want to slip a thermometer under the crisis’ tongue to get its temperature. Just as a doctor is pledged to first do no harm, the crisis team has to likewise restrain itself from acting precipitously.

Let’s say your organization has suffered an IT security breach affecting only a small number of customers. Low temperature. You could probably make personal calls to those customers; soothe their hurts, while keeping your organization beneath the radars of unaffected customers and the news media.

But what if several hundred thousand of your customers were impacted? That’s a high temperature indicating a much more serious disease requiring a more comprehensive treatment regimen.

Every organization will require its own customized thermometer, and it should be included as part of the crisis plan. A temperature can be determined by answering a few basic questions:

  • How many people are/could be affected by the crisis? 1-10? 10-100? 100-10,000?
  • How much money is at risk? More than $10,000 but less than $50,000? More than $1 million but less than $5 million?
  • For how long might this crisis go on? A day? A week? Longer?
  • Can you continue to operate?
  • How might your reputation be impacted?
  • What are the chances of your actions working or not working?
  • Are the media knocking? Lawyers? Regulators?

By answering such questions, and others that you’ll come up with, a temperature value can be assigned, say between 0 and 100 degrees. For the more systematically inclined, you could assign a temperature value between 1 and 100 to each answer and then take an average of the values to arrive at the crisis’ overall temperature. Either way, you can use the assigned temperature of the crisis to measure its seriousness. And just like an illness, things can change quickly and the temperature your team is assigning to the crisis will rise and fall as the situation unfolds, indicating the progress of your crisis response.

There will likely be disagreement among the crisis team members as to the temperature since many of the questions can only be answered subjectively. But those are valuable discussions to have where different perspectives will be exchanged and consensus built.

So, what’s the temperature?

75-100 degrees? Code Red A highest-priority, severe crisis requiring full crisis response attentions and resources. The CEO may need to be front and center.
50-75 degrees? Code Orange A medium priority crisis. Various corporate-level actions may be required.
25-50 degrees? Code Yellow A minor crisis. Can be handled locally or by lower-level managers.
0-25 degrees? Code White Probably not a crisis at all, but an issue that needs to be addressed before it can become a crisis.

The reality of an actual crisis is complex, nuanced, rapidly changing and confusing — precisely why you should be periodically testing your plan, and your response team, through realistic, simulated crisis exercises.

The thermometer is a simplifying contrivance. But when a crisis does occur the thermometer helps to model messy reality in a way that can make your responses more in proportion to the severity of the “illness.” When the temperature goes down, you’ll know the patient is getting the right treatment.

GM recall crisis: déjà vu all over again

As news of GM’s recall crisis heightened, Toyota kept coming to mind. It was, as Yogi Berra famously said, déjà vu all over again.

Within a figurative second of surpassing GM as the world’s largest automaker in January 2009, Toyota found itself in a similar brand-busting, headline-grabbing crisis. Camry and Lexus had defects that produced “sudden acceleration,” a syndrome believed to have been a factor in 200 or more accident complaints filed by consumers beginning in 2000.

When an occurrence of sudden acceleration, famously caught on video, claimed the life of a California Highway Patrolman in April 2009, it unleashed a torrent of publicity that ultimately led to a September recall of 3.8 million vehicles. And, like with GM, there was a lot more to come:  failed disclosures, arguments with the government, waves of unflattering press activity, public outcry, etc.

It’s pretty clear that GM, itself nearing bankruptcy and a federal bail out at the time, wasn’t doing much self-analysis as Toyota’s problems escalated. Had the company done so, it might have had a chance to avert the current struggle. As it turns out, though, GM joined a distressingly long line of companies that fall victim to these three crisis missteps:

[1] They don’t pay attention to warning signs or, worse, they cover them up.

[2] When the crisis goes public, they choose to protect financial interests rather than brand (read: customer) interests.

[3] They behave as though legal liability is synonymous with “cost.”

On the first, the CEOs of each company, in effect, acknowledged “cultures of denial” within their organizations and cited the need to break with their pasts to affect crisis resolution. The deeper issue, of course, is how management dealt with failure. To avoid it, most experts agree, a company has to embrace it. That means paying attention to signs of weakness and spelling out mistakes people don’t dare make.

The question of what to protect can be downright paradoxical. In good times, most managers would assert that doing what the customer expects – i.e. living up to core brand values – is the path to success. When crisis hits, however, customer interests are either put aside in favor of finance or market impact, or made deminimis by statistical probabilities.

