Tuesday, February 27

Running With Rumors: Social Media

When you look at a social media tracking sites like Blogpulse, graph spikes tell part of the story: when she made the finals, after her first performance, and when both sets of photos (the real ones and the fake ones) were seeded by social media. Without question, social media (blogs, vlogs, message boards, and e-mail lists) is changing everything. Sometimes it's for the better. Sometimes it's not.

The best of it, as Anders Gronstedt, president of the Gronstedt Group, describes in the Communication World Bulletin (CW Bulletin), which is a members-only electronic publication available to members of the International Association of Business Communicators, is that "Phenomena like MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, Flickr and YouTube aren't just Web sites. They are platforms of collaboration, where sprawling and vibrant communities socialize, innovate, transact and learn."

The worst of it, as seen by the Barba case study, is inexperienced people wanting to attract attention and drive their "hits" up by perpetrating the hottest topic regardless of accuracy. In many cases, their posts are devoid of second tier research. In this case, that means they literally cut and paste the most recent post they found elsewhere (sometimes without reading, let alone thinking) and attempt to claim it as an original idea.

Why should they? For the most part, while some myth originators have faced prosecution, few myth reposters ever do. Oh well, they say, after posting or linking to the lewdest photos and passing judgement on someone who wasn't even in the shot. They are neither embarrassed nor apologetic for contributing to mass character assassination and sometimes blatant plagiarism.

As CNNMoney pointed out nearly a year ago (sourced from CW Bulletin): the new culture on the Web is all about consumer creation, composed of nearly 30 million blogs and 70 million photos (on Flickr alone). With a click of the mouse, anyone can be a journalist, a photographer, or a DJ. The audience is the 1 billion-plus strong.

Angelo Fernando, a marketing and communication manager at interactive marketing agency iCrossing (also in CW Bulletin), cautions business communicators that before they jump up and down about social media and the wonderfully transparent world it is creating, they might consider the consequences. "Leaky information, errant e-mails and inappropriate instant messages now have the capacity to become very, very public," he writes.

Based on the Barba story, they don't even have to be "real leaks" to attract attention; the first set of less revealing photographs was enough to erode her credibility, making room for the second set of fakes to take hold. And nowadays, as social media goes, so does traditional media. The Boston Herald proves this as its wire services story teases "More salacious Internet photos - purportedly of “American Idol” wannabe Antonella Barba - surfaced yesterday but spokespeople for the FOX mega-hit reality show continued to remain mum on her fate."

"The new pictures depict a woman, alleged to be the brunette Jersey girl, posing partially nude on a World War II veterans’ memorial. Hardcore porn pictures of a woman - purportedly Barba - engaged in a sex act were also posted on the Web but a friend swears they aren’t the reality-show contestant," continued the story. I don't know about you, but this reads to me as if the Boston Herald has planted enough bias in this article to call her guilty.

Indeed, it's a sad day when traditional media no longer bothers to check sources or invest in its own research, driving home the point that the lewdest photos are "purportedly Barba" while a much fewer number of bloggers have already established, well beyond a reasonable doubt, that the girl in the pornographic images is NOT Barba. Ho hum. It's the not the first time, and it won't be the last.

Barba is in an especially difficult position because under American Idol rules, she cannot defend herself by addressing the media (traditional or otherwise) until she is ousted. Some viewers don't seem to care, citing that she is hardly the best singer and not very likely to win. But then again, they dismiss that no one would believe Taylor Hicks would go on to win in season 5 based on his early shows. In fact, based on album sales, Chris Daughtry looks like the winner despite who ultimately wore the American Idol crown.

Sure, Barba can partially blame herself for not realizing there is no such thing as a private conservation or photo shoot for that matter. This is doubly true today, given that America has seemingly been taken in again by yellow journalism. But, despite Barba setting the stage with typical college pics, the rest of the responsibility belongs to bad reporting — social and traditional media alike.

