Extraordinarily Tone Deaf Twitter “Promo” from Vanderbilt Football

As a social media strategist or manager, it doesn’t take deep institutional memory of controversy or even a particularly sensitive ear to be a decent human being with some common sense.

Yet, here we are with another case study of common sense in short supply:

Vanderbilt University’s football twitter account has been hyping the 2015 season and today tweeted the above “promo.” Even if the team had a squeaky clean record, the language is cringe-inducing. The volume of the conversation on ending sexual violence on college campuses has increased nationwide and schools, departments, administrators and communication teams have to be listening.

However, Vanderbilt Football doesn’t have a squeaky clean record. Two of its football players were convicted of rape in January of this year.

So when the promo tweet went out, the reaction from social media was swift.

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Three minutes later it was deleted. Then the standard apology.

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Well, I think we all assumed you didn’t mean it to be about sexual assault…

Why do organizations of all shapes and sizes seem to not be able to see past the end of their noses and make mistakes like this?

My theory? No one is empowered to speak up and say, “that’s a bad idea.” Groupthink is a powerful force and if an individual feels like they’re in the minority, it can be hard to go against the flow and disrupt the perceived cohesiveness of the group.

Organizations have to foster a culture where the discussion about content includes asking and answering to, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

What does that take?

  • Creating a team that’s diverse and brings a variety of perspectives to the table. You can imagine a locker room talk scenario in the Vanderbilt social media team where this idea came up. As football “insiders,” they knew what they meant and didn’t have to explain it to each other. (Honestly, I’m not sure what they meant in a football context.)
  • Building time into the content approval process to think it through and consider the worst case scenario. I’ve been part of many teams where you’re moving so fast that it’s hard to find time to stop and think and it’s easy to make mistakes. That’s dangerous.
  • Leadership that’s committed to all of the above.

And, of course, a society that doesn’t condone and tolerate rape culture would be great, too.

Traveling Linky Love

I’m just wrapping up a weekend in Seattle where I was a keynote at the Pacific Northwest President Elect Training Seminar, so I’m a bit late on my weekly best-of. In fact, I can tell that I’ll be running to catch up with myself this week… so here we go!

You can learn more info about these “linky loves” and the background on the students’ assignment here.

Enjoy!

Wishing For Spring Linky Love

What an amazing week! There’s nothing like watching a revolution via social media to bring the power of shared communication, collaboration and instant connections into full view. Besides the revolution in Egypt, I found lots of great content this week to share with you.

This infographic is very busy, but has some good info about how people are using social media in crises and emergencies. Pretty remarkable, yet very intuitive.

I’m sorry, the story of Sony’s social media blunder, to me, just doesn’t have the weight or consequence that some of the other recent social media blunders (like Kenneth Cole’s). But it is worth noting how far and wide a single tweet can travel.

This Q and As on Quora is really interesting and has some good lessons about blogger relations with some of the most read tech blogs. I’ll note that most of the answers are not from PR people, which gives them a little different perspective.

Running low on blog ideas? Some great ideas from Kenna Griffin at The KRG to convince you (and she’s right!) that blog ideas are everywhere.

How is Facebook changing the way family history is documented? How will you be remembered on Facebook? This is a really interesting post from GROW Blog and guest blogger John White.

GROW is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs. This post is another good one (a guest blog, too) about how one blog post helped Antonia Harler get a job in social media. This stuff is powerful, you guys. Listen up!  You can follow Antonia on Twitter, too.

Lindsay Olsen, my favorite PR recruiter and mom of an adorable little girl, has a post about what questions your resume should answer. I picked up a few tips here, too. Worth a read, even if you look elsewhere for your weekly response post topic.

Grammar Girl’s podcast is a great listen and this episode is on how to use first, second and third person.

Now for something a little more philosophical from Presentation Zen. Garr talks about how there are really only two mistakes we should fear – not starting and not finishing. And yes, there are beautiful photos and some slide design ideas to go with.

Finally, a couple of posts on the horrid Groupon Super Bowl ads. This one from Spin Sucks criticizes Groupon’s “apology” and this one from Liz Strauss says clever is only clever when it doesn’t offend and offers some advice for Groupon to heal its black eye.

