Tuesday, November 19, 2013

If today’s media covered the Gettysburg Address…

President Lincoln’s Remarks at Cemetery Dedication Disappointing
President’s address, only 3 Minutes Long, Lacked Substance

It was the greatest battle ever fought to date on the continent - over 50,000 casualties were suffered.  So many of those in attendance at the dedication of the Gettysburg Nations Cemetery yesterday were somewhat taken aback by President Lincoln’s address to the crowd in this small southern Pennsylvania town.

In a three minute speech that contained only ten sentences, Lincoln offered nothing new in the way of strategy or a plan for winning the war, now approaching its fourth year.

‘There was no plan offered here today,” said one pundit. “It was just another speech from another politician.”

“Somehow, I expected more from him,” he added.

The President’s uninspired performance was judged by some to be a reflection of the Union effort in the battle at Gettysburg earlier this summer, and the Northern campaign as a whole.  Despite a major loss of life suffered by Union forces, the battle did not end in a decisive Federal victory.  In fact, many experts have severely criticized the Union Commander, Gen. George Meade, for his decision allowing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s crippled Army of Northern Virginia to escape across the Potomac River in the two week period following the battle. Lincoln did not address this issue in his speech.

The battle, culminating the second major Confederate invasion of Northern territory in as many years, was within minutes of becoming a catastrophic Federal defeat at several points.

Some military consultants say Lee’s defeat was due only to the absence of Gen. Thomas E. “Stonewall” Jackson, who died two months before Gettysburg at the Battle of Chancellorsville. 

The irony of the circumstances surrounding Jackson’s death was not lost on one expert at yesterday’s ceremony.

“It wasn’t even Union troops who killed Jackson,” chuckled the observer. “He was accidentally killed by his own men.”

This fact only reinforces the widespread belief that Northern forces, who have consistently outnumbered Confederate units throughout the war, can only win when Southern troops present them with a “can’t miss” opportunity to do so.

“Even then, it’s an iffy proposition,” the consultant added.

With Election Day less than a year away, most political experts saw today’s speech as a way for Lincoln, who only received 39% of the vote in 1860, to galvanize support. Most polls show the President trailing badly, and many Northerners have grown weary of the fight, as this summer’s draft riots in New York City showed.

“Lincoln’s political prospects are dim, and his lackluster performance today didn’t help him any,” said one Washington-based consultant. “He missed a golden opportunity to crystallize the case for the Union, outline a strategic plan for victory and help his re-election bid.”

Observers noted yesterday that even after the Federal victory at Vicksburg, touted by Lincoln as “cutting the Confederacy in two,” the South fights on ably and effectively.

Instead, the President offered a speech laden with platitudes about the battle and its fallen heroes. Short on facts and substance, Lincoln made no reference even to the number of Union dead felled at the battle. His awkward gimmick of “four score and seven years ago,” a device he used to note the 87 years which have passed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, fell flat.

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln said. From the reaction to his speech, the President was right on both counts.

Nov. 20, 1863

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Patriots Were Ready in a Crisis

Loyalty is a two way street.  For instance, when a football team signs a player to a 7-year, $40 million contract, with $26.5 million of that guaranteed to the player, the team has a reasonable expectation that the player will not be indicted for first degree murder.

Aaron Hernandez didn’t keep up his end of the bargain this summer. As a result, the Patriots moved quickly and effectively to sever their relationship with him. Here’s how they got it right:

They Were Decisive

It’s rare for pro athletes to pay a price on the field, and in their wallets, for brushes with the law – particularly in the NFL.  What usually transpires is an elaborate rationalization of “errors in judgment” “regret", faux-“responsibility”, “let the process play itself out” - or just plain gibberish. 

The Patriots did none of that (although there was an initial stumble by owner Bob Kraft.)  Certainly the severity of the charge against Hernandez helped clarify their thinking, but the team didn’t indulge in the usual language of equivocation. They just cut him.

