10 Tips for Communicating in Tough Times – BP Oil Spill Disaster

Author: Jim Hoggan

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has grabbed the world’s attention and in a crisis of this magnitude it is imperative that the company and government officials maintain a high-level of communication with the public.

Here is a list of 10 Tips for Communicating in Tough Times that we’ve developed here at Hoggan & Associates and while they are more general, I think they are very applicable to the current disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

1. Prepare a Communications Plan
If the current market, or any other factor, is presenting a major challenge for your business, make sure that you are ready to respond publicly as necessary. Prepare a timetable. Set out a list of strategic messages. Pick (and train) a spokesperson. And prepare for the tough questions. It’s best – if not always possible – to control the timing of negative announcements, but you should be ready, one way or the other, when reporters start to call.

2. Rip the Band-Aid Off Quickly
Once a bad news story breaks, it’s best to release all the details as quickly and forthrightly as possible. It’s much better to suffer one very bad day in the media spotlight than to become a regular bad-news feature as details dribble out over time. There are exceptions, but getting your whole story out quickly, is usually the fastest way to get off the front page.

3. Bad News Starts to Stink When it Gets Buried
There are two kinds of news releases: candid releases about successes and failures, and baloney sandwiches with bad news hidden between thick layers of promises and excuses. Dressing up a horrible story might make the boss feel better, but a glossy wrapping on a sordid tale will only irritate reporters and insult stakeholders.

4. Choose Your Spokesperson Well
A well-informed, credible and sincere spokesperson can be a blessing in any crisis. But a spokesperson who is evasive, defensive and combative – one who takes tough questions personally – will arouse suspicion and, potentially, fear. So, choose carefully. Identify a natural communicator who is trainable – and then train them. Choose someone who is quick to grasp technical issues, but plainspoken. And choose an employee, not an outside consultant who may be seen as a “spinner”.

The spokesperson doesn’t need to be from the executive suites, but they need corporate support and authority to answer reasonable questions or explain, quickly and politely, why not.

5. Don’t Launch Your Story Till You Know Where It Might Safely Land
Forthrightness is a virtue, but there is no point rushing out to talk about your troubles until you have crafted a potential solution and a plan to put the elements of that solution into effect.

6. Accentuate the Positive
Again, you can be up front about a problem without dwelling on it. If your sales are off, but your cash position leaves you well-armed to weather a recession, say so. If you are laying off employees to reposition the company on firmer ground, say so. Most readers/investors/stakeholders are aware that we’re in tough times. But they’ll be happy to hear compelling news that better days are ahead.

7. Correct Negative Rumors
It’s risky at the best of times to ignore the news, and it’s always a good idea to correct factual errors in print or television stories about your business. But it’s particularly critical in times of uncertainty that you act quickly to rein in faulty rumours. Negative stories that might have no credibility at all in normal circumstances suddenly sound feasible when some of the biggest financial institutions in the world have collapsed in failure. So, answer the phone – or call reporters directly. Make sure the news – good or bad – is accurate.

8. Listen: It’s the First Best Step in all Communications
Whether you’re thinking about your customers, investors or employees, the key to good relations often rests in paying attention – in listening. While not paying attention is at the root of most public relations problems, listening builds understanding; and responding to what you hear builds relationships. Always try to look for new ways to get feedback. Conduct surveys, book tell-me-more meetings with clients or customers, have coffee with your employees. Be sure that you know what your workers, customers and investors think about you, your business and your products.

9. Make the Most of Social Media
The internet, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites and blogs beyond number have changed media forever, making it harder to hide bad news, but easier to convey your message. Social media allows you to speak directly to your customers, shareholders or stakeholders and to hear directly back. It allows you to make information widely available without relying on the filter of conventional media. You ignore it at your peril, but if you embrace it, you’ll find untold – and previously impossible – advantages.

10. Do the Right Thing
This, ultimately, is always the right advice if you are serious about building and protecting a good reputation.

Reputable companies all follow this path:

1. They do the right thing.

2. They are seen to be doing the right thing.

3. They don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up. That is, they don’t treat the crisis simply as a public relations problem. Nor do they assume people will automatically understand or believe that they have done the right thing.

Hard times usually offer an opportunity for struggling businesses to display their true character. This is the way to ensure that opportunity works in your favour.

Oil Sands Newest PR Push Doomed to Fail – Again

The recently launched Astroturf platform AlbertaIsEnergy.ca is yet another faulty step by the captains of the Alberta oil and gas industry – people more interested in ill-advised public relations campaigns than in coming to grips with the challenges facing their industry.

AlbertaIsEnergy.ca is the website and foundational platform of a new PR push, launched last week by a group of industry associations closely tied to Alberta oil and gas. The campaign was launched with a Calgary Chamber of Commerce speech by Dave Collyer, the President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

Let me concede this right off the bat: the executives who control CAPP have every right to launch PR campaigns. They have a responsibility to their members – even to their members shareholders and employees – to make their point of view known in the community.

But they also have a responsibility to do so in a transparent and forthright fashion. And they seem to be coming up critically short of that responsibility in the way they have crafted this round of advertising and social media manipulation.

