Archive for August, 2011

3 PR Lessons For All Businesses Observed While Spending Hurricane Irene In A Paramedic Truck

Natural disasters are strange times for me. I am a homeowner who is concerned for his home and family, a paramedic and a firefighter who is concerned for his brothers and sisters and wants to do what he can to help the victims of the event, and I’m a PR guy ready to help his clients prepare for the disaster and recovery from it. I always enjoy watching what others are doing and saying during the storm.

So having spent all of the storm weekend on a paramedic truck or a fire truck (up to about noon Monday) here are some observations:

  • Kudos to the public officials who got people out of harm’s way, knowing full well they were going to be criticized no matter what they did. They stayed on message with laser-like focus. While that message may have seemed obvious, everyone from governors to local officials transmitted the same message, the presentation was well orchestrated and consistent and it was presented across a variety of media. As a result, lives were saved. Even away from the most devastated areas, people were better prepared for flooding and power outages because of the focus on the message. And to those now complaining the dangers were oversold, well, I’ll be polite: Go find something better to do with your time…like help those without power and with basements full of water bail out. Or help those whose homes and businesses were destroyed rebuild. If nothing else, just stop and pay your respects to those who lost loved ones.   Are there messages here for how you run your business? Definitely: A simple message consistently and forcefully delivered at all levels of an organization will yield results. But someone will still bitch about it.
  •  If anyone still doubts still doubts that social media is main stream, look at the wide use it enjoyed during the storm. Many governmental entities, including the county and township in which I live, used a combination of Web sites, Twitter and Facebook to keep constituents up to date on information from road closings to dam bursts and evacuations to dealing with tainted food. News organizations gathered and used audience pix and videos. And the hospital where I’m a medic used text messaging, emails and Web sites to assure the staff was up to date and keep all of its EMS vehicles staffed and on the road. If all these organizations know they must use social media, don’t you think you should make sure you’re using the same channels to engage your audience?
  •  How did your crisis plan work? Did your employees know what your company was doing in preparation for and in recovery from the storm? Did your customers know? Did you have a crisis plan? Every organization should have a plan of what to do when it is threatened, whether by a competitor, a person’s deliberate or accidental action or a natural disaster that threatens its ability to provide whatever service it provides. If your crisis plan didn’t address the preparation and outcome of this hurricane, or if you winged it, maybe you should contact a public relations practitioner to help you better prepare for the next literal or figurative storm.

 Hurricane Irene gave us all stories to tell our friends and relatives. But it also should serve as a teaching moment. None of us want to see another Irene. But we will. And before we see a hurricane identified by the National Weather Service, we’ll likely see our businesses rocked by a figurative storm. Here are three lessons that can be applied.

Good luck.

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August 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm 1 comment

Whole Foods Serves Some Crisis Management Lessons

If you think you’re immune to a crisis just because you’re not the biggest player around and you try to do things right, take a look at the controversy Whole Foods is dealing with. 

The store is well-known for having ethnic and special foods (disclosure: I shop there because it has products that meet some personal dietary needs). On its shelves are halal products, which are foods that meet Islamic dietary laws. When the company decided to promote those products to people who celebrate Ramadan, a period during which Muslims engage in rituals, including dietary practices, designed to encourage patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God (Muslim friends – jump in here if my description is inaccurate), an employee apparently wrote an email to his bosses questioning the idea.

I’m not sure how those goals can be bad, but apparently the employee was afraid that right-wing activists might have a problem with promoting something associated with Islam. His email somehow made it into the Houston Press  and on to Twitter, where it was taken as an official statement that the company was backing away from the promotion and – boom – Whole Foods found itself in crisis mode. 

Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, Tuesday told me the company became aware of the issue because it monitors its online presence and because of the tweets.

“Folks brought it to our attention and we immediately sat down and figured out what happened,” she said. They quickly tweeted that the promotion was still on and reached out to those who had tweeted to tell them the promotion was not being cancelled. Libba and her colleagues also started calling newspapers where the story appeared. As the word spread, they began fielding calls from the media.

The fast reaction quelled the crisis before it got legs. It was still a story, but the company’s response circulated so quickly that the story was the Whole Foods’ plans to continue the promotion despite the rumor. The company’s blog continues to include lots of information about preparing for the holiday. The rapid response kept the issue from hurting Whole Foods, but Libba thinks it’ll be kept alive for a while by those who only listened to the initial, erroneous reports.

“It’s inconvenient,” she said. “We’ll have to continue to educate people about it on individual levels.”  

A crisis is anything that threatens an organizations reputation and its viability as a business. This certainly threatened Whole Foods’ reputation, but because of the company’s quick response, the damage was minimal.  There are lessons here for the rest of us:

  1. You will have a crisis.
  2. You need to be ready. Libba adds that you must act immediately. “Social media is so much faster than anything else,” she says.
  3. Assume that anything in writing – email, memos, correspondence – will wind up public, even (maybe especially) if marked “confidential.” Keep that in mind before you send counsel or opinions by email or paper memo.
  4. Social media is a two-edged sword. You must stay on top of what others are saying about your business. Your public relations team, whether internal or external, will have tools to help with that. Your PR team also can make sure that you’re ready when a crisis does hit.
  5. (Maybe 4A) There’s nothing wrong with asking colleagues and members of your network to let you know if they see or hear anything about your company. Part of Whole Foods’ early warning system was tweets and calls from people who saw the original postings.

Public relations practitioners are experts in social media and its role in creating and quelling crises. If you and your PR counselor haven’t discussed situations like the one that hit Whole Foods lately, use this column as a conversation starter. And if you need some crisis prevention and management advice, feel free to contact me.

Finally, to our Muslim friends: “Ramadan Mubarak.”

August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am 1 comment

Some “Truths” About Public Relations

I often find myself talking about ethics and transparency with young practitioners and with potential clients. Some people, I think, regard such discussions as quaint or even a joke. To me, these are things that set public relations practitioners apart and are necessary to our task of looking out for the long-term reputation of an organization.

Jeff Domansky, APR, publishes a blog called the PR Coach. His column, called “10 PR Truths: How Do You Measure Up”” is aimed at practitioners. But whoever is communicating on behalf of his or her organization should look at these points.

Jeff’s blog post can be seen in its original format at http://www.theprcoach.com/ten-pr-truths-how-do-you-measure-up/ or you can read it below:

Glenn Ferrell wrote a really thoughtful post about the PR profession- Seven Ways to Change the Perception of PR. It got me thinking about truth and truths in PR or any business.

Here’s the reality of public relations. Our profession is constantly under pressure for results. We get slammed by critics from the media, activists and interest groups not to mention consumers and the general public for spinning or even worse, not always telling the truth.

We operate in real time whether it’s crafting a strategy, launching a product, managing a crisis, pitching the media, communicating to employees or responding to customers. When you add social media into the mix, you can go from hero to zero in moments unless you operate with clear fundamentals.

The most successful public relations pros I know get results with integrity and grace despite this challenging environment. I thought about what makes them so successful and came up with 10 PR truths they embrace:

  1. Truth – telling the truth is the foundation for their reputation. Everywhere.
  2. Transparency – disclosure is not an option. It’s a standard.
  3. Trust – they create trust with many, as well as trust others to do their best.
  4. Tell it like it is – the fact is, they deal in facts.
  5. Timeliness – operate with a sense of urgency.
  6. Take action – they lead, they act and they make things happen.
  7. Tell stories – they tell stories that mean something, that resonate and stand out from the crowd.
  8. Take responsibility – they usually share success and take ownership of problems.
  9. Tend to the details – sweating the small stuff is a habit.
  10. Trust your instincts – this is the art of PR. Great instincts come from good experience.

Here are a few favorite quotes about truth worth remembering:

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.
Buddha

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
Winston Churchill

Half a truth is often a great lie.
Benjamin Franklin

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Oscar Wilde

Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.
Elvis Presley

Not one of the successful leaders and mentors I know lack any of these 10 important fundamentals. Think about your own PR practices. How do you measure up? The truth is, if you follow these PR truths, you can’t fail! And they would go a long way towards restoring positive perceptions of our profession.

It’s not just the truth, it’s the truths that make the difference.

# # #

What do you think of Jeff’s column? Is it fair to expect your communications representatives to meet these standards?

August 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm


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