Ebola Strikes New York

Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Photo courtesy of the CDC.

It’s official. Ebola has scared the hell out of everyone. With Friday’s news story of a doctor in New York City being diagnosed and today’s “testing” of a 5-year-old boy for Ebola as well in the Big Apple, hysteria is sure to hit new heights.

However, as public relations professionals, our job is to offer wise council in times of crisis. We must anticipate how this latest news impacts our partners and determine how best to help them inform and better educate their audiences. A myriad of businesses can find themselves in the center of a media storm as Friday’s NYC media coverage demonstrated.

So the best advice for businesses is to start with facts.

For those businesses being asked about Ebola risks and protocols – and the public’s perception of your business’ Ebola risk – there are five steps to take quickly:

  1. Share the latest information from a recognized authority source (e.g., the CDC, the World Health Organization, your local or state department of health, etc.). Unless you are a medical professional well versed in infectious diseases, regardless of your business, you have no business advising on health issues. Leave that to the professionals and simply point people in the right direction.
  2. Examine your realistic exposure. NPR recently reported most American’s have a 1 in 13.3 million shot at contracting Ebola. In fact, NPR suggests studies show you’re more likely to die from a lightning strike or a bee sting than you are of catching Ebola. While many businesses are not likely to be at risk, the Manhattan case from Friday demonstrated how Uber, a Brooklyn bowling alley and NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority needed to address Ebola concerns on a moment’s notice. Therefore it’s helpful to have thought through your messaging and delivery method in advance.
  3. Reassure your audiences you are following coverage and authoritative information of U.S. Ebola cases so as not to be surprised by developments that could impact your business operations or vendor relationships.
  4. Consult with your public relations professional to ensure any crisis communications plan your organization has in place is updated and that your team is prepared to respond quickly.
  5. Update your audiences as appropriate.

A sixth but less urgent step is to revisit your crisis communications plans at the conclusion of this latest pubic health scare to fine tune your policies and procedures so you are better prepared next time. And trust me, there will be a next time.

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Socially Irresponsible

Some small business owners don’t believe in using experts for social media engagement and content development. They see the practice as novel and unproven – until it isn’t.

Such is the case of The Union Street Guest House in Hudson, N.Y. This picturesque small town inn quickly discovered the demonstrative impact of social media when comments about a fines-for-reviews policy hit the inn’s Facebook page and Yelp, the popular online review site.

According to an ABC News story resulting from the social media dust-up, the inn claims its “policy” was posted to its website as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding from years ago and should have been taken down. The policy in essence stated bridal parties would be fined $500, taken from deposit monies, for each negative review the inn might receive connected to a particular wedding or event.

A Google search for the inn's name brings with it a wealth of negative online content that will impact the business' bottom line.

A Google search for the inn’s name brings with it a wealth of negative online content that will impact the business’ bottom line.

Unfortunately, a simple Google search of the inn’s name now produces both a link to the inn’s website, as well as countless social media and news articles referencing this not-so-amusing policy.

The result is a Search Engine Optimization nightmare for the inn coupled with a runaway train of negative comments on its Facebook page (more than 200 at this writing; although it appears the inn may now be deleting posts from its Facebook page).

Since this firestorm hit mainstream media, the inn's Facebook page has been inundated with negative posts.

Since this firestorm hit mainstream media, the inn’s Facebook page has been inundated with negative posts.

The news coverage and social media firestorm – with only a half-hearted response from management that appears to have since been deleted  – have created a massive public relations problem to overcome. This isn’t the type of crisis you wait out. And without a strategy for responding to and recovering from this communications nightmare, The Union Street Guest House is likely to see a steep decline in business, assuming it has the wherewithal to survive at all.

Small businesses are successful because they do what they do well. Where they often fail is when they try to do something outside of their expertise.

