About kimballpr

Gary is president of Kimball Hughes PR and a recognized expert in crisis communications and insurance public relations.

Thinking About Thought Leadership

How thought leadership can help in a crisis

A colleague recently shared an article published in The New Yorker in 2009 about how Kellogg responded to the Great Depression. In the 1920s, along with its main rival Post, the company dominated the then new packaged cereal market. The New Yorker summarized Kellogg’s reaction to the country’s economic collapse this way:

“Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. … By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty percent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.”

This is how just one company responded to a crisis nearly 100 years ago. But it does address a question many companies are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic:

In the face of a temporary but significant economic downturn what do we do with our marketing and communications budgets?

As I write this, the stock market is reacting to the U.S. Labor Department announcement that unemployment benefit claims soared to 3.28 million last week. I’ll leave it to the marketing and advertising gurus to comment on their budgets, but I can speak to communications efforts that may be worthwhile to pursue in this environment, especially for B2B companies.

Some public relations efforts, such as product launches, events and location openings are being postponed or suspended because they aren’t relevant or would be lost in the pandemic news reports. Those are generally wise moves.

At the same time we are seeing a need for thought leadership from industry leaders who can write articles or blogs (what I’m doing here), produce videos and podcasts, and do anything to share valuable ideas and opinions with their audience. As long as these messages are relevant and well done, they can have an immediate and long-term impact to build and maintain awareness of a company and its expertise.

Ramping up social media efforts with the same type of messages is also a good idea. And not just because more people are working remotely, but also because it’s estimated that more of us are on social media during this crisis than usual. And this change, along with higher usage of mobile apps and other digital communication platforms, may very well be permanent changes in your workplace.

So, my advice to business leaders as you navigate the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and plan for the future is this: Think about what you have to say, develop a thought leadership plan for the short- and long-term, align it with your changing business plans, and start sharing those thoughts through multiple digital channels.

The results may not be as dramatic Kellogg’s in the 1930s, but building awareness of your expertise may serve you well when the dust settles and business growth resumes.

Avoid These Cringe-Worthy Crisis Communications Errors

You don’t have to be a communications professional to cringe when you read certain emails and social media posts today. In the new COVID-19 world we find ourselves, it can be difficult for businesses to know what to say, when to say it and how often to say it to their clients and the public. Everyone wants to jump in with a message, look for revenue opportunities or offer helpful advice, but some do it better than others.

Below we offer common mistakes and some tips to avoid them.

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Communicating During a Crisis:

  1. Not adjusting scheduled social media posts in light of new circumstances. This should be an automatic step whether you’re facing a global pandemic or a crisis isolated to your business. Make sure you read them all, and then delete and edit them to be relevant and tasteful in the context of new circumstances.
  2. Going ahead with planned announcements without considering how they will be perceived. You may be excited about your latest opening or product launch, but such an announcement may be ignored or — worse — perceived as insensitive and opportunistic when you do it. Timing is everything.
  3. Being opportunistic. There is a difference between offering sincere help during difficult times and being perceived as trying to make an extra buck when others are suffering. It’s all about perceptions.
  4. Pitching related stories to the media that are just in very bad taste and opportunistic. Just take a look at this piece by Mashable to see PR people at their worst. PR pros should be able to know when they have an expert who can make a real contribution to a conversation and when it’s just a bad idea.

5 Things to Consider When Messaging:

How do you know whether your message will be well received or will make you appear careless and opportunistic?

  1. Put it in perspective. COVID-19, for example, is a global pandemic with unprecedented and tragic consequences. People are dying and more will die. Many more will lose their jobs, businesses will suffer and many will face economic and personal hardship. Most of us are scared and worried. Think about this when messaging and make sure your messages are in touch with the current reality.
  2. Make sure it’s relevant. In the context of the above, what is relevant? For example, this blog is being written to help prevent businesses from making mistakes when communicating during the current and future crises. That seems relevant to our audience and a way we can help.
  3. Does it address what your audience’s needs. Ask yourself if you’re tooting your own horn, going through the motions or really addressing what your clients, employees and partners need to know. Sometimes, as in the current environment when our mailboxes are full of COVID-19 messages, what your audience needs is a message as simple as “We’re here for you.”
  4. What are others doing? You don’t want to follow the crowd necessarily, but seeing what others in your industry are doing can help guide your decisions about what to do or what not to do.
  5. Test it. There no time for focus groups, but try running your message by a long-time partner or client who you trust and get their reaction.

#WheresZuck and the Issue of Trust

no fb

Five days. That’s how long it took for Mark Zuckerberg to respond publicly after the revelation that Facebook data was used by U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica to aid the Trump campaign. During that time, Facebook stock lost more than $30 billion in value and #deleteFacebook swept other social media platforms.

