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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.
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If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Making messages resonate starts with understanding your audience.  Experience has taught me that people like to see a reflection of themselves – their interests, their lives, their aspirations.  The last one is exceptionally powerful, because it implies the future.

I’ll apply this thesis to something I understand considerably better – television.  Looking specifically at AMC’s Mad Men, there are takeaways that explain why its messages resonate so strongly with viewers.

Frank Rich hit the nail on the head about what makes Mad Men so relevant.  “…it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change.  Mad Men is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn.  And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.”

Uncertainty and worry have marked the news of the day.  In just the last decade, we’ve been rocked by changes, from 9/11 to the recession, and it is clear that moving forward, America will be markedly different.  Watching the Mad Men generation approach a period of significant change, there is something comfortable, sensible and satisfying about knowing the outcome.  The writers have perfectly defined their audience’s psyche and have tapped into it brilliantly.

But before you decide that all messages should involve fedoras, afternoon gimlets and infidelity, beware of audience fatigue and cultural shift (Wall Street 2 isn’t going to be about the hedonistic lives of bankers) and always be looking ahead of trends (no, not vampires).

After all, as Don Draper said, “Nostalgia is delicate, but potent.”

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.

Bottom of the ninth.  Two outs.  The stadium holds its collective breath waiting and hoping for a pitcher’s Holy Grail – the perfect game.

This was the scene in Detroit last night before umpire Jim Joyce blew the third-out call that relegated even Ken Griffey, Jr.’s retirement announcement to a postscript.  Joyce’s egregiously bad call stole a perfect game away from Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, there is no doubt about that, but it is the aftermath that interests me.

After reviewing the replay, a clearly distraught Joyce admitted that he screwed up – badly and irreversibly.  “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Joyce said simply.

Almost invariably, admitting a mistake and apologizing for it is the best crisis communications strategy.  But the trick is you have to mean it.  Joyce did.  He could have defended the indefensible or chosen not to comment at all, but instead, Joyce offered Galarraga the only thing he could – an honest apology and acknowledgement of his perfect game.

The right words can soften the blow of just about any mistake.  Sure, Joyce’s name will now be mentioned alongside Don Denkinger and Rich Garcia.  And yes, 500 anti-Joyce Facebook pages and the website www.firejimjoyce.com sprung up within minutes of the call.  But the way Joyce has owned his error is doing a lot to mitigate hatred.

To his credit, Galarraga was a class act, both during the game and after.  No one would have blamed him for pulling a Jimmy Dugan, but Galarraga had a remarkably mature perspective on the evening’s events.  “I got a perfect game.  Maybe it’s not in the book, but I’m going to show my son the CD.”  (Okay, he probably meant DVD, but give the guy a break – he was just robbed of a perfect game!)

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.

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.

I was an avid viewer of LOST for six seasons (yes, even season three).  And for six seasons, I grappled with electromagnetism, smoke monsters and tropical polar bears in both fascination and frustration.   The day after a new episode, I read blogs and articles that attempted to explain, predict and understand the show (special thanks to Washington Post’s excellent dueling analysis).  I was patient, and, when the series finale came to a close, I was disappointed.

As has been well reported, answers to many of LOST’s questions went unanswered.  For years I had been relying on the wisdom of others to explain the show’s biblical, mythological and philosophical references and the scientific aspects, so I turned to those same sources to gain greater understanding of the finale.

My quest for information and resolution felt vaguely familiar.  As I scanned blogs, Twitter, and columns, it felt a lot like my search to understand social media.

Social media, like LOST, is a complex and mysterious island that reveals itself only incrementally.  To be meaningfully on this island, you have to want and try to get there.  Once you’re there, every breakthrough of understanding is confronted with new questions.  And, just when you think you’ve got it pegged, a new tool is introduced.

I was able to make peace with LOST (thanks in large part to Lauren J. Rivera’s insightful perspective).  But social media has no finale, and I accept and appreciate that it will be a continual learning process.

Much like LOST, the joy of social media is in the journey and, ultimately, that journey is about people.  I have become a part of countless communities, established connections that would have otherwise been impossible, and found “teachers” who help me with everything from professional development to a firm grasp of celebrity gossip.

My advice?  Become a Social Media Island castaway.  I promise, no smoke monsters.

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.

Social Media.jpgI was an avid viewer of LOST for six seasons (yes, even season three).  And for six seasons, I grappled with electromagnetism, smoke monsters and tropical polar bears in both fascination and frustration.   The day after a new episode, I read blogs and articles that attempted to explain, predict and understand the show (special thanks to Washington Post’s excellent dueling analysis).  I was patient, and, when the series finale came to a close, I was disappointed.

As has been well reported, answers to many of LOST’s questions went unanswered.  For years I had been relying on the wisdom of others to explain the show’s biblical, mythological and philosophical references and the scientific aspects, so I turned to those same sources to gain greater understanding of the finale.

My quest for information and resolution felt vaguely familiar.  As I scanned blogs, Twitter, and columns, it felt a lot like my search to understand social media.

Social media, like LOST, is a complex and mysterious island that reveals itself only incrementally.  To be meaningfully on this island, you have to want and try to get there.  Once you’re there, every breakthrough of understanding is confronted with new questions.  And, just when you think you’ve got it pegged, a new tool is introduced.

I was able to make peace with LOST (thanks in large part to Lauren J. Rivera’s insightful perspective).  But social media has no finale, and I accept and appreciate that it will be a continual learning process.

Much like LOST, the joy of social media is in the journey and, ultimately, that journey is about people.  I have become a part of countless communities, established connections that would have otherwise been impossible, and found “teachers” who help me with everything from professional development to a firm grasp of celebrity gossip.