What makes this even more impressive is that according to media reports, had Hernandez been under contract and unable to play because he was in jail or suspended by the league, the Patriots might have been able to save up to $37 million.

They Understood that a Crisis is not the Right Time to Save Money

The Patriots calculated that the damage to the team’s brand was greater than the millions of dollars that it would cost them to cut Hernandez, plus the cost of some free uniform jerseys (see below).  Similar to US Airways brilliant handling of its passengers after one of their planes landed in the Hudson a few years ago, the Pats understood the costs and made the (correct) decision to pay them. 

They Were Prepared

The biggest enemy of preparedness is indecision.  Since the Patriots had taken the time to think things through and arrive at a decision, they were ready to act without delay when Hernandez was arrested.

It’s a Rule: The Media Needs Someone to “Take Responsibility”

The Patriots realized that, and Bill Belichick got the job.  "I'm primarily responsible for the people that we bring into the football operation.” Belichick had characteristically left you wondering about the depth of his sincerity, but he had checked the “responsibility” box, and defused the line of questioning.  (Conversation for another day:  You have to wonder how effective this would be if the Coach didn’t have three Super Bowl rings and a .729 winning percentage in New England.)

They Didn’t Add Fuel to the Fire

In this case, the Patriots got a “Twofer”, because nobody can remove fuel from a fire like Bill Belichick (see above).  Belichick’s unique ability to stick to his message worked well here.

Nobody Said “No Comment”

No comment – the worst possible thing you can say, at least explicitly.  In this case, particularly in the immediate aftermath, Belichick effectively delivered the “no comment” message, but in the most effective way –
  • “I think we already addressed that.”
  • “I don’t have anything further on that.”  
  • “I’m not going to dwell on that.”  
  • “I’ve got to focus on winning for our football team.”
  • Etc.

The media knew they weren’t going to get anything more out of him, so they stopped asking.  And the fire goes out.

They Got a Little Lucky

Fortune favors the prepared they say, and in this case, the Patriots preparation yielded a little bit of luck: on the same day Hernandez was arrested and the Patriots cut him, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited ruling regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  This helped reduce the intensity of the media spotlight on Hernandez, at least for that crucial day. If the Patriots had been indecisive and not prepared to act in the immediate aftermath of Hernadez’ arrest they would not have benefited from the dilution of the media attention created by the DOMA ruling.

They Thought of Practically Everything

Giving yourself enough time to think clearly in a crisis can pay enormous dividends.  In this case, the Hernandez arrest was actually more about the Patriot’s brand than anything else – including winning on the field.  The Patriots realized quickly that in a region where almost everyone owns a player game jersey it would be damaging to have thousands of people walking around wearing the team jersey of an accused murderer who was no longer on the team.

They acted quickly to get the Hernandez jerseys off the street by offering a free replacement at the Gillette Stadium gift shop.  (At the same time they also no doubt collected an enormous amount of very valuable consumer data about fans passionate enough about the team to drive to Foxboro to get new jerseys.)

“We know that children love wearing their Patriots jerseys, but may not understand why parents don’t want them wearing their Hernandez jerseys anymore,” Patriots spokesperson Stacey James told the media. “We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots ProShop for another player’s jersey will be well-received by parents.”

Post Game

In the aftermath of the team’s success in countering the crisis communications challenges raised by the Hernandez case, Coach Belichick would be justified in offering his standard analysis after a Pats win:  “I think we executed some things well today.  Anything else?  Thank you.”

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Is it True?

Recently, in a nearby town, a local legend passed away at 92.  He was a giant, one of a generation that seemed to produce many such men.  They served in World War II and came home to build the thousands of strong communities that made our country what it was in the post-war world.   This particular man – a judge – was eulogized in the local paper with a 900-word, 33-paragraph story that included the story of his life, and the praise of people who had known him in different ways at different stages of his life.  (I did not know him and we had never met.)  He was praised for his legal acumen, his patience with young lawyers, his love of his family and his commitment to service and his community.