Did he respond as fast as possible, gathering all the facts and developing a plan? Or did he wait too long? I’m always a fan of a fast response in the face of a crisis, but also of a response that is strategic and made with all the facts. So, look at the Facebook timeline:

On Monday Paul Grewal, deputy general counsel at Facebook, made the first comment, saying in an email that the company is taking action to make sure the data harvested has been deleted: “We are in the process of conducting a comprehensive internal and external review as we work to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists,” he said. “That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”

Monday’s news read like this CNBC report: “The future of Facebook as an advertising platform was called into question by marketers, lawmakers and privacy activists on Monday after revelations that its data on 50 million users was harvested and used by Donald Trump’s political ad firm in 2016.” A hashtag also appeared: #WheresZuck, a sign that the world was waiting for the founder to speak.

On Tuesday, Facebook went further in a statement: “Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue. The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”

Their strategy was clear: to say that they, too, were victims who were violated and they would take strong action. They also promised Mark would speak on Wednesday—by which time #DeleteFacebook was trending, a WhatsApp cofounder had joined the movement and tens of thousands of users had, indeed, deleted Facebook. Plus, governments on both sides of the Atlantic were calling for more regulation.

When Mark finally spoke on Wednesday, putting a long statement on Facebook, he took responsibility and laid out a plan to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But he stopped short of apologizing (which he did later in media interviews).

So, was five days too long to wait for the Facebook response? It seems so. Even if they needed time to gather all the facts and formulate a plan, Zuckerberg could have posted this himself, because it seems his audience only would hear from him, something he should have known. And what was never addressed was why nothing was disclosed about a problem that may have known about since 2015.

Dante Disparte outlines the problem nicely:

The coat of Teflon that usually shields Facebook and its affable leader, Mark Zuckerberg, who has matured into a techno statesman in the public eye, is beginning to wear thin. Facebook now joins a growing number of firms embroiled in a trust deficit with a case of reputation risk whiplash. …Facebook’s eroding market confidence appears to be self-induced by 5 days of silence and lax third-party risk management. Reports of more than 50 million personal records being accessed by Cambridge Analytica… is not only a terrible violation of consumer privacy, it highlights how trust (the new thrift of the modern economy), is hard to earn and easy to lose. (Read more in Disparte’s Wednesday article in Forbes.)

Losing the trust of regulators, business partners and the public—that’s what happens when your response to a crisis is too little, too late.

 

Wine Country Wildfire Aftermath — Planning for the Next Crisis

The true cost of the wildfires that ravaged Napa and Sonoma wine country last fall was in human lives and lost homes, but for the hundreds of wineries in these counties, questions remain. Did the wineries and the industry handle the crisis well? What could they have done better? What do they need to do in the future?

These were questions posed by Alf Nucifora, chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco to me and my fellow panelists at the council’s 2018 Winery Boot Camp on Feb. 28 at Lincoln Theater, Yountville, Calif. The answer from panelists to the 300 winery representatives in attendance was clear — prepare for the unthinkable. Specifically, every winery, big and small, needs a crisis management plan.

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photo by Art & Clarity

Joining me on stage were Jen Locke, SVP-Direct to Consumer of Treasury Wine Estates, Leigh Oshirak, consultant and former SVP Brand Marketing, PR, Social Media, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Lisa Poppen, VP, Marketing & Communications, Visit Napa Valley, and Eric Savitz, partner, Brunswick Group.

Together we spelled out what these plans should look like: evaluating and planning for all risks (beyond wildfires), breaking down contact information with phone trees and back-up contacts, utilizing internal and external resources — from county emergency responders to insurance companies and public relations experts — and spelling out roles and responsibilities clearly. Even the smallest winery can and should have a plan, and those plans should be shared with everyone who needs to have them, practiced and updated each year.

Beyond crisis planning, the discussion turned to why the industry, which is represented by several tourism and winery trade associations, needs to respond quickly in these circumstances with a unified voice. While the industry lost significant revenues in the first months of the fires, occupancy numbers have recovered. Visit Napa Valley and others have pounded the message — “We are open for business.”

But it will take some months to fully know what the long-term impact will be. Reports indicate most vineyards survived unscathed. Out of nearly 500 wineries in Napa Valley, fewer than a dozen were destroyed or saw significant damage. However, the truth is we don’t know how consumer behavior will be affected by the images spread through media and social media during the height of the fires.

The crucial months for Northern California wineries are before them now, and I urged those in attendance to communicate with their audiences, using video and other media, to show them exactly what their wineries look like and answer questions on their guest’s minds before they’re asked. The wineries should also be reaching out to the media now and using social media to spread their word.

The strong reputations built by Napa and Sonoma wineries over many years should be strong allies as they approach this season. Those reputations should be paramount as they face any short-term obstacles, however painful they may be. If the wineries communicate effectively, stay open and honest about any impact on their vines or grapes, and pull together as an industry, their reputation will carry them.

