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The recent firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod over her suspected racist comments clearly demonstrates the dangers of going into crisis mode before understanding all the facts.

It looked like damning evidence.  A video of Ms. Sherrod delivering a speech at an NAACP banquet, telling a story about her time at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago when she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have.  “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land,” Sherrod said in her speech. “So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”

If the story had stopped there, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would have been correct in letting her go and the NAACP would have been right to denounce her behavior.  But further context revealed the truth was not as sinister as it appeared.  In fact, Sherrod ended up helping the farmer, and it was that episode that made her realize that there “is no difference between us” and the point was to help people in need of opportunity, regardless of race.  The farmer and his wife even call Sherrod a “friend for life.”

It’s the height of bitter irony that the story that got Sherrod fired was the one that taught her race doesn’t matter.  Secretary Vilsack, at the behest of President Obama, is reconsidering the case and a larger investigation is being conducted.  But is it too late?

There are no winners in this story.  Only an elementary lesson that we seemingly have to learn over and over again.  Obtain and understand ALL the facts.

In Ms. Sherrod’s case, the Agriculture Department failed to do that.  Instead, this incident has become one of those sad stories that reminds us that racial tensions are all but gone.  I won’t address the larger implications of that narrative because, frankly, it’s above my pay grade.  But I will note that there are very real consequences to poor communication.

It is a challenging communications world.  With citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media reporting, stories unfold in real time.  When the plane landed in the Hudson, US Air was criticized for taking 11 minutes to respond.  But it wouldn’t have taken that long to listen to Sherrod’s story and understand its full scope; it may have even been sufficient to put out a statement that the Administration was investigating the incident.

The (well, a) moral of the story: in a crisis, correct always trumps quick.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

After six weeks of canned sound bites and verbal gaffes (courtesy of BP’s Tony Hayward) regarding the Gulf Coast oil spill, I’d like to extend a sincere thanks to President Obama for getting real in an interview with the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer.  Obama said he has been talking with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts about the spill because “they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

While I wouldn’t want a president to deliver the State of the Union laced with profanity, a little candor replaces decorum nicely in some situations.  This oil spill is an enormous mess with no end in sight and Obama’s comment effectively sums up the sentiments of the American people.  Sometimes, the most effective communications are those that legitimize feelings, even if they don’t solve problems.

However, there is a limit to how “real” a president should be: Exhibit A.  (Whoomp! There it is.)

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post (especially this post) are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Sunrise over an oil-soaked beach on Grand Isle, Louisiana. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s been 45 days since the Gulf Coast oil spill, and I think it is safe to say things have gone from bad to worse. We’ve seen the failure of top hat, junk shot and top kill, and we are waiting, fingers crossed, to learn the outcome of saw and cap.  With each passing day and fix failure, I keep going back to the words in a post I wrote three weeks ago: Words have weight and the wrong ones can bring quick and easy ruin.

On Sunday, BP CEO Tony Hayward issued an apology that went awry:

“I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

I imagine that Mr. Hayward is very tired and under tremendous stress; however, his personal circumstances do not excuse that remark, especially not for the families of the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  The following day, Hayward issued an apology for his apology on Facebook:

I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment on Sunday when I said that ‘I wanted my life back.’  When I read that recently, I was appalled. I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy, and certainly don’t represent the hearts of the people of BP – many of whom live and work in the Gulf – who are doing everything they can to make things right. My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families – to restore their lives, not mine.”

Saying nothing about the time that lapsed before this statement was issued and its glaringly obvious observations, I have one real question.  Is Facebook the appropriate outlet for an apology?

In the case of Hayward, I would say absolutely not.  His initial comments were run on major news outlets like the Today Show and CNN; responding on Facebook comparatively trivializes his apology.

I’m not discounting the power of Facebook and its 400 million users, and if Hayward had initially said he wanted his life back on Facebook, then it might be the appropriate place for his apology.  But that isn’t the case.

I spent the last five days on the Gulf Coast wondering not if but when the oil would reach Florida’s shores.  This morning I woke up to the news that the oil’s spread to Pensacola is “imminent.”  The ill-advised sound bites and verbal blunders I’ve written about don’t matter when compared to cleaning up this mess.  I sincerely hope it’s soon.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

On April 20, an explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by BP, killed 11 crew members and created a leak that has spewed 85,000 barrels of oil to date into the Gulf of Mexico.  For BP, the responsible party, it is a crisis of epic proportion.

But long before and independent of a crisis, companies spend time and money building their reputations.  And should a crisis occur, it may be a good reputation that allows them to weather the storm.