Does this mean I'm no longer embracing social media? Not hardly. I just hope we can get past the growing pains and focus on the best of it. I hope social media is not the beginning of the end for corporate transparency, leading to a world where companies have cause to spy on employees for fear of self-preservation.

I hope traditional media might consider that it will continue to erode its already jeopardized credibility unless they stop reacting to social media and stick to their primary job of finding the truth (because someone has got to do it). And I hope that public relations professionals will pick up the pace to address the major communication shortfall with social media. The very idea that they continue to source numbers from a year-old CNNMoney story, tells me they are still catching up.

Maybe at the end of the day, all I'm really asking is if we want our Internet future to be Star Trek or Escape From New York.


Monday, February 26

Selling No Comment: Antonella Barba

American Idol has no comment on 20-year-old contestant Antonella Barba's wet T-shirt (spoiler: just shy of topless, but no links here) photos that surfaced last week. This time, after learning public relations lessons the hard way with Derrell and Terrell Brittenum, American Idol is sticking to the statement that it conducts background checks (but largely stays out of the personal lives of contestants).

Indeed, there are a handful of times when "no comment" withstands the scrutiny of the media, and making comments or personal assessments on the private actions (or past actions) of employees is one of them. Considering this is true in extreme cases, American Idol will be smart to stick to the issues that involve the show and off any speculation of Barba's past.

The buzz has, however, driven Barba to the top of most search engines, outpacing Britney Spears' self-destructive behavior by a healthy margin according to TMZ. Several less flattering shots were taken from her Myspace (the photos have been taken down) profile.

While there seems to be a clear contrast between the innocence of the Catholic University student (she said she did the shoot to pay for college) portrayed and the one who might pose for a professional photographer in somewhat revealing poses, Barba's photos and the context bear little resemblance to those that resulted in second season contestant Frenchie Davis being booted from the show. (Davis was featured on a porn site.)

American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe, who had not seen any photos when Entertainment Weekly first asked if Barba would go the way of Davis, said ''We have really good background checks on everybody, and we deal with that every season. It's sad, isn't it, that your best friends are the ones that come forward with information that will go to Smoking Gun or put your photographs on the Web?''

Over the weekend, several more sexually explicit photos that are allegedly of Barba have been produced, but their authenticity is in question. While the girl in the new photos seems to resemble Barba, it seems probable they will be disproved in time.

The net sum of all the photos is that Barba seems several levels shy of producing anything even comparable to the judgement lapse exhibited by former Miss Nevada Katie Rees. Then again, no one has ever said being "wholesome" was a key ingredient for an American Idol contestant.

Still, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned here for anyone who ever hoped to one day pursue a path that would make them a public figure. Just say "no" because what seems like a secret will always surface when you least expect it and possibly cost you a crown, or in this case, a little more time to polish lackluster vocals. (It will be interesting to see if the pics have any bearing on this week's vote).

Over here, we call it the Wall Street Journal equation. If you wouldn't want it featured in The Times or Wall Street Journal, don't do it.

For employers, with exception to how any incident might impact your company (or show), it's best to stay out of the second-guessing game. Stay away from assessing the personal choices of employees and stick to the relevant answers: will they stay or will they go. With the exception to Lythgoe expressing some sympathy for Barba, it seems to me that American Idol has finally got that part of its public relations right.


Friday, February 23

Discussing JetBlue: Levick

Richard S. Levick is the president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which was named Crisis Agency of the Year in 2005 by The Holmes Report. The report provides in-depth news analysis and features on trends and issues in the public relations business.

Levick's firm, which has offices in New York, Washington D.C. and London, directs high-profile communications, including: the Catholic Church scandals, the spinach e-coli crisis, large legal and regulatory actions globally, and a number of the most significant matters arising out of the Middle East and Latin America.

Levick has been making the rounds in the media, discussing JetBlue and giving it high marks in handling its crisis. Recently, in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com he said "JetBlue has run to the crisis, taking responsibility not just for itself but for the entire industry."

