Did Wikileaks just become your problem?

Posted on December 9, 2010 by 1 Comment

The stakes just got raised. A U.K. daily is reporting that the Wikileaks founder has a “cache of secret documents” ready to be distributed should the organization be “curtailed” in its ”efforts”. As of Monday, there were hundreds of shadow sites housing the Wikileaks documents in the wake of Amazon.com shutting off the organization’s main site. Further, speculation after the Wikileaks founder’s Forbes interview last week — they’re coming after corporations next — has centered around Bank of America as the organization’s next target. But these new comments raise the risk to any high-profile, multinational organization.

If you think you have real potential of being included in Wikileaks information, connect your communications and legal departments now. At a minimum, they should have a contact plan in case anything unfortunate happens this week.

Should you become a target, how you handle the first news cycle will make or break you. So the severity of your inclusion determines which options to choose. Here are a few things to know…

Resist the temptation to respond immediately. Even if the initial disclosures about your organization seem clear, the unpredictable nature of how this cache of documents is threatened to be disclosed means information will likely unfold over several hours. A holding statement acknowledging you are aware of the activity and reviewing the reported information will create time to triage the real risk and determine the most effective response. Something like the following would work well as a response to media, customer and employee inquiries:

                         Yes, we’re aware of the Wikileaks activity and are reviewing the document(s).
We may not have further comment today.

Triage the real risk. In collaboration with your communications counsel, your attorneys and executive leadership, assess the three most relevant questions for Wikileaks activity:

  • What’s the veracity of the attack? … Are the documents legitimate or forged? Are the allegations accurate?
  • What is the scope of threat to the business? … Is it really a threat to the business or more of a threat to an individual executive’s reputation?
  • Is there an opportunity to stay in the background or must the company respond in some way? … Have other companies been implicated? Are other attacks more severe than those involving your organization? Is the best response strategy complete or limited?

If a proactive response is needed, identify a single media outlet to carry the company’s response initially. It’s key to work with a journalist with a fully-developed view of the company. Consider whether a discussion or written response is the best approach. In either case, other media can access the company’s response in writing. And think carefully about whether to engage social media… if your objective is to limit exposure, the viral and broad nature of digital communications may not be your best choice.

Avoid commenting on or criticizing the Wikileaks founder or organization directly. Although the founder’s personal situation continues to deteriorate, there is real admiration for the Wikileaks organization’s mission and its maverick role. Engaging in this level of comment will create an opportunity for media and other opinion leaders to pass a moral judgment on your company and its executives – creating unnecessary business risk.

Digital Privacy’s Generation Gap: Even the Most Innovative Companies Are At Risk

Posted on October 26, 2010 by Comments Off

The Wall Street Journal continues its excellent investigative series on digital privacy with a more-than-a-little menacing look at RapLeaf, one of a growing number of data exchanges being used by marketers to better target ads. By many accounts, RapLeaf is the most innovative in a burgeoning group of companies seeking to hyper-personalize the advertisements presented to online users. But today, there’s a new Journal story that consumers are beginning to delete their profiles on the service.

At first blush, the six-year-old company was doing everything right: It framed its business as, in part, a benefit for consumers; it focused prospects and the industry on its innovative game plan; and it even advocated responsible use of the data it was collecting by calling for Federal regulation of the online advertising industry via the CEO’s personal blog. And things went very well for a long time, including a beneficial reference in a 2009 BusinessWeek issue on “The Future of Tech”.

But this week, the tide is turning. The company is increasingly described as the surreptitious bad guy in a collection of cautionary tales. From the Journal story:

Data gathered and sold by RapLeaf can be very specific. According to documents reviewed by the Journal, RapLeaf’s segments recently included a person’s household income range, age range, political leaning, and gender and age of children in the household, as well as interests in topics including religion, the Bible, gambling, tobacco, adult entertainment and “get rich quick” offers. In all, RapLeaf segmented people into more than 400 categories, the documents indicated.

There has also been cautionary coverage, building in recent weeks, from one of the most respected voices in the technology media – a media segment that was previously a stronghold of support for the company.

RapLeaf is not alone. Gartner analyst Andrew Frank identifies this group of companies as “data providers”, living deep inside what he terms “the digital display advertising ecosystem”. Yes, it’s ironic that RapLeaf is receiving this attention because of its extraordinary business success – its relationship with facebook brought the company to the attention of the Journal initially – but all companies driving innovation in this business segment risk the same level of scrutiny once successful.

Thriving under these circumstances demands three things…

1. Always factor your customer’s customer into your positioning.
As RapLeaf evolved from user-generated ranking system, into “fraud protection” service, and ultimately into aggregated data source, consumers’ mood toward online privacy and targeted advertising shifted. And once the company began getting coverage in media like BusinessWeek, this entirely new (even if it was unintended) audience became aware of the company. At this moment, when readership moved from the tech-savvy, early-adopter, under-35 devotees of Fast Company, GigaOm and the like, to the older, more conservative, less technology-fluent mass readership of BusinessWeek and the Journal, the tone, messaging and focus of the company’s communications needed to broaden as well. And often in these cases, the first mover needs to accept the mantle of educator of these broader audiences. Consider the approach to its Web site taken by BlueKai, a rival service to RapLeaf. BlueKai showcases its consumer benefits with a dedicated landing page and strong advocacy messaging. The information collected by RapLeaf and BlueKai is largely the same, but BlueKai’s positioning of consumer control is much stronger.

