Getting the story right when you didn’t get it right

Today via Geekwire (and others) we’re hearing about how the radio show This American Life has issued a wholesale retraction of their story from January about factory working conditions at an Apple supplier in China. The full retraction is available on This American Life’s blog.

What’s interesting about this is how they’re handling the issue. News organizations make mistakes and issue retractions regularly: this isn’t a unique incident. But, as This American’s Life’s press release makes clear, this wasn’t just any story for them. This was a very big story for them.

To their credit, since they have to retract a big story, they’re doing so in a big way. They’ve essentially done a new story talking about how they got this wrong. They’re even doing a special broadcast just to focus on how they got this wrong. And, they’ve taken full and clear responsibility, apologized, and spoken openly about how this situation can impact the trust their audience puts in them.

A big mistake on a big story requires a big response to make it right. By handling this like they have, This American Life has not only taken steps that very effectively mitigate the harm of this incident, by being so open and upfront they’ve also taken steps to actively regain the trust that they acknowledge an incident like this can harm.

This is a model for how news organizations can effectively handle situations like this. They really should be commended.

Ten Years After Bill Gates’ Trustworthy Computing Memo

Ten years ago yesterday, Bill Gates sent out his Trustworthy Computing memo that marked a significant change in the culture at Microsoft and put security, privacy and reliability at the center of the company as ideals.

I was at Microsoft as part of the Microsoft Security Response Center when that came out. And until I left Microsoft in December 2010, I was involved in security and privacy. So I have a former insider’s long-term view of what that was all like.

As my former colleagues are marking the occasion I’m sharing my own thoughts on what it meant then and what it means for the future.

Here are my comments in Robert X. Cringly’s article “PC security: We’ve come a long way, baby“. And a longer write-up by me over at Betanews “10 years after Bill Gates’ Trustworthy Computing memo: What it meant for Microsoft and why every tech company needs one“.

It was something to be a part of, but the world is different today. Part of my take on it is how this is still relevant in this different world.

Tellme Siri it ain’t so: the do-it-yourself Pepsi Challenge

Some of the tech press are writing about Jason Cartwright of TechAU’s YouTube video here he does a side-by-side test of the voice recognition features in Windows Phone 7 (Tellme) and iPhone 4.5 (Siri).

Anthony James over at TechFlash today notes how some folks are saying how the test may not be a fair one, while the folks at geek.com write that the test is fair and fault Microsoft’s Craig Mundie for setting himself up.

Regardless of whether you think the test is fair or not, there is an important lesson here around social media and competitive claims that anyone who’s a public face or counsels them needs to be mindful of. With things like YouTube now, it’s quite easy for third parties to go ahead and conduct their own trials of your claims on video and post them for all to see. Basically, anyone can do their own “Pepsi Challenge” now.

The upshot of this is that you don’t want to make competitive claims unless you’re sure you can win. The better move is to steer clear of these sorts of claims, since someone can always rig the competition against you.

Overresponding: A Lesson

Say this about Twitter, it certainly is a treasure trove of incident mishandling for analysis.

Today’s lesson comes to us from the Topeka Kansas Home Office and is about the danger of overresponding to an issue. Overresponding means you respond to the issue with more force than is appropriate and in so doing your response creates more problems than it solves. Overresponse is actually a very common pitfall in crisis communications and is typically a panic move made by people who aren’t experienced in this arena.

The lesson comes from Kansas governor Sam Brownback, or more accurately his director of communication Sherriene Jones-Sontag. This Associated Press story has all the important details, but the key points are that a high school student joking tweeted something negative about the governor on Friday. His director of communications spotted it and complained to the school, who promptly brought the student in and told her she had to write an apology.

Setting aside the ways this incident from the outset has clear incendiary qualities because of the way it looks (and frankly is) the governor and the school system bringing their coercive force to bear on an expression of speech, this is a classic example of overresponding to a negative comment.

The fact is that this critic had a mere 65 followers. If there had been no response from the governor’s office, the only people that would have even seen this criticism are maybe 100 people at most. It’s a simple bet that well over 100 people have seen that original remark now after the governor’s response. From that standpoint alone, the handling represents overresponse: their response drove more eyeballs to the negative news than would have seen it if they just left it alone.

Add to that then the nature of the response and how broadly negative the response to that response is. On the first business day after the story broke the governor and school district have had to retreat and apologize. That tells us that both the governor and the school district were coming out strongly on the losing end of public opinion. A retraction that quickly is essentially saying “uncle”.