Specifically, Levick outlined what he calls five key tenets of sound crisis management:

• Run to it. Avoid "duck and cover."
• All companies will have a crisis. Be prepared.
• Know your crisis team. Now.
• Make a sacrifice. Companies often want to win it all.
• Avoid saying "no comment." A crisis abhors a vacuum.

"The critical role is to run to the crisis," he told ConsumerAffairs. "People don't want to sue people they like and trust. What happens so often is that CEOs lawyer-up and say nothing."

On any given day of the week, I would agree with Levick. It's sound advice, pure and simple, except something with JetBlue has not sat well with me. In between discussing the finer points of introducing an abbreviated name in a new release to sharing some real life crisis communication situations I've worked on to about a dozen student public relations professionals last night, I think I decided what it might be. There are some fine details missed by JetBlue, and American Airlines might have noticed.

Anyone can write up some crisis communication points, but the devil in the details is how those points are interpreted and applied to a unique crisis communication situation. For example, if you overlay Moving Beyond Bad News, which we presented a few days ago, you might come up with the notion that JetBlue did everything right too. Or not.

Here are a few key points from that list that seem to be making a difference:

Have you satisfied the public interest? If you want to move beyond bad news, you have to commit to regularly reporting additional information until no public interest remains. In JetBlue's case, it may be oversatisfying public interest. It could very well be that it has apologized so much that the effectiveness of the apology is wearing thin.

Have you included positive steps being taken to address the situation? Naturally, this is being addressed by JetBlue's Customer Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, one might wonder if it forever branded the Customer Bill of Rights to the original crisis. Perhaps it would have been better to wait a few weeks, after resolving the remedy specific to the incident.

Did you offer restitution? As much as JetBlue has been apologizing, it seems to me it has buried the fact that it did indeed offer restitution. So much so, some people don't know that the airline's future plan includes giving passengers aboard departing planes delayed for three to four hours a $100 voucher if the voucher would be equal to the amount of their round-trip ticket. Given the amount of money spent on paid advertising apologies by the company, one might also wonder if that money would have been better spent with the passengers aboard the planes.

Perhaps it's these small weaknesses in the plan that reinforced American Airlines decision to beef up service at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, a move that will put additional pressure on Delta Air Lines and JetBlue. American Airlines has said that its plans are unrelated to JetBlue, and the Newsday article includes that JetBlue folks believe the plan will not have any impact.

For public relations practitioners, I hope this also provides some conversation in understanding that formulas, bulleted action plans, are great for guidance, but are never absolute. Every crisis communication situation is different, and requires a modified course of action.

Worse, if everyone over apologized all the time about things that were at least partly out of their control, sooner or later, the public won't believe any of them, no matter how sincere or appropriate the message and its meaning. That said, please don't allow me to convince anyone that JetBlue is doing something wrong. Contrary to that, they are doing more right than most.


Thursday, February 22

Jumping The Shark: JetBlue

JetBlue Airways has always been about innovating a new airline, one that offers value, service and style. It does things differently, from leather seats with 36 inches of leg room and free DIRECTV to name brand snacks and sommelier chosen wines. So maybe it's no surprise that the airline is deploying a slightly different brand of crisis communication, which includes appealing its apology to the court of social media and anyone who will listen.

At a glance, the crisis communication strategy that began after an ice storm caused the airline to cancel more than 250 of 505 daily flights and significantly delayed 10 flights on the tarmac with customers waiting on board for hours, seems pretty spot on. The airline was relatively quick (some say too slow) to acknowledge, apologize, explain, learn from, satisfy public interest, and offer restitution, and has taken all of this to the media, social media, company blog (flight log), and even YouTube.

A few people might notice I left empathy off the list, but not because COO David Neeleman missed the mark. On the contrary, Neeleman is one of the most credible corporate spokespeople I've seen appear during a crisis in some time. He obviously knows that sometimes the messenger is the message. In a net assessment of comments all over the place, it seems people want to believe him because it's nearly impossible to see anything but sincerity in the man. Personally, I believe him.

