crisis preparation

Addressing Skeletons in Your Closet Before They Tumble Out

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

The chaotic state of political affairs in Virginia is a good reminder that skeletons in the closet have a nasty habit of popping their head out of the door.

Closet skeletons are a dimension of crisis preparation that is frequently overlooked in the mistaken judgment that what happened long ago will never be uncovered. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Virginians and the rest of America who pays attention to the news have discovered, that’s just not true. An obscure medical school yearbook picture can come back to haunt you.

An old skeleton liberated from the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, as Northam’s fumbling reaction illustrated. It is like an ambush interview on steroids. You have to address the unexpected surfacing of the skeleton and be judged on how you handle the surprise. As with any other crisis, being surprised is a big problem in responding credibly.

To err is human, as Alexander Pope observed, and to forgive is divine. The trouble is the vast majority of people need a reason to forgive. The unprepared politician, corporate executives , celebrity or nonprofit leader is ill-equipped to ask for forgiveness. Being prepared doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, but it helps.

Rummaging around in your past life in search of old skeletons may be uncomfortable – and unsettling for family members, friends and colleagues. But discomfort and private embarrassment seem like a small price to pay in the face of public disgrace.

The rummaging can have salutary benefits by revealing unacknowledged attitudes that present teachable moments. Using Northam’s situation as an example, if he had recalled the yearbook – or, more important, his earlier flippant attitudes about blackface, he could have turned his “surprise” into an epiphany. Admitting he failed to realize how blackface offended African-Americans, Northam could have displayed a capacity to open his eyes and mind to new realities, much like Virginians have had to face up to the reality that many confederate statues were erected as imposing Jim Crow-era reminders to black Virginians to “know their place.”

People running for public office should conduct thorough personal audits to identify any problematic skeletons in their past – or present. They should start by listing the transgressions before leaping to justifications. This is not really all that much different from a candid and thorough issue audit organizations should undertake to prepare crisis communications plans. The main difference is ranking probability.

The owner of a skyscraper should consider an elevator accident in an issue audit, but probably doesn’t need to worry all that much about an elevator crashing into the basement. Political candidates and officeholders can’t discount anything, as Northam’s yearbook page attests. The emphasis for candidates and officeholders is to brainstorm how to respond if their skeleton is exposed. 

Northam again proves illustrative. After his initial equivocation, Northam has earned some respect by dedicating the remainder of his gubernatorial term, assuming he gets to serve that long, to addressing issues of racial justice. If he had thought about the possibility of this blackface skeleton tumbling out of his closet, Northam could have responded more surefootedly and powerfully. His lack of preparation also showed through over the weekend during a relatively sympathetic interview with Gayle King of CBS News when she corrected his reference to Virginia’s racial past of importing “indentured servants” by saying, “You mean slaves.”

Changing times and norms have made behavior tolerated in the past intolerable in the present. In reality, sexual abuse and racial insensitivity were never okay. Victims were ignored or even punished. What’s really changed is that the spying eyes of social media make it harder for perpetrators to laugh off their bad acts. Victims have the tools to expose and punish them.

Like it or deplore it, you would be smart to prepare for it. Closet walls aren’t what they used to be.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling

 

The Time You Save Is Your Best Friend in a Crisis

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.

The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.

The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.

Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:

Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.

Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.

Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.

Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.

Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.

Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone. 

Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation. 

Maintain Current Contact List

Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.

Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.

Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.

Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.

Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.

Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.

There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.

[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Let Your Ghost Website Prep for a Scary Crisis

Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites don’t have to hide in the closet. They can be catalysts to update your crisis plan, test your crisis readiness and double-check your third-party validation. Ghost content might even turn out to be clever, shareable marketing material.

Ghost websites are essential hardware for your crisis communication plan. They contain content you store away for a scary crisis.

Ghost content can be as basic as B-roll that you can feed TV reporters for use as “wild footage” in their crisis coverage. Content can be more advanced such as videos that show processes or safety features. There can be backgrounders, animations, frequently asked questions and answers, media clips and infographics.

Good crisis plans call for creation of ghost websites as a cupboard of content to draw upon when crisis hits. But ghost websites also can play valuable roles in crisis preparation itself.

