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Apologies That Mean What They Say

The corporate apology is threadbare, but still necessary. What is dying on the vine is customer and stakeholder patience because too many corporate apologies are disingenuous and lack promised follow-through.

After a misdeed, words are important. But what makes the difference is action. Especially if you promise to do something to prevent a recurrence of your misdeed. 

​When a crisis hits, corporate executives want to make the bleeding stop. They often are willing to say almost anything to staunch the flow of bad news.

However, many executives fail to recognize that a crisis is an opportunity. Instead of a moment for panic, a crisis response is a chance to demonstrate your core values, to show what you really believe.

If you are a health care organization and say patients come first, a crisis is a chance to prove it. If you are a retailer and say customers are always right, a crisis is a chance to affirm it.

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Jousting on Social Media

A recent story about a political race zeroed in on rabid social media exchanges between staffers in opposing campaigns. Most people ignore the exchanges as nothing more than inside political baseball. Cybernauts aren't so generous when brands joust with customers.

JetBlue made a bad situation worse when it quarreled on Twitter with a passenger who said she was barred from boarding a delayed flight. The would-be passenger says someone made an off-handed comment about a "fully stocked bar onboard," which the JetBlue pilot interpreted as an accusation that he was intoxicated.

Irritated, the pilot ordered all passengers off the plane while he underwent a precautionary sobriety test, which proved negative. Lisa Carter-Knight, the passenger ultimately prevented from the flight, said she didn't make the comment and was punished for tweeting about the episode. 

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The Tale of Two Papers

Readers of The Oregonian are watching the at-times-painful process of the daily newspaper's digital conversion, as are the readers of The Washington Post. Both look like running backs zigging and zagging on a football field looking for an opening to break downfield.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post a year ago, raising expectations about its digital conversion. But Jeff Abbruzzese, writing for Mashable, says a grand design hasn't surfaced. The biggest development is the exit of rising star Ezra Klein, who wrote Wonkblog, a primer on public policy debates in the nation's capital that was the newspaper's most read blog.

The absence of visible change at the 137-year-old DC fixture may reflect uncertainty about what digital direction makes the most sense. It also may reflect the lull before the storm. One Washington Post official said recently the newspaper staff is being prepared to "stomach the chaos that comes with digital."

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Redirecting the Corporate Video

If you storyboard your corporate video as if it was a silent movie, you will ensure that imagery carries the day, not a bunch of talking heads.Corporate officials think in terms of messages, but for video it's better to think about images and stories.

Videos are in vogue because more people have access to devices that can access them. Plus, "watching" is becoming as or more popular than "reading." Video is a communication channel sweet spot.

However, many corporate videos hit a sour note because they are designed to send a message, not leave an impression. People may hear a message, but they are more likely to remember a striking image or a great story.

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Back to Facts as Facts

Facts should be facts, not means to an end. Separating facts from opinions and advocacy is a step toward credibility.The saying "facts are facts" no longer seems to be widely accepted. For some, facts are merely bits of information, means to an end.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is the leading contemporary practitioner of the Big Lie. He has galvanized Russians against Ukraine by claiming the government in Kiev has been overrun by Russian-hating fascists. When a commercial passenger plane was shot down over the portion of Ukraine patrolled by Russian separatists, Putin speculated Kiev was responsible, not the Russian-supplied anti-aircraft artillery he sent to fight the fascists.

People who bend or spin the facts sometimes seem to get away with it. However, believing people are gullible – at least over the long haul – can be dangerous to your reputation. People have a habit of getting to the bottom of what's going on. The digital age has made it a lot harder to hide the truth – or another point of view.

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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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