BP’s oil spill perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relationship between reputation and crisis plan by proving how quickly a painstakingly built reputation can be destroyed.  BP has spent many years and many millions (likely billions) crafting its “green” reputation.  BP was the first oil company to publicly acknowledge the dangers of global warming; it has invested heavily in alternative energies like wind and solar; it worked to get its carbon emissions down to 1990 levels.  While the Gulf spill doesn’t take away the environmental benefits of those actions, it could very well take away from BP’s bottom line.

The question that will have to be answered in the aftermath of the spill is whether or not the green and yellow sunburst remains a signal to gas guzzlers that they are making an environmentally sounder choice.  How BP responds to this crisis will frame that question.  Words have weight and the wrong ones can bring quick and easy ruin.  Examples abound: John Kerry voting for Iraq war funding before he voted against it; embattled auto executives flying to their congressional hearing in a private jet; George Allen calling video tracker Shekar Sidarth “Macaca.”

In recent weeks, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has been on the media circuit doing damage control. His press tour offers some important crisis communications takeaways:

  1. Acknowledge Responsibility and Don’t Whine
    “This wasn’t our accident,” Hayward said on ABC’s Good Morning America.  “This was a drilling rig operated by another company. It was their people, their systems, their processes. We are responsible not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and for cleaning the situation up.”
    When surprised host George Stephanopoulos asked Hayward to clarify his statement that BP was not responsible for the accident, Hayward reinforced that it was Transocean’s “equipment that’s failed; it was their systems and processes that were running it.”

    Transocean, the drilling company that operated the rig, certainly has a role to play, but it doesn’t change the fact that BP is the responsible party that entered into a lease with Transocean.  By attempting to shift some of the blame, Hayward came across as whiny and petulant when he should have been reassuring and confident.

    A simple change of wording would have accomplished invoking Transocean without sounding petty: The drilling rig was operated by another company, Transocean, but BP is taking responsibility and working around the clock to clean up the leak.

  2. Don’t blame the victims
    As the oil continues to gush into the Gulf, damage claims are also surging.  Hayward promised that BP would honor “all legitimate claims for business interruption.”  It’s perfectly acceptable for him to use the word legitimate – why would BP honor illegitimate claims, after all – but Hayward went on to say, “This is America – come on.  We’re going to have lots of illegitimate claims.  We all know that.”
    Yes, there will be illegitimate claims, but that is for scores of lawyers to work out.  Hayward’s dubious comment undermined what should have been a positive message about BP’s concern for victims of this spill.
  3. Create Actionable Plans
    The Wall Street Journal reported that BP’s general spill plan indicated that the worst spill from the company’s mobile drilling operations would be from its Mississippi Canyon 462 rig, which had the potential to leak as many as 250,000 barrels a day, 50 times the estimated size of the current leak.  The plan also claimed that it had sufficient booms, dispersants and skimmers to handle a spill significantly larger than the one it is now struggling to stop.
    Not only does the above example create a communications problem for BP, it also highlights that plans have no value unless they are realistically actionable.  The same is true of a crisis communications plan.  It’s not enough to just have one.  You need to understand and be prepared to use one.

Of course, it’s easy to be a critic.  So, in the interest of fairness, here are a few of the things BP is doing right:

  • Branding it the “Gulf of Mexico response” to prevent it being cemented in history as the “BP oil spill.”
  • Giving the spill front-and-center placement on its website home page, rather than forcing viewers to search for a special section or relegating it to news releases.  (In stark contrast, Transocean’s latest news update on its website is from April 26.)
  • Offering resources and phone numbers to report injured wildlife, spill-related damage, and alternative response technology.

In short, crisis communication is not easy.  Media training and live interviews are worlds apart.  The best any company can do is adequately prepare and continually build and strengthen a good reputation.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Two seemingly unrelated references in the past several days and it feels to me like back to the future : Google and China; and, Twitter and the telegraph.

Google & China: Some are predicting that Google will leave China (Reuters article) in a few weeks rather than continue government-required although apparently limited filtering of certain news (see today’s WSJ).  The war of words has picked up by Chinese government officials, usually a precursor to government action.

I’m not sure what’s all involved here.  What I am sure of is that it all feels like backward movement.  Google is confronted with a non-option … limited censorship.  Imagine Google being expected (or required) to be an active participant in limiting the free-flow of information.

In short, Google is being asked by the Chinese government to turn back the clock … to do what can’t be done.  They are being asked to limit news-sharing after Chinese citizens have tasted a freer flow of news.  This is going to become very interesting if, indeed, Google leaves China and Chinese people react.

Twitter & the Telegraph:  A fascinating discussion over the weekend with Gary Kebbel, director of the Knight Foundation Journalism Program at a recent IPREX Meeting.  Interestingly, Kebbel, a former newspaper editor, shared that he will be leaving his Knight post to become the new dean of Journalism at the University of Nebraska.

Also in the discussion was Mike Griffin, the new VP of Communications (Public Affairs) for Walt Disney World, also the former managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

In a free-ranging dinner conversation about the challenges facing journalism today, mostly brought about by technology advancement and advent of online citizen journalism, these two hard-core journalists were lamenting the dimunition of good, crisp, journalistic writing and the lack of discipline apparent today in capturing the lead and reporting from there.

Kebbel interestingly added that tight, focused, journalistic writing was inspired by the advent of the telegraph and the need to get news from the “wild West” back to the eastcoast establishment.  Telegraph outlets were very limited and reporters stood in line to dictate to fast-fingered telegraph operators.  Out of fairness, reporters were limited to one paragraph of dictation – about 140 characters or so – and then they had to move to the back of the line.  They learned to write their lead and fill in more later.

Kebbel, Griffin and others in the discussion all agreed that Twitter was forcing many to tighten-up and write right, at least from a journalistic perspective.

Interesting, isn’t it?  China seeks to control the news flow and Twitter is making the world better at getting to the (news) point!

Post by Nick Vehr (3.14.10)

“Public Relations” has to be one of the most overused and  misunderstood words in our language.  That really honks me off.

Now comes an article in the Sunday NYT’s magazine titled “Optics: A scientific-sounding buzzword for ‘public relations’,” (On Language, Ben Zimmer; p. 14) tracing the evolution of “optics” (or “optiques” for French and Canadians) in politics.

Basically, the article compares the political practice of form v. substance, the overwhelming importance placed on public perception v. public substance, to the practice of public relations.  As if everything public relations professionals do is spin, obfuscation and fluff.

Don’t get me wrong, the practice of strategic communications – also often referred to as public relations – is what we do for a living.  And, yes, when asked what I do, I say, “PR.”

And, whenever I do that, I don’t like it.  Because, we do much more.

As professional communicators, we work with our clients to understand, or sometimes determine, a clear business objective, identify the target audience (the customer) and the specific action they have to take (purchase, call, write, register, give, etc.) for the business objective to be achieved.

Then, we determine the key messages that will inspire (motivate, move, encourage, empower) the audience to action. We then determine precisely which channels are best to reach the audience.  Next, we craft creative and integrated tactics – offline and online – to reach the audience.

Of course, we then measure, as quantitatively as we can but often qualitatively, the value of the program developed and implemented toward achievement of the business objective.

Is there an application for this process of strategic communications in politics?  Of course there is.  I just don’t like that what we do for a living is so cavalierly summarized in a throw-away, misunderstood and overused phrase … public relations.

There, I feel better.  Thanks for letting me vent.

Post by Nick Vehr (3.7.10)

This is pretty self-indulgent, but I am very happy and proud to be celebrating Vehr Communications‘ 3rd anniversary today.  So, please bear with me and these few reflections or observations.

First: It’s all about our team.  Sounds cliche, but it’s true.  For the first year or so I plugged along by myself before beginning to add staff.  Since, it has been infinitely more fun, our work product on behalf of clients has improved, and I take pride in seeing colleagues grow and learn … the same folks who probably don’t realize how much I am actually learning from them.

We’re in the professional service business.  Our only product is the knowledge, experience and integrity of the people who work here.  Spend a minute on our Web site getting to know them.

Second: I am really proud of the clients we have been able to attract and retain.  I believe there is an open niche in this market and we are working hard to fill it.  It really feels to me like we are making progress.  From pure b2b clients to national b2c brands, from treasured community institutions to challenging community issues, our client list grows in size and diversity.  That’s what is so fun about the agency biz.

Third: Social media makes us better as professional communicators.  The options available to us to help clients manage their reputations, maintain and strengthen key relationships and deliver meaningful results are broader than ever.  That breadth, and the speed at which they change, keep all of us on our toes.  It is as scary as it is exciting, and we owe it to our current and future clients to be on top of this game. 

I am sure there is a fourth and fifth and sixth here.  But, I’ll stop … save them for another day.  I will add one thing, though, I really enjoying this blog but suffer high anxiety over my own frequency of blogging.  I try, but I am falling short of my goal (twice a week) because I am so focused on our growing business.  It’s harder than I first thought.  I am not apologizing.  I am not making excuses.  But, I will try to do better.

Post by Nick Vehr (March 4, 2010)

It’s February … the month of love!  So, we thought we’d share some thoughts on “link love” for those still in the hunt.