In the case of the two auto giants, macro issues probably had an effect on decisions. Back in 2009, Toyota arrogantly contrived to protect their newly achieved “number one” status. GM probably wondered how a large recall would impact an imminent $50 billion taxpayer bailout. Likewise the micros: is a million-vehicle recall warranted with incident rates at .01 percent?

Meantime, with so much at stake in human terms – personal injury and fatalities – one wonders if the decisions at Toyota and GM would have been different if customers had effective advocates on the crisis management team (executive suite).

This is where credible chief communications officers come in. Their job is to represent the public’s view in the decision chamber to the point where C-suite types – and their lawyers and risk managers – can imagine a son or daughter or spouse behind the wheel of a potential death car. Get heads wrapped around that and company behavior usually adjusts.

Finally, in the court of public opinion, litigation values pale before real costs of brand and equity damage. If you measure reputation as the difference between market and book value, Toyota took a $15 billion equity loss at the onset of the crisis – a hit it took almost two years to regain on a sustained basis. They lost untold billions in sales and repairs plus the much-ballyhooed claim of “biggest.” By contrast, they paid $1.2 billion in fines and penalties.

So far, GM is getting the benefit of the doubt. Yet questions linger as $3.0 billion in equity has disappeared.

Why in the world they didn’t deal with it back then is beyond me, but it seems to me now that they’re doing the best job they can given the circumstances,” said Scott Schermerhorn, chief investment officer of Concord, New Hampshire-based Granite Investment Advisors Inc., which oversees $600 million and as of Dec. 31 owned 464,469 GM shares.

So what are the lessons? GM is learning them under fire – tell it all, tell it fast, and be your customers’ chief advocate. With this month’s announcement of a safety recall involving more than 6.0 million vehicles, Toyota appears to have been paying attention in class.

Hud Englehart
Managing Partner
Adjunct Professor, Crisis Communication
Northwestern University

Could a Crisis Plan and Simulation Exercises Have Prevented This Railroad Catastrophe?

Can a crisis plan that’s regularly tested through crisis simulation exercises help to prevent disasters such as the cataclysmic train derailment that occurred in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July? The answer is — yes and no. Yes, if vulnerabilities are identified and addressed, but no, if the preventive measures to mitigate those vulnerabilities are not taken.

It was around midnight on July 7 when a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) train loaded with crude oil was parked for the night outside the small resort town. For reasons still under investigation, the train’s brakes somehow gave way, or weren’t properly set in the first place. The unattended train began to roll, picked up speed and finally crashed in the center of town causing several tank cars to explode and burn ferociously. The accident killed 47 people, destroyed a large part of the town’s center and left a residue of crude oil that is still being cleaned up.

The very act of developing a crisis plan would have forced railroad managers to think hard about their operating procedures and identify where vulnerabilities might lie. One can speculate that prior to the accident crisis planners at MMA would have seen that having only one engineer in charge of a train loaded with volatile materials could be a major weakness. Even worse, it was accepted practice for that engineer to stay in a hotel over night leaving the parked train unattended. Any number of high-consequence emergencies could occur, fires, leaks, sabotage — and a brake failure while parked on a downward-sloping track.

Even if MMA crisis planners saw that a one-man train crew and leaving a train with dangerous cargo parked unattended were problems, they were under no legal obligation to do anything about it. Railroad regulator, Transport Canada, had approved, or had no regulations preventing, both practices.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster is a case study on how crisis plans and regulations intersect, and sometimes in dysfunctional ways. The tragic fact is that when preventive measures identified in crisis plan development and simulation exercises cost companies money, and regulatory agencies aren’t requiring those measures, cash-strapped companies aren’t likely to take those measures.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster is already resulting in a sweeping regulatory overhaul for railroads in both Canada and the US. Complying with those new rules could cost companies a lot more than if they had voluntarily acted upon the lessons learned during their crisis planning.

Is the White House giving PR a bad name?

My first mentor in the PR business always used to say to me, “Hud, the only way PR works is when the words match the actions.” That counsel has proven germane countless times. But using its logic as a measure of current practice, you have to admit that from the NFL right on down the line (or up the Hill) to the White House, misalignments have led to a disastrous month for PR.

Let’s start with NFL wunderkind Tom Brady. He playfully urges New England Patriots fans planning to attend the team’s home opener to “… start drinking early … get nice and rowdy … get lubed up, come out here and cheer for (the) home team.” Within the hour, the team’s PR department issues a clarification. “What Tom meant to say was ‘stay hydrated, drink a lot of water, be loud, drink responsibly.’”