Worse yet, this response has spiraled now beyond the original issue and is prompting broader questions that may linger and be more damaging than this incident was. This opinion piece by Dean Obeidallah on CNN (a high profile site) raises a number of questions that I’m sure the governor’s office would prefer never have been raised, particularly the question about tax payer funding of social media monitoring and the likening of the governor’s actions to Nixon’s enemies list.

What this illustrates is what can go wrong if you overrespond to an issue. What people should take away from this is the importance of understanding that not every negative comment deserves a response. Sometimes your response can make an issue bigger than it would be otherwise. And sometimes your response can take on a life of its own and become more of a negative issue than the original thing that prompted the response. Finally, this also highlights how freedom of speech issues are very hot button and organizations should always try to never look like they’re on the wrong side of that issue.

In the end, sometimes the right thing to do is the less obvious thing: leave the issue alone. And this is where people who are experienced in crisis communications can help, because we understand these risks and can help make an informed assessment on whether it makes sense to respond at all.

How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.

This is a much more personal post than most. But ultimately it relates to social media in a way that I think is appropriate for my work blog.

In the past ten months, I have learned about the deaths of three people that I know through Facebook. Two of them were “friends”, one was a “friend of a friend”, actually of several friends. One of them, a former co-worker, died after a bout with cancer. The other two were former high school classmates, both of whom died of suicide.

In all three cases, I learned about this through Facebook wall postings. Over time, the walls became a place where people exchanged information, memories, paid respects, expressed grief and loss, and in some cases supported one another.

Today, just now, I was on Facebook and the one person I wasn’t friends with was just presented to me as “Someone you may know”.

I’ve said that “social networking is truly social” meaning that it is a true extension of ourselves as social creatures: we have embraced it and extended our social behaviors, both good and bad, to that medium. And nothing drives home that point more than death on Facebook.

The suggestion that I “friend” someone who is now dead, and my other recent experiences around the deaths of people on Facebook led me today to realize that Facebook’s use and importance as part of our social interactions has outstripped some of its capabilities. Put simply, Facebook (or any other social networking site) lacks mechanisms to deal gracefully and thoughtfully with death. From the question of “how do you take control of the Facebook account of a loved one who has died” to keeping the profile alive (pun somewhat intended) but reflecting the fact that the person is deceased, there’s no graceful, easy way to deal with death on Facebook.

It’s not just a technology problem: there are questions around etiquette and customs as well that we as a society have to work out.

But at this point, it’s certainly clear to me that as social networking becomes ever more truly social, it needs to be able to handle not just the good of our social lives, but also the hard things.

Kirk asked in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “[H]ow we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?”

As regards social networking, I believe the answer is an unequivocal “Yes”.

JetBlue: A better, more personal response

To follow up my post earlier today, it appears JetBlue is taking a better, more personal track in their response. Late today they posted a video statement by the COO on their blog site that definitely hits a much better tone and hits some of the points I wrote that I thought a better response should contain (including that it be a video response). It acknowledges shortcomings, speaks with empathy and understanding, has an apologetic tone, promises improvements, and most of all, is direct and personal putting a real person with a real name and title up for all to see.

I can’t take any credit for it. I did post a link to my post on their site under their original posting, but have no idea if anyone there read it.

But the important thing is that this shows that some of the points I raised as far as a better, more personal handling are valid ones.

Hopefully they’ll keep on this more transparent, more personal track moving forward. If nothing else, they deserve credit for changing course relatively quickly.

Once is happenstance…

…twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action. So says Ian Flemming’s Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger.

I’m thinking of this saying today as I read about JetBlue having another major situation around airline passengers being virtually held prisoner on planes on the tarmac in the Northeast this past weekend. There’s details here, including a recounting of a pilot’s pleading for assistance. By the way, if you want an example of a nightmarish story to try and manage, here’s a local paper recounting the experience of a guy on one flight in a wheelchair who talks about feeling like a “hostage” in the ordeal.

This is the second time JetBlue’s name has been associated with a situation like this. Indeed, the first incident is a key driver for the very regulations that they now face penalties from.

Yes, the circumstances were the result of forces of nature. But the fact that JetBlue already has failed in this arena once before gives them little wiggle room in terms of perception. Further, the fact that other airlines seem to have been unaffected or not nearly as badly as affected puts them in a class by themselves on this.

Their response to the first incident wasn’t enough to undo the damage then. And if you look at their response to this, I predict once again it won’t help. Their blog in particular is a very poor attempt to manage this situation and may well make things worst. First, the blog starts with a joking tone. While I advocate humor and levity as a means of injecting an authentic voice, this isn’t the time or place. People felt like hostages: don’t make light of that. In that vein, the blog also totally lacks any empathetic acknowledgement of the pain and suffering passengers experienced. Also, the blog lacks any clear taking of responsibility for the situation. And finally, the “remedy” that is offered won’t seem like compensation to anyone outside of JetBlue. Not making passengers pay for their own incarceration shows, as a friend once put it, “delusions of adequacy”. If they want to make it up to people, they’re going to have to start there and move upwards.

