Archive for February, 2008

Keeping ALL Communication Channels Open During a Crisis

February 26, 2008

One of my primary criticisms of Scoble and Israel’s book Naked Conversations is its message – intended or not – that blogs are the wave of the future and all other media are unnecessary. It is as though they want to take all other methods company’s have of communicating with their publics and chuck them to the side. Take, for example, their claim in Chapter 13 concerning crisis communication.

I wholeheartedly agree that blogging has played an increasing role in providing “fast, valuable, striking, and comforting information in times of crisis.” A blog is an ideal way to get an online information center up and running in a few minutes. Also, the RSS capability inherent in blogs allows you to communicate your emergency updates over the Web real fast and in different formats, allowing reporters, employees, and others to subscribe to them by email, SMS, etc.

However, despite their dramatically increased popularity, blogs are just one of many traditional and online tools that should be considered for effective crisis communication. In the end, the right mix of communication tools and using the blog wisely within that mix are vital to responding to a crisis successfully. No internal crisis blog is, for instance, going to help if crucial information related to the crisis is repeatedly provided to and appearing in the news media before that information is communicated internally through the blog. And you surely also get counterproductive results if the messages communicated via blogs are untrue or inconsistent with messages delivered through other channels.

It is important to remember that context matters. If you are to use the example of the tsunami cited in Naked Conversations, the photos, videos, and personal stories from those who witnessed the tsunami in Asia did indeed provided vivid imagery. They did not, however, tell the full story. The blogs certainly got the story out much more quickly than could have occurred with traditional journalists, as Israel and Scoble mention, but it took traditional journalists to find out how the tsunami was formed and, more importantly, why there was no early warning system in place that could have saved so many lives.

Similarly, in the business world, there are times when context and accuracy matter more than speed. That is not to say that stonewalling is the right tactic. Nor can a company ignore events or negative or inaccurate comments posted on an influential blog. But simply relying on a company blog to respond to such events is not enough. In a crisis situation, a multichannel approach is best.If a company has released a faulty product or has acted improperly or illegally, how it reacts and handles the crisis – not the channel by which it reacted – will be the basis for how it is treated by the press and its customers. In the Intel case cited by Scoble and Israel, wherein the company had launched a faulty processor, it is unlikely Intel would have handled the situation better online than they did using traditional communication channels. The company probably would have denied any problems with its product in a blog, just as its spokesman did using traditional PR methods. Intel’s blog’s existence – and the company’s participation in the blogosphere – was irrelevant.Scoble and Israel’s argument regarding nipping inaccuracies in the bud is also faulty. The authors claim that monitoring the blogosphere for what is being said about the company is key to quickly correcting false claims and unfounded rumors. Does this mean companies must respond to each and every negative or inaccurate post in the blogosphere? Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail and others state that blogs are self-editing; that if something untrue or inaccurate is posted, others will jump in to correct the misinformation – such as in Wikipedia. Is it the company’s responsibility to do this? Does the company have to run a blog to respond to a blog? Will a company official making the “correction” be more or less likely to be viewed as credible?

Scoble and Israel cite Scoble’s handling of The Register’s inaccurate article about a Microsoft beta product. Scoble’s blog, the authors claim, saved the company’s reputation and averted a potentially damaging situation. Did Scoble really avert a crisis by responding to The Register’s inaccurate posting? Did that situation actually represent a potential crisis? Had the product actually done what the article claimed it would, that would have been a crisis that would have required a larger corporate communication effort than simply a blog post to buy time by saying, “Oops, sorry. We’ll look into this.” Moreover, if we are to believe what blog proponents say about the self-correcting nature of the blogosphere, Microsoft’s champions – and the application’s beta testers – would have blasted The Register for its inaccurate reporting. 