2. Provocative trends demand a sober tone as you progress beyond the “safe zone” of technology-enthusiast and early-stage financial media.
RapLeaf’s CEO participated in quite casual, even giddy, communications (see video at end of post), undercutting more business-oriented appearances at conferences and in media interviews. As data collection and digital privacy emerged as increasingly serious topics, all of the company’s communications should have reflected an understanding of that. [Update: The video at the end of the GigaOm post appears to have been deleted, but you can still see it here.]

3. Go all the way with your response.
The perception of transparency is one of the most effective mechanisms to create trust. On the plus side, RapLeaf posted a well-crafted blog entry from the CEO in response to the Journal coverage – repositioning the story and highlighting the types of information they do not collect. However, the company declined to engage with the Journal (or other media) on topics about its business, beyond what was in the post. For a company advocating Federal regulation of online advertisers, such a contradiction can become stark.

Breaking new ground, and bringing true innovations to market, is always difficult. Making your communications work hard for you smooths the path considerably.

The Public Affairs Crisis That Every Brand Should Be Prepared For

Posted on April 20, 2010 by Comments Off

Whenever folks in the communications business see a brand struggling through a crisis we always lament; “How could so many bright and thoughtful leaders have known of this risk for so long, yet not had a crisis plan in place?” It’s an all too common (and frustrating) refrain among crisis communicators.

As we’ve discussed here often, organizations almost always know where a crisis will hit them, yet, for some inexplicable reason, seldom take the time to develop a smart, high-level strategy and plan. And while I hope this post inspires at least some corporate communicators to put pen to paper and develop plans that address their organization’s specific weaknesses, I also want to get brands (and entire industries) ready for one of the most obvious impending crisis in our lifetime – the public sector debt bomb.

From our smallest towns and school boards to our largest states and of course the federal government, America’s public sector budgets are a complete and utter disaster. Several years ago, many of us wondered how that seemingly regular, middle class family down the street with two shiny SUVs in the driveway was able to live in that newly built “McMansion.” Well, we now know the sad ending to that story. Unfortunately, it also applies to our various layers of government.

Over the past decade, we have enjoyed a public sector lifestyle that can no longer be financed with existing tax revenues. In fact, it’s not even close. I’ll spare everyone a rehash of how we got here and instead focus on the options for getting out of the hole.

In a nut shell, we have essentially three choices:  drastically raise taxes, drastically cut spending, or some combination of the two. Having spent two decades around state and federal policymakers, I’d bank on the third option and only after the big, hairy crisis is directly in front of our collective faces (which frankly is… right now).

First, imagine the scene as policymakers wait until the last minute to address this crisis: Our rare and coveted AAA debt rating is about to be down-graded. Financial markets tank, inflation spikes. Teachers are laid-off en masse. Senior citizens are on the verge of losing heath care benefits and social security checks. Soldiers are faced with unprecedented cut backs. In the halls of Congress and various state legislatures, there is an historic, never-seen before, mad scramble for additional tax dollars.

So, are you working for a brand or industry that a majority of Americans believe should pay more in taxes?

With a single tweet, could an enterprising political operative make a case for why your brand or industry should contribute more of its fair share to avert a national crisis?

Do you count the government as one of your biggest customers?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then you need to start planning immediately. This public affairs challenge will make past and current debates such as health care, financial services reform and energy look like a walk in the park.

My message – get to work right now with a plan that builds a broad and diverse community that can powerfully (and digitally) communicate your unique value to America’s 21st century economy and society. Like in virtually every crisis, those at risk know who you are…the question is whether you’ll be ready.

SeaWorld: Swimming in the Deep End of Crisis Management

Posted on March 3, 2010 by Comments Off

The evolving reactions to the SeaWorld “incident” are quite interesting.

As the story has developed, the opinions of the public and SeaWorld officials have become more frank and realistic than the initial emotional reaction. At first, the public didn’t want to admit that Shamu (actually Tilikum) isn’t a cuddly little pet or acknowledge that trainer Dawn Brancheau was taking on personal risk. On the day of the attack, BBC coverage was noticeably more open and willing to examine the issue than American press, telling us that Tilikum has been involved in previous incidents with humans.

Why couldn’t we call it what it actually is? Sometimes it takes time to come to terms with the truth. Denial is a powerful coping tool, but looking at the facts can pull us through:

What’s the Real Story?

There were two versions of what happened circulating during the first post-attack press conference:

  1. She slipped and fell into the pool (SeaWorld’s version?)
  2. She was grabbed by the whale (witnesses’ account?)

Two hours later, SeaWorld confirmed that Brancheau was pulled down by her ponytail.

