Thursday, April 30, 2009
The World Health Organization yesterday raised the alert level to a 5 out of 6. In the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, the worst the world has ever seen, the flu spread around the world in a month. This swine flu has pretty much gone global in a week. Flu pandemics -- there have been three in the last century -- tend to strike in waves. The Spanish Flu started with a first mild wave in March through the United States, Europe, and Asia. A second much deadlier wave struck between September and November 1918. Then a third severe and lethal wave arrived in early 1919.
Don't believe that because there has been just one U.S. death that this flu is merely an inconvenience. It might only be the beginning. You may still have four to six months before the second, more deadly, wave hits. Start working on your pandemic plan. And remember to consider human resources, legal, and financial issues in addition to communications. Develop plans based on the severity of the Spanish Flu, not the comparatively mild Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
I should make a confession. I stopped going to church several years ago when the new pastor admitted to an affair with a married woman from the congregation. That was the last straw for me. Funny thing: A high school girl I was tutoring just last night told me her family stopped attending the same church for the same reason. That was a crisis poorly handled. Churches can experience sudden crises even more devastating. In March, Illinois pastor Fred Winters was shot while preaching in the pulpit. Church fires are not uncommon. Embezzlement is easier in churches than in most businesses because churches tend to be more trusting: Who would dare steal from the Lord? But it happens too often. And rare is the church that's prepared when people get sick and die after a potluck supper.
Rob Phillips deals admirably with the issue of crisis communications in church in an article in Baptist Press (http://bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=30376). He advises, "Most large organizations, from multinational corporations to universities, have crisis communications plans, and so should churches, no matter their size. Whether yours is a mega-church with scores of staff members or a small congregation with a bivocational pastor, it's vital to have a plan."
He's right. Churches that need help identifying crisis vulnerabilities, stakeholders, and messages would be wise to seek help. They can band together, either denominationally or geographically, to share consultation costs. With nonprofit rates offered by the Institute for Crisis Management, a plan for five or 10 or 20 churches would be very low for each participating congregation. It's a necessity church leaders should be considering.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
A girl in Safford, Arizona, Middle School was 13 when she was accused of having drugs at school. A nurse and administrative assistant, both female, forced her to completely strip, searching for contraband in her underwear. (http://www.kansascity.com/444/story/1154764.html) No one even searched her backpack or locker. They were just interested in her dainties. The accusation came from a lone student, claiming Savana Redding had the drugs hidden in her underwear. The drugs they were seeking: ibuprofen. Nothing was found. An appellate court ruled that the search violated Redding's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Redding filed a lawsuit against assistant principal Kerry Wilson, a case that is awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court decision. I suspect if she wins the pending case that her lawyers will go after the school district as well.
This brings back memories of my high school journalism days. But I tackled "meaty" issues like class rank and how the homecoming queen was selected. I never got to sink my teeth into anything this controversial. I would have been all over it. The Supreme Court justices are on both sides of the fence. Conservative justices say that such searches are justified to keep drugs and weapons out of schools. Others are saying that the strip search was unreasonable. School officials were looking for "aspirin" based on the accusations of a single student.
I hope they rule in favor of the girl, who now is a student at Eastern Arizona College. What do you think? Unless there was overwhelming evidence she was packing heat in her drawers or illegal drugs to sell, this goes too far. The dilemma for school districts is this: If the Supreme Court rules in her favor, schools probably will remain unsure about the gray area of when searches are constitutional, which leads to crises waiting to happen. If it rules in favor of the school, I would be wary of more strip searches, which will lead to more crises for schools. A student who dislikes another can claim he or she said there were drugs in the pants or a knife in the bra: strip search. A member of the faculty or staff who wants a peak at a same-sex student can make a false accusation: strip search. These vindictive bullies and pedophiles will be protected by the Supreme Court, even though that doesn't mean the court of public opinion will be as supportive.