The best crisis plans contain sound advice for how to respond to a crisis, not just what to say. Brainstorming for content to place on a ghost website should center on what you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate – and how best to show it. What you may need to describe, explain or demonstrate should lead you to go-to people and resources that can provide answers. Reaching out to go-to resources for ghost website content is like a dress rehearsal for a crisis, when getting and verifying information in real time is at a premium.

Restocking ghost website content presents a perfect opportunity for reviewing the overall crisis plan. Looking to see if you are missing useful B-roll footage or whether you should update an infographic are cues to make the same assessment of a crisis plan’s call-down phone list or the crisis scenarios that anchor your plan.

Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Ghost website content doesn’t need to be stored away in the closet. Its creation can be a catalyst for sharper thinking, improved validation and even clever marketing tools

Some of the most important ghost content you can develop is third-party validation of your products, product claims or safety processes. This validation should be checked routinely and updated as necessary. The review should trigger a wider reflection on additional ways to validate claims or emerging best practices, which in turn can alter approaches to a crisis or point to smart management actions.

Crisis scenarios can be very different and require significantly different kinds of crisis content. Ghost website content is a simple way to hammer home that point to a crisis team, as well as prepare for a crisis. Ghost content to deal with an environmental spill (showing your environmental stewardship) is not the same as what is needed to deal with financial fraud (showing your financial safeguards).

Reviewing ghost website content scenario by scenario can reveal pockets of knowledge you need to fill in or expose actions you should take to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a crisis.

In a crisis test drill, activating and pushing out appropriate ghost content can measure how well your social media platforms are positioned for crisis response.

A crisis manager could recruit a group of print and electronic editors to discuss the kind of validated content they would value in a crisis situation. The discussion could include a show-and-tell of ghost content. Their comments and insights could be useful in grooming or adding to a crisis plan’s ghost content.

Since a goal for effective crisis response is to preserve and even enhance a reputation, invite marketing staff to riff on ghost content ideas, which might double as marketing content. There is nothing wrong with repurposing ghost content for current usage, making it familiar when it returns as part of a crisis response.

Employing ghost website content as a catalyst in the crisis preparation process can sharpen the resulting crisis plan. It also will strengthen the ghost content you have created for that scary day.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Uber Fatality Shows a Crisis Can Travel Far and Fast

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

The first recorded fatality resulting from a driverless vehicle reinforced the reality that technology has the potential of turning a communications crisis into a family affair, complicating how and when to respond.

Managing a communications crisis in the age of technology has the quality of managing the branches of a family crisis, as evidenced by the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona involving an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode. It may be the first recorded fatality involving a driverless car.

The pedestrian fatality ensnared Uber (which was testing the driverless vehicle), Volvo (the manufacturer of the vehicle), an unidentified software developer and other automakers working on autonomous vehicles. For its part, Uber expressed condolences to the victim’s family, suspended its driverless vehicle testing program and said it was cooperating with local police.

Preliminary indications suggest the accident, which involved a woman and her bike emerging from a shadowy area where there wasn’t a crosswalk, may have been unavoidable with or without a driver. However, that finding is unlikely to quell concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles nor the communications crisis surrounding the incident.

Some critics have jumped on news that the Uber driver was a felon. More thoughtful critics have wondered how the software controlling the vehicle was written, and what priority it gave to avoiding a pedestrian, even one that may have been hard to spot with a human eye. Broader criticism has centered on how rapidly driverless cars have been advanced and whether the transformation should be slowed or even scrapped.

Automakers with autonomous vehicles on the cusp hustled to lament the fatality, but defend the project. Software developers may be squirming to find out how to avoid becoming scapegoats.

Construction accidents, environmental spills and financial embezzlements spill over to multiple parties, usually resulting in finger-pointing. But technology-centered crises are even more borderless. People harbor skepticism about technology. Ride-hailing Uber may be the most distrusted technology company, even among people who rely on it to get home safely from a night on the town.

Managing a crisis has always been a fluid, ill-structured exercise. When a crisis goes 3-D, it takes a special kind of communicator binoculars to track. Adding to the fun are the ever-changing outlets for crisis exposure. More angles, more players, more outlets make for more headaches.