By consulting with a social media professional or brand content specialist, small businesses can avoid errors – even tongue-in-cheek responses – that might not seem substantial at the time, but with an extra set of trained eyes, can be seen for the potential disasters they are and thus avoided. Alternatively, bringing in the professionals after a crisis has erupted is not optimal, but it can mean the difference between staying in business or going under.

Most freelancers or public relations agencies can find equitable arrangements with small businesses that won’t break the bank, and can avoid or attempt to correct business-ending mistakes.

For a free consultation on how working with a public relations agency can help protect and promote your business, please contact me at rhughes@kimballpr.com.

Three Crisis Communications Mistakes Companies Make

morner / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

In the shadow of the Boston Marathon tragedy, it’s painfully apparent – if it wasn’t before – that crisis scenarios are part of our collective new normal. From threats of terrorism and senseless acts of violence, to economic chaos and world events, crisis events can easy overtake the best-laid plans of any business.

At these times, there is a balance to be struck between business operations and consideration of outside events. Customers don’t want to be marketed to and reporters don’t want your new product press release in times of crisis. In addition, your own employees – even many miles removed from events – might struggle to cope with news from towns like Boston, Aurora, Colo., Sandy Hook, Conn., West, Texas, and others.

What do you say or do as a business owner or manager? Your response in such times must be genuine, sensitive to events and true to the culture of your organization. There is no one-size-fits-all communication solution.

However there are three things you should not do in a crisis. Don’t:

  1. Continue Your Social Media Strategy as Planned. The moment you start receiving breaking news alerts via smartphone apps, email or after watching the news, you need to assess the impact of your planned social messaging. Think about how your messages might be received against the backdrop of what is happening in the news. In most situations, you should pull your planned content immediately and take a wait-and-see approach for at least the first 30 minutes of the news event. This means deleting or rescheduling posts in HootSuite, TweetDeck and other social dashboards.
  2. Assume It’s Not a Big Deal for Your Brand. Gather your public relations and marketing teams to evaluate next steps. Create a plan for what your external messaging (including social media) needs to look like in the first hours and, in some cases, the next several days after a national or global event. Poor planning can lead to significant customer backlashes and damage your brand. You need only look at American Apparel, GAP and others whose early social media efforts during Hurricane Sandy not only failed, but angered customers by appearing insensitive to those in Sandy’s path.
  3. Ignore Your Crisis Communications Plan. If you have a Crisis Communications Plan, use it. This valuable tool will detail a methodical strategy and tactics for handling relevant crisis situations. Don’t try to wing it in the middle of a crisis. You’re more likely to miss something, and the risks can be enormous. If your plan is out of date or, worse, if it doesn’t exist, set a goal for updating or creating one and use the current scenario as a case study (for better or worse) to help guide your Crisis Communications Plan development later.

While you cannot plan for every eventuality, a good Crisis Communications Plan will best ensure your brand is protected while also being sensitive to events outside of your control.

Photo credit: morner / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Hack of a Whopper

On Feb. 18, 2013, Burger King's Twitter account was hacked garnering national media coverage and the ire of brand followers.

On Feb. 18, 2013, Burger King’s Twitter account was hacked garnering national media coverage and the ire of brand followers.

Crisis happens. When the crisis involves social media, it can have one heck of an impact on brand.

When Burger King’s Twitter handle was hacked today, the brand’s logo was changed to that of McDonald’s. The hackers also posted crude language, @ messages to questionable accounts, and video and photographs that had little to do with the brand and no doubt annoyed followers. Oddly, they boosted Burger King’s followers by more than 20,000 before the account was suspended.

Twitter followers noticed, as did CNN, ABC News and Fast Company’s Teressa Lezzi who published stories about the hacking within minutes.

If you manage a Twitter account for a brand and that account is hacked, what steps should your crisis plan include?

At the first indication of trouble, immediately log in and change the password. If you are able to log in and change the password, go into your settings and review all of the third-party apps connected to your account. Revoke access to all third-party apps until you can better assess the situation. (Be sure to revisit these apps once the situation is under control to ensure all brand account functionality.)