Enjoy! and in the meantime, hopefully this spring-like weather stays around. So thankful we didn’t have snowpocalypse here. 🙂

Repairing a reputation: Interview on KVAL News

I was interviewed by KVAL news about reputation management and crisis communication this week. Our Duck athletes have been having some trouble staying out of trouble and the reporter wanted to talk to me about what they should do. I declined to comment specifically on the story – I don’t have enough “inside” information and because I both teach and have clients at the University of Oregon, I wanted to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.

But I did agree to talk generally about how an organization in a tough spot might respond and think about repairing. This is the short version of the story. If the longer version gets posted, I’ll update.

Crisis Communications: Media Analysis

As part of our final report to Grayback Forestry, my partner Leslie and I wrote a media analysis, trying to capture the sheer volume of media contacts in the first 72 hours after the helicopter crash. I thought I’d share part of it with you here.

I’ve found that the media attention tends to move in phases. I usually identify four phases of media attention based on my experience and here I’ll tell you about phase one as it relates specifically to this incident.

Phase One: Breaking News

The first 72 hours following the announcement of the accident were the most intense in terms of media attention. In an effort to best tell a breaking news story, the media seek the who, what, when, where, why and how. They want names of injured and missing (the fallen firefighters were considered missing, but presumed perished, for the first couple of days), they wanted to know where the accident occurred and the condition of the injured firefighters.

We fielded an estimated 500 media calls during the first 72 hours.

This was a national media story, and we had contacts with local, regional and national media of all types. Many outlets also had multiple reporters covering different angles or different aspects of the story. For example, the Oregonian had no less than five reporters seeking information during these first three days.

The first few days are often the most difficult because information is not always accurate and access to the people the reporters want to talk to are both limited. In particularly chaotic environments, it can also be hard to even know where media will show up – Grayback Forestry has two bases in southern Oregon and the accident occurred in northern California (and media were in all three places, plus the hospitals).

In the first phase it’s not possible to be proactive in the way we typically try to be in PR at this point, but it is possible to understand the media’s need for information. The information needs vary depending on the phase and having some sense of what those needs are will allow you to respond as quickly as possible. You do say, “I don’t know” and “Let me find that out” a lot in the first days, though.

It was key that the company had a Web site that was built on Joomla, a content management system, so I was able to quickly navigate the back-end menus and keep the site up to date. As an aside, Joomla is fairly clunky and I got stuck multiple times, but it was better than nothing and access was as simple as a user name and password (as opposed to having to track down FTP information).

Having an up-to-date Web site was helpful for creating a central information portal. This reduced the number of calls and reduced the length of some calls (“the information you need is on the Web site”). Having rudimentary Web skills or someone at your beck-and-call to manage the Web is only going to continue to grow in importance for crisis communicators.

How do we handle all of this? Keep your cell phone charged, remember to eat and keep important information at your fingertips… these are long days. It’s also important to keep good records – log every media call, what the reporter needed and whether or not you were able to respond.

Also try to understand, as quickly as possible, how the company operates and who you can go to for information. Despite the intense pressure you’re feeling to respond to the media, be empathetic and understand what people in the company are going through. This is an important skill in most of what we do in public relations, but in crisis work, it’s vital – especially incidents like this one.

In phase two, you have the opportunity to help shape the story going forward and I’ll tell you more about that, soon.

Have questions? Ask!

Photos by me (top to bottom): Interview with Scott Charlson’s family, employee meeting preceeding press conference, press conference, KDRV’s Tove Tupper interviewing Mike Wheelock.

Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies Bring PR Challenges: Issues to Watch During the Games

Most international events allow us to armchair quarterback the public relations outreach and response. The Beijing Summer Olympics is no different and provides some unique issues due to the Chinese political system and the international-scale issues around which the international community is raising a cacophony of voices.

In 2001, after China had won the bid for the 2008 games, a senior official said,

“Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international community.”

The statement sums up what China wants to get out of these games, but it seems the country’s challenges related to its political system, primarily, are taking the luster off the games for the country.

Issues and challenges that may be worth paying attention to during these Olympic Games:

    The “No-Fun” Olympics: Dubbed as such by some western media, the phrase refers to the massive, sweeping security measures put in place. Visa numbers are being restricted, reducing the number of visitors, curbs on outdoor parties, closure of local bars and nightspots. One journalist from tourist publication Time Out Beijing said nightlife is looking, “very dull.”

