Via BulletProof Blog: WikiLeaks Key Revelation: Everything is Discoverable

In the WikiLeaks era, even the most seemingly protected and innocuous communications must be approached with the same care and consideration that would be afforded a news release, a tweet, or a Facebook post. Because before you know it, a message intended for certain eyes only could become the public face your institution shows to the world.

To me the most interesting thing about this whole ordeal (besides the whole balance of public diplomacy thing) is that these cables are essentially emails. When I email my boss about dealings with another agency, or about how I’m writing a plan, these are the things that are discussed. Much like diplomats talk about diplomats from other countries or how they plan to utilize the information gleaned during the course of their work.

The cables released by WikiLeaks are, by and large, internal emails, and now they’re laid bare.

A very smart person long ago told me to write emails as if each is published in the paper individually. Because they very well may be one day.


Via Color-Coded Terror Alerts to Be Dropped by Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to get rid of the color-coded terrorism alert system. Known officially as the Homeland Security Advisory System, the five-color scheme was introduced by the Bush administration in March 2002.

It’s about time. The comments in the article really tell the whole story. No actionable information included in alert, check. Broad, undefined categores, check. Possibly politically motivated, check. Childish in its implementation, check (though, to be fair, the purple, orange, magenta thing I don’t get at all).

Instead, let’s try some honesty. In the time it takes to say, “We’ve upped the terror alert level to orange,” you could just as easily say what’s happened. And then tell people what they can do about it. Easy peasy, if you ask me.

What If You Have an Earthquake, But Don’t Tell Anyone?

A couple of people sent me this article yesterday. Looking at the June 23 earthquake outside of Ottawa near Gatineau, Quebec, the article details a series of public information failures that essentially silenced the local government after a magnitude 5.0 earthquake shook the area.

Can you imagine going dark after an earthquake? If cities and states don’t learn these lessons, they may very well be risking just that.

First, the blow-by-blow.

[W]hen the magnitude-5.0 earthquake actually happened, those best laid plans fell apart.

The Earthquakes Canada website crashed within minutes. So did phone lines to the government seismologists. The Government Operations Centre, a federal nerve center for disasters, was reduced to regurgitating news lifted from media websites.

Natural Resources Canada media staff saw their buildings evacuated — a sensible step, but one that slowed their ability to answer questions.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

[T]he chain of command snarled. Media staffers were forbidden to answer questions. When they setup a conference call for media hours later, it had to be approved by the Privy Council Office, effectively stalling the flow of information into the evening.

About 2,500 pages of emails from the 24 hours after the quake show that experts, trying to get the message out, were hamstrung by dead technology and the demands of senior management.

About three hours after the earthquake, the government put out a notification, alerting the mediate an upcoming conference call — a tangled approval process that included eight steps.

Next, the evaluation. 

National Resources officials say conditions have changed drastically since the earthquake.

They issued a written statement saying: “Newer and faster software and hardware have been installed and tested, resulting in increased capacity of the web infrastructure and ensuring the capability of handling web traffic associated with large-scale natural hazards. The new system was tested during the July 23, 2010, 4.1-magnitude earthquake between Quebec City and Trois-Rivieres. The website handled over a million hits per hour and remained fully functional.”

So, first of all, congrats on the new web capacity. Welcome to the 21st century! Do you notice anything missing from the National Resources officials explanation of what’s been fixed?

Oh yeah, the approval process!

According to this story, the officials have invested in a technological solution. And pronounced the problem fixed. But even with a Google-sized server farm, a NORAD-type reinforced operations center, and a fail-proof phone system, I argue that National Resources Canada would still have problems with disaster messaging.

Eight steps to set up a media call! Three hours! Forget be first, be credible, be right; it’s now say something before the weekend!

This is what I really wanted to talk about, because it’s a problem that’s pervasive in governments everywhere — the need to control information. That said, it’s a rational problem. From day to day, those in charge need to know and have say-so over what’s being said (they do need to get re-elected, y’know).

In a crisis, however, the rules change, and the primary communication concern is disseminating information, not message control. Like the article says, what if there was a tsunami headed for the coast when delays are not measured in minutes, but in lives lost.

I’ve always said that when planning for emergencies, special approval processes need to be developed — and trained to. These approval processes should do a number of things, among them: shorten the approval process for messages (say, to three: executive, PIO, and subject matter expert), shorten the approval process for messaging tools (to one: the PIO), and allow for the approval of messages that trained spokespeople have the freedom to then deliver to the media and public.

The difficult part of this is making senior staff realize that their first instinct (something bad has happened, I might get blamed, I need to control the messaging) is wrong. And then get them to agree to give up control of that message precisely when all of the world’s cameras are pointed directly at them.

How do you solve this sticking point? That’s easy! Involve senior staff in emergency planning — early and often. They need to know why these plans have been developed, why they’ve been given the role that they are being given, what’s being asked of them, and most importantly, what they can and cannot do during a crisis.

I have a feeling that too many responses are hamstrung by a disconnect between the primary planners and responders and the senior staff. I know they’re busy, but learning this stuff beforehand could mean the difference between a successful tenure in their position and shame.

Via Occam’s Razr: How Not to Use YouTube

90 Seconds with the TSA

The Transportation Safety Administration posted this video the other day, as a means to quell the unrest over its new backscatter machine and the updated pat-down procedures. It’s a direct message to the traveler from TSA Administrator John Pistole.

Please, watch the video, if you can.

