My latest posting over at Geekwire is my analysis and commentary on why Hillary Clinton using a “homebrew” email server is a major security problem.
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.
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”]
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.
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.
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 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.
…then you just might be so very 2003. Which is to say you might a “neocon“. Or at least that’s the point that Daniel Finkelstein over at the Times of London made today in his very interesting take on what’s going on in Iran right now.
I find it an interesting and compelling argument myself. I am very open that I consider myself to be a classical liberal or sometimes I’ll say libertarian as that’s better known in the US (even if it’s not wholly accurate).
At the end of the day, I firmly believe that if people want to find the religion, lifestyle, sexual identity, and expression that is most genuine and authentic, it’s imperative that they be able to do so without overt or covert repression from external institutions like governments and Churches. And so, in that regard, my politics are closely tied to the rest of me and my other beliefs.
We shouldn’t expect that the Iranians will replace their limited democracy with a truly liberal regime if this succeeds. But, one things is for sure, when you look at the pictures here you see the same brave hope for a better, freer future that you saw in Tiananmen in 1989, in eastern Europe and Russia in the early 1990’s and in Lebanon in 2005.
Here’s wishing them the best. Support your local Iranian protestor: Twitter information to enable the protestors to keep feeding information to the outside world.
Dan Schnur worked as John McCain’s communications director in the 2000 campaign.
Given my own work and background, I have a soft spot for the communications folks: they often have the ability to elucidate what’s going on more effectively than others. This is due, in part, to the fact that to communicate something effectively, you have to understand it fully. And too, communications people often grasp the nuances of words and understand the importance of a single word.
Dan’s article in yesterday’s New York Times “Right Fight, Wrong Word” is precisely the sort of key insight that a thoughtful communications person can provide.
In his article, Schnur zeros in on the fact that the key to understanding the sentiment and tone in Obama’s recent comments about voters in Pennsylvania (and by extension presumably, the rest of the rust belt and Appalachia) is one word: “cling”.
Schnur notes how this one word indicates a fundamental devaluing of the worldview, outlook, and conclusions the people Obama is speaking of hold.
Of course, we’re many days into this now and the question goes back and forth about whether the comments are elitist. Interestingly, I have a unique background for the matter and have my own views because of it. I grew up for thirteen years just across the Ohio River from western Pennsylvania and the panhandle of West Virginia. The jobs that he talks about disappearing 25 years ago: I remember those jobs. And, I eventually worked my way to San Francisco by way of a Liberal liberal arts school (Oberlin College). So, I know the culture and people Obama is talking about. I also know the culture and people he was talking to and who support him so strongly.
And, I can report to you, dear reader, that about the condescension and paternalism that people say is behind this remark:it’s really there. At Oberlin, I saw people who were self-avowed liberals who claimed to care about “the poor” treat the working-class staff at school with rudeness and condescension. The working-class folks around the college were “the help”, make no mistake about that.
It was always hard for me because I had a shared background with those folks….it’s just that I was able to try and move into what I’d been told was a better world: the world of those very people who were treating people I might have grown up with like sub-humans before my very eyes.
At the end of the day, there is no doubt that the comments are inappropriate. Abstract the circumstances and you have a classic situation I saw many of those same self-avowed liberals arguing about: how it was inappropriate for an outsider to presume to analyze and interpret the actions, thoughts and beliefs of a different culture and minimize or explain away something(s) which that culture holds dear.
Put it this way, if this were Huckabee explaining away the support for gay rights in San Francisco as being the sad consequence of that city not finding God, you can imagine the firestorm that would errupt over that. It would be wrong of Huckabee to do that. And, it’s wrong for Obama to do it here.
No, Schnur is right: the key to understanding is “cling”. And, unfortunately, this is another instance where we sadly find that those who extol the virtues of tolerance and diversity are, at heart, hypocrites who fail to truly live up to the ideals they claim as central. They are, disappointingly, like those they claim to be better than for the same faults they claim those others suffer from: intolerance and a lack of respect for diversity.
In the end, it’s clear, that it’s a very easy (and sad thing) that humans cling to old habits and patterns of thought.