Perhaps the most telling lesson from the Uber fatality is the crisis trail it creates for uninvolved parties. Even though a Volvo was involved in the accident, Mercedes felt compelled to comment since it has signed up to provide Uber driverless. Toyota commented because it is exploring driverless cars. The police made a point to note it was investigating the fatal accident just like any other fatal accident.

Responding to a crisis is hard and it is getting harder. More vulnerabilities. More “reporters” with smartphones. More “news” outlets. And now more players. If you thought you could skate by or play it by ear, your odds continue to plummet. You never know when a crisis can occur, and you can’t really guess how, who or where it will affect your business or reputation.

Crisis preparation may be harder than denial, but is a lot more useful and constructive. The Uber fatality should be a loud horn honk that crisis prep is a basic accessory to any successful business.

 

Be Prepared Before Your Chickens Come Home to Roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

If you run short of chicken at a home barbecue, it can be embarrassing. But it is far more than embarrassing if the world’s largest fried chicken fast food restaurant runs out of chicken.

KFC found out how embarrassing when it closed more than 800 restaurants in the United Kingdom and Ireland because of a chicken shortage resulting from a clumsy switch in UK distributors. In a full-page advertisement, the fast food giant deadpanned, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” The company with a Kentucky colonel as its mascot offered an apology, reported progress on getting its chicken supply in order and mocked itself by re-ordering its famous three-letter name to a cheeky “FCK.”

One wag mocked the chicken chain by noting, “Now we know why the chicken crossed the road. KFC was closed.”

As disasters go, a few days in Britain without KFC is not a huge loss, except perhaps for the employees who presumably lost wages. But the chicken-free episode serves as a reminder that it doesn’t take a parking lot shooting, food spoilage or a flash mob to put your operation in the news in a bad light. Sloppy logistics can do the job, too.

In truth, you can be under a dark cloud without ever doing anything wrong. How you respond determines whether your reputation will be darkened.

Food supply and food security issues aren’t strangers to restaurant operators. They are calamities that occur often enough so they can be anticipated. That includes having some prepared responses in the freezer, both in terms of operations and communications. With advance planning, you can do better than say “FCK.” For example, you might have a video on ice that shows where you source your food supply and how you check to make sure no adulterated food enters through your restaurant receiving door.

We call this crisis preparation, but you could call it thinking ahead. Imagine what could go wrong that disrupts your daily routine – or your business future. Some of the potential disruptions can be avoided through proactive steps, such as installing stronger food inspection procedures and requiring a higher degree of food preparation hygiene. Other disruptions may be unavoidable and require contingency planning, which includes how to manage crisis news coverage or a social media frenzy.

In the digital age, you can have a crisis on your hands without a TV station film crew at your door. A customer with a smartphone can turn your place of business into a live streaming broadcasting studio. Nobody has to wait until the 5 pm newscast or tomorrow morning’s newspaper. They can see what’s happening on their laptops and mobile devices almost immediately. That’s what happened when KFC store operators posted signs in their windows explaining they were closed because they ran out of chicken.

Most crises are not fatal. KFC will round up enough chickens to reopen its UK and Irish restaurants and straighten out its distribution glitch. But reputations can suffer if a crisis is mishandled. KFC blended an explanation with humor and probably skated by any long-term damage, except for some ribbing from competitors and an occasional reference in chicken-crossing-the-road jokes.

Chances are pretty good no one higher-up the pecking order at KFC thought the chain would run out of chicken. That’s why an issue audit is so important because it gets more than the roosters around a table to imagine what could go wrong.

As Murphy’s law notes, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The law draws its name from Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer on an Air Force research project to test the amount of deceleration a person could endure in a crash. Adherence to Murphy’s Law led to a relentless search for mistakes and resulted in a spotless project safety record.

Human aptitude has a cousin – human ineptitude. It’s just the way we are. The best we to overcome ineptitude is to show an aptitude for preparing for the worst. You never know when your chickens will come home to roost.

 

Al Roker Animates Levels of Hurricane Devastation

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

NBC weatherman Al Roker used an animated video to give viewers an eyeful explanation of the escalating force of hurricane winds. If animated videos aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation and marketing toolkits, they should be – soon.

All of us have heard a lot about hurricanes in recent days. NBC weatherman Al Roker showed an animated video this week demonstrating the varying impact of winds ranging from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane. It was devