The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Category Archives: Issue Management

Red Cross getting addictive

We noticed Rohit Bhargava’s list of the Top 15 Marketing & Social Media Trends To Watch In 2011 – some interesting concepts, a few of which we’d like to point to, considering their possibilities within communications campaigns.  The main list covers:

  1. Likeonomics
  2. Approachable Celebrity
  3. Desperate Simplification
  4. Essential Integration
  5. Rise of Curation
  6. Visualized Data
  7. Crowdsourced Innovation
  8. Instant PR & Customer Service
  9. App-fication of the Web
  10. Reimagining Charity
  11. Employees As Heroes
  12. Locationcasting
  13. Brutal Transparency
  14. Addictive Randomness
  15. Culting Of Retail

Let’s take a few an expand:

Desperate simplification – Data overload is increasingly hampering any coherent and strong messaging as we are all bombarded with information on several platforms.  People will congregate around those tools which give them a degree of control of this deluge  and provide simplification.  Such platforms will be the iPad (and the myriad of apps), tumblr, animoto, amazon, and maybe quora.

Funny and viral … and well integrated

Essential integration –  With this almost limitless number of platforms, the holy grail will increasingly become integration of campaigns, often screwed up my departmental infighting, agencies working to subtly different objectives and downright laziness or lack of creativity.  Last year’s viral phenomena of the Old Spice Guy worked not only because of its creative content but die to its seamless integration and placement across different platforms.

Content Curation –  Increasingly aggregators or curators, such as paper.li, are becoming seen as effective filters and hubs for information centred upon a campaign, product or idea.  These can act as effectively draw the audience, as a trusted and simple source.

Addictive randomness:  Ever found yourself just clicking to see what’s next – addicted to the random nature of internet available information?  The phenomena is not researched but there’s something there.  How can it be used to push the boundaries of a campaign?  The American Red Cross provides a great example

Recognizing an issue and getting dirty early

Brutal transparency –  Many lessons have been learned throughout several corporate crises over 2010.  One is a more proactive approach to issue management in which painfully a honest approach to negativity is seen to outweigh the costs of reactive efforts after the event.  Rohit cites the Domino Pizza and Southwest Airlines campaigns to raise themselves above the others in this regard.  The whole idea is an advance on our mantra of ‘Get dirty early’.

This is just a smattering – things are moving at a blistering pace.  Keep up now!


The Week put forth a pithy summation of Robert Cyran’s (Reuters BreakingViews) perspective on privacy, in which he holds that privacy has been the main casualty of 2010.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been crowned Person of the Year by Time Magazine, and Wkileaks boss Julian Assange, has topped the associated reader poll, notes Robert Cyran. Both have “uncommon levels of self-belief and superior coding abilities” – and both are leading “the technological assault on privacy”. There are obvious differences in scale and intent between a social networking business with more than 500 million users and a small, non-profit which uncovers “censored injustices”. But the two outfits share a devotion to the idea that society benefits when more is made public. This may, however, be their “golden hour”. The costs of bringing formerly private things to light are becoming increasingly evident: even the relatively benign-seeming Zuckerberg is likely to face calls for far greater accountability from Facebook’s mass of users, if not regulators, one day. Whatever constraints are eventually imposed on either model, however, the genie is out of the bottle. The chief “casualty” of 2010 was privacy.

Enough said.

Note that the readers went for Assange not Zuckerberg ... hmm, interesting.


Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies.  Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.

No Deepwater Horizons here?

But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.

Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.

Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless.  The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products.  This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century.  Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.

The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly.  Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.

The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again.  Management, at the very least, need to be fully engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media.  Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization.  By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.

But why bother?  Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises.  One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP.  The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.

These little things make traditional media skills even more vital.

This is flawed logic.  Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so.  But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology.  People want someone, not something, to reassure them.  Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface.  The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts.  New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.

On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly.  That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist.  Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television.  Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.

Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations.  This involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media.  If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.  It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.

Of course, not all organizations will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call.  But many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis.  The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, the bottom line?   While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble.  Just ask Tony Hayward.


According to the Times, BP said that its costs for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spill have reached $1.25 billion (£870 million) as it set out plans to place a second cap on the leak.  Further, as of 1 June, BP’s shares had fallen by 13%, as reported by the BBC.  It has lost nearly a third of its value since the Deepwater Horizon blowout on 20 April.

There is no doubt that the sheer severity of the Gulf catastrophe has had a monumental effect on the reputation of BP, justly or not, and the financial cost will be staggering.  But with perception being reality, how much has the ‘perception’ of BP’s response contributed to the financial accounts?

BP’s engineers, along with countless others from several agencies, have worked tirelessly to stem the oil flow, yet still they are seen as the culprits, while the US government and its loose legislative approach to oil drilling in the area, Haliburton, responsible for the mechanical upkeep of systems that failed, and Transocean, the drilling company hired by BP, largely avoid the ire of the public.  BP’s response has been massive, practically and financially, yet their efforts are all painted against the blame which is thrown at them.