    Recently, I supervised a group of interns who were monitoring media coverage for the Track & Field trials here in Eugene. The powers-that-be here were very concerned about the quality of the experience for media, spectators and athletes. If these groups in Beijing aren’t happy, the world will hear about via their blogs, traditional media or just word of mouth.

    Impact of the Games on the Average Beijinger: Word is that forced migration, “beautification measures,” land seizures and a lack of financial return for most local businesses means Beijing residents may just be forcing a smile and just trying to make it though. Media will be looking for these stories to give a sense of the culture and community in the host country. Of course, the lack of access to journalists to tell these stories could be the headline, too. (photo International Herald Tribune)

    Can China Control the Weather?: or at least the suffocating pollution in Beijing? Double digit economic growth without accompanying regulations to manage the impacts mean that China is trying to clear out a decade or two of pollution in a short amount of time. And in August, when temperatures reach 100 degrees in the city, “the atmosphere around Beijing becomes a photochemical bouillabaisse of coal smog, steel-mill spume, and tailpipe crud, mingled with concrete dust and baked in the oven formed by the surrounding hills.” (From Wired) On an average day, the pollution in Beijing is three times the World Health Organization’s standard deemed safe. Factory relocation, driving restrictions and other regulations have reportedly resulted in a week of “clean air” according to the Telegraph. I think the question is if it’s enough and if it’s sustainable. And of course, if it’s true. China has been accused of skewig then numbers in its favor.

    Will Human Rights Issues Continue?: In the months leading up to next week’s opening ceremonies, China has been forced to deal with a number of issues, the result of which has not tended to be a bettering of China’s reputation, but rather a confirmation of a rigid, repressive regime. March protests in Tibet resulted in a violent crackdown on protesters and the Olympic Torch relay route around the world was lined with activists clamoring for China to grant more autonomy to Tibet and to lean on Sudan to quell the violence in that country both forced China to realize the depth and breadth of the international concern. Rather than the promised improvements in human rights policies, China has responded with “a traditional mix of intimidation, imprisonment and violent repression.” (from Foreign Affairs)

    The Opaque Chinese Government: China has, in the eyes of many, failed to respond adequately to its critics on issues of human rights and inability to effectively manage its environmental and product-safety issues brings to the surface the country’s insular orientation and leaves a huge blind spot. China never saw a connection between these international issues and the pageantry of the Olympics and its response has been awkward. The government has not been able to engage the groups who have focused on the international issues and China’s role in them. The lack of transparency and accountability and rule of law make many wary of China’s ability to pull off a huge international event (in the short term) and be an effective and responsible international player (in the long term).

    Available Safe Food and Safe Water?: A rash of scandals in the last year have revealed food tainted with steroids and insecticides and as much as half of the bottled water in Beijing does not meet potable-water standards. The US and Australian teams announced they are bringing some or all of their own food and bottled water will be supplied by Coca-Cola. Beijing has promised a safe Olympics, now they must deliver or the legacy of the games will be one much different than that imagined by China.

The next questions of course, is if any of these issues come to the fore or if the spirit of the Olympics will prevail, how will China deal with them and how will the rest of the world respond?

Resources:
China’s Olympic Nightmare (Foreign Affairs)
Smog and Mirrors: China’s Plan for a Green Olympics (Wired)
The No Fun Olympics (Antiwar.com)
Olympics Blogroll (Beijing Olympics Blog)

Crisis Communications: Always New Lessons to Be Learned

I’m slightly embarrassed that it’s been a month since I posted. It’s summer here, which I assumed would allow me to post more. Not so. I’ve been busier than I’ve been in a long time… and it’s one of these cases I want to share with you.

Wildfires have been raging in Northern California. When the resources of the U.S. Forest Service run thin, they hire private wildland firefighting companies. There are dozens of these companies.

Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs in America and the men and women who fight fires often do so in perilous conditions and in extremely remote areas of the country.

I work with several wildland firefighting companies, as well as the national association that represents these companies, through my association with DCS Consulting. (DCS is run by one of my dear friends and long-time mentor and I have sub-contracted on work with her for years.)