Either way, this will continue to be a potential crisis for school districts. They should be watching this ruling carefully, and then develop a crisis communications scenario around, "What if it happens here?" The response, audiences, and messages might be similar to your plan for a student/teacher sexual relationship that hits the news. Schools: know what you're going to say and to whom you will say it. And never think that it never can happen here.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
My point isn't to air both sides of the controversy, but to point out another internet tool that can be used against organizations. A look at gopetition.com lists online active petitions that include, Support for whistleblowing nurse struck off by NMC, Lower Northern Territory Power & Water Increases, Make Earth Day a Federal Holiday, Retain Ted Jackson as Head Coach at Dallas High School, Calgary Airport Traffic Noise, and Stop the Horse Slaughter. You can start your own petition for free! And just like most other communications via the internet, you don't even have to be truthful.
This is just one additional potential weapon you and your organization need to monitor.
Friday, April 17, 2009
You've read the story or seen the video by now. A Domino's employee in North Carolina is phone-videoed by a co-worker pulling cheese from his nose and wiping his posterior to contaminate a sandwich. Posting it on YouTube was almost as dumb as the act itself. Both employees involved have been appropriately fired and jailed on charges of food tampering.
We can hope this is an isolated incident, both within Domino's and the entire fast-food industry. The interesting part of this story for me is Domino's response. How can the company react, recover quickly, and lose the least business and revenue possible?
Domino's got off to a terrible start, but has recovered somewhat. According to the New York Times (http://wwwnewsobserver.com/nation_world/v-print/story/1487640.html), the company's spokesperson said executives decided when they learned of the video on Tuesday to ignore the crisis and hope it would go away. That was bad idea #1. More than a million viewers watched the gross-out video before it was removed from YouTube by one of the perpetrators. Bad idea #2 came from the aforementioned spokesperson, Tim McIntyre, who said, "We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea." Sure, they were idiots, but a spokesperson shouldn't refer to employees, fired or otherwise, as "idiots." And to say Domino's was "blindsided" is to admit it doesn't have an effective crisis plan or didn't implement the plan it has. If you have a good crisis plan, you should rarely be "blindsided."
Which brings up the point: Does your crisis plan account for a cyber attack on your reputation? It should, particularly if you are a consumer products company like Domino's. The pizza giant wisely changed its head-in-the-sand strategy by Wednesday afternoon. It created a Twitter account to address comments and filmed its president, Patrick Doyle, in a video posted on YouTube that evening. To view the company's apology and Doyle's video, see http://www: dominosbiz.com/Biz-Public-EN/Extras/Cares. Doyle does very well. I like the current approach: Use the same cyberspace as your critics to restore confidence in your brand. But that strategy was more than 24 hours too late. In the world of instant messaging, an immediate response is imperative. Make sure your crisis plan has you ready for a domino's-like crisis.
And what is Domino's doing to prevent a recurrence? According to USA Today, it's considering banning video cameras in stores. Huh? Cameras aren't the problem, "idiot" employees are. If you can't make a rule banning snot and farts from your products, how are you going to enforce a no-cameras-allowed rule? I think you better think that one through a little better, Domino's.
Monday, April 13, 2009
An outside company would be hired to operate the tip line. Council members say that's important so that people won't feel threatened to report evil deeds in government. When a tip comes in, it will be referred anonymously to the department or agency best suited to investigate.
This proposal is an indictment of the way managers in local government manage and the culture of fear and retribution that comes as a result. We shouldn't have to spend $12,000 a year to do what should happen naturally.
But the sad fact is that this tip line is the next best alternative to an environment of trust. If the culture in your organization suggests you keep your head low and don't cause trouble, then you also need a tip line or an ombudsman or some other anonymous system to catch the bad apples in your barrel.