I'm not alone. Despite cutting earnings guidance for the quarter, traders on Wednesday sent JetBlue shares up about 2.2 percent to close at $12.19 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Several analysts has even said JetBlue's numerous apologies may help stave off long-term pain for investors.

"We believe that JetBlue's PR efforts since the last weekend have been rather successful at expressing humility and embarrassment about the problems," wrote Morgan Stanley analyst William J. Greene in a note to clients, according to The Associated Press. "This mea culpa has likely gone a long way to mitigate customer frustrations."

Although some less trusting public relations practitioners are considering the "spin" factor, I remain unconvinced that JetBlue is simply spinning. However, I can agree that it may be jumping the shark. I'm not saying it is; I'm only recognizing the potential.

Can you apologize too much? Can you produce too many course corrections in the aftermath of a crisis? Can you make a crisis bigger than it needs to be, even with the best intentions? Can you reach out to too many people in an attempt to offset negative impressions, involving those who probably didn't need to be involved (how many YouTube enthusiasts fly JetBlue or how many JetBlue customers visit YouTube)?

I'm not saying what it has done is wrong or right as only time will tell, but maybe, just maybe, it has accepted too much responsibility, coming up just short of apologizing for an ice storm, which no one believes it caused. Sure, mistakes were made and it's admirable JetBlue identified several. The Customer Bill of Rights is a good idea, but I wonder if the timing was right. Some people think so, according to the Contra Costa Times.

"JetBlue is taking a mistake and using it not only to address their own mistakes, but to set new standards for the entire industry," Richard Levick, chief executive of Levick Strategic Communications Inc. in New York, said in an interview Tuesday. "David Neeleman is running to the crisis. He is everywhere, saying, 'I'm responsible and I'll fix it.'"

Without question, it is always an interesting case study when someone launches a public relations and advertising campaign out of a crisis communication plan, especially when the concept could perhaps head off congress imposing a federal Customer Bill of Rights (I hope the industry doesn't see increased government regulation and demonstrates it can be adept at governing itself).

So at the end of the day, we fall somewhere in the middle. There is little question that JetBlue has demonstrated savvy in crisis communication, but one wonders if the success of the initial effort will eventually lead it to jump the shark.

But even if it does, you have to recognize JetBlue will likely receive continued support from some of the most loyal customers in the industry. While I have never flown JetBlue, I know plenty of people who do. They always rave about their flights and look surprised when I mention I have yet to board that airline, as if one has not flown until they've flown JetBlue.


Wednesday, February 21

Chasing Tails: Schrödinger's Cat

Every now and again, I reference seemingly unrelated topics (psychology, philosophy, quantum physics, and even theology among them) and then attempt to apply them to communication. To me, they fit together. Others disagree, and that is okay.

Recently, I referenced quantum physics in a response to someone who asked, basically, whether bloggers were obligated to contact the people they post about, especially if there is a perception that the post is critical. It's a good question.

In response, I posted that as someone who has worked as a journalist beyond social media (and occasionally still do), I have often asked myself the same question, but eventually reached the conclusion that no, that argument, while valid, doesn't hold up. From a strict communication perspective, I likened blogs to op-eds, where observations/opinions are made and anyone (on most blogs) have an opportunity to comment (agree/disagree) with equal space or comment (agree/disagree) on their own blog if they prefer. (Besides, I imagine it would be a public relations nightmare to field calls from hundreds of bloggers.)

But I also alluded to the prospect of quantum physics as part of my rationale without explanation. I'd like to take a stab at tying that in, recognizing I am a mere novice on the subject by comparison to probably anybody in that field.

In simplest terms, quantum physicists have long asked whether or not the observation of science could potentially impact the results of what is observed. In other words, does the observation of the atom and its components, quantum and whatnot, alter what they do?

