March 19, 2012

The Cold Realities of Crisis Communications

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

When confronted with a natural or man-made disaster or accusations of wrongdoing, an organization’s survival depends on the policy response by decision-makers at the top levels and their willingness to be brave and take bold, decisive actions that will be respected and believed by their clients, the public and their government overseers.

Discussions about crisis communications inevitably devolve to public relations mechanisms and the rules of the road: the importance of advance planning, designating a single spokesperson, responding within reporters’ deadlines, off-hours notification systems and the like.

While these guidelines are essential to communications professionals who deal with crises, they do not address the critical role of the affected organization’s senior leaders.

When confronted with a natural or man-made disaster or accusations of wrongdoing, an organization’s survival depends on the policy response by decision-makers at the top levels and their willingness to be brave and take bold, decisive actions that will be respected and believed by their clients, the public and their government overseers.

No clever language or legal dodging can save a company subject to the relentless scrutiny of the news media, government investigators and, ultimately, public opinion.

Johnson & Johnson established the benchmark for corporate responsibility in 1982 by the way it handled the tampering of Tylenol capsules that led to the death of seven people in Chicago.  Even though the company was not at fault, its senior leaders took full responsibility and decided to sacrifice corporate profits in the interest of protecting their customers’ lives by recalling the entire inventory of Tylenol nationwide at a cost of more than $100 million.

Johnson & Johnson’s policy decision helped restore the public’s trust and paved the way for its financial recovery.  Key to the company’s success was the fast action by its senior team, their willingness personally to step in front of the cameras and microphones to engage the news media and, by extension, the public, with truth, candor and transparency.

Despite having established the gold standard in crisis management, the lessons of the Tylenol tragedy failed to enlighten other organizations faced with similar threats, notably:

  • Ford, which in the late 1990s turned a blind eye to nearly 250 fatalities and more than 3,000 injuries attributed to accidents involving Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer vehicles equipped with Firestone tires
  • Exxon, following the grounding of its Exxon Valdez tanker and subsequent release of 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989
  • And more recently Toyota, first with allegations of sticking accelerators and then of faulty brakes on certain models.

Senior leaders must be willing to accept cold realities when responding to a crisis.  Internal advisors must be considered suspect, to a degree, because of their natural tendency to tell executives what they want to hear and minimize bad news. Legal counsel tends to evaluate crises from the single dimension of minimizing the damage from the inevitable subsequent lawsuits. It almost always is better, from the lawyers’ perspective, to say and do nothing in the heat of the moment so as to avoid making admissions of guilt or culpability.  Such advice can create the impression of callous self-interest if translated into the organization’s public response to a crisis.

There are six truisms for senior leaders faced with a crisis:

First, incrementalism can be lethal Failure to reveal the full extent of a problem can destroy an organization’s credibility and therefore its ability to influence the outcome of a disaster.  Toyota demonstrated this by dribbling out its admissions of problems, first with floor mats interfering with accelerator pedals, then with the design of the pedals themselves and finally with unrelated brake issues.

Second, there is nowhere to hide.  Once the news media and government officials become aware of a problem, they will not relent until they investigate every nook and cranny for information that may shed light on the truth.

Third, think survival versus damage control.  Senior officials who focus solely on minimizing short-term financial costs of a crisis may jeopardize their organization’s ability to survive if their short-term response falls short of an effective response.

Fourth, a crisis is no time to play defense.  Companies have a choice when faced with a crisis: Take and keep the lead in their response and communications, as Johnson & Johnson demonstrated during the Tylenol poisonings, or surrender that role to the news media or government officials and thereby subordinate themselves to third parties, reacting defensively to every new revelation or accusation.

Fifth, a major crisis is the time to bring out the big guns.  General Motors learned this lesson too late, and so did Toyota.  The public expects to hear from one of the organization’s top officials in times of a crisis – preferably the chief executive officer – not a middle manager.

