Tag Archives: Issue Management

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.

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.

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.

The Skype Blogger Proxy War

I said last week it would be interesting to see how the Skype story about firing executives ahead of the Microsoft acquisition would play out. And this week is proving me right, though in unexpected ways. With the latest developments, the Skype story has turned into a full-blown blogger proxy war. Third party bloggers are making arguments for and against Skype while the main players sit on the sidelines feeding the bloggers ammunition for their cases. What’s most interesting in this is that Skype appears to making no effort to manage the story openly in the mainstream press. Blogger proxy wars aren’t unheard of, but letting that be the only avenue you pursue in managing a situation is unusual and bears watching for lessons.

As a reminder, last week’s story focused on eight executives being let go by Skype ahead of the acquisition. Skype gave little real information about the move. That naturally begged questions that third parties were happy to try and answer, suggesting the motivation was greed on the part of Skype’s owners, the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners. Apparently someone at Skype or Silver Lake wasn’t happy with that story and “unnamed investors” started giving interviews explaining that it wasn’t greed, that the firings were part of a planned restructuring by the CEO. Most notably, this explanation was never delivered by Skype through any official, named sources. Skype opted to let the unnamed spokespeople carry their key message, something most of us would strongly recommend against (and I did last week).

Now, another phase in the story has come out, with a former Skype executive, Yun Lee, who voluntarily left, detailing how vested stock options were yanked back by Silver Lake after he left. He doesn’t argue that they had the right to do that, but he is making the case that it’s sketchy thing to do. His story handily picks up and builds on the “greed” narrative that started last week. Because Skype didn’t actively work to shut down that narrative, it is fertile ground for Lee’s claims and, predictably, his claims are taking hold.

On the heels of last week’s tactics working poorly for Skype, they are, amazingly, following the exact same playbook. Skype’s official spokesperson has again issued a vague statement at the start of the cycle that fails to address the questions and concerns that reasonable people might have. Again, more detailed information about Skype’s point of view is coming out through interviews with “unnamed investors”. And once again, we’re not hearing that more detailed information come from any official, named sources at Skype.

At this point, this somewhat bizarre, disengaged public relations strategy on the part of Skype and Silver Lake has turned this story into a proxy war. There are bloggers/reporters like Sarah Lacey and Henry Blodget who are talking with these unnamed investors and themselves making the case for why Skype acted in a reasonable way. Meanwhile, lining up on the opposite side, you have Michael Arrington and most notably Felix Salmon who has written on this three times in the past two business days and used “evil” in every posting title.

It can be argued that Skype’s approach has succeeded in keeping this story out of the mainstream press generally. Aside from an article last Friday at Bloomberg Businessweek which has Skype’s only official statement, there’s not been much coverage. But it would be a mistake to count that as a clear victory. Damage to reputation doesn’t have to be widespread to be harmful. Felix Salmon’s most recent post on this touches on the impact of this all on Silver Lake’s reputation. While he doesn’t think Silver Lake will suffer, an Investment Banker who Tweets under the handle EpicureanDeal calls out the harm this will have to their reputation within their business community and that could be very bad for Silver Lake.

It remains to be seen how this will sort out. But Skype and Silver Lake’s failure to openly engage on this story means they’re relying on the skill of their blogger proxies and luck for this not to end badly for them. That’s not an approach I would ever recommend. As I said last week: Skype should go out and tell their story openly and engage with the mainstream press who have written about this. That doesn’t preclude arming their blogger proxy allies: it supports it.

UPDATE: Kara Swisher over at AllThingsD has a posting with information from an internal presentation that bolsters some of the arguments in favor of Skype’s and Silver Lake’s position. But, yet again, this appears to be information being passed on background directly to specific bloggers/reporters. There’s still no public statement of the case by a named Skype or Silver Lake spokesperson.

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”]

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.

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.