The fact that public anger is concentrated on BP, and not others, may have something to do with the media response they put forward.  It terms of crisis communications they have acted quickly and succinctly, as can be seen from their online work.  But their words, coming from their spokesperson of choice, CEO Tony Hayward, have acted as a magnet for anger and distrust, not sympathy and understanding.  And the question, albeit unquantifiable, must be raised: how much has the performance of Hayward in the media contributed to the financial hammer blow? 1%, 5%, 10% (even at 1% we’re taking  lots of zeros)

It is ironic that Tony Hayward, a very capable CEO, has always been known for his aggressive approach to maintaining and raising safety standards.  His experience in the field of oil exploration and the industry as a whole is (or should be) beyond reproach.  But all that counts for little when dealing with a vengeful media, encouraged by a public baying for blood, feeding a crisis maelstrom.

Hayward - Good CEO, bad spokesperson?

The cleverest, most capable, experienced, sensible, respected, even honest, CEO is never necessarilycapable of dealing with a media storm.  Such circumstances tend to be way outside their comfort zone, in an environment normally way out of their control.  The angel of the boardroom may be adept at managing people, resources, time, finances and the market, but without considerable forethought, experience, and training in dealing with the media these management attributes will count for little, and may cost a lot.

Hayward has been castigated for his performance in the media – from wanting his life back, when 11 were killed in the initial tragedy, to claiming that the ocean is very big, when to locals that’s not quite the point.  There are many other examples, in which Hayward has added (excuse the pun) fuel to the fire.

CB3, having looked into Hayward’s background and career, has no doubt over the honourable intentions of BP’s Chief, but if CEOs, senior managers, subject matter experts and spokespeople are ever going to face the media under such an onslaught, preparation, practice, mentoring and extensive training are utterly vital.  Working your message (assuming you know what it is), reconnecting during interview, handing tangential issues, subtle bridging, persuasive techniques, linguistic dexterity – these are all cerebral actions which must be almost second-nature during the sparring of a harsh media interview, manifesting itself in a rapid mental obstacle course.  Speaking confidently at the annual AGM, providing lively and humourous dinner party chat amongst other titans of industry, eloquently arguing your case in the  boardroom – all good and well, but such attributes, whilst handy, will not enable the dynamics, strategy and tactics required of a crisis media interview (or any media interview, come to that). It is a different ball game, in a different ball park, in a different country.

In defending one’s reputation during a crisis, being seen to do the right thing is crucial but as Hayward has shown, words spoken in the media during a crisis can be very, very expensive, immediately and for a long time afterwards.


The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice,  Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election. 

Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests.  It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe.  The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000).  The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.

Libel Laws - keeping these guys busy.

The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public.  Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US.  Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.  As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public.  Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.

The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months.   Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.


Interesting snippet caught on Newsnight last night (28/04/09) about energy and climate change issues in the US.  Ethical man Justin Rowlatt covered Powershift 09 as part of his series.  But the crucial communications aspect of Powershift seems to be that a green activist movement, normally shunned by mainstream governments, is being seen as a method of encouraging and persuading American voters of Obama’s climate change agenda, using activists (seen being trained in how to resist arrest) as ambassadors for a government policy.

Ambassadors of US energy policy?

Ambassadors of US energy policy?

Now this proximity of traditional enemies is not new – Shell and BP have taken considerable steps to be seen as green through apparent (and only occasional) connectivity with activist groups like Greenpeace, although emnity is deep and remains for obvious reasons.  And there are many political groups who will support political pitches, including that of the incumbent government.  But the use of strident activists to promote a government policy against a generally accepted stance i.e. the fossil fuel economy, seems to be a new leap.  This is not Astroturf but using genuine activism for policy endorsement.

The circumstances may be unique to the cap and trade issue in the US, but this approach does beg several questions – are there other circumstances where political policy can be matched with vocal activists against a form of accepted, conventional wisdom?  And further, are there circumstances in developing  and post-conflict countries which can be used in a similar way?

This is not necessarily countenancing covert support to student groups under totalitarian regimes, but where foreign agencies are already engaged (be they UN, NATO etc) do we make full use of grass roots activism (as limited as it may be) to achieve policy goals, or do we still tend to go down the route of mainsteam key leader engagement because it’s easier, more straightforward (relatively!) and more in line with our conventional
Western way of doing things?  Are developing embryonic government institutions, struggling with democracy, encouraged to look towards the power of activist groups or are they merely maintaining their traditional opposition towards them?  Are they, and therefore we, missing a trick?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

Womens activist groups in Afghanistan - holding a vital key?

After all, most governments have always had difficult relationships with autonomous grass roots organisations, unless, of course, they’re onside already.  As ever with trying to improve the performance of public diplomacy and foreign policy communications in a rapidly changing information environment, the above requires some serious unconventional and politically risky thinking.

But that thinking, at the very least, should be done.