The first bit of evidence is available on the AlbertaIsEnergy.ca website. In the “About Us” page, the campaign funders describe themselves like this:

“We are bakers, mechanics, sales people, store owners, real estate agents, rig workers, engineers, bankers, truckers and more. We are the people that keep Alberta moving.”

That sounds wonderful. It sounds like this is a true, grassroots organization of everyday folks just trying to add a little common sense into the conversation.

But that’s not who is behind this campaign. The actual list appears later, and there is nary a baker, a mechanic, a sales clerk nor a store owner anywhere to be seen. Here’ the list: of organizations behind the webpage:

These are the most powerful organizations in the province of Alberta – abetted by one of the nation’s most powerful manufacturers’ clubs. Together, they have huge budgets for advertising and public relations and direct access to government through lobbyists and association spokespeople. Why would people this powerful need to pretend to speak on behalf of bakers and sales clerks?

That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Polls consistently show that industry associations are among the least trusted of Canadian information sources. They have appropriated the voice of the common man because industry associations aren’t credible when they speak in their own voice.

And no wonder. One of the “value added” bits released with the PR campaign was a 15-minute video that you can find on the CAPP website. It’s a big budget celebration of all that is good about the tar sands – and a gauzy curtain obscuring all that is bad. For example, at one point, Dr. Eddy Issaacs, executive director of the Alberta Energy Resources Institute, says, “We certainly have seen a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 10 years. The number is around a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

That, however, is a complete fantasy. While the tar sands producers are proud – perhaps justifiably – that they have reduced the amount of GHGs produced PER BARREL OF OIL, their actual emissions have skyrocketed in the last 10 years. The tar sands is the biggest point source of new GHG emissions in the country – and the fastest growing source over all. It is a huge part of the reason why Canadian emissions have climbed more than 25 per cent since 1990, rather than going down by six per cent as we promised in the Kyoto Protocol.

In his own speech, Dave Collyer also had some clangers. For example, he said, “A recent Canadian Energy Research Institute study points out that each dollar invested in the oil and gas industry turns into more than three dollars of total economic activity for Canada. That’s a very good return on investment.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to assess how they came to that figure? Because “economic activity” can be a cover for many things. Just as the totals for “Gross Domestic Product” can go up to reflect the increased spending caused by a devastating hurricane, the economic activity generated by the oil and gas industry could include the hospital visits by asthma sufferers – by the people in downstream First Nations communities whose cancer rates have skyrocketed  since tar sands development began.

Collyer complains that his industry has been getting a bad rap: “Some of our detractors make a point of telling only part of the story: descriptions of vast tailings ponds fail to acknowledge that they, like oil sands mining areas, will by law be reclaimed.”

This would be easier to accept if the reclamation was actually happening. Instead, as reported here (http://www.oilsandswatch.org/blog/62) by the Pembina Institute: “Of the 600 square kilometres of land disturbed by oil sands mining operations, only 1.04 square kilometres is government certified as reclaimed.”

So, today, we have tailings ponds than you can see from space. We have tar sand companies in court trying to defend themselves against charges of killing 1,600 birds in those ponds and failing to report the deaths – and trying to withhold information from that trial. Yet, Mr. Collyer feels it’s appropriate to criticize the media for “telling only part of the story.”

Collyer goes on: “Characterizations of oil sands extraction as the most carbon-intensive oil production process on earth ignore that CO2 emissions from Canada’s oil sands account for just 1/1000th of total global emissions, or that emissions from many other crude oil products sources are comparable to those from oil sands crude on a full life cycle basis.”

This is tantamount to saying that we should feel good about throwing our garbage out the window of our car because it accounts for a very small percentage of the garbage dumped on the highway each year. You might just as easily ask, why should any country, anywhere in the world, take its environmental responsibilities seriously when these leading Canadians disavow any responsibility whatever.

One of the biggest problems with this particular PR push is its lack of originality: there are now a bevy of these organizations, acting like the amplifiers in an echo chamber, repeating and repeating a series of suspect messages.

There is the Alberta Enterprise Group. There is the flashy industry-funded website celebrating Canada’s Oil Sands. There is the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance. And there are the actual industry sites which, while acknowledging their self-interest, still repeat – extensively and expensively – the messaging. Take, for example, the Oil Sands Developers Group.

In short, there is a critical mass of uncritical websites, promoting a rosy view of an industry that refuses to come to grips with its own environmental record and, in the worst cases, actually invests in denial of its role or climate change.

In light of all of the foregoing, it was interesting to see a story in the Montreal Gazette last week quoting Clive Mather, former CEO of Shell Canada. Mather said: “We have not done a good job in the oilsands, either in environmental performance or in communication. And we’ve got a big problem. It’s not life-threatening, but it could be.”

The most insightful part of that comment comes in the order in which he put the concerns: performance first, communication second. If the industry really wants to be taken seriously, it needs to work first on its performance. And then, rather than falsely claiming the voice of third parties to sing praise to industry, they should actually find credible third parties who will look critically at their operation and vouch for them – or condemn them, as circumstances might periodically require.