Finally, in the case of a true crisis, a company should make every effort to get its facts right and that they reach as much of their relevant publics as efficiently as possible. This means taking the time to get those facts right and consistent, regardless of who is communicating them. We have seen how devastating misinformation can be, for example, in manufacturing disasters or mine shaft collapses. In such cases, uniformity of voice is crucial. Imagine if there were hundreds of company bloggers at the Murray Energy Corporation when its Utah mine collapsed last August. What would have happened if well-intentioned company bloggers accidentally posted inaccurate information concerning rescue efforts?

Handling dire situations – real crises – also means using communication channels that the majority of the company’s publics are using. If you look at the statistics, only a fraction of the U.S. population actually reads or posts to blogs. Business Week reported that a Forrester study found that 11.2% of online adults in the United States publish a blog at least once a month. Of the same group, 24.8% read a blog and 13.7% comment on a blog at least once a month. Clearly, a company blog is not the right channel in all cases.. In a true crisis, a company will need to reach a much larger audience than that. A Web site, a press release, or a press conference would be a much more effective way to get key information out to the public.


Corporate Blogging

February 19, 2008

Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, in their book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, state that every company, from the small-town plumber to the multinational corporation can benefit from blogging. They argue that by ignoring the blogosphere, a company risks missing out on important conversations about what customers and competitors are saying about it. Moreover, it is foregoing the chance to enter into that conversation to help set the record straight if something inaccurate has been posted or printed somewhere or to give the company a more human face. For Israel and Scoble, both company executives and public relations professionals are missing out on an opportunity to get closer to the people who make a difference to them.

I agree that PR professionals should be jumping onto the blogging bandwagon. However, blogs are a new and still evolving tool for many companies, and represent a new set of challenges in terms of tone, timing, and commitment.

Toby Bloomberg had it right when he said in Naked Conversations that blogs should be viewed as yet another tool in the PR professional’s kit that have their purpose, just as the more traditional tools have theirs. Israel and Scoble are too quick to assume that other PR methods are already obsolete. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2007 State of the News Media found that niche publications and even newspapers as a whole are still not fully plugged into the Ineternet, in that they are still finding out how to effectively use the medium. To assume that a traditional press release will no longer get a company’s message out effectively is to assume that newspapers no longer matter and that all reporters are taking part in the blogging conversations. As with any PR effort, those who use blogs need to ensure that they match the message – and the channel by which that message is sent – to the audience.

Clearly, for some companies a blog would be well received. However, encouraging a company with limited resources to spend the time and effort required to maintain a blog when the company culture or targeted market sector does not mesh well with this mode of communication may not be a sound business strategy to pursue, as Scoble and Israel themselves point out. Computer companies, such as Microsoft, for example, are ideal candidates for blogging; their audiences, from shareholders to customers, are more likely than, say, John Deere’s or the plumber’s Scoble and Israel are still looking for, to keep up with relevant blogs. 

The same aversion blog audiences have to spin and company-produced hype holds true for inappropriate use or participation in a blog, where attempts to spin or market a product or company in a medium that shuns that type of behavior could backfire. Therefore, companies must be up front not only with the tone of the blog, but also with the fact that they are actually participating in a blog in the first place. Blog readers are likely to pick up on slick PR or corporate messages, and if poorly handled – as was the case for Sony, WalMart, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods – the effort could result in a PR nightmare. In each of these cases, the executive – as with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey – or the PR firm – as was the case (ironically) with Edleman’s handling of the WalMart incident – hid their identity when blogging or participating in chat lines. Just as with a press release or any other PR tool, being truthful is paramount. Here, Shel Israel’s comment that blogs are credible, press releases are not, rings hollow.

Another concern many companies may have is determining how to measure the effectiveness of their blog? Does the blog actually bring in more business? Scoble and Israel argue that the Microsoft blog had an impact on the public’s perception of the company, but did that result in more sales? What metrics do you use to tie a blog to a company’s success or failure?

The learning curve for many in the PR profession and for many company executives will be steep. But if they can master this technology, it can be a powerful tool in communicating with – not to – their various audiences. The questions remain, however, concerning what the next big change in technology will bring. At this stage, as technology evolves so quickly, how soon before blogs are replaced with more interactive multimedia tools? Will a text-only blog seem outdated and passé, forcing companies to post videos of their executives chatting with their customers?