Here’s a great deconstruction of TSA Administrator John Pistole’s YouTube message about the backscatter scanning and enhanced pat-down procedures by Ike Pigott (@ikepigott).

Ike is obviously more seasoned than I am (note his addressing the “hands 1-2-3” motions), so I absolutely think you should visit his post directly. My interpretations of the video don’t stray too far from Ike’s point of view and are not as clear.

Make better use of the medium. This isn’t a press conference, you have the ability to mash up an infinite amount of images, both moving and still. The video should, at the very least, give an example of what is to be expected, not John Pistole hands waving about.

Speaking of hands, whoa nelly! Live presentations can sometimes benefit from a bit of movement. They help establish points of importance and make you appear alive when you may be over-shadowed by a 20-foot brightly lit screen. This is not that situation. The hands were overwhelming and by the end were almost all I could focus on. (It wasn’t until I read Ike’s post until I understood the right-to-left movement.)

And finally, I totally heard the teleprompter reading during the emotional call (which Ike noted was at 1:09 minutes in the video). Wooden, strange pause, not personal, buried, thrown in, added at the last minute, not important. Those were my feelings then, and upon watching the video again? Even more so.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a PR blunder, if only because of the ridiculously low number of views. This story was the primary story in the week before Thanksgiving, and you can’t even break 50,000 views? More of a missed opportunity, I say.

Social Media and Tylenol and Recalls

On September 29, 1982, Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died. The doctors speculated that the cause was a capsule of Extra Strength Tylenol. A family member grieved over Facebook.

Later that day, Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, Illinois, died in the hospital shortly thereafter, also seemingly caused by Extra Strength Tylenol. A nurse tweeted about the incident. It was retweeted by four people within the hour. Within 12 hours there were 2,000 tweets. Groups of concerned bloggers posted hundreds of notes warning their readers to throw out their Tylenol bottles. Thousands of nervous consumers tossed their Tylenol bottles.

By the next morning, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Associated Press all had stories out about the scare. All this occurred within 24 hours and before Tylenol had a chance to react.

This post is a neat little thought experiment that helps put our idea of a crisis communication success in context. Imagine if what I quoted above really did happen. Do you think that we’d be touting Tylenol’s response as one to emulate?

Or a better question might be, is a crisis communication success like that possible today? Later in the post, the author notes that Johnson & Johnson took more than a week to craft their response. And today we talk about what a great job they did. Then, when Tylenol had recalls earlier this year, we clucked and shook our collective head at how far Johnson & Johnson had fallen. I argue that we see the 1980’s era recall through rose-colored glasses.

A week!

If that happened today, we wouldn’t be raking Johnson & Johnson across the coals, we’d be mourning the the loss as the company went under.

There’s another thing. Today it was announced that there was yet another recall of Tylenol product (this one due to the need for better labeling of alcohol in the flavoring). This brings the total number of big Tylenol recalls this year to three.

I wonder, at that point, how the messaging changes. Should Johnson & Johnson continue to react to these recalls as singular events with a start and finish? At what point do they recognize the damage done to their brand is more than the sum of each recall? And how do they begin to combat that? Should they start now, and couple it with the latest recall, or as part of a separate, focused campaign about rebuilding the brand?

Furthermore, what can we, as communicators, learn from this situation. BP took a huge hit from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but I believe that the constant drip, drip, drip of bad news multiplied the negative public reaction. Long, singular events are tough, but this is different. What about a series of bad events?

Bad press, recover, bad press, mostly recover, bad press, business drops through the floor.

Does your crisis communication plan take that into account, or is it still predicated around singular events with defined ends?

As was ably demonstrated in the original post, we live in a time when a little bad news hits the national media in hours. After that initial bout of trouble, everyone knows your organization is wounded, there’s nothing to stop the media and citizen journalists from smelling blood and digging up dirt.

(There’s a local story about the Philadelphia Housing Authority former Director that I think illustrates this. What started off as a simple story about a lien placed on his house for failure to pay taxes spiraled into accusations of sexual harassment, bullying in the office, and improper spending. Once he was seen as damaged, the sharks moved in and it was only a matter of time before he resigned.)

RonAmok! » Budget for Content not Distribution

The end of the year offers a time of reflection. It’s also the time to start planning next year’s budget. If you’re an executive who is responsible for corporate communications, consider looking at the process through a different lens. Should you fund messaging through third parties, or communicating through your own channels? No need to be draconian about it–what if you did both, shifting significant money from messaging to communicating?

Now THIS is an interesting article. I’ve argued this in the past, advocating for directly messaging your audience as opposed to utilizing middlemen (read: the media), and the author here does similarly.

He draws a distinction between distribution and messaging. He says we carve our messaging budgets into two broad areas: development and distribution. Development is either done externally or internally, with internal development of content usually being the cheaper way (read: government) because existing staff craft the message. Distribution, however is almost always done externally. We send messages to the media who pass that message along to the public we hope to reach.

The author argues that the messaging budget is written with too much focus on distribution (consider spokesperson training, press release development, etc.). He says that we should pull money from that side and reinvest it in the development side of things. My preference would be to plow it back into communication and education staff, but I can see the desire to up the budget for contracted out development. Either way, the message should get better, as opposed to the pipe that it flows through.

I argue this is better in the long run. The media, as we’ve seen, can be fickle and twist–or worse, ignore–our messaging. If we make messages that resonate with our publics, we won’t ever run into that problem again. The message will burble up through the publics and either affect the change we need, or–even better–force the media to take note.