An effective system for reporting waste and theft is the way many smoldering crises are prevented. If that smolder turns into flame, as it did in Louisville's Housing and Human Services Department, there follows embarrassment, stakeholder outrage, loss of credibility, new laws and ordinances, and more. If you don't have an open communications environment in your business (and be sure it really is open and not just someone's perception), consider a system for employees to report wrongdoing. It may save you from using that crisis communications plan quite so often.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Paul Haven, Associated Press, wrote yesterday that everyone is vulnerable to cyber spying. (http://www.philly.com/philly/wires/ap/news/nation_world/20090409_ap_cyberspyingathreatandeveryoneisinonit.html) The Pentagon just announced it spent $100 million in the last six months responding to cyber attacks and other internet problems. The White House is finishing a study of how the government can better use technology to protect the nation's electrical grids, stock markets, and even nuclear launch codes. Last year alone there were 5,500 known breaches of U. S. government computers. That's almost twice as many as the previous two years combined.
"The electrical grid," Haven wrote, "might already have been compromised by spies who left behind computer programs that would let them disrupt service, a former U.S. government official told The Associated Press. The official said the sophistication of the attack meant it was almost certainly state-sponsored, but the government does not know its extent because federal officials lack the authority to monitor the entire grid."
Haven said according to Joel Brenner, head of the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, claims that skilled cyber attackers can remotely turn on the camera on your home computer, convert your cell phone into a listening device, and even turn the earphones of your iPod into microphones.
David Livingstone of the Chatham House think tank in London said cyber espionage is a problem to businesses and individuals as well as government. "Anywhere there is attractive intellectual property and anything that is valuable and useful to someone else will be a target," he said.
Your company's IT department probably is vigilant against cyber attacks and regularly upgrades its defenses. Does you crisis plan receive such scrutiny? Are you ready to communicate if a cyber attack becomes public knowledge? Employees, customers, shareholders, and others could lose confidence in the organization's ability to protect its data and their privacy. You need to be ready to communicate your company's commitment to confidentiality of data.
"There’s a difference between having a sense of humor and taking things too far," she led off. She went on to describe an online contest Ryanair is hosting, asking for ideas for the company to add fees to passengers, offering 1,000 Euros to the idea that gets the most votes. The top five leading suggestions so far (http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/news.php?yr=09&month=mar&story=pro-en-120309):
- Charging for toilet paper – with CEO Michael O’Leary’s face on it
- Charging €2.50 to read the safety cards
- Charging €1 to use oxygen masks
- Charging €25 to use the emergency exit
- Charging €50 for bikini clad Cabin Crew
Funny, funny stuff. It gets worse. At a news conference in Germany, O'Leary offered a sex act on board that I won't even write here. And he said it again and again to the reporters through his female interpreter. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfIY24BErBE)
Miller wanted to talk to someone at Ryanair about its communications philosophy, but to no avail. Others experience similar difficulty contacting anyone at the airline. She identified a web site (http://www.ryanaircampaign.org/) for people frustrated with the company. "By far our most common reason for correspondence," according to one writer, "is the difficulty that people have contacting Ryanair, for example being charged for premium rate phone calls while trying to avoid multiple charges after website failures. An Early Day Motion and EU Legislation have called for companies like Ryanair to provide an email address, without success so far. But finally it looks as if the law is catching up with them."
I found another web site, a Travolution blog called, "This is why Ryanair is a genius of PR." (http://www.travolution.co.uk/blog/2009/02/this-is-why-ryanair-is-a-geniu.php) It shows the broad mentions the company has received in European and U.S. news media. The comments that follow are a mixed bag of whether this is "genius" or damaging.
Miller's depressing conclusion in the Ragan piece was, "Its communication strategy may be terrible and it might annoy reporters, but business isn’t hurting. Price trumps reputation: customers are willing to book cheap flights despite the lack of contact information on the Web site or an impetuous CEO who spouts off to the press."
When I fly, I want to arrive safely and on time. Spare me your silliness. What do you think? Is this kind of PR effective or detrimental in the long run?
Thursday, April 2, 2009
According to MSNBC, in Setton's New York facility last month, state agricultural authorities "discovered nearly two dozen dead cockroaches, rodent droppings and one live cockroach on an ingredient rolling rack inside the Commack plant, which failed its state health inspection." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com:80/id/30014823/from/ET/)
Setton International Foods Inc., based in Commack, New York, shares staff and packages food with California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., the nation's second-largest pistachio processor. Both companies share a CEO, Joshua Setton, and package foods with both firms' names.