Sixth, companies must engage the daily discussion.  Crises have life-spans of their own, and organizations should be the first up to speak and the last to step down.  Failure to do so forfeits the stage to third parties that may not represent the organization fairly and who certainly do not have its interests at heart.  When Jim Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. president, was engaged on the street by Brian Ross of ABC News two years ago, he cut his comments short and made a bee-line for his limousine.  Lentz should have seized that interview as a golden opportunity to tell his story to the American public in exhaustive detail.

In times of crisis, respond quickly, be human and above all, try to remedy any issue that comes your way. It’s one thing to say you regret a problem, it’s another to fix it. The best thing you can say – provided it’s true – is, “We understand how this problem occurred, we have resolved it, we apologize to all concerned and have taken steps to ensure it never happens again.”

March 4, 2012

Communicating Effectively in a Social Media Age

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Does connecting on social networks come at the expense of face-to-face communication?

You’ve heard the buzzwords: “Social media.” “New media.” “Web 2.0.”  Whatever you call it, this interactive form of communication has expanded our sphere of influence and revolutionized the way we exchange information with friends, family, employees, shareholders, the news media and customers.

It’s been just a few short years since Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube became known to the general public.  But they changed the world. Some 80 percent of Americans now use at least one social network. According to a 2009 report from Forrester Research, The Broad Reach of Social Technologies, more than four in five U.S. adults who use the Internet use social media at least once a month.

This new age of connectivity brings both opportunities and challenges. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to differentiate their virtual life from their real social lives.

Skeptics suggest that an ironic consequence of social media is that we are losing our social skills and key emotional attributes including empathy. In the “good old days,” people called friends on their birthdays. Now they post a message on their Facebook wall, shoot them a quick text or, if they have time, leave a voicemail message on their cell phone.

Just last month, the Michigan-based Birmingham Maple Clinic, which specializes in mental health services, announced findings that suggest a link between the overuse of social media and increased social anxiety.

“We are definitely seeing negative results from the overutilization of social media: reduced social skills, less awareness of how to interact with people in ‘real time,’ a reduced physical activity and other negative consequences,” said Lori Edelson, a Birmingham Maple Clinic spokesperson.

Others argue that using social media is about being more social. We are, after all, more engaged with friends, more connected with business associates and generally more interested in the world around us.  The question then is not “Should I communicate with someone?” but “How should I communicate with someone?”

Ideally, we should utilize multiple methods. In a recent ehotelier article, Leveraging the Communications Hierarchy, business communications professional Larry Mogelonsky discourages personal communications based purely on social media. He underscores the importance of “not hiding behind voicemail” and taking the effort to send handwritten notes from time to time.

This is not to say Mogelonsky advocates social media avoidance.  Rather, he advises “looking at social media less as a means of effectively communicating directly with any individual and more as an information and awareness-generation vehicle.”

For example, you would not really expect a Tweet or Facebook posting to close a sale. However, social media networks, notably LinkedIn, can serve as a starting point for business deals by opening higher, more personal communications channels.

An important rule of thumb is to not “say” anything online that you wouldn’t say in person. This is a common pitfall.

Likewise, businesses eager to tap the power of social media often join Facebook or Twitter and immediately start posting sales and promotions. This can be a complete turnoff to users who expect to develop a relationship before making a transaction.  Those business sites are viewed like pushy salesmen who fail to take a personal interest in their quarry and just try to make the sale.

The key factor to successfully communicating through social media is to share information, not to solicit. Effectively and transparently communicating with your clients helps formulate long-lasting relationships and builds trust. Most people think about social media around the big five — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube — but it is really about the human need to connect.

There is no question that social media is rapidly transforming the way organizations communicate with customers. Does connecting on social networks come at the expense of face-to-face communication? Can we find a happy medium while using these exciting mediums?

Experts agree that it is possible to use social media for both business and personal purposes to effectively communicate and expand business and social circles without losing the art of old-fashioned conversation.

If you are worried that you might be a social media junkie, you are not alone. But we can all escape our digital cocoons and upgrade our human skills, not just social skills.  Picking up the phone more often can take your relationships to a level deeper than Facebook.

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