Archive for May, 2010
Communications at its best serves as a company’s conscious, ensuring that the decisions and actions of the company align with the words being shared with the outside world.
At no time does this become more important than during a crisis.
Before going further, we should acknowledge the money factor. In the quest to serve shareholders, companies are striving to walk that fine line during a crisis of limiting liabilities while at the same time showing transparency for the given situation.
When I read the first BP letter I came away impressed with the straight-forward language and posted on the common-sense approach. BP seemed determined to show compassion with the price tag being a secondary factor:
Since the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything possible to stop the flow of oil at the seabed, collect the oil on the surface and keep it away from the shore. BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.
As I’ve watched the debacle unravel and read more about BP, my view has changed. Communications, even flawless communications, accomplishes nothing in a crisis if the company’s behavior doesn’t align with the communications.
This hit home when the second BP letter in ad form arrived last week with the headline: “We Will Make This Right.”
Again, the vehicle makes use of the same straight-forward language:
BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stopping the leak will be a major step, but only a start. We know that our responsibility goes much further.
The ad goes on to say all the right things but the actions don’t support the words.
People don’t trust the words.
After six weeks of the ”top kill” operation – might have found a better phrase, but I digress – the company conceded failure and has moved on to Plan B.
Furthermore, BP estimated the daily spill at 5,000 barrels when it later turned out to be 12,000 – 19,000 barrels polluting the waters each day.
It makes for a situation in which BP has zero credibility.
The rebuilding of BP’s credibility and ultimately its reputation can only start through the right actions.
Which brings us back to the point that a company’s actions must align with the communications during a crisis in order to be credible.
Hopefully, the senior communication professionals at BP have a seat at the table to do just this.
Otherwise, they have no chance to do their jobs.
The typical product review has a happy ending.
By that, I mean the end of a review usually calls out one product as the best choice.
In spite of the “happily every after” – at least for one company – you don’t associate the product review genre with storytelling.
Instead, these articles strive to clinically attach a value to different features and functions with the objective of helping potential buyers make their decisions.
That’s why a recent review by David Pogue in The New York Times caught my attention.
Anyone who touches the consumer electronics space knows Pogue and his gift for humor. His comparison of Windows Vista to the Mac OS back in 2006 - “I’m going to prove that Microsoft did not steal ideas from Mac OS 10″ – remains a classic and must-watch video:
But it’s interesting to see his quest for levity play out in a print product review called “Big Sensor, Tiny Camera, Nice Results” (don’t think Pogue wrote the headline; perhaps a byproduct of the SEO jockeys).
The review goes old school with the lead ‘graph:
Centuries ago, a young boy in Japan was preparing for a long journey. “You will need much drinking water,” said his master. “Construct a barrel that will catch the rain.”
You can almost sense David Carradine flashing back to his Grasshopper days, an allusion that keeps as the story unwinds:
After a quick run to his local Pagoda Depot for supplies, the boy built a large barrel, open at the top. When it rained, the barrel filled quickly.
“Good,” said the master. “Now pack it up.”
“But master,” the boy protested. “This barrel is much too big and heavy to take on my journey — it might not even qualify as carry-on! I need a much smaller, lighter container!”
Nice turn of a phrase, “Pagoda Depot.”
Sensing that an allegory is taking shape:
“A wise observation,” said the master.
“And yet,” said the boy, “a smaller container means a smaller opening, and it won’t catch nearly as much rain.”
And now, the payoff with Pogue intersecting Grasshopper with today’s digital dilemma:
The master nodded again. “Excellent, my son,” he said. “Now you understand the trade-off between digital S.L.R. cameras and pocket cameras. The S.L.R. is big and heavy, but it has a huge sensor that collects much light; you can get sharp photos even at twilight. The pocket camera has a tiny sensor that’s blurry in low light, but at least you won’t slip a disk trying to carry it around.”
The rest of the review offers the obligatory compare and contrast of several cameras.
Of course, every story must have an end.
Naturally, Pogue ties back to the drinking water quandary:
In the end, the boy began to cross Japan with only a tiny water flask on his back.
The master was aghast. “But you will die of thirst, my son!”
The boy smiled as he continued walking. “I’m not too worried about it, old man. Technology has a way of making all things possible.
Right. There’s no way a Japanese boy is going to call Kwai Chang Caine an “old man.”
But the boy saying “please don’t worry master” doesn’t quite have the same verve.
Like all master storytellers, Pogue expects us to suspend belief.
I’m OK with this for a product review that shakes up the status quo.
The communications controlled by a company during a crisis – not the media coverage – provide the best indicator of competency (or lack thereof).
If you can’t get the communications under your control right, you have zero chance of winning over others to carry your story forward.
That’s why I characterized Toyota’s crisis communications as amateur hour. The company’s first open letterto customers hit the proverbial pothole and set a tone that’s still present.
On the other end of the spectrum, check out the BP letter that addresses the oil spill crisis.
I realize a number of publications ranging from Slate to Advertising Age pummeled BP for poor communications when the crisis first hit. While I agree that BP should have been more prepared and quicker out of the gate, the letter shows they’re on the right path.
Rather than allow the legal team to vet every syllable, BP articulates what they’re doing with open and straight-forward language. It’s clear that someone at or near the top decided that common sense should rule the day.
Now, before all the Mother Jones subscribers pile on, I’m not nominating BP for company of year. This is a communications exercise. Time will tell if the company’s behavior aligns with the words.