On July 4 and 7, two wildland firefighters from two separate companies died. The two circumstances were very different and neither was on a fire. I was called to help draft a release and statement, coordinate the media and work with the companies to ensure families and employees were being taken care of.

Neither case received widespread attention beyond the localized media. They were relatively simple, but if you ever work on a crisis, you’ll understand that even a relatively simple crisis takes all the mental and emotional energy you have.

As I’m a week away from wrapping up work, I thought I’d reflect on a few lessons learned this time around.

  • Some people don’t like to talk to the media… okay, probably most people don’t like to talk to the media. But one of the two company owner’s had a particularly hard time understanding why it was important that he told the story and provided information, rather than allowing others to do for him. He relented and had a great interview on a local radio station talking about the firefighter who died, what kind of man he was, how long they’d worked together (an amazing 11 years – unusual in this industry), how moving the memorial service was and how the company was helping its employees and families.
  • The media are not your only, or even your primary audience. This isn’t necessarily a lesson learned, but a good reminder. When a company loses an employee, other employees, the families, local community and elected officials and opinion leaders that serve the company’s locale and other affected jurisdictions. Some of the nicest responses I received to information sent out on behalf of one company were from county supervisors in Shasta, Humboldt and Trinity counties in California.
  • You always need a fresh pair of eyes to read over a public statement or press release, especially when you are in a hurry. I had a major typo in one release I sent… ’nuff said.

I enjoy crisis work because it’s fast paced, very strategic and you’re helping people who are in a very difficult situation navigate how to best communicate. It’s difficult, stressful and exhausting; but at the end of the day, you can feel good about your work.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Part 2

“I thought I was reading the movie script for ‘Cuckoo’s Nest 2.”

This was the reaction of Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem when he receive the report from the Justice Department regarding the deplorable conditions at the Oregon State Hospital.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, of course, was filmed at the Oregon State Hospital 30 years ago.

The Justice Department documented incidents of patient-to-patient assaults, multiple suicide attempts by patients who were supposed to be on one-on-one monitoring, improper use of seclusion and restraints alongside mice in the rooms, outbreaks of norovirus and scabies and seclusion rooms where staff refused to clean up ‘messes.’

Courtney’s reaction, I think, was a bit flippant for such a horrible situation. Fortunately, he’d prefaced that comment with a more appropriate reaction at least partially in line with the crisis communication mantra of “tell it first, tell it fast, tell them what you’re going to to about it.”

“Whatever it takes, we will do,” Courtney said. “It’s a simple as that.”

Courtney is also launching a task force to provide information to the legislature on whether the hospital is complying with the requirements of the report.

The Justice Department’s report and the Senate President’s task force will, hopefully, require that an organization (the State Hospital) that has heretofore been very opaque be more transparent in its actions.

In circumstances where you may work with (or for) an organization that serves or must communicate with voiceless populations, transparency takes a top-to-bottom commitment. It is a challenge to ensure you’re hearing the voices of the voiceless.

There are few populations that have less of a voice than patients committed to a State Hospital. And it seems as if no one (not the legislature, not the hospital and not the activist group that originally filed suit) is getting the communication right. Each knew the report was forthcoming, yet appeared to be unprepared.

If you were representing the hospital, what would your next steps be?

Read more about the report here.

Sprint Should Do the Right Thing

Sprint is skeptical. A Tacoma family insists that their phones are being hijacked. They are getting death threats, someone is watching them through the cell phone camera and leaving terrifying voicemails on both cell and home lines. You can see the Today Show story here.

I’ve heard the story on a couple of news outlets, most recently on NPR. The NPR host characterized Sprint’s response as saying it was not possible to do what the family says was being done.

From the Tacoma News-Tribune: Complaints to their phone companies do no good – the families say they’ve been told what the stalkers are doing is impossible.

From KIRO-TV: “We are unaware of technology that would enable the activity portrayed in this story to occur, and we will support law enforcement as appropriate on investigating the issue,” Caroline Semerdijian with Sprint Nextel said.

Media have trotted out a series of experts that say, yeah, it’s possible. In fact, not only is it possible, it’s relatively easy (like teen-prank-easy).