MSNBC said a spokesperson for both companies -- Surprise! -- declined comment. The game is still in the first quarter, but maybe Dushyant Patel of the defunct Sierra Pre-Filled (See my March 2 blog http://crisisexperts.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2009-03-13T09%3A59%3A00-04%3A00&max-results=7) has room in his hideout in India for Setton and Stewart Parnell of the defunct PCA.
Helen A.S. Popkin wrote on an MSNBC blog about a stupid Twitter -- or more accurately, a stupid Twitterer. "theconner" wrote, "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”
Quickly, Tim Levad, a "channel partner advocate" for Cisco Alert, responded: "Who is the hiring manager. I’m sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web."
No word yet on whether "theconner's" job offer was rescinded. It should be. His response to Levad was to set his Twitter account to private and delete all information from his home page. Too late. Before the end of the day, tech-savvy people had tracked down and revealed "theconner's" real name. He was parodied in a popular YouTube. And thanks to Google Cache, the deleted content of his homepage resurfaced on CiscoFatty.com, a Web site erected to warn others to "theconner's" blunder.
Popkin's moral to the story: "The Internet can get you fired." It also can create all kinds of crises for your organization. You need a plan to deal with them.
“These are people who want to do the right thing and follow the law, and they certainly don’t want to be fined,” Lauren Anderson explained. “But many of them don’t know how to comply and report.”
Larger companies here already had to comply. They have environmental engineers on staff or at least they can afford to pay for such expertise to ensure compliance with STAR. But pity the person who opened an auto body shop because he’s good at repairing wrecks who suddenly has to file environmental release estimates. Anderson announced an assistance program to help such business owners avoid needless fines. That’s a welcome program to help many avoid risk.
Tom Thompson is the Institute for Crisis Management’s risk management expert. He recently identified for me four general classifications of ways businesses can avoid unwanted risks:
“Net Income – decreased revenues (This one’s timely, isn’t it?), increased expenses, acts of God (like the recent ice storm here in Kentucky – ugh!), fines (Here’s where APCD’s program will help.), commodities markets, etc.
“Property: – perils (explosion, copyright infringement ), hazards (faulty wiring, internet security breaches), loss (accidents).
“Human Resources – employment practices (drug programs, safety plans, job descriptions, civil rights, personnel manuals).
“Liability – torts, contractual law, slips/falls, housekeeping, unsafe products, poor employee training.
“I asked Dan to post these classifications to remind readers that a serious loss to an otherwise sustainable business can surface from several areas. It is essential that you have a thorough analysis conducted to identify all the risks that pose a threat to sustainability. Once those threats are identified, you can begin the process of determining which tool or combination of tools must be implemented to treat the potential of loss. Again, those tools I wrote about on last week’s blog post are avoidance, assumption, reduction, and transfer. By the way, this identification process is never complete. It is by nature a work in progress as circumstances change, paradigms shift, legal climates change, or APCD implements new air regs.
“The next logical step is to view those exposures and risks through the prism of a qualitative and quantitative analysis. It is imperative to examine frequency and severity patterns and develop assumptions. Determine a projected loss cost – in other words probabilities vs. severity.”
To learn more about Tom Thompson and risk management, read his profile at (http://www.crisisexperts.com/Tom.htm).
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
We had the great peanut salmonella recall of 2009, which quickly closed the processor's three plants and forced its bankruptcy. Civil suits are a certainty, legal suits are a high probability. Now of course the recalled-nut-of-the-month goes to the pistachio and its alleged shipper, Setton Pistachio of California. The company, headquartered in Commack, New York, has closed its plant pending the investigation and lab tests. If this nut case is shown to have come from Setton, the question will become whether the company did so knowingly or took chances with food safety.
I haven't read anything meaningful from the company. I imagine the lawyers have told management to keep quiet until they know what they're dealing with. The closest thing to a company statement I could find was an indirect quote on an MSNBC site (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29963639/): "Fabia D'Arienzo, a spokeswoman for Tulare County-based Setton Pistachio, said the company was only recalling certain bulk roasted in-shell and roasted shelled pistachios that were shipped on or after September 1." Is anyone else seeing any communications from Setton yet?