Using the Internet to Fill the Foreign Correspondent Void

February 11, 2008

Jeff Jarvis, in his blog Buzz Machine, on February 7 brought up the oft-talked about problem concerning the dying newspaper industry, asking his readers to what steps they would take if they owned the Boston Globe or Sun-Times. What radical steps would – or could – a newspaper owner take in order to keep it afloat? Reading through the comments Jarvis’s audience left, it was clear that many took a view similar to that posed by Dan Gilmore: go digital. I would have to agree, and see a key way to leverage technology for not just newspapers, but for television news as well, would be in their foreign bureaus.

Already, many news organizations have begun closing their foreign bureaus in an effort to save money. According to a report on The World, the number of foreign correspondents deployed around the world by major U.S. newspapers has decreased by 25 percent between 2002 and 2006. The same sharp drop in foreign correspondents and bureaus has also been seen in television. In 1970, CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 smaller bureaus, and part-time reporters in 44 countries, according to an op-ed by Ted Koppel. By 2006, he claimed, CBS had reduced its foreign presence significantly, and was down to eight foreign correspondents and only three foreign bureaus.

Economics and the changing media environment has forced news organizations to change how they cover foreign news. Large bureaus, which can cost up to $500,000 each year to operate, are giving way to one-person reporting units, such as those being used by CNN and ABC News, that can be deployed with an arsenal of new technology — including handheld digital video cameras, satellite dishes, and laptops technology. This equipment, according to John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, costs only about $10,000 per reporter. The World’s Aaron Schachter reports that news organizations also are relying more and more on wire services, such as AP and Agence France-Press, to fill the void left by the declining numbers of foreign bureaus and correspondents.

Some, such as Gilmore see this precipitous decline in the number of foreign news bureaus and correspondents as an opportunity for bloggers and other video and online media providers, while others question whether bloggers have the experience and professionalism needed to provide quality, objective coverage.

The way forward, however, is not an all or none path in which news organizations either restaff their foreign bureaus or close them all down and blindly rely on bloggers or the wire services for their foreign news coverage. News outlets have a number of options when it comes to leveraging technology across the globe. They should use the technology in order infuse their foreign coverage with original and more personal content that can be provide by bloggers and contributions from citizen journalists. This content should be used to augment – not supplant – coverage provided by wire services, freelancers, and individual correspondents the news organizations deploy overseas.

Some veteran journalists, such as Roy Gutman of the McClatchy News chain, argue that bloggers or wire service journalists do not have the same level of knowledge as a foreign correspondent living and working in the local area. This claim seems unfounded, given that local and expatriate citizen journalists likely would have a more intimate and unique insight into local trends and issues, and could have access to certain events and individuals to which more traditional journalists do not.

News organizations should encourage their credentialed correspondents, who may have access to mainstream political figures and influencers, to collaborate with local bloggers in order to enhance hard-news coverage with video, photography, and text impressions of those with more personal perspectives and levels of access. Coverage could then draw content from hundreds of local citizen journalists whose blog sites could foster conversations among the bloggers, their audiences, and the news organizations’ correspondents.

Gutman and others also argue that bloggers may not have a methodology for corroborating and checking facts and that readers would not know if the blogger has a bias or inherent conflict of interest. This argument assumes that using bloggers would mean foregoing any ethical and editorial oversight. To counter this, mainstream U.S. news organizations could adopt, and indeed make more stringent, the editorial practices employed by Internet news sites such as Global Voices and OhMyNews, which employ editors who review submissions and require its contributors to agree to a set of ethical and editorial guidelines. Similar or more stringent rules could help ensure a level of audience trust for mainstream organizations that use bloggers or other Internet content.

Those who argue against leveraging the input of bloggers and other online contributers to the news claim that citizen journalists do not have the depth of understanding of the complex issues in today’s interconnected world. These arguments are irrelevant, however, and assume an either-or solution to the problem.