ESPN gabber Scott Van Pelt spoke for me when he said, “They’re lying and besides, isn’t beer one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors?”

Next, the CEO of Solyndra, recipient of a $585 million “green” loan from taxpayers, asserts on July 13 that his company’s revenue would double in 2011. Yet the letter to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in which his assertion is made has nary a hint of the financial perils that would force the company into bankruptcy just six weeks later.

I don’t usually agree with Henry Waxman, but this time we are on the same page: the assertion and the reality “starkly contrast,” an uttering that may actually qualify for understatement of the year.

Then comes George Will’s WaPo column last week where he sticks it to political wordsmiths for their impoverished vocabulary. Thinking new words are potions for persuasion, “liberals” have become “progressives,” “stimulus” now goes by “investment,” and an intrusive “federal government” is suddenly the “federal family.”

Ouch. As a PR person, albeit a corporate one, this “needle” digs deep because it challenges two core tenets of our professional belief system. The first is the aforementioned word-action alignment rule. The second is never – and I mean never – try to outsmart the public. You’ll get discovered every time. Just ask Richard Nixon, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, or Tiger Woods.

What really hurts is the name this gives PR and PR people. With such frequent high profile misspeak, people naturally assume we are in the business of making stuff up, spinning yarns, and generally trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Which leads me directly to the White House … and a few would-be occupants, too. Ever since the President’s job approval ratings headed south, supporters have been chanting that the Administration has a messaging problem. It’s as though the political types believe that one of the Davids (Axelrod or Plouffe) can actually pen the words that will suspend the public’s disbelief.

Sorry. It just doesn’t work that way. Even for politicians, the “do” and the “say” have to be in synch. This is why I think no matter which way you lean on the political spectrum, your PR sensibilities have to be challenged by the remarkable penchant for politicians to say one thing and seem to be doing another.

For example, you can’t promise “no new taxes” for the middle class and then impose penalties for not buying government health insurance, stick the states with a bigger share of Medicaid (code for more state taxes), refuse to approve oil drilling leases (code for higher gas prices), cut off voucher systems for public education, and spend a trillion in “shovel ready” projects with no mention of who’s paying.

You can’t say the health care reform act ought to be repealed and then, in the case of one leading Presidential contender, defend the cost containment aspects of a similar plan that you helped enact while you were governor – a plan, by the way, that appears to be driving costs skyward at a record pace. The numbers don’t add up … and neither do the words.

You can’t say you are pro-Israel and then join in on European and UN condemnations of the Jewish state, attend ceremonies honoring alleged terrorists (Dalal Mughrabi, leader of the Coastal Red Massacre), and deliver an Arab Spring speech.

You can’t launch a tirade against “potentially dangerous” HPV from a Presidential debate platform and then, in the face of insurmountable medical and scientific evidence to the contrary, defend the original claim with assertions of even greater harm, also unsupported. Fact is, being loud and scary is not synonymous with telling the truth.

You can’t issue calls for civility in the political dialogue and then brandish the opposition as “fat cats,” Tea Party “terrorists,” “hostage takers” and elderly cliff-tossers. And you probably shouldn’t expect anyone to follow your lead when you urge supporters to “punish our enemies” or snitch at AttackWatch.com.

Finally, with the whole country feeling the pain of recession, you can’t say you empathize with the unemployed or socio-economically challenged from the balcony of a $50,000-a-week vacation villa … or that you are gravely concerned about the nation’s debt ceiling as you head off – at taxpayer expense – to a $35,000-a-plate birthday party.

So, back to the original question. Is the White House giving PR a bad name? To ask the question is to answer it, I suppose. To be sure, many other administrations have preceded the current regime with similar penchants for poorly aligned word play. And there have been plenty of high profile companies and celebrities afflicted by the same crooked logic.

So, it is no wonder that most people have a fairly low opinion of the profession. To hear the media tell it, PR is a distraction, a disaster, a challenge, a war, hype, just PR, schmooze … or worse. It’s painful.

My wish for the future, then, would be some new role models for PR. I want friends and associates to look at Disney or Coke or Apple as the examples of what we do. That way, years from now, it might actually be understood that the mission of PR is to help companies behave in ways that gain and retain the public’s permission to operate … and that my life’s work was spent helping them line up the “say” with the “do.”

