11.02.2012

I’ve written before about the necessity for organizations to practice Honest, Open and Transparent Communications (HOT Comms).  It comes to mind again as we witness another allegation of leaders concealing the truth related to the child-abuse charges against former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Graham Spanier, former PSU president

Graham Spanier, former PSU president

In this case, former Penn State president Graham Spanier has been charged with concealing child abuse.  I’m sure Spanier was thinking that keeping the public and his own board of trustees in the dark about allegations against Sandusky a decade ago would preserve his university’s reputation (and ability to capture donor dollars, ticket sales and student enrollment). In fact, it did the opposite. By hiding facts from the light of day, Spanier threw his university’s reputation onto the craps table alongside Sandusky’s.

The public would have understood and forgiven PSU had the truth come out because of the university’s actions, not despite them. There are legions of PSU faithful who continue to support the university even now; many more would be on the administration’s side had it acted with integrity and practiced HOT Comms.

With HOT Comms, it is important to remember that people see through b.s., so obfuscating with unclear language and “spin” is never a good option when communicating about an issue. Attempting to conceal it altogether isn’t a good idea, either, because eventually all “secrets” become known in this age of hyper-connectivity. Sharing information — good or bad — in a consistent, straightforward manner builds trust on the part of an organization’s key audiences.

Deliberately delaying the sharing of a “truth” or even an “allegation” basically tells people, when they find out (and they will) that you are dishonest and will place others at potential risk for monetary gain. Spanier’s concern for PSU’s reputation was about donor dollars, football ticket sales and enrollment numbers, plain and simple. Negative news might impact any of those categories by as little as 5%, costing PSU millions of dollars. But only for the short-term.

Penn State failed on many levels. It concealed damaging information and practiced numerous delaying strategies.  The world would have forgiven the university quickly had it acted promptly and honestly when issues first came to light. By doubling down and throwing their hat in with Sandusky, Spanier and other PSU administrators took a big gamble and lost.

According to a BusinessWeek article, companies are scrambling to hire “social media managers.”  Moreover, they’re doing so with little understanding of what that means, and creating new job titles to describe these new positions.

I’d like to contend, again, that these organizations probably already have social media managers on staff. They’re called “public relations professionals.”  I do understand that social media isn’t just another media channel.  I also understand that you can’t take PR people who have primarily done media relations all their life and magically make them social media savvy.  But I don’t think we need to create a whole new silo within organizations; we need to effectively use the disciplines we have in place!  Marketers can be engaged in the conversation online about their brands. And if they want to create new conversations with key publics (i.e., social media users) about their products or their businesses, they should turn to their PR staff because that’s what they already do!

When I left my last job and started positioning myself for clients, I was told I should market myself as “social media.” To me, that’s like marketing myself as “television” or “talking.” Social media is one way to talk to your key audiences, but not the only way (and not always the right way). That said, I believe it’s vital for PR practitioners to know how to create social media programs to leverage their brands’ assets. PR is about influencing and the game of influence is definitely gaining a social media flavor.

I’ve been involved in creating social media programs for a billion-dollar sales company and for smaller organizations. It requires 1) approval from top execs and legal, with understandings in place about what will and will not be discussed, 2) a commitment to be honest, open and transparent in all communications (HOT comms) with your audiences, and 3) resources equipped, capable, and empowered to communicate on behalf of the organization/brand. 

This is not a time to place the brand conversation in the tweeting hands of an intern. They can help, for sure, but a community isn’t going to magically develop around an anemic effort by the company.  Consumers want to talk to representatives who are truly knowledgeable AND who also have the ability to carry messages back to decision-makers within the organization.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  People won’t sign up just to hear your messages; they also want to be heard

PR is the discipline trained and paid to engage publics in a dialog. Let them do it!  That dialog leads to support for your organization/brand.  Some execs want the social media “managers” to go out and create Burmese tiger pits, where unsuspecting passersby fall into a trap and are then expected to make a purchase.  Creating tweet “teasers” and Facebook contests might generate traffic and maybe a very small percentage will make a purchase, thereby justifying the expense.  There’s room for this kind of activity, but that’s not community. Once the giveaways go away, so do the followers. Community involves creating something better, together.

SO, I hope the “social media managers” being hired turn out to be PR people with a different title rather than Burmese tiger pit diggers. Otherwise companies are just wasting their money (again).

06.25.2010

I’ve had many conversations about PR and its use of social media.  It’s been discussed in various chats on Twitter as well as at conferences.  On a few occasions now I’ve heard people talk about the PR work that they do managing a client’s social media account. I do believe wholeheartedly that managing a social media account for an organization should be under the direction of the public relations discipline. 

The social media engagement, however, should not constitute an organization’s complete PR program.  Perhaps there are a few organizations out there that can get away with that, but to create a mutually beneficial experience for an organization and its target publics, more than tweeting will be necessary. Meanwhile, people who haven’t been trained in public relations and really don’t fully comprehend what PR is shouldn’t claim to fulfill an organization’s PR needs simply because they track friends and fans and followers in Facebook and Twitter.

Some of this was part of what Jenny Luth and I talked about at the Grand Rapids Social Media (GRSM) lunch event yesterday. A good group joined us for the excellent dialog about roles and responsibilities in social media and what constitutes effective PR for an organization.

02.19.2010

A few months ago I blogged about Tiger “doubling down” on his personal and professional crisis by not being honest, open, and transparent. I was watching closely today to see if he would be able to pull out of his steep dive and begin to right his course.

I was asked to join Terri DeBoer and Rachel Ruiz on the set of WOOD TV8’s “eightWest” morning talk show to provide live commentary about Tiger’s address to the nation. Not only was Tiger’s address nearly unprecedented, since media were not permitted any questions, but it also was an atypical morning for eightWest, normally taped a few hours before its broadcast at 11 a.m. Thank you to everyone at WOOD TV8 for your professionalism and the opportunity to chat with Rachel and Terri.

Last night, preparing for my stint as analyst, I thought about what I wanted to hear from Tiger and created my checklist. Of course, everyone wanted to hear he was sorry.  I wanted to see emotion from Tiger, who normally can be quite stoic. I wanted to hear him express concern for Elin and his children. I wanted him to acknowledge that he was viewed as a role model, and that he had failed in that regard. I wanted to hear him apologize to his fans and to golf and to his sponsors.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

I think Tiger was prepped well by his handlers to hit all of these marks. He did show some emotion at the beginning, and the embrace of his mother at the end was nice. Although he was a little stoic for the latter tw0-thirds of his speech, you could tell he was uncomfortable. With good reason.  He was standing in front of tens of millions of people admitting infidelity, poor judgment, broken values.

My wife sometimes says you have to “own” your decisions — good or bad. I think Tiger owned his decisions today. He placed blame only on himself. He had made the bad decisions. He was wrong. He had gone against the values he’d been taught.

Elin, he said, had been nothing but graceful in her handling of the situation and deserved praise, not blame. He acknowledged he also had let down his family, friends, “business partners,” fans, and children who had viewed him as a role model. He acknowledged he had broken the rules, somehow thinking he was above them.

And he asked for our help, to “find room in your heart to someday believe in me again.”

It is an important first step in the right direction. I don’t agree with those who believe he should have allowed media to ask questions. He actually provided a lot of information and answered most questions that should have been asked. If there were questions beyond what he shared, they would either have been inappropriate or not questions Tiger desired to answer.

As a public person who has received truckloads of cash to endorse products (of estimated $110 million he earned in 2008, only $6 million were golf earnings, according to Forbes), the public does have a right to know when that person isn’t what he says he is. It’s kind of a truth in advertising thing. You can’t be held up as a shining symbol of dependability and success when, in actuality, you are cheating (by taking steroids, or taking shortcuts, or taking liberties that are not generally accepted).

BUT, that does not mean Tiger has to answer every question the media asks. He does not have to share his conversations with Elin or details of his affairs. His PR people probably scoured the web and prepared him well to address the biggest and most pertinent concerns out there.  And the media will still get their opportunity to ask Tiger questions, but at this time he is a recovering addict and is not ready to have that kind of dialog.

The brand of Tiger may never recover the full value it once enjoyed, but I believe he’s on the right path.  If he returns to his winning form on the links and avoids future salacious sandtraps, he will be forgiven. He just needed to ask for it.  And now he has.

In the media training I helped lead last week we discussed the slow response of certain business leaders in the wake of crises affecting their brands. With social media, what once was just a little slow would today be considered glacial. 

One case study we discussed was the emergency landing by Captain “Sully” of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a little more than a year ago.  The successful emergency landing on the river, famously captured on a cell phone camera, occurred at 3:30 p.m.  The evacuation onto the wings of the Airbus A320 happened quickly, and within minutes nearby commercial ferries were taking on the passengers. Capt. Sully, who first walked through the plane twice to ensure all passengers had been evacuated, emerged as America’s newest hero.

At 4:55 p.m., fire crews began to stand down.  All the cable news channels had extensively covered the situation. Many interviews of experts and witnesses and analysts had been conducted. By that time, there was little that the American public didn’t know about what had happened. A jet airliner landing on the river in NYC?! Post 9/11, the media are super-prepared to be all over a situation like this.

At 5:07 p.m., US Airways CEO Doug Parker issued a statement during a news conference at the airline’s headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, confirmed that there had been an accident. He didn’t really say much more than that.  He didn’t use the opportunity to praise Captain Sully, with whom he had already spoken on the phone.  He didn’t say, ”We’re thrilled that the expertise of our flight staff prevented this from being a much more dire situation.”  After all, all 155 occupants of the ditched jet survived!  By the time he stood at the podium, he knew his airline had just been presented the biggest gift ever — an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but only minor injuries and some property loss.