The contrast between how BP and Toyota start their respective letters illustrates the difference in mentality.
Toyota First Sentence: For more than 50 years, Toyota has provided you with safe, reliable, quality vehicles and first-rate service.
BP First Sentence: Since the tragic accident on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig first occurred, we have been committed to doing everything possible to stop the flow of oil at the seabed, collect the oil on the surface and keep it away from the shore.
Toyota squanders its opener with a walk down nostalgia lane and a narrative that seems out of a sales brochure penned by an intern. No, I take that back. I don’t want to insult our interns.
BP establishes street cred right off the get-go, “Since the tragic accident,” then crisply lays out its actions.
I can imagine Toyota arguing about an adjective like “tragic” in their war room. By the time copy was finalized, it would say “the unfortunate incident.”
To the next line:
Toyota Second Sentence: I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused and want you to know we’re doing everything we can – as fast as we can – to make things right.
BP Second Sentence: BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.
This is rich.
Toyota isn’t sorry for the recall or the accidents. The company is “truly sorry” FOR THE CONCERN. This is the type of language gamesmanship that comes from legal owning final sign-off on the copy.
But you don’t need a linguist to translate “BP has taken full responsibility.”
This accountability from BP also accentuates the sign-off with two websites dedicated to the crisis (in contrast with Toyota blending its Recall Center into the main site) and toll-free numbers proactively asking for input:
We will continue to keep everyone fully informed about the events as they unfold. For current information on the spill and response plan, please use the following websites:
To make spill-related claims: (800) 440-0858
For assistance or information, please call the following 24/7 hotlines:
To report oil on the shoreline: (866) 448-5816
To report impacted wildlife: (866) 557-1401
No question, this was a professional job in which BP management got out of the way and allowed the communicators to perform.
Now, if BP’s management would only agree to that media training session. The Guardian interviewed BP CEO Tony Hayward who offered:
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
Related side note: Our curated “Toyota Crisis PR Resource” is still available. If you have thoughts or content for the page, by all means send them our way.
It pains me to say what I’m about to say.
Advertising recognizes the power of narrative more than the PR profession.
This isn’t to say that PR efforts aren’t using storytelling techniques (sorry for the double negative, Mr. Harper). There are consultancies like us as well as corporations who have got the storytelling religion.
But you don’t see narrative deployed as consistently on the PR side as in advertising.
I recognize a news release on a revised CRM platform doesn’t exactly lend itself to developing the character of a protagonist. Still, I believe PR programs are too often creating content that aligns with who-what-where-when-why journalism when the media has moved on to putting greater emphasis on storytelling.
The latest JPMorgan Chase ad (pasted into this post below) running in The Journal and other business publications got me thinking about this topic.
Let’s start with the ad headline:
“We’re Going On The Road To Help Homeowners Face to Face”
A tone of humanity is established from the get go.
If this was the typical news release on the same topic, it would read:
“JPMorgan To Conduct Seminars on Home Mortgages in Eight North American Cities”
Forget the theoretical. I snagged the actual news release put out by Chase PR which carries the following headline (BTW, I did write the theoretical news release before seeing this):
Now there’s a warm term, ”foreclosure-prevention events.”
Back to the ad -
It talks about hosting sessions across the country to assist homeowners with their mortgages, a successful event in Florida – helped 3,000 people – and plans to do more of these sessions.
Conversational language takes the reader through the story.
In fact, it’s interesting to note that the ad stays away from the term “foreclosure-prevention events,” instead using the empathetic words ”homeowner assistance events.”
The irony is PR enjoys an advantageous position for storytelling. Those ad guys must cram their stories into expensive real estate.
We should capitalize on this position.
Quick example -
I interviewed a client this week on the topic of cultivating a mindset for innovation.
Now you might think, “Good luck coming up with something fresh on a topic that has been intensely scrutinized by the likes of Harvard Business Review, Fortune and The Economist. What can your client possibly add to the dialog?”
You would be mistaken.
He told terrific stories complete with anecdotes like the CEO taking a hands-on approach to building a brainstorming room. The CEO’s office at one point was filled with different types of dishes and glassware as he scrutinized the right selections for facilitating innovation. He shared a second story about mixing young minds with seasoned veterans as a catalyst for brainstorming.
My point is, the stories are there.
They’re always there.
We just need to dig them out.
There’s no question that photos like the one above that accompanied a New York Times article on China’s surging demand for coal accentuate storytelling.
In some cases, we’re actually seeing storytelling revolve around visuals like the seafood charticle in WIRED Magazine.
I think The New York Times does a particularly good job in building their stories around a strong narrative and compelling photographs. At a time when the photo staffs of newspapers have been decimated (to be kind), The Times augments its skeleton crew with other photo sources.
The photo of the chap shoveling coal comes from the European Pressphoto Agency. It fits perfectly with the opening graph of the NYT story:
Even as China has set ambitious goals for itself in clean-energy production and reduction of global warming gases, the country’s surging demand for power from oil and coal has led to the largest six-month increase in the tonnage of human generated greenhouse gases ever by a single country.
Furthermore, two more photos round out The New York Times’ story on the China energy challenge, both secured from Reuters.
What does this mean for communications professionals?
It behooves us to strengthen our stories with compelling photography or other visuals.
In fact, one could make an argument that internal staff cutbacks create even more opportunity for companies to use photography to make a case for their stories with the media.