In attempting to address this question, Schrödinger's Cat, proposed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, demonstrates the conflict between "what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level." Part of the lesson is referred to as the quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that it can never be known what the outcome would have been if it were not observed.

Applying this to communication, I submit that the more direct interaction between a blogger and the subject matter, the more likely the blogger could potentially alter the outcome of any communication study. Sure, I know what some people are thinking right now: if that is true, then could the post itself alter the outcome? Absolutely, but with some limitations.

With the advent of social media, posts are already part of the equation just as traditional media always has been. So, while a post after the fact may or may not alter the outcome, the same information shared privately before any action occurs would almost certainly change the outcome, perhaps negating the future post.

For example, purposely avoiding mention of where this conversation came up, let's say I sent John Edwards an e-mail (I didn't) that said "John, what gives? Your only way out of this communication mess is if the bloggers resign." Let's say he took the advice to heart and those two bloggers resigned the next day, negating the need to send out that ill-advised statement. That would have dramatically altered the case study whereas what I did, write about that case study in real time with my comments bearing no more weight than any others, was simply part of the total communication equation.

So without question, the side effect of transparency or being a public figure changes behavior. Imagine for a moment, Schrödinger's Cat placed in a glass box with hundreds of people shouting conflicting messages that the cat understood. Surely, that will cause a different outcome than Schrödinger prescribed. Yet, in the study of communication and transparency and being a public figure, this is precisely the the environment in which studies are conducted.

Here's another example: will a teenager left alone with a can of beer react differently than if left alone with friends who drink beer or differently if he is left alone with parents who discourage drinking. You bet the outcome will be different, but it will be even more different if we tell the teenager exactly what we intend to do. It is also a possibility that the teenager who learns they were observed after the fact might react differently the next time out, but that is the very essence of a learning process.

Please, if you are one of the handful of people who regularly read this blog, keep in mind that I rarely if ever have any opinion about a subject beyond their behavior unless specifically noted. Case in point: whether Verizon is a good company or bad company is irrelevant on this blog (though I am a Verizon customer with no cause to change plans). What is relevant is that I disagreed with certain aspects of the company's communication, which I write about here for very specific reasons, including: public relations students who attend my class or anyone hoping to glean a different, hopefully interesting, perspective on communication.

In simplest terms, I believe there are two ways to learn something. One is the hard way by doing and making mistakes (or perhaps doing it right). One is the easy way, which is by learning from others who already did it the hard way. It is my hope by focusing on best practices and more often worst examples that more people can learn the easy way.

In conclusion, if you or your company is the subject of a post here, you are welcome to post comments or e-mail me (if you prefer private correspondence) like anyone as I will not be contacting you (simply put, pre-post advice is reserved for clients). However, I am always happy to correct any misinformation, clarify a point, listen to your opinion, or whatever; whereas I am equally obliged to disagree if there is cause under certain circumstances.


Tuesday, February 20

Knowing When To Comment: Jason Goldberg

Starting in December 2006, Jason Goldberg, CEO of Jobster, embarked on what the New York Times and many others have classified as crisis communication gone wrong. Using his blog as a primary means of communication, Goldberg hinted at, then denied, then confirmed layoff rumors during the holidays with such abandon that the company’s Technorati ranking knocked Britney Spears out of the top spot for popular searches. Through it all, most members of the media and social media scoffed at Goldberg, calling him everything from insensitive and ignorant to brash and dishonest.

While most companies find away to move beyond bad news that impacted a mere 60 positions, Jobster seems unable to break away from the dated story despite Goldberg offering a belated apology and Jobster making several announcements that seem to suggests its business model is working, including the news that it beat Monster out on the coveted deal with Facebook.

So why can’t Jobster shake it off? Because Goldberg has a reputed disdain for menus; the man already knows what he wants. Why waste time on an exhaustive list of options?