But, like all of us, he was not perfect, and there was one incident, later in his life, that was part of the public record.  That day, he had been charged with drunken driving following an auto accident in which it did not appear that anyone was seriously hurt.  The case was continued without a finding, and he was given three years' probation.

Now comes the dilemma for the journalist.  Do you include this information in a story about a now-passed leader of the community?  And if you do, where do you place it in order to keep it in perspective, and provide your readers with the truth about this man’s life?

These are some tough questions.  Does leaving it out undermine the credibility of the story – and the paper?  Does a mention of this incident – almost 20 years ago – unfairly overshadow this man’s life and accomplishments?  And if you include the information, where in the story does it go so that it is placed in the proper context?

Well, the newspaper handled it in a way that, in my opinion, struck just the right balance.  They included it in 49 words in the next to last paragraph of the lengthy story.  It was an elegant solution –accurate, fair, and based on what I have since come to know about this man – placed in the proper context as a small piece of the true story of his life. 
Meanwhile, the headline over a story in a local newspaper last month about the Internet in Rhode Island stated that “29% of adults don’t use” the Internet here.  This seemed noteworthy, until you learn that the national average is … 29%*, something the story failed to mention.

And while the lead paragraph made a brief, glancing reference to the fact that “Rhode Island ranks high in terms of access speed and coverage” the story never mentioned how high.  From there, it moved on to dwell on the less favorable 29% figure.

So what are those numbers?  Well, it turns out that Rhode Island is Number 3 in how widely the Internet is available.  That’s pretty good.  Further, we are Number 1 – the best in the country – when it comes to the speed of our Internet.  That – well – that’s the best!

Bottom line: failing to including the fact that our “bad” number was at the national average, coupled with the absence of a more precise description of just how highly we rank in terms of access speed and coverage were serious flaws in the story.  This, in my view, led to coverage that failed to present an accurate picture of Internet infrastructure, and use, in Rhode Island.

*Source:  The John H. Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sender/Subject Line Hall of “We Could Do Better”

February and March 2013 Edition

(Names changed to “Acme” or “Office Holder” to protect the guilty - many of whom we know and have already tried to warn.)

Before we begin, some background from the New Harbor Blog archives on why your e-mail newsletter is so important:

The On-Line E-Newsletter: You Can’t Live Without It

And why your Sender and Subject Line combination is so important:

Delete Me!

Without any further ado … we present the “winners”:

Sender -- Subject Line
Acme Supply -- March Articles and Featured Products
Acme Supply --March Updates and Events
Acme, Inc. -- Acme, Inc. Volume 2 – Issue 2
Acme, Inc. -- Acme, Inc Volume 2 - Issue 1
RI Office Holder -- News from the RI Office Holder
Acme of Rhode Island -- News from Acme
The Acme Group, Inc.-- News from The Acme Group, Inc. 
Acme Financial  -- News from Acme Financial
Acme & Acme -- Acme & Acme’s Focus Newsletter:  Winter 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Teaching about a Crisis

Back in August, when the days were long and warm, Marion Orr from the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University asked if I was interested in teaching a class in Crisis Management and Communications beginning in September.  I agreed, and it was a great experience.  I’m looking forward to doing it again.  The students were thoughtful and engaged, and the weekly preparation for class gave me a chance to make certain that the counsel I was giving clients was the newest – and best – advice I could give.

On the first day of class, I outlined the semester, my goals for the class, and my approach to crisis communications.

I happen to share the view that quite often a crisis can present real opportunities to make an organization better over the long term – and for individuals to shine.  My goal for the students, then, was to prepare them to  be able to contribute, and to distinguish themselves, in a crisis.

Here are my expanded notes from the rest of that first class, a very basic, initial “How To” when it comes to the communications of managing a crisis.

