Category Archives: Communications

Begging the Question

Over the weekend the news broke that ahead of the acquisition by Microsoft, Skype has let eight of its executives go. Bloomberg ran the story Sunday night with early rumblings of the story starting over at the Skype Journal.

Bloomberg ran the story with an angle saying that the execs were canned so the company wouldn’t have to pay them as much. Since Bloomberg led the story, we see that angle in a number of today’s follow on pieces and is leading to some snarky comments about corporate greed like Preston Grella’s over at Computerworld.

However, today we find another angle starting to emerge: that this isn’t about the money but is instead part of an already-planned shake up. Sarah Lacy’s article over at TechCrunch takes this line, quoting an unnamed investor.

Whatever the real reason is, the initial story angle isn’t a positive one and it’s giving the event a more negative tone and broader coverage than I think Skype (or Microsoft) wanted. You typically want announcements like this to come and go quickly. And with a pending acquisition, that goal is even more important to help keep things moving on the acquisition and not inadvertently drag your acquisition partner into a negative coverage cycle.

So far, this has spawned two waves of coverage rather than one. Fortunately for Microsoft, it’s not hitting them, at least not yet. But that’s no thanks to Skype and their handling.

What caused this is that Skype failed to look at their news like a regular person, figure out any logical, reasonable questions, and answer them in their communications.

This is their official statement: “Skype, like any other pragmatic organization, constantly assesses its team structure to deliver its users the best products. As part of a recent internal shift Skype has made some management changes.”

Companies don’t typically lose eight execs all at once, particularly when going through an acquisition. So people are naturally going to ask:

  1. Why are you getting rid of this many execs at once?
  2. Is this related to the acquisition

By failing to account for these questions in their statement, Skype’s handling simply begged those questions, and Bloomberg was happy to try and fill in the gap.

Given that “unnamed investors” are talking to the press today and giving a different story, it’s clear that the theme of the first wave isn’t what at least some people at Skype wanted out there. But having this new theme come out through unofficial channels only confuses the issue any more.

If the goal at Skype is to kill the theme of “they were fired to save money”, they need to get out on their blog with a statement clarifying the story, follow up with Bloomberg and try to get the right story out so that it overtakes the initial theme.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

In the meantime, the lesson here is that while we want to follow the rule of “less is more” when communicating bad news, you want to make sure your “less” isn’t begging questions. If it is, you can lose control of the story like has happened here.

Weiner and Twitter: Everything New is Really Old

Today brings the Twitter scandal chapter of Representative Weiner’s life story to an end.

I think most of us are thankful that it’s done. For many of us, this has been a combination of a train wreck in slow motion and a horror film where you keep shouting at the characters “don’t do that” and they do it.

For me, this has been something I track closely because of how it’s at the crossroads of the two major areas of my work: crisis management and social media. In a way, this has been the biggest issue at that intersection to date.

Now that the chapter is closed, people will start the process of figuring out what happened. There is a lot to review and analyze.

One question that’s already being asked and answered is how much of what happened is because of this “new” element, Twitter. Greg Sargent over at the Washington Post tackles that question calling Weiner “Twitter’s first major political casualty” and talking about how he thinks Twitter made this episode different.

He focuses on two major things that he things makes this different. First, he talks about how the newness of the technology (to Weiner) led him to try and “undo” his action in a way that only caused the story to go more broadly.  Second, he talks about how the nature of Twitter enabled and encouraged an obsession with the story unlike any other. Because of these new elements, he declares this the harbinger of a new, darker world. He notes: “But this episode also showcased and encouraged a new kind of hyperkinetic, Twitter-fueled pack journalism that at bottom was very, very ugly to behold.”

Is he right about that?

I say no, not really. Yes, there are differences, but these are differences of degree rather than kind. At the end of the day, what drove this crisis are two things that always drive the hottest and least successfully managed crises: a cover-up and lying. These actually underpin, respectively, the two main points Sargent calls out.

Weiner’s first attempt to manage the situation was to try unsuccessfully to delete the Tweet. That action helped set in motion the whole chain of events. Attempting to delete the Tweet is fundamentally no different than shredding documents or silencing witnesses (which he also tried to do). It’s old fashioned cover-up. All of these are attempts to make it appear that which happened didn’t happen. As I said regarding another Twitter-driven crisis, the wise words of H. R. Haldeman from Watergate days applies: You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The “the weeks-long journalistic obsession with his lewd acts” which Sargent describes ultimately is the result of the role of his lying. Weiner first created a lie that failed the plausibility test and then later failed to disclose all the information that the public wanted to hear. He committed both outright lies and lies of omission. Crises that play in the public space that have either or both of these elements always take on a life of their own fueled by the desire to find what’s being hidden. Humans love a challenge:  once the media (and I include mainline journalism and Twitter in that) believes there’s hidden information it becomes a challenge to be the one who finds the prize first. Social media speeds up the sharing of information that enables better and faster cooperation as the Cooks Source case demonstrated. But technology is just an enabler and facilitator. Behind it is the role that lying plays in driving a quest for the truth that can seem obsessive at times.