If you are not able to access the account and change the password, go to the Support Request section of Twitter and under Account Access select the “Hacked account” option. This will give Twitter the necessary “heads up” to suspend your account and avoid endless amounts of spam being sent to your followers. It will also allow you to reset your password.

While you work to regain control of your Twitter account, post a notification to your brand’s blog, website and other social platforms. This notification should simply state:

  • Your Twitter account has been compromised
  • You are working to remedy the situation, and
  • Your Followers should not click on any posted links until otherwise notified.

Such action lets your followers know you are aware of the situation. It can even foster good will among followers irritated by the hacking event.

As a precaution, make sure you use a secure password including letters, numbers and capitalization that cannot be easily determined. This password – especially if multiple people have access to the account – should be changed regularly.

Using dashboards like SproutSocial or HootSuite can also help minimize risk. We also suggest you follow @Safety or @Spam to stay alert to the latest spammer activity or malware.

Some crises can’t be avoided. But they can be mitigated through close monitoring, training and ensuring a workable plan is in place.

Interested in training your team to handle a social media crisis? Email us at info@kimballpr.com for information.

Sandy, Superstorm, Frankenstorm—How Agencies Should Handle Any Storm

Solitude / Foter / CC BY-SA

Like many fellow communications professionals, hearing the words “Frankenstorm” didn’t scare us away from our workdays this week. Some of us may have faced the effects of Hurricane Sandy head-on like one Philadelphia editor, but, for many of us, we could sit at home and work right from our smartphones and laptops without having to feel a raindrop (hopefully.)

So, when the business world is taking a “hurricane day,” what do you do? The answer to this is something agencies hopefully had prepared yesterday.

PR agencies can’t put a “Closed” sign on their email accounts or turn off their smartphones just because they can’t drive to work. Unless major wires are destructed or phones lose the last of their battery life, PR agencies can remain open for business.

Employees need to be prepared to deliver to their clients, communicate effectively with one another and, most importantly, protect themselves, whether a record-breaking hurricane hits or the power just happens to blow out on a perfectly sunny day.

The Quiet Before the Storm

Just as you would prepare for a client—prepare your own crisis communications plan before the event of a crisis. The news and National Weather Service prepared us for a worst case scenario for this #Superstorm, so agencies should be just as ready for their clients and themselves.

As Entrepreneur.com suggests, assess any possible risks your company may face, including weather events and property damage. Moreover, consider what to do if key employees are absent or unavailable; keep contact lists and passwords in a safe, accessible place.

Make the communications plan known to employees throughout the year so your team can navigate as smoothly as possible through a workday with turbulent weather.

On the Big Day

Just like any regular morning meeting, the first step in tackling a storm is to set up a virtual team meeting and prioritize. Over a conference line or chat room, discuss top deliverables that must be completed.

Next to consider is your clients. Alert your clients via email, Twitter—any channel necessary to inform them that you are available to fulfill their needs.

Throughout the day of a disaster, keep your co-workers and clients continually updated on work progress, as well as your safety, and follow these tips from PR News to work from home most successfully.

Finally, keep yourself safe and pass work onto others if you begin lose access to forms of communication. And, if you find yourself sitting in the dark, pull out your nearest candle, take out the old ereader—I mean book—and just wait until the storm passes.

Photo credit: Solitude / Foter / CC BY-SA

Ten Years Later – Are You Ready for a Crisis?

*Originally published in IMCA’s membership newsletter

In March 2002 I walked into conference workshop on behalf of an insurer to do a presentation on crisis response. It was the same conference and topic that I had presented the year before to about 40 people. This year there was 250 people. They moved me into a ballroom.

Once I got my nerves under control I asked myself what had changed? September 11, 2001, of course. The World Trade Center attacks had put crisis preparedness on everyone’s agenda.  There was a mass wake-up call that we had to be prepared for the unexpected.

