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Twitter Now a Crisis Tool of Choice

Twitter has become the tool of choice in a crisis. Reporters and law enforcement use it to broadcast updates. Organizations use it to show how they are dealing with a crisis. Sources use it show bad behavior.

Hashtags, which make tweets easier to find, are a major reason for Twitter's emergence as a critical crisis communications channel. Now Twitter's ability to convey images and video adds to its utility and power.

A less obvious advantage is that Twitter is a perfect companion for people with a smartphone that can capture and publish information in real-time. That advantage becomes a necessity in environments, such as the riots in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of an unarmed black youth, when cameras are banned.

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Doing the Right Thing and the Smart Thing

We saw local examples last week of doing the right thing and doing the smart thing.

A couple, both of whom are real estate professionals, returned a 2-acre parcel to the sellers, an elderly couple, who by all appearances got the short end of a sale price.

A Canadian pipeline company announced plans for a $500 million propane export facility at the Port of Portland and declined to take advantage of available subsidies.

The couple who returned the property did so after blistering publicity generated by Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, which prompted calls that the sale amounted to elder abuse. The parcel carries a real market value of $220,000, but the buyers obtained it for just $22,000.

While the buyers ultimately did the right thing, it came too late to avoid dents to their professional reputations. Mrs. Buyer lost her real estate job and readers who posted comments on Duin's column questioned the integrity of Mr. Buyer who runs a mortgage company. The attorney general was preparing to investigate the sale. 

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Getting Off the Front Page, Not Reporter Revenge

A reporter writes a negative story about your company, your boss or you. If getting even is the first thing that comes to mind, take a deep breath, go for a walk and find a better strategy.

Almost anything would be better than revenge. ​

If you think the reporter got key facts wrong or misinterpreted them, call the reporter and chat. Speak plainly. Have some evidence at hand that you can share to substantiate your point. For egregious fact errors, most responsible reporters will agree to a correction. For less significant errors, it may be enough to wise up the reporter so the mistake isn't repeated.

Occasionally a reporter is obstinate and won't acknowledge an error. You can take the next step and talk to his or her editor to press your case.

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Representing Ferguson, MO

People who dislike confrontation should avoid crisis communication. It is all about confrontation, often with your own client.

Denise Bentele, CEO of Common Ground, the PR firm hired by Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by protests and commentary following the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.

Bentele and her St. Louis-based PR team face a tough job. Michael Brown, the shooting victim, died from six gunshot wounds, two to the head. His bleeding body was left uncovered on the street where he was shot for an uncomfortably long time. The police chief refused at first to disclose the name of the officer who shot Brown. Police responded to protests by brandishing military-style armor and weapons. Businesses in Ferguson were looted. Journalists covering the protests were arrested. Scenes flashed across national TV news broadcasts of bedlam in the streets.

It would be fair to say life in this St. Louis suburb pretty much has changed forever. Scrutiny will be intense in a place that has a black majority, an all-white city council and just a handful of black police officers.

Providing crisis communications to Ferguson would be daunting for anyone. Bentele discovered daunting included negative public and professional reaction to her hiring. In addition to the typical rants about hiring a PR spin machine, Common Ground was assailed for the ethnic makeup of its staff.

Bentele defended her firm's involvement, saying she and her team were brought in to help Ferguson field "the overwhelming number of media inquiries" the city received daily. Bentele also said she recommended Ferguson hire The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to assist on community engagement.

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Responding to Crisis from the Heart and Head

When facing a crisis, should you respond with your head or your heart? A PR colleague argues for both, and with good reason.

A stiff response or an overly emotional response can erode, not build, trust — which is the critical measure of success in crisis communication. An effective response must combine a caring reaction with a rational set of actions. 

Joan Gladstone, who gives strategic communications counsel to clients from her San Diego base, says people affected by a crisis want more than timely, transparent information. They want to know you care. And they want to know you are doing everything possible to end the crisis and prevent it from recurring. They want assurances you are treating the victims with respect.

This requires a response from both the heart and the head.

Empathy can go a long way toward establishing a bridge between the crisis response messenger and the people paying attention. The absence of empathy sends an even louder message. Failing to express sympathy or remorse can be seen as uncaring, disregard or indifference. A simple phone call to victims or their family members can speak volumes.