If SEO (search engine optimization) is important to your Web site’s success – AND IT IS! – then falling in “link love” is why you need to get all prettied-up for the party.

Of course, to fall in “link love” you need a little “link bait.”  What’s a player to do? 

Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • Pick a killer title: Like that little black dress on Saturday night, a good title will lure “link lovers” as Google crawls through and ranks your Web site.  Watch out, though, you can’t be disingenuous.  Make sure your killer title is relevant to your content or you’ll be cast-aside.
  • Develop good content:  Make sure that you provide interesting and relevant content.  You may set the hook with a killer title, but to reel them in you need serious game.
  • Looks really do matter:  Hard to read fonts, spelling errors, overly-digitized photos, and more, can turn suitors away.
  • Leverage social networks:  Curling up at home on Saturday with a book or a movie is no way to make new friends … you have to be out there.  Post to sites like Digg and StumbleUpon and share with your Facebook, Twitter and YouTube networks.
  • “Link Love” is a two-way street: You have to give in order to get.  So, make sure you give a nod to the sites you find interesting and resourceful.

Remember, February is for lovers.  Apply a little of that passion to your online presence and maybe you’ll find true happiness.

Post by Nick Vehr – 2.1.10

Get it? ... "Buzz" (Just trying to stay with the "cute and clever" theme.)

I have to admit that I thought some of these new social media buzzwords shared by Pete Blackshaw were clever and kind of cute.

We all know Pete in Cincinnati.  He’s also quite the social media expert with a column in AdAge.  Here’s the link to his blog post, and his recent article in AdAge, “Top 20 Labels, Buzzwords to Describe Our Curious Stampede to the Social-Media and Mobile Future.”

But, on to the fun stuff.  See if you can connect Pete’s buzzwords with their definitions that follow.  For the answers, go to Pete’s blog post:

  • Mobilenecking
  • Jack Ripper
  • Wiki Wart
  • Oedipost Complex
  • Apptosterone
  • Twitstop
  1. The curious neurosis that compels folks to sleep with their Blackberry or iPhone. The afflicted can’t stop checking — even in late hours — for responses to tweets or blog and Facebook posts.
  2. The alarming tendency to have our necks titled down or shifted sideways — ever glued to our mobile device. This anywhere, anyplace epidemic is increasingly common in cars, airplanes and crosswalks. Closely related to term “Eyevoidance,” where no one looks at anyone anymore.
  3. The device warriors who hog outlets anywhere they can find them — in the airport, via the USB port of a colleague’s computer, even a restaurant reservation desk. They get a charge from a charge.
  4. A bathroom detour from a meeting or conversation in order to check e-mail, Twitter or the latest and greatest via an app. (Swear on the Bible, I don’t do this … but I’m told lots of others do.)
  5. A bad piece of news or an embarrassing brand episode (e.g., an activist protest or a social-media campaign that backfired) that just won’t go away in a brand’s Wikipedia description. PR pros often give false hope to brands of removing the warts, but relentless Wikipedia editors put them right back.
  6. The mojo that fuels intense “mine’s bigger/better” conversation about mobile apps. “Dude, you got Bump, but I’ve got FourSquare.” Marketing techies are loaded with Apptosterone.

Of course, here’s the gimme … the one we all need from time-to-time!

  • Digital Detox: What we all need — at least in doses. As we’ve learned, total digital immersion has side effects. Let’s all pursue a roadmap for balance in 2010. 

Thanks, Pete.  Happy New Year.

Post by Nick Vehr – 1.14.10

I am very happy to paraphrase and pass on a great blog post regarding bad apples in PR. (Note: the headline is in quotes because I am sharing it directly from PR Squared.

Here’s the deal.  The author (Todd Defren) of this post re-shares his frustration (which we all feel as PR professionals) about having to justify/rationalize our existence. 

He laments the few, but way too many, PR bad apples as much as reputable and respectable lawyers disdain the ambulance-chasing, bottom-feeders that led Shakespeare to write, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

The author also has interesting things to say about ROI and its misapplication to our industry. 

My perspective here:  It’s not that we want to be unaccountable or that meeting business objectives is not central to what we do.  It’s more that it is difficult, if not impossible or appropriate, to attempt to place a monetary, bookable value on retained trust or reputation, the crisis that never disrupts the business, or the lead that expresses initial interest while the actual sale is closed by other trained professionals.

It is easy to place lost value on such things (e.g., the value of Tiger Woods lost endorsement deals or Domino’s Pizza sales drop immediately after the online video event, etc.).   

So, please read an enjoy some thoughtful and seasoned perspective.  Any insights you have to add here or with PR-Squared are appreciated.

Post by Nick Vehr – 1.12.10