Ten years later, I’m not sure we are. In talking to friends in the industry, it is surprising how many companies still define a crisis too narrowly, forget to make communications a cornerstone of the plan, or don’t update their plans to account for new developments like social media.

Even in insurance, an industry that is all about evaluating risk, it is too easy to get complacent. That’s big mistake.

Here is a quick checklist to see if you are really prepared:

Your crisis response plans take into account all types of crises.

The point of a crisis is that it often comes on quickly and unexpectedly. Two things we do know is that you can’t fully predict how a crisis will unfold and you can’t start planning once it happens. So a crisis response plan should cover any eventuality – even if you don’t think it will happen. That means terrorist attacks, natural disasters, medical emergencies (think H1N1), internal corruption, financial issues, employment issues and more.

Your plans include input from everyone who should be involved.

A planning team should include not just public relations and operations, but your lawyers, customer service, human resources, outside emergency management officials and more. You want everyone from every department involved in planning – and engaged in the response.

Communications is a cornerstone of the plan.

Too often a crisis plan hinges more on logistical, financial and legal issues and not on communicating with all your stakeholders – customers, community, shareholders, employees, partners, vendors, etc. In today’s world you are judged by how well you communicate. Be ready, do it well, and you can improve your image during the crisis.

Your media response and social media plans are solid.

You must have designated spokespeople and clear protocol to ensure your company is speaking with one voice, and one consistent and effective message. Get media training for all key players, taking into account all media. And make sure social media is integrated in your plan – how will you monitor and respond using social media?

You have a strong leader who can be your spokesperson and communicate effectively.

You need strong leadership in a crisis. Rudy Guiliani made his mark after September 11. Is your CEO the right one to communicate in a crisis? While he or she is the first and obvious choice, it may not be the best. Remember BP’s CEO Tony Hayward?

Your plan is updated annually and takes into account new developments.

There is nothing worse than creating a good plan and sticking it on the shelf to collect dust. Plans only work if there are frequent updates and practice. We used to estimate that you had to be able to communicate effectively within 24 hours of a crisis. Now, with social media, you must be able to act in an hour. That’s not a lot of time.

If you can’t check off everything in this list, then it’s probably a good idea to take a fresh look at your crisis response planning.  Remember, those first hours after a crisis are crucial to how your stakeholders will perceive your company’s image. Don’t skimp on the time and money in good planning – or you’ll be paying a lot more later to clean up the damage.

Where I am in June

It’s June and that means I start my annual trek crisscrossing the United States for our long-time client AMSkier Insurance. AMSkier insures children’s camps (in fact, they are the largest direct insurer of camps in the country). Company president Henry Skier came up with a novel idea a couple decades ago – offer a 24-hour crisis management services to the camps they insure. And that’s where I come in, handling crises when they arise at camps in the summer months. But that’s not why I travel in June.

Several years ago, Henry asked me to fill in and do some of the staff safety training during orientation. Hmm… other than war stories from the crises I’ve managed, what did I know about training staff? Not much. But with the lure of trips to places like Malibu and Carmel Valley, and training by my colleague and friend Norm Friedman, I reluctantly agreed. I found myself in front of hundreds of counselors discussing sexual abuse and other tough topics. Frankly, I was terrified. But I was well received and reluctantly agreed to do a few other camps the next year.

Then something happened. As I discussed how to handle disclosures of abuse to a group of counselors in Chattanooga, a young woman stood up and told her fellow counselors that this very advice I had given the year before had helped her help a little girl who had been abused at home. That was the epiphany. Sure, this was not my specialty and certainly not my comfort zone. But these workshops were helping keep kids safe.

So now I’m 30,000 feet in the air en route to Texas, followed by California, Palm Desert, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and more. I’m still not in my comfort zone, still terrified and still hate flying. But each year I agree. I just can’t get that image from Chattanooga out of my mind.