I gave the late Peanut Corporation of America some credit for being ready for its crisis by lighting up a dark site rather quickly, where it listed links to releases and information. Setton's web site, however, reads like everything's happy and fun in nut land (http://www.settonfarms.com/). I won't be too hard on Setton yet until we know more. But shouldn't it post at least something on the site, even if it's just a link to the FDA recall notice?
The peanut story and pistachio story are strangely similar, especially coming so close together. Both products were shipped widely in bulk and redistributed, meaning they couldn't be traced easily. Both products are used widely as ingredients in other foods, so any product with pistachios is suspect. Both recalls have led to questioning the effectiveness of FDA and Senate calls for Justice Department investigations. Both recalls have huge financial impacts on the nuts' respective industries and on those who use them as ingredients, repackage them under different brands, or sell them on their grocery shelves. Neither company has communicated well, although the jury is out on Setton. And if -- and that's still a big IF -- the company is found guilty of any wrong-doing, no matter how small, you wonder why a company would make the same mistake as PCA, who was shuttering its plant windows for a similar offense as all this broke.
I'd love to know if Setton has a crisis communications plan. How can you not, especially when you're in the food business. I hope the company has one after this dies down. That is, if the entire corporation doesn't die down.
Speaking of the food business.... About 100 people got sick with Shigellosis last month after eating at an Applebees near Syracuse. And how well has Applebees, a large chain with dozens of stores, handled the crisis so far? "A man who said he was the manager referred questions to county health officials. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29896289/) Oh. Now I feel better about my planned outing at Applebees this evening. Sometimes I can only shake my head and wonder.
I have contended for many years (I hope I'm not just an apologist for the chemical industry) that we are looking in the wrong place for air toxins. Hey EPA, why not monitor the air inside the schools as well? I wager you would find toxic levels higher in most schools than outside. Look through your neighborhood school. It's full of carpet, plastic, floor tile, paint, magic markers, glue, heavy-duty cleaning materials, and probably a lot more, including school buses with leaky exhaust systems. All those emit vapors into the air. We take those toxins (made by chemical companies, so see, I'm not an industry apologist) and then we seal them up tightly indoors with the kids in the name of energy conservation.
At the same time, we have no idea how much of the outdoor pollutants are actually being sucked into the schools through the intake systems, nor do we know how many are filtered out before being blown into the classrooms.
A much better analysis would be to measure indoor and outdoor air quality at the same time. Then we can see where the danger lies, if any. We could see if there's a relationship between high-level days outdoors and indoors. We could even track if there are more absences following high-level indoor days. It's worth a try.
What does any of this have to do with crisis communications? The schools and industries better be ready when the study results are made public. Some schools likely will have to answer hard questions about the safety of their buildings. Panicked parents may move their kids to other schools. (I've seen it happen.) And without indoor air data, the school doesn't really know if the kids are in danger from their 30-minutes a day on the playground.
Instead, what we will get is a smoking gun (pun intended) against industry. Few will point out sources like the buses that idle in front of the building for an hour daily, the dozens of mommies dropping their darlings off at the school instead of using free mass transit, or emissions from a variety of other sources. History tells us all fingers will point to whatever large industry is nearby, proclaim it to be the source, and demand emissions reductions whatever the cost. (I've lived through this scenario as well. Then come the class-action lawyers.) Businesses around those 62 schools better have crisis plan. This baby's smoldering.
Manufacturers as well as mom-and-pop auto body shops need to constantly be looking for ways to cut down emissions. No argument there. Louisville did it right -- mostly, anyway. Here, we monitored the air and had a consultant determine health risks for the various toxins. That told industry what it needed to focus on to safeguard the health of the community, not what was easiest and cheapest to do to make overall emission numbers look prettier.
This is $2.25 million that could be spent to provide more useful data, and perhaps eliminate what are now smoldering crises in 22 states.