That, from a PR perspective, is ultimately the worse thing about this most recent campaign. Like so many before, it won’t work. All the goodwill it might have generated was dashed when, the day after the splashy launch, newspapers started reporting on a fresh batch of animal deaths caused by tar sands development.

As I argued in my book, Do the Right Thing, the rules for getting a good reputation a simple.

  1. Do the Right Thing
  2. Be Seen to be Doing the Right Thing
  3. Don’t Get #1 and #2 Mixed Up.

That – #3 – us what’s happening here. The industry associations are working hard at being seen to be doing the right thing, but the evidence of actual performance keeps tripping them up. Until they turn their process around, it will never change.

By Jim Hoggan, President of Vancouver Public Relations firm, Hoggan & Associates.

Cross-posted on Huffington Post here: Oil Sands Newest PR Push Doomed to Fail – Again

Social Media: Moving From Confrontation to Conversation

An excerpt from Chapter 13 of my book “Do the Right Thing” Social Media: Moving From Confrontation to Conversation in an Age Redefined by the Internet

The emergence of alternative––and interactive––sources of media has forever changed the relationship that would-be communicators have with the ever-more-integrated “public.” Clumsy companies will find this new “social media” curiously resistant to traditional manipulation. Smart companies will find a new and liberating opportunity for a productive conversation with their most important stakeholders.

Social Media: Ending the Age of the One-Way Message

In this past revolutionary decade, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Youtube, as well as blogs and all the other e-mail groups and Internet forums, have emerged as interactive alternatives to traditional media. These “social media” have made it impossible for any business––no matter how powerful––to dominate the news with a single, one-sided message. There are too many independent sources, too many checks and balances. In that light, honesty, sincerity, and transparency––which were always positive PR elements in a public conversation––are now more critical than ever.

World Wide Web-crawling: Finding Friends in Unlikely Places

In the recent past, companies and organizations had only two chances to reach out to the public: They could court media coverage (with its attendant risks) or they could advertise (often at huge expense). Today, a simple (and relatively inexpensive) website can make your point of view available directly to people in every corner of the world – with no worries about how that information will be “interpreted” by reporters. People won’t necessarily pay attention, but if something goes wrong (or something goes right) Google will bring the world to your door. Make sure you are ready.

Search Engine Marketing: Get Good Advice

It’s tempting to think that a beautiful website, alone, will bring the world to your door. But searchbots need help. For example, if your mission statement is embedded in a front page graphic, search engine software won’t be able to read it. So, if you want to be noticed, make sure that your website is designed and written in a way that is easily searched and indexed. Bear in mind too that this is an evolving specialty. You may have to engage an additional consultant to the one who builds your web page.

Finding an Authentic Voice: Speaking the Internet Lingo

The tone and nature of Internet conversation is quicker, more casual, and often more belligerent than in other business or media applications. So if you intervene online using a formal, corporate voice, you risk dismissal or derision. But be careful not to let the casual format lull you into carelessness. You may think you are speaking on a small blog to a bunch of kids, but you could easily hear those words quoted back to you in a boardroom––or in the New York Times. If you are on the Internet, you are on the record.

Honor Your Critics: They Could Become Your Best Friends

Any time you respond effectively to a customer’s complaint, you have an opportunity to build real loyalty. So honor your critics online. Listen for legitimate complaints and respond with temperance and good faith. This can be a challenge because the medium is littered with “trolls,” snarling vandals who take pleasure in getting people riled up for no reason. High-profile sites also attract the attention of trolls-for hire, people who do dirty work for the competition. Avoid the muck, assume most people who comment on your site are legitimate and you will find friends in the mix.

Keep an Ear to the Ground: Internet Drums Can Be Silent When Deadly

Every major corporation monitors mainstream media, but it’s tougher to keep track of the Internet. With millions of blogs addressing millions of issues, you never know when you might become the object of someone’s attention. Try to keep track. Stories originating on small blogs often find their way onto the blogs Daily Kos, Huffington Post, or the Drudge Report, reaching more people than the Wall Street Journal. And sometimes these stories won’t make the leap to mainstream. So someone should be watching, so you can see trouble coming and correct misinformation.

Reasons to Avoid Social Media: It’s a Black Hole Where Time Disappears

The Internet is brimming with opportunity––it’s full of applications that you might use to expand your customer base or your social network. But if some 25-year-old consultant tells you that you should sign up for Facebook, Friendfeed, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace, ask why. Each of these applications can consume large parts of your day––in little, hardly noticeable increments. Make sure that every online effort has a sensible and attainable strategic goal.

Reasons to Avoid Social Media: You Don’t Want to Be Dissed as a Tourist

Six weeks before the last election, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a website hot-buttoned to every new social media application available. But the PM himself was nowhere to be seen. There were no comments on Twitter. The “About Me” section was blank on MySpace and he had only six friends. His YouTube account linked to four, six month old videos. The result? What seemed like an effort to make it LOOK like the Prime Minister is hip to the Internet, demonstrated instead that he is NOT.