If JetBlue wants to nip this in the bud and prevent if from being as big a harm to their brand as the last tarmac debacle, they should quickly pivot their handling, put out a statement by the CEO (preferably on video so the sincerity, if it’s there, can be seen) that very clearly says:

  • Yes, we screwed up, again. I am sorry for the genuine pain and suffering you all experienced because of our failures. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility and I personally apologize to all of you.
  • The weather was unprecedented and everyone scrambled. But somehow, we seemed to fall short yet again. I don’t know why we fell down so badly yet again but I will.
  • To our affected customers, and all customers, I promise a complete, transparent investigation as to how this happened, how we can prevent this from happening again, what we’re going to do to try and keep this from happening again, and regular updates on how we’re coming with these changes. As part of this,  I promise real consequences for people who let you down.
  • Of course, we’re not going to charge any of you for these flights. But we will also try to make it up to you and give you a reason to give us another chance.
If they don’t do something like this, the risk is that others will think about this like I do. And if there IS a third incident like this, the enemy action that Goldfinger talks about: that’s the action of JetBlue against its passengers. It’s generally bad for brand when customers start to think of you as an enemy.

Is Facebook #Winning?

I tend to shy away from predictions in an area as fluid as social media. The intertubes are filled with plenty of old pages proclaiming the eternal dominance of MySpace, the coming failure of Facebook, and a host of other predictions that have been laughably off the mark.

But I have had this nagging feeling in the back of my head for a few weeks that I think Twitter might be losing out to Facebook at long last.

Granted, this isn’t scientific at all, but a couple of anecdotal indicators on the ground.

First, I have a few friends who have been shutting down/tuning out Twitter. They’ve said they find it too hard to keep up. Others that the 140 character limit while fun at first has become cumbersome. Most of all, though, I’ve heard people say that they feel like they can get done what they used to do on Twitter better on Facebook (without such a hard character limit).

Second, I’ve noticed how one of our local news stations is no longer promoting Twitter like they used to. KOMO News is a local Seattle news outlet. For a couple of years now, they have been actively promoting the Chief Meteorologist, Steve Pool’s, Twitter handle and Facebook page. Lately though, their on-air promotion has stopped promoting Twitter and now only highlights Facebook.

Granted, this isn’t scientific. But I can’t help but have this sneaking suspicion that Facebook’s attempts to be a social media platform (as opposed to an application) is slowly succeeding. Why use Foursquare, Twitter, and IM when you can get it all done through Facebook? Their ability to unite multiple social actions into a single place has an advantage of simplicity.

Add to this that Facebook clearly has been able to develop a viable revenue model for their service while Twitter still seems to struggle in that arena. And finally, consider the fact that Twitter’s leadership seems to be in turmoil lately. Take all them together and this may be the window in which, when the history books are written, Twitter entered its decline and Facebook began to overcome it.

Again, we shall see. I refuse to call this a prediction. Let’s just call this an observation of a possibility.

This may be the time when Facebook started #winning.

Don’t be too Qwik

The latest chapter in the NetFlix situation is a good lesson in the importance of the rule that it’s not just what you do, but how you do it, in terms of perception.

Specifically, the handling of the short-lived and now defunct “Qwikster” project, NetFlix’s attempt to split their DVD rental business off onto a separate brand has been an abject failure. Certainly it’s been a failure from a business and customer satisfaction point of view. NetFlix has had to completely reverse direction based on another wave of customer ire and dissatisfaction. Reversing direction on a major initiative like that is never a success.

Beyond that though, the entire Qwikster episode, from start to finish, has caused an important hit in terms of perception by making NetFlix look like they don’t have a plan and are making major decisions without thought, deliberation, and research. It’s one thing for your image to take hits around customer satisfaction and even “being out of touch”. But for people outside to look at you and start saying “What the heck is going on there? Who’s making these decisions and how are they making them” hurts a business’ image at very fundamental levels. It shakes or even shatters the trust people have in the leadership of the company. That’s particularly bad from an investor relations point of view: if these major decisions are being made in such a reactive, ad hoc manner, why should you expect the company will respond any better to future challenges?

All major reversals like this have some degree of reputational damage around leadership. Whether it’s “New Coke” or the Microsoft KIN, major reversals have led outsides to ask how those failed decisions were made. But the Qwikster episode has been executed in a way that makes these questions more acute. It was clear at the outset that the decision to spin off Qwickster was a rushed, reactive plan.