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Kimball Communications continues to grow national client base

Kimball Communications recently announced the signing of four new clients, including a Chicago-based professional trade association, plus legal and financial service providers.

Those new clients include:

  • American Association of Law Libraries: Based in Chicago, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) advances the profession of law librarianship and supports the professional growth of its members through leadership and advocacy in the field of legal information and information policy. Kimball Communications will provide AALL with public relations services, including media relations, thought leadership development and social media consulting.
  • Michaelson Capital Partners LLC: Michaelson Capital Partners, a venture capital firm based in Manhattan, provides customized growth financing to entrepreneur-led technology companies in sectors where the firm has domain expertise, relationships and experience to add value. Michaelson Capital Partners has hired Kimball Communications to provide on-demand public relations support and media outreach.
  • Amanda DiChello, Saul Ewing LLP, partner and co-chair of the Private Client Services Group: Amanda DiChello is a partner at Saul Ewing LLP in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and the co-chair of the firm’s Private Client Services Group, where she serves as general counsel and trusted advisor to high-net-worth families and individuals, closely held business owners, family offices, and charitable foundations. Kimball Communications has been hired to develop and implement a public relations strategy to increase Amanda’s profile as an expert in her field.
  • Themis Advocates Group: As a national network of law firms based in King of Prussia, Pa, the mission of Themis Advocates Group is to provide the most skilled, aggressive and cost-efficient legal services to clients by sharing information, procedures, trends and client feedback. Themis Advocates Group engaged Kimball Communications to provide public relations consulting, and to create and enact a social media strategy highlighting its events and members’ expertise, as well as sharing resources and information pertinent to insurance litigation and policy.

“Our 22-year reputation for outstanding public relations services spans several industries. However, we’re particularly pleased to continue to expand our working partnerships with those in the professional association, legal and financial service sectors. We look forward to working with these and other great clients in the year ahead,” said agency President Gary Kimball

Please United, get help

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Twitter users react to the incident with the hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos

There is so much wrong with United having a passenger dragged from an overbooked plane that it’s difficult to know where to start. But when looking at how to handle communications in a crisis, there are several issues that are immediately apparent:

  1. United has problems. A crisis often reveals underlying problems and as a frequent flyer of United (my home airport is Newark, so I have no choice), I am painfully aware of them. There are systemic issues with the airlines, from the age of planes to dated, inconsistent and often horrific customer service. These things reveal themselves in crises and it’s tough to hide.
  2. They did not evaluate this situation very well. That may be the understatement of the century. Before you respond to a crisis, you need to understand what you’re responding to, and United’s weak first statement showed they clearly did not understand two things. One, that an airline brand is about customer service and this was as bad as it gets, and, two, what public opinion, especially on social media, was saying about them. This brings me to the third issue.
  3. Social media has changed the speed and dynamics of crisis response. You may feel like you’re in a different generation when you fly United, but they have the resources to employ competent public relations people who should be able to evaluate public opinion on social media and respond appropriately and in a timely fashion.
  4. Finally, you have to choose the right words. I was shocked (not upset, not saddened) to see their initial statement. “They” are upset? What about the passengers? And they “re-accommodated” passengers? Inventing nonsensical words is only the tip of the iceberg, and that goes back to problems one through three – United has problems and is out of touch.

Before I hang up my Mileage Plus account and begin a monogamous relationship with Delta for domestic flights (and maybe even try American), I am hoping this is the wake-up call United needs.

And hey Oscar Munoz, my PR firm and thousands of others are competent, available and would never put you in this situation.

5 crisis tips for organizations serving children and youth

A crisis can take many forms and represent significant risk for an organization’s ability to continue ordinary operations, as well as for its image, its client base and its short- and long-term financial performance. Effective planning and response will help you navigate a crisis successfully. Here five tips to get started:

  1. Have a plan. Once a crisis occurs it’s too late to begin planning. Create an emergency response plan that takes into account all possible risks, from accidents and abuse to newer risks like active shooters and emerging health issues. Make sure you utilizes all necessary resources when creating your plan.
  2. Widen your expertise. It’s impossible to handle a crisis alone. You need a wide range of resources both inside and outside your organization, ranging from medical professionals and grief counselors to public relations professionals and attorneys.
  3. Create a crisis communications component to your plan. This includes establishing one spokesperson and defining his/her specific responsibilities, and establishing protocols for handling the media and for managing and monitoring social media.
  4. Communicate open and honestly. Take control of your situation and be first in communicating with the families of the children you serve. Open, accurate and rapid communications goes a long way in building and maintaining the trust and respect of your community and clients.
  5. Distribute, practice and update the plan. Your plan does not do any good sitting on a shelf. It should be widely circulated, understood by everyone involved and practiced. The plan should also be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.