My advice?  Become a Social Media Island castaway.  I promise, no smoke monsters.

See that guy?  He’s right over there with the coffee stain down his shirt.  That’s the most important guy in the room.

Why?  Because he has a smartphone and he’s reviewing your café… right now.

Consider all the things that you, the business owner, couldn’t possibly know about our coffee-stained friend:  he has more than 853 friends on Facebook; 1,231 followers on Twitter; he’s a top-rated reviewer on Urban Spoon; and, in the time it took his friend to go to the bathroom, he’s posted his review to all those sites.  You can only hope that coffee didn’t burn his tongue.

It’s a smartphone world out there – Blackberries, iPhones, Droids.  With an estimated 45 million users in the U.S. alone and an expected 80 million users by 2011, this is technology that your business can’t ignore.  Good communication with your employees and your customers is and has always been foundational, but the rise of mobile illustrates corresponds to the growing risk of negative interactions as well as the potential for positive experiences to have a ripple effect on your business.

Think about this.  Just a few days ago, mobile location-based application Foursquare hit its 40 millionth check-in.  Just five weeks prior, the company reported it had hit 22 million check-ins.   The mobile phenomena is growing and growing rapidly and you can’t afford to miss its opportunities.

Oh, and if you’re asking what the heck a check-in is, take a minute to read up on Foursquare and similar site Gowalla.

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.

Today marks LinkedIn’s seventh birthday (siete años on Cinco de Mayo), making it older than Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even relative relic MySpace.

Happy birthday, LinkedIn.  Now let me tell you why I hate you.

  1. I already have an active Facebook and Twitter account. What I do not have is lots of spare time to dedicate to another social media application.
  2. Trolls. On Twitter, I’m delighted to get a follower who I do not know.  It pleases my ego that someone wants to read 140 characters of my innermost thoughts.  But on LinkedIn, I’m unnerved by strangers looking to connect (and more often than not, sell me something).
  3. I am not in the job market. (Though I freely acknowledge this is a down economy and could change at any moment, in which case I would be championing LinkedIn.)

But don’t despair, LinkedIn.  There is a silver lining.  I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I may be wrong about you.

For starters, LinkedIn is valued at $1.3 billion.  Considering that I’m worth decidedly less, it seemed only fair that I spend some time determining what it is that’s so great about LinkedIn.  After all, it was just last week that I came around to the value of Twitter.  I’m nothing if not malleable when it comes to social media.

It turns out, there are some compelling benefits.

  1. Referrals. I’ve often found myself searching for vendors with no prior knowledge of the field.  Typically, I’ve sough referrals from people I know and trust.  LinkedIn performs that function, helping me find good vendors, and, even better, allowing prospective clients to find my company.
  2. Increased Visibility. LinkedIn is typically on the first page of my Google search results if I’m looking up an industry, company or person.  If LinkedIn boosts my website’s PageRank, I’m interested.
  3. Recruitment. I want the firm I work for to be successful, and that takes the best talent.  LinkedIn can help find and compare talent, as well as tell you if there are mutual connections.

Ultimately, I’m not sure these benefits are enough to make me a believer, but they’re enough to make me want to keep my profile active and updated.

What do you think?  LinkedIn has more than 50 million users, so please post a comment and tell me why I’m wrong.  My opinion is fluid.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive

As someone not particularly concerned with my friends’ sandwich preferences, I was a late-adopter of Twitter technology.  A born skeptic, I didn’t know what value could be derived from 140 characters of Joe Schmo’s stream of consciousness. 

Despite my reservations, I opened an account because, as with most social media, it seemed like I had to have it, even if I didn’t know what to do with it.  (Ironically, this is exactly what I would advise my clients against.)   I dipped my toe into the Twitter water casually, choosing to be a voyeur of other people’s posts.  I don’t remember my first tweet, but I imagine it was something benign like, “First tweet posted!”  I’m certain it didn’t earn me a single follower.

I am fortunate to work for a firm that embraces and encourages social media, especially coming from the political world, where the thought of “polluting” carefully crafted talking points is sacrilegious.  I started spending my downtime reading about how to leverage social media and how harnessing its power could lead to important (if not accurately measurable) benefits for my clients and for my professional development.

The most difficult thing about Twitter for me was figuring out how to really get started.  Generally, I followed three steps:

  1. I followed the people I found interesting and informative (okay, and also celebrity gossip – nobody’s perfect).  I also made the conscious decision that I would use Twitter for news and information, not to have conversations with friends and family; for me, that’s what Facebook is for.
  2. I retweeted the things I found helpful and worthwhile and found that good retweet was just as beneficial as a brilliant original tweet.
  3. I joined the conversation, sharing articles of interest, social commentary, and occasionally the things that amused me during the day.

But it was not until yesterday that I experienced a Twitter breakthrough. 

Attending the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Bold Fusion conference, participants were encouraged to tweet the proceedings.  As a new owner of a Droid (this is not to invite commentary about the iPhone, only to indicate I am newly capable of twittering on the move), I thought I’d give this “live tweeting” a shot.

Over the course of the four-hour conference, @katiefoxdenis shared 16 tweets with #cincyhype hashtag.  I hadn’t really used hashtags before, but I fully understand the importance of them now.  By looking at all the other tweets under that hashtag, I got to see what other people were reacting to, interpreting, and taking away from the presentations.  I was able to get insights that applause and laughter just can’t reveal.  And I found new, interesting people to follow.

In a few hours, I realized the demonstrated power of this communication medium and how much value could be derived from it.  As it turns out, it’s not all about sandwiches.

Post by Katie Denis, Account Executive – 4.30.10