One need only look at the debacle around the Qwikster Twitter handle where the handle wasn’t under their control and in fact was already being used by someone Tweeting on topics no marketing person would want associated with a brand new brand. That said clearly that this wasn’t a planned launch at all: it was a reactive, ad hoc decision.

That misstep could have been overlooked and eventually forgotten if Qwikster had been a success. Sometimes companies have to move quickly and the furor that NetFlix was facing over their new fees was intense and clearly they felt they had to do something. But rather than quell the customer anger over the fee changes, this decision stoked it even more. And so in less than one month, they’ve had to suddenly reverse their previous hasty decision. And now, in addition to the customer anger over the fee increases (which still hasn’t abated), NetFlix now has to cope with serious questions about their decision making process and capability. That hit to their reputation comes through loud and clear in this Wall Street Journal article by Stu Woo and Shara Tibken:

While investors and customers expressed some relief Monday, concerns still remain about Netflix’s recent actions and future. Adam Hanft, chief executive of consumer marketing and branding firm Hanft Projects, said it is difficult to understand Mr. Hastings’s thought process in planning to separate its businesses.

“He’s usually a much better chess player than this,” Mr. Hanft said. “It’s a total blunder, and he misread consumer intentions and interest completely. … It’s clearly a company that’s lost its way, which is unusual for a CEO with a pretty firm grip on things.”

What should NetFlix have done differently? It goes back to planning and the original fee increase announcement. Delivering negative or potentially negative news should be carefully planned. The decision makers should work with those who work most directly with customers to understand the likely response. They should also work with industry experts and analysts to understand the likely response and pitfalls. Then, they should build a plan to mitigate the risks that are identified. In this case, a plan for what to do if customer response is so overwhelmingly negative that they suffer major losses in customers. And if the worst happens, you break out the plan and implement it. You show that you’re adaptable but that you are in control and have a direction. This underscores why it’s so important to involve people with expertise in crisis communications and reputation management in the planning for major announcements: we can help you identify the risks and plan for them.

In the case of NetFlix, I would have recommended that their recovery plan around the fee announcement involve giving customers options around the fees. Either more granular ability to limit the impact of the fee increases or a promise that they won’t raise fees for some set period of time. And if the fees are driven in part by fee increases by the content providers, they should have been more up front about that. Customers don’t like but understand when you have to pass on increased costs from your suppliers. And, anyway, there’s few industries that already have as bad an image as the large entertainment conglomerates.

NetFlix now has to start working to repair its relationships with its customers and rehabilitate its image around corporate decision making. A first step in that latter process will be to do all they can to make the next major step they take a success. Hopefully they’ll do better planning for that next step.

Lead or go out of business

That’s increasingly the reality around communications and online security/privacy incidents. If you don’t lead in providing information then others will do it for you. And that can mean your company could be out of business in just a few days. Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and the Dutch government have all made this point very clear over the course of the past few days in regards to the DigiNotar compromise.

You can get full details in Gregg Keizer’s story but the important facts are that DigiNotar is a Dutch company that issues digital certificates used for secure web browsing. Around August 29, 2011 Google discovered a forged DigiNotar certificate was being used on the Internet. In real terms, this means that someone could use this certificate to watch what you’re doing on the Internet when you’re using a secure channel without you knowing it. Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla all responded by making the forged certificate unusable in their browsers but keeping the rest of DigiNotar’s certificates usable. This is a standard response when situations like this have happened in the past.

But over the next four days, it emerged that DigiNotar had been aware of this attack since mid-July, that it was broader than a single certificate and had said nothing. In response to that lack of transparency and communication Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and the Dutch government, now involved because they used DigiNotar for sensitive government websites, took an unprecedented step in response. They revoked all certificates that DigiNotar has issued or will ever issue, basically putting them out of business. It would be like United States Government declaring that a state’s driver’s license issuing procedures were so weak that none of their licenses will be accepted as valid IDs ever again.

If you need any proof that the lack of transparency and communication was the chief driver of this decision,  Johnathan Nightingale who is Director of Firefox Engineering over at Mozilla cites the lack of notification as the first reason behind their decision. He goes on to talk about  how “Incidents like this one demonstrate the need for active, immediate and comprehensive communication”. While his comments are to this specific incident, they apply to any online security/privacy incident.

DigiNotar had two chances to take the lead in this situation. First, when it was discovered in mid-July, and then when it first broke publicly in late August. If they had made a point to be the source of authoritative information at either of these junctures, they may have been able to keep control of the situation and keep from being shunted to the sides and shuttered by the other affected parties. As it is, though, they’ve become a cautionary tale of how fast things move in Internet time and how quickly one poorly handled incident can close down a business.

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