According to James M. Atkinson, a Massachusetts-based expert in counterintelligence who has advised the U.S. Congress on security issues, it’s not that hard to take remote control of a wireless phone. “You do not have to have a strong technical background for someone to do this,” he said Tuesday. “They probably have a technically gifted kid who probably is in their neighborhood.”

An old story on MSNBC even has Sprint saying it’s possible to hack into a phone. So, it’s possible that Paris Hilton’s phone would get hacked, but not this regular person from Tacoma?

Others disagree, saying is possible, but very very unlikely. Many fingers seem to point at someone the family knows as behind this. And some are even pointing at the 16-year-old daughter.

The family matriarch was interviewed saying that they were going to take a break from cell phones for a while. She’d just received her disconnection notice from Sprint and told them she had no intention to pay the bill.

This is an opportunity for Sprint to step up and do the right thing – even if Sprint thinks the family is full of crap. The family is working with local law enforcement, the FBI and even Homeland Security. Clearly the threat is real to each of them.

Sprint should:

  • Provide new cell phones. New phones, new accounts, new numbers. They should ensure that the numbers are secure, locked, blocked and as anonymous as possible.
  • Comp the family’s service until this is worked out.
  • Be visibly cooperative with law enforcement.
  • Start and lead a new industry-wide “cell phone security” campaign to educate people and work to develop protections for its customers.

Sprint should not:

  • Discredit the experiences or feelings of customers. Any customers, much less those who are getting national media attention.
  • Make any kind of absolute statements saying this hijacking just isn’t possible.
  • Avoid commenting on any media story (you can tell Sprint is NOT doing the right thing because they are avoiding the spotlight. If they were being good corporate citizens, they would be talking.)

Any potential financial loss that Sprint would take here is going to be returned 100-fold in enhanced reputation. The wireless industry is cutthroat and if I were a Sprint customer, I’d be thinking twice about renewing my contract with them.

What are your thoughts?

Photo: Allison Yin/News Tribune

Guest Post: What Virginia Tech is Doing Right (and Wrong)

This post is a letter from my mentor, Leslie Habetler, to some of her crisis planning and management clients. With her permission, I’m reposting it here.

As I watch this unfold, I thought it might be helpful to point some things out that would be helpful if you ever face such a situation (in any scale). First it is obvious they have a crisis response plan and they are doing a lot right.

For those of you whom I have helped in this way, you can see what they are doing right in handling the media. The President has obviously had good media coaching and they are keeping a careful log of everything they are doing so the media knows they are acting in an
aggressively appropriate manner. The university media person is cranking out updates for him at a rapid pace and they are posting them on the website and on every medium available to keep rumor down. The police chief is not losing his cool but his exhaustion is clear and he is suffering from the trauma of what he has seen. He is being very very careful and doing a good job in the face of some extremely insistent media.

The problem as I see it is the media is in control of the conference and that must never happen. If you are ever in this situation, it is vital that you stay in control of these media briefings.

You must face the media but you get to set the rules…don’t ever let them think otherwise. Here is what I would do from the beginning: Set up the media conference time, make it clear that the president and the police chief will make an update statement and then open it up to questions. So far so good.

Here is what is not happening: The pr person is not setting adequate boundaries and rules. Most important is setting a time limit for the Q&A period and spelling out rules for asking questions. Such as: requiring them to raise their hand and be recognized in order to ask a question. (They are all shouting at him and he is exhausted) Also notice that the reporters are
asking the same questions over and over in slightly different ways to try to get the Chief to spill some previously unspilled ‘beans’. Learn to say, “I have answered that question” and recognize someone else. Or even “asked and answered” And then move on to another reporter.
Notice also that some reporters are trying to put words in his mouth. Learn to say, “Those are your words, not mine”. and move on to another reporter.

You must be in charge. At the end of the allotted Q&A time, your pr person must step up to the mike and say “we have time for one more question” and then step up again to thank them for coming, telling them when the next briefing is and direct them to the website where updates will be posted. (While he is doing this, someone is getting you off that stage and out of
there.)

You will probably never face anything of this magnitude but it is at least worth noting and thinking through with your employees.

Best regards to all of you, Leslie Habetler

Photo: Alan Kim, The Roanoke Times via Associated Press

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