On a side note, lying played an additional role in the situation. The fact that Weiner managed to convince others to parrot his lies for him for a week only compounded the situation by turning those allies against him once the truth started coming out. The ancient rule of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” applies here. As Sargent’s college Jonathan Bernstein writes,Weiner’s duping of his colleagues made the situation worse, leaving him no allies here at the end.

Sarget’s right that this situation had new qualities. Twitter was a prominent part of the story. And the media landscape against which we operate today is faster, harsher, more brutal than it once was. But the fundamental dynamics, principles, and issues really aren’t much different than they were in the Watergate years. The key differences are that more than two people broke open the story in about three weeks rather than two years.

The lesson for those of us in crisis management is that social media takes the classic rules and speeds them up. You’ll need to adapt your tactics appropriately, but the strategies ultimately remain the same.

[Updated: Corrected “Cooks Source” which was erroneously entered as “Cooks Illustrated”]

The Intersection of Design and Downfall

It’s a treat to find someone able to bring a different and informative point of view to a topic that’s essentially being carpet bombed in the media.

Steven Levy has an article over at Wired today that talks about the design of Twitter and how that may have played a role in facilitating the Weiner crisis.

I’ve generally liked Levy’s work in the past and this article is a very insightful one. It combines an interesting story about the decisions behind Twitter when it was built with a story about how those application behaviors have played a role in this crisis. For instance, he talks about the decision to make “following” two one-way decisions rather than a single joint decision.

Well worth a read to better understand Twitter and to understand another aspect of the Weiner crisis.

Of course, you could also pop over to TMZ.COM and get the latest gossipy piece of news in this all: former porn star Ginger Lee talking about how she was encouraged to lie to the press by Representative Weiner.

Who the $*#@ is TMZ?

I suspect you might have heard something like this from Representative Anthony Weiner this weekend.

The latest drops to fall in the water torture that is the Weiner story came this weekend from TMZ.COM. Specifically, they managed to get a hold of eleven new pictures allegedly taken by the representative of himself at the Congressional gym. Be warned, they’re mostly safe for work but maybe not safe for your sanity.

Unless you have a guilty (or not so guilty) pleasure in celebrity gossip like I do, you may well be asking (like I suspect Weiner was): who the $*#@ is TMZ.COM?

The short answer is they’re a celebrity gossip website. They tend to be flashy and very aggressive. So it’s not surprising that they would jump into this mess like they have.

The more interesting point in this, though, is the fact that a celebrity gossip tabloid is involved in a political story. Granted, that boundary has been tested by the National Enquirer with the John Edwards story. But in a way, that was the Enquirer acting less as a gossip tabloid and more as a traditional journalism outlet. They won that story the same way that Woodward and Bernstein did: though hard investigative journalism.

By that measure, TMZ.COM’s entry into the Weiner situation is a bit different. Weiner’s folks now have to manage not only the Washington Posts, New York Times and Politicos of the world. They now have to start watching out for the hyper-aggressive gossip/tabloid press too.

The important lesson from this is that crisis situations jump out of the traditional boxes PR professionals are used to. As you’re managing a situation, you need to be on the watch for an issue to jump like this and be ready to start playing a different game with different rules. And if your situation does break into the online celebrity gossip tabloids: be ready to fight hard and fast because that’s one of the toughest arenas out there.

The One Two Punch

It’s always nice to start the week off with a positive, successful story.

Today’s example of a good way to use social media to manage bad situations comes from McDonald’s via Mashable.

The facts appear to be that someone managed to lay hands on or create an official looking piece of McDonald’s letterhead. They then proceeded to print something outrageously racist  on it. They taped it up on the glass of a door to a McDonald’s restaurant, took a picture, posted it to Twitter and then sat back to watch the “fun”.

McDonald’s used a smart combination of Twitter and traditional media response in their handling to very smart effect. They used the speed and succinctness of Twitter to get out a quick and effective response.  Mashable also contacted McDonald’s and got a full statement from Rick Wion, one of the folks on their Twitter handle, that reiterates the point that it’s a hoax and uses the format of that response to give more background and detail.

These two used together like this form a potent and effective “one two punch”. McDonald’s also gets credit for having what seems likely to be the same person handle both responses. It makes the response more human and genuine.

Sometimes less is more in terms of responses. And this shows how the short form of Twitter can work very well in those instances.

Overall a successful defusing of a potentially bad situation. You likely wouldn’t have heard about it if I didn’t write on it. That is the mark of success in this space.

You can do it the easy way or the hard way

It’s official, Representative Weiner chose the hard way.

After a week plus of trying to avoid it, he had to fess up today that he sent the picture through Twitter. At this point, he also had to admit to other instances of this behavior.

Like I said last week, this wouldn’t go away until folks felt that had all the information. The botched handling a week ago set in motion an amplified chain of events that has made this situation worse than it would have been if he said last week what he said today.