How to Use Agitation and Instigation Media for Your Company’s Benefit

I have this argument with my wife all the time.  She says social media is dangerous: a boon for sexual predators, the next flash mob on Michigan Avenue, the death knell of civil discourse.  

I contend that, used properly, it is the Krazy Glue in community building: the ultimate affinity group connection, an early warning system, a digital extension of your best dinner conversations.  

There’s more than a kernel of truth in each argument.  I have to admit that there are times when I think we are just a Tweet away from toppling Illinois state government (would that be a bad thing?).  But I have to keep reminding myself that the Tweet is little more than an ignition switch that lights the passions and, yes, behaviors, of like-minded followers.  

And therein lies the point.  Social media is all about “the community, stupid,” not the Tweet.  

Put that notion in the context of crisis communication and it naturally gives rise to defense.  How can modern PR pros deliver a counterbalance to crisis-driven social media bombardments in an era when virtually every smartphone is a potential ignition switch?

Basically, it boils down to the old cliché: the best defense is a good offense.  There is one very big caveat, however.  The communities that spring to life in a crisis tend to gather around the negative, making the development of a counterbalancing community a pretty tough row to hoe, especially on the spur of the moment.

So, as I tell grad students in crisis communications classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School, if your company doesn’t plan for the unplanned, shame on them … and double shame if they (you) haven’t planned on how to activate a community of supporters long before the flames of crisis are burning down your brand.

Translated, this suggests three discreet planning efforts with an eye toward “agitating and instigating” when and if crisis ever hits.

The first has to do with identifying communities of prospective allies.  No doubt the list will rally around different topics and passions.  Some may be customers who believe in your brand … and tend to believe you.  Some may be vendors and/or suppliers who have a vested interest in your success.  Some may be civic leaders familiar with your company’s economic, social and cultural impact on the citizenry — in other words, people who can attest to your corporate citizenship.  Still others might be joined with you on science, public policy, business development and the like.

Once you’ve identified them, the second step is to figure the issues, topics, interests, vocations and avocations around which allies might gather.  The forces that bind are usually pretty obvious.  Starbucks, coffee lovers and growers on all things coffee, for example; or Science Diet, pet owners and veterinarians on pet care; or Huggies, moms and pediatricians on kids health.  

Finally, and this is the hard part, you have to develop strategies for engaging allies who can become possible support groups “when the balloon goes up,” as one of my Northwestern colleagues says.  This means using the community-building power of social media to create a group of followers and keep them interested.

A lot of companies may have to swallow pretty hard if they want to deploy social media for offense (or defense) during crisis time.  The “social” part the terminology is far from incidental.  To the contrary, it requires serious levels of frequent and transparent exchange to reach community status … and a constancy/intimacy of engagement to engender the trust that necessarily girds a support group.

Starbucks has it figured out.  They have nearly 1.7 million followers on Twitter who stay in touch because Starbucks lets them say what they have to say, and often responds with, “We’ll do what we can to help.”  Tweets post by the minute. The social tie that has been created probably gives Starbucks a fairly powerful ignition switch for informing, and even activating, its supporters in a moment of need.

On the other hand, with only 9,500 Twitter followers and Tweets posting daily, Huggies’ trigger might not be pulled to similar effect.  It’s a little harder to tell how Hills, maker of Science Diet, might fare with the 853 veterinarians following Tweets that post irregularly — a day or two or twenty in between — @HillVet. There are nearly 60,000 veterinarians in the US.

Of course, Twitter is not the only measure of community building, but the drift is quite evident. There is a new communications paradigm, and company communication executives need to pay heed to its influence on business and reputation. Dow Jones puts the challenge this way:  

The sheer number of social media platforms and tools, coupled with the deafening volume of conversations they host, leaves communications executives at the center of a chaotic information universe.

Their advice, and mine, is to get on the offense and engage.  Traditional news media and organized journalism aren’t the only games in town.  Now there is individual empowerment and public involvement with instant messages, Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts.  

When pressed into duty a decade ago, crisis PR staffs at Enron, Arthur Andersen and Martha Stewart generally knew how, when and where to engage with the media.  BP, Toyota and Tiger Woods had no such luck.  In their moments of crisis, every keyboard represented a potentially viral opinion, every cell phone was just a click away from an incendiary YouTube video, and everyone was reading everyone else’s mail.

My argument on social media, then, is that companies need to have a network/community in place “just in case” they want to trip a switch to agitate and instigate for their own account in an emergency.  

And that’s exactly the same argument I make with my wife.