Now, 90 minutes isn’t that much time, especially if a number of meetings and discussions had to occur before the hastily assembled news conference.  That said, more information needed to come from Mr. Parker and, more important, some emotion. People know that some accidents are going to happen and are unavoidable. But, people want to see a human reaction to crises … not some “don’t-say-too-much-for-fear-of-lawsuit” statement.

For weeks, the crisis at Toyota has been building.  A little less sensational, but affecting many more people. Quality issues have now resulted in the recall of 9 million cars worldwide. Again, people don’t expect mechanical things to be perfect, but they do expect the manufacturers of mechanical things to not only fix the problem, but to publicly acknowledge the errors and demonstrate some *human* remorse.  Not just a statement. Not just a policy. Not just a fix.  They want to see real people saying real things about real situations.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda (grandson of company founder), was part of a hastily arranged news conference Friday night (earlier today) and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the problems. “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people,” he said. “We will do our utmost to regain the trust of our customers.”  He acknowledged this is a crisis (Really? You didn’t know that earlier?) and he also apologized to shareholders for the 20% drop in company stock.

That he is apologizing and taking this seriously is great.  That it’s happening a few weeks after the news first broke is not so great.  And while I believe shareholders are indeed an important audience, an apology to them should be done through a shareholder-only communication. Doing so in the news conference only indicates that the only reason Mr. Toyoda is up there is because the crisis is affecting financials, rather than the fact that his faulty cars are affecting people.

I appreciate good brakes. This morning, while I was taking a left out of a parking lot, some oncoming cars were stopped to allow me through.  Little did I know, however, that another car was barreling down the left turn lane.  The driver/cell phone talker, however, did have good enough sense and brakes to come to a skidding stop as I inched across the lane. Thank you for good brakes to unknown car maker (I don’t remember what make of car it was … it could have been a Toyota!).  

I want Toyota to say, “We’re sorry that a faulty process has led to this. We will do our utmost to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to make sure every Toyota owner has complete confidence in their car’s mechanical abilities!” I don’t own a Toyota personally, but I believe I drive next to many of them every day. 

And I want them to say these things early in the game and not weeks later when their stock is crashing. That’s all I want.

As I entered my office (aka The Sparrows) today, I noticed a cooler right next to the Jones Soda cooler labeled Naked, a brand of fruit juices. It reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago on Getting Naked.  I thought I’d revisit that topic here.

At the time, I was preparing for a WOMMA conference at which I was speaking on managing online corporate reputations. It’s a theme I’ve tried to carry through on my site and business cards and in my practice of public relations: Honest, Open, Transparent communications (HOTcomms). 

If HOTcomms were practiced by all companies and organizations, the public relations profession itself wouldn’t have its own reputation issues.  When organizations use their “PR” function to obfuscate or “spin” or perform some other sleight of hand to distract their audiences from the plain, bare truth, the public simply loses trust in the organizations AND anything labeled “PR.”

When will CEOs, political candidates and others realize that eventually their disingenuous communications will come back to bite them in the butt?  There may have been a time in the past when you could get away with tricking your audiences, but today there are millions of people online ready to correct the record or shed light on a topic they feel is being “spun.”  Candidates espousing a particular position are reminded of previous statements or actions indicating a different viewpoint in the past. Companies hiding information related to their financials are usually discovered these days. Ask Enron or any of the hundreds of companies listed online that have tried to get away with unethical practices.

Social media — a vast online conversation surrounding just about every topic — has nearly ensured that the truth will eventually come out on just about any topic.  If more than one person knows a secret, eventually they’ll talk.  And that secret will quickly spread throughout the online universe, because that’s what happens with secrets. The more you try to hide something, the bigger the “aha” moment when it’s discovered.

Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote about being open in Naked Conversations, and Don Tapscott and David Ticoll covered similar territory in The Naked Corporation.  In April 2007, Wired Magazine had a series of articles themed “Get Naked and Rule the World.” All of them pointed out that, increasingly, there are no secrets. Information “wants to be free” and quickly becomes so online.

With this new reality, businesses and organizations that will advance to the next level are those committed to transparency, adapting to consumer needs as expressed by the consumers themselves, and providing a level of unprecedented participation. There are many examples of brands that have succeeded in creating productive, engaged conversations around their brands. Those conversations are not always positive, but the willingness to allow critique results in a “double positive.” The honest, open and transparent brands get good marks for what is already positive about their brands, and they get good marks for openly discussing what’s not completely positive (provided that consumers see movement in the right direction on those negatives).

People don’t always expect perfection. But they expect not to be lied to. They can forgive a company when things don’t always go right. But they don’t forgive attempts to spin or cover up or outright lie about what hasn’t gone right.  My advice always is to “out yourself before you’re outed by others.” If you allow someone else to tell your bad news before you, you’re already digging yourself out of a hole. By presenting the not-s0-great information yourself, you’re able to also tell your key audiences what you’re doing about the situation.

So, my advice back in 2007 and for 2010 is to “get naked.”  While HOTcomms may not always be the way to quick success, it is fundamental to long-term success.