What the General Public Is Saying

  • “She knew the risk – they ain’t called Killer Whales for nothin’”
  • “But we love SeaWorld”; downplaying or making fun of the situation
  • The topic continues to run majority negative on the WE twendz analytic tool for Twitter feeds

 What SeaWorld Is Saying

  • Dan Brown, spokesperson for SeaWorld, was using much softer language, calling it an “incident” or “drowning” instead of a death or killing.
  • SeaWorld is cooperating with OSHA and a few other government regulators for a full investigation.
  • SeaWorld says it is doing a full review of its operating procedures.
  • SeaWorld says that safety of the employees, the public, and the animals is its No. 1 priority.

In the end, the most authentic and effective story is the one grounded in reality. Stick to your story or you’ll end up in the deep end.

Tiger Unplugged: Too Scripted. Too Long. Too Melodramatic. Just Way Too Much.

Posted on February 19, 2010 by 1 Comment

Tiger Press ConferenceIn the first public comments from Tiger Woods since he issued a statement apologizing for his marital transgressions, we were witness to a press conference called by Tiger himself to address the controversy that has surrounded him, his marriage, and his alleged infidelity. From a crisis management vantage point, the only real challenge Tiger had coming into the event was to appear genuine, appropriately contrite, and committed to making it right for his family. That’s really all the public wants to see and hear from public figures who are coming to us for some degree of redemption or forgiveness.

But unfortunately, we were treated to the exact opposite. What began on an appropriate note with something along the lines of  “I am deeply sorry for the irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in. … I had affairs. … I cheated” sadly ended somewhere after that. Exactly where isn’t clear since the obviously scripted statement was a really long and winding road, which quickly became almost too painful to keep watching.

Before the tsunami of commentary commences, let me go on record suggesting that watching the just-completed Tiger Woods press conference was probably one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in my adult life – excepting the triple root canal, perhaps.

Aside from rambling on for way too long, doing a pretty poor job of appearing genuine, and making the classic mistake of scripting his remorse – all the while making South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s post-infidelity discovery press conference look like a candidate for an Emmy – Tiger did himself and his image no favors, and perhaps did more damage than his complete silence for the last 70 days.

The blogosphere and traditional media have for weeks been screaming about the need for Tiger to say something about his reported infidelity, to provide some sort of context or rationale that the public could use to put his behavior in context, but there was nothing. Not a peep. Not a sighting. Not even a Tiger-penned article somewhere, besides that vaguely written blurb posted on his Web site about two weeks after the crash. Then earlier this week came the news that an official press conference was planned. We were alerted that media access would be tightly managed, with no questions allowed. Not long after it became clear exactly how tightly media access would be managed by Tiger’s people, the golf writers’ group made the decision to boycott the entire event, expressing dismay at the ban on questions.

Suffice it to say that today’s press conference will go down in history as perhaps one of the most awkward, mismanaged and disingenuous events in the history of spouses attempting to make atonement for their indiscretions. One thing is for sure. We certainly know more than we did before the press conference began, but in my opinion we know none of what we really wanted to know.

Identity Crisis. What American Corporations Can Learn from an “Invisible” TV Character.

Posted on February 5, 2010 by 1 Comment

I’m showing my age here, but a recent article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal rekindled memories of the American sitcom Soapwhich aired on ABC from 1977 to 1981.

This classic series, a parody of day-time soap operas, chronicled the foibles of two dysfunctional Connecticut families.  Richard Mulligan played the role of Burt Campbell, who suffers from mental illness and believes he can make himself invisible by closing his eyes and snapping his fingers.  After snapping his fingers, he would simply go about whatever he was doing believing he was invisible to everyone around him.

The article that made me remember invisible Burt had nothing to do with television sitcoms, but in many respects, the topic was just as comical.  Apparently, some luxury hotels are dropping the words “resort” and “spa” from their names in order to retain corporate clients currently under scrutiny for largesse.

Snap your fingers, and – “Poof!” – you’re no longer a resort. 

Just how stupid do these resorts, um I mean conference hotels, think people are?  More to the point, how stupid are corporations that still book meetings at these facilities, believing that no one will notice there’s a lavish party going on poolside?  Or are those companies suffering from the same mental malady as the fictional Burt Campbell?

I sympathize with the hotel industry, which is trying to keep a lucrative business model alive in the wake of the outrage that followed reports that AIG was planning a $400,000 party at a California resort — on the heels of receiving a $180 billion government bailout.  Adopting a more pedestrian name, however, is not a solution to the crisis of confidence faced by American corporations. 

Current perceptions are being shaped by sincere changes in behavior.  Smoke and mirror solutions are about as effective as Burt snapping his fingers.   It is okay to have offsite business meetings.  It is even okay to allow employees to have a little fun at these meetings.  But the day of the egregious junket is over.  The sooner companies accept and embrace the realities of this new world, the faster confidence in big business will be restored.   Conducting business as usual at a “non-resort” resort, however, is recipe for a public relations disaster.

Even Burt eventually figured out that he wasn’t really invisible.

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