It’s hard to speculate but it’s possible if he admitted sending the picture last week, he may have been able to hold the line on admitting other instances (though I wouldn’t have counseled that). I think it’s likely though that the congressional ethics investigation he’s about to be subject to wouldn’t have come about or would be less vigorous if he’s admitted this all last week.

Here’s hoping he gets better advice for the next stages of this situation.

The Dangers of Waffling

Changing gears a bit, reading this story today about the response to the ongoing E. coli situation in Germany highlights the dangers waffling poses to organizations charged with managing crises.

One of the most important intangibles that an organization has in a crisis is authority. That is, their ability to speak to a situation and have people:

  • Listen
  • Believe what they’re being told
  • Take whatever actions they’re being asked to take

Authority is crucial in a crisis, particularly in true life-or-death situations. If your organization is charged with issuing evacuation orders, for instance, the last thing you want (or have time for) is trying to convince people that they need to listen to you. You want them to pack up and go right away with no arguments.

The article outlines how German jealth officials are now starting to face a crisis of confidence. In the face of multiple instances of backtracking from previous statements of possible sources of the outbreak people are starting to doubt officials’ very competence:

“All this wishy-washy back-and-forth, it’s just incompetence,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

While the article is primarily focused on the science and methodology being pursued, I would argue that the critical elements here are actually centered around a key principle of crisis communications. You have to view your authoritative capital as a finite resource and one that you spend cautiously. In highly complex, technical situations like this, there is a lot of messy work that happens to understand the problem. While experts and those familiar with that world may understand and accept that reality (and indeed may view too much simplicity and clarity with suspicion), lay people don’t. What they look for and expect is a simple, clear and accurate statement of the cause.

Until the technical experts can say that they are positive that they’ve accurately identified the issue, it’s critical to preserving authority that organizations stick to a line that says “we have a process, we’re working the process and as soon as we know for certain what it is, we will say so”. This isn’t just for situations around food-borne illness: this applies to any highly complex, technical situation that requires research and investigation.

In the midst of a crisis this approach can be frustrating to people who want more information. And yes, it can sometimes open a door for third parties to come in and speculate. But those third parties lack authority and can afford to be wrong with little to no consequence. But for organizations that have and need to retain authority in a crisis, the key lesson we’ve seen over the years is that frustration will generally dissipate once the crisis has past. Lost authority because of conflicting, inaccurate answers however stays for good and is hard to get back.

Unfortunately, I suspect that any future incidents that German health officials have to manage will be hampered now by their need to re-establish and retain their increasingly lost authority.

Rep. Weiner’s Tangled Twitter Tempest

The past two days has seen the mysterious case of the picture sent from US Representative Anthony Weiner’s Twitter handle to a female college student here in Washington state go from bad to worse to downright toxic in the span of two days.

As I write this, this story is now listed as the top story on Google News with over 1700 stories listed on this for today.

It remains to be seen how this will all play out.

One thing is clear though, the downward progression of this story in terms of tone and the outward progression in terms of breadth of coverage are a direct result of yesterday’s failed attempts to quell the situation at a press conference.

Steve Kornacki has a good write-up at Salon outlining yesterday’s disastrous press conference. Justin Elliott follows on, again at Salon, with a good discussion of how that press conference has sent things spiraling out of control.

If you watch the video of the press conference, it’s a cringe-worthy performance. Weiner tries to seem that he’s being open, accessible, and up-front by engaging with the press, rather than simply “bunkering down” and not commenting or engaging. The problem is, he’s not actually being open. Once he starts to engage the reporters, he refuses to actually address the issue in a straight-forward manner. Worse yet, the questions they’re asking are reasonable in the mind of most people and refusing to answer compounds the sense of evasiveness and lack of candor.

The error of yesterday’s press conference was that they refused to pick a direction and go with it. They had the choice to either be open and engage the story head on, or take a more defensive, “bunker” approach. What they ended up doing was a combination of those two which leads to them showing us the defensive, “bunker” approach on camera. That really is the worst of both worlds. And the story has changed from one about sending a photo over Twitter to one of “what is the congressman covering up”.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. The handling today doesn’t bode well, though. The most recent statement has a tone of uncertainty that only builds on the sense of evasiveness. That’s sure to enflame the issue all the more. As a congressman, one would hope that he knows the lesson of Watergate that “it’s the cover-up that kills you”. Even if there is no cover-up, the handling makes it seem like there might be. And, as the saying goes, perception is everything.

At this point, you can be sure that this won’t go away until the press and the public are satisfied that there is nothing being hidden from them. The best way to contain and close down this situation now is to commit to a path of open engagement on the matter as quickly as possible.

You’re Only as Credible as your Sources

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m no fan of extremists of any stripe. But, much as I think people some extremists have (or now in his case, had) too much influence, I’m still devoted more to truth and accuracy. And, too, I’m a long-time critic of the press because of their large but unacknowledged bias and because their accuracy is just awful (trust me, I work with them, I know).

So, all of that makes what we find on this posting all the more compelling. Basically, an MSNBC producer is using the information from whitehouse.org (a satire site) as a factual reference.

Nice. Way to go folks.

What next, using the Onion as your source?