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Amazon Conjures Orwellian Oceania

Amazon seemingly has the pulse of everything, except for the views of George Orwell. Amazon's misquote offers a useful Orwellian lesson in citing authorities accurately.

Locked in a battle with book publisher Hachette and a host of well-known writers, Amazon is appealing to consumers to take its side. Amazon has scratched e-books published by Hachette from its online shelves, claiming it is trying to preserve the best value for its reader-customers. Hachette and members of Authors United counter that Amazon is flexing its muscle to seize more profit from book sales at the expense of booksellers, publishers and authors.

In addition to suggesting talking points for its supportive reader-consumers, Amazon cited Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-four that described a world where people were convicted of thought crimes. The behemoth quoted Orwell as urging publishers to suppress paperbacks.

The quotation may have been more telling than Amazon's writers realized. In the superstate of Oceania, the Ministry of Truth was charged with rewriting past newspaper articles. What Orwell actually said was that the advent of paperback books was a boon for readers, but not so good for publishers. "The cheaper books become," Orwell said, "the less money is spent on books." He added, readers could use the savings to buy two tickets to the movies.

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Reflections from the Leadership Guru

The distinction between leaders and managers is crisper thanks to Warren Bennis who said, “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Bennis, often called the father of leadership, died last week at age 89 after a life of advising business executives and U.S. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.

I often referenced Bennis in my strategic communications course for MBA students at Willamette University, citing his belief that leaders are made, not born. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born, that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

Bennis believed leaders embrace failure, using it as motivation for eventual success.

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Defending Israel's Assault on Gaza

If you wanted a role model for framing issues, you couldn't do better than Ron Dermer, the American-born and educated Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Dermer has his hands full these days as Israel, for all intents and purposes, has invaded Gaza to root out Hamas tunnels and rocket launchers, inflicting significant civilian casualties that have enraged the Muslim world and made Israel's allies cringe.

He defends Israel early and often and without an apologetic tone. He has framed the issue so that Israel, facing a persistent barrage of rocket fire from Gaza, has a right to defend itself. Period. 

He may have cut his teeth on this line of argument, according to a New York Times feature story, when — as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania — Dermer was assigned the task of arguing Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians. Dermer was so passionate, he won the debate. When asked why he argued so fiercely for a point of view he strongly disagreed with, Dermer said, "I lied. Like they do."

If Dermer was merely a passionate blowhard, he wouldn't command the respect he receives. And he receives a lot. The Times noted Dermer has made more than 50 television, radio and print interviews since the Israelis and Hamas began fighting.

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Managing the Layoff Notice

The announcement by Microsoft this week of massive layoffs brought to mind my own experience at Tektronix when it began paring employees, signaling the start of its downward drift as a major employer. 

Laying off employees — whether it's one or thousands — is no fun. Communicating the layoffs is no fun either, but there are ways to make it less painful — for those losing their jobs and those staying. 

Painful Lesson #1

Let employees and other internal stakeholders (key vendors, consultants, strategic partners) know about layoffs before the general public. Nobody likes to get the news about a layoff their could affect them in a newspaper.

There are always logistical, timing and legal considerations that go into how and when a layoff is announced. But here is the painful truth — there is always, always a negative, sometimes permanent reaction when the layoff announcement is made public before it is made personally. 

Employees are not dumb. They know when layoffs are looming. They may even understand why they are necessary for the greater good of the company or organization. What they can't forget — or maybe forgive — is being the last to know.

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Learning the Language of Listening

Learning to become a fluent listener is a lot like learning a new language. It takes dedication, practice and keeping off your smartphone to check for email messages.In learning any new language, you have to figure out where to begin. That is also true for learning the language of listening.

If you belong to the "I'm the Smartest Guy in the Room" club or feel obliged to explain why everyone else is wrong, then listening is probably a foreign language to you. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a RosettaStone tape to learn to listen. You have to learn on your own, often cold turkey.

Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Watch Good Listeners 

Just as some people learn a new language by watching TV shows in that language, you can learn a lot about listening by watching good listeners. You may not have to go very far to find them. They may be coworkers or your employees. Put them in charge of a brainstorming session and see how they guide a conversation and listen.

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