The Class in a Nutshell

Fill the vacuum
  • It’s not going away
You can decline to comment if you want, but burying your head in the sand with a “no comment” will not make it go away.  More likely, it will give other people an opening to define and characterize you – almost always a bad idea.  At our firm, we usually recommend that a client take the opportunity to safely define themselves quickly, then step back and consider their strategic options.
  • Minimize and mitigate
Getting a “good” story out of a crisis, in the immediate term, is an extreme rarity.  Usually, you’re stuck with the following options: “bad” and “worse”.  The goal, then, is to do your best in the merely “bad” range, then work to get out of the spotlight as quickly as possible.

Step back and think strategically
  • Get perspective – Step back and take a deep breath
You may only have minutes to do this, but take the time to do so, because it’s important.  It’s amazing how many negative after effects of a crisis are self-inflicted.
  • Who’s the client?
When a person has done something wrong at an organization, human beings, being what they are, can sometimes be hard pressed to distinguish between the needs of the individual and the needs of the company.  Therefore, it’s important to determine whose interests are to be served.  Make sure this is clear in your mind, and in your approach.
  • How does this end?
Start addressing a crisis with an end in sight.  It makes it easier to get to a better ending, and return to the job of moving the organization forward.

Make your friends before you need them
  • Tell your story
Pro-active communications ahead of a crisis will pay enormous dividends when trouble hits.  Start today.
  • Carve out your real estate; have a presence; get some followers and talk to them
Not on Twitter and Facebook?  Get on. Now.  And get some followers.
  • Be a good citizen
Invite local officials for a tour.  Reach out to local reporters for a tour as well.  Engage in some strategic philanthropy with the community. Earn a reputation as one of the “good guys.”

Have a plan for the first 25%
  • Website up to date; assignments in a crisis; how to find people 24/7
There’s a certain “blood in the water” dynamic that the media brings to covering a crisis.  If your website is out of date, or incomplete, it gives them an incentive to see what else in the public realm might be out of date, and newsworthy:  Your corporate annual reports?  Your licenses?  Your inspections?  Your taxes?  Anything in the public realm could be fair game, if a reporter can find it and wants to pursue it.

Also, take a few minutes to decide who will do what when a crisis strikes, and how you can find them 24/7.

Now is not the time to save money
  • Dedicate the resources to succeed – even if you didn't do it before
US Airway’s brilliant post-crash handling of its passengers who landed in the Hudson a few years ago is exactly the way to go in a crisis.  Follow their example, within reason, and be prepared to spend some money on the resources necessary to weather the storm – even if you didn't follow the advice in the bullet above, and do it before.

Don’t take communications advice from your lawyers

I’m an attorney, so I know that lawyers have more narrow goals and needs in a crisis than the organization as a whole.  Their goals (limiting liability, keeping you out of prison) are very important, but they by no means cover the entire spectrum of what’s required.  After all, if you win the case, but lose your reputation, what is the end result?  An attorney’s audience includes (perhaps): other (opposing) attorneys, a judge, a jury and regulators.  But an organization’s audience is made up of … everybody.

Subway’s recent, spectacular failure to minimize and mitigate the controversy surrounding the definition of “foot-long” (you have to read this) is a perfect example of why it’s so important to make sure your attorneys stay in their lane.

The Human touch
  • Brand = feelings
  • Step in the other guys shoes
  • Remember that feelings, empathy matter
Your Mother was right – people are watching... at least at first.  So be human.  Be empathetic.  Leave the litigation and the nitty gritty questions of liability for later, after the spotlight has passed.  In most cases you can preserve your brand, your reputation and your business, while effectively defending your legal position.

Be simple, clear, repetitive – without sounding like it
Have a clear message. Find content that reinforces that message. Deliver that content, and that message as long as you have to.

Defend your credibility at all costs
Don’t lie.  You’ll be found out – probably within the hour – and your value to the organization as a communicator will be done.  If you are a communicator, make certain that your organization is getting you the latest, best, confirmed information as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, you may end up unwittingly undermining your credibility.  (Also, don’t acknowledge as true information from other sources that you haven’t confirmed.)  If you make an honest mistake, clear it up quickly.  Failure to do this just gives the story legs.

Get back to pursuing your mission, and telling your story on your own terms to the people who need to hear it, as quickly as possible.