When your communication, even blogging, becomes formulaic and you’re not willing to consider others options, you’re almost always going to make mistakes. Sometimes the mistake is simple, like missing the special everyone is raving about. Sometimes the mistake is more costly, like the host putting in your usual order on the one day you wanted something else.

I think that is exactly what happened when Goldberg erred in choosing to comment on a largely unrelated post to presumably, according to some, challenge my assessment of his mishandling crisis communication (which he already admitted to and apologized for anyway). Known for being fierce with critics once upon a time, he ordered up a “chat” of sorts when a chat wasn’t really what he wanted.

When you attempt to take a casual observer to task after the newsworthiness of the incident has long died out and most people have forgotten, you are almost always betting against yourself because the misguided incident will be rehashed all over again. What you really risk is diluting and distracting from any good or fluffed news you have. So why bother?

Compounding this apparent timing issue, Goldberg never considered that the person he was sizing up as opposition not only teaches continuing education courses as part of his community service commitment, but also happens to be a hired gun of sorts for dozens of companies when a crisis does strike (among other things).

Of course, this assumes I was ever opposition, which, based on my posts (you can source by clicking the label “Jobster” on my blog), I was never exclusively an adversary. Sometimes I was a cheerleader in my assessments, when warranted.

Highlights of positive comments are not limited to: complimenting him on continuing to address the media and social media during the crisis he created, the well-thought out layoff announcement that was better than par, the offer to help place his former employees, and his public apology (though belated). In one post, I also defended Jobster when a competitor missed its news opportunity to pick on the company. In fact, in several incidents, one might even surmise that Goldberg coincidentally adopted strategies similar to those I posted as part of my living case study assessment.

The best time to comment on a blog, or engage the media and/or social media, is when the engagement is timely. Waiting almost two months only serves as a reminder that something bad happened.

If you are engaging to challenge the writer or to correct any errors, it’s probably best to conduct an assessment of the work. For media, the rules have always been fairly clear when you are the subject of a story:

• Are all the facts in the piece accurate?
• Is the story complete or cite additional resources?
• Is the story and any opinions offered fair and relevant?
• Are opinions included from multiple sides and sources?
• Was there appropriate depth to the story given the topic context?
• Was there an appropriate opportunity for others to leave comments?

In the case study of Jobster’s crisis communication debacle, at least on my blog, the answer is yes to all of these questions. Certainly there could and can be disagreement on the partial menu of communication choices I shared (as Recruiting Animal argued about in one post), I proposed any number of them would have been better than the non-menu approach chosen at the time.

In fact, Goldberg’s first comment to me is unsurprisingly similar to the case study. Originally, he teased at, then denied, then confirmed layoffs. Now, Goldberg teased at, then denied, and has apparently confirmed no public conversation with me. While that is fine with me, it doesn’t make sense from a communication standpoint. His real critics must be wondering if he has cold feet.

Look, if you want to comment or perhaps correct media or social media errors, it’s best to (but hardly absolute) do this:

• Choose to respond in a timely manner when the topic is still hot.
• Read the entire body of the ongoing work to ensure you are not mislabeling someone.
• Gather at least some knowledge about the person, people, or media you are responding to.
• Stay positive and reasoned, keeping your cool in order to keep the focus on corrections and clarifications, unless you’ve created a more satirical persona.
• Stay focused on what matters if you hope to maintain credibility and transparency.
• Recognize that engagement is a limited commitment, and that the person you engage will likely respond.

Of the three questions Goldberg asked, only one was worthwhile while two read as nothing more than an exercise in puffery, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I answered them all conscientiously; especially the first, as it was a fine example of the smarter questions Goldberg has been known to ask about blogging.

Unfortunately, the allusion that there would be a conversation seems to have been an illusion, probably because it wasn’t so sincere of an offer anyway. It’s a shame really. I have often found many of his previous questions relevant though sometimes not with the best timing, perhaps because he doesn’t like menus.

And, in the end, all he gained was an opportunity for people to learn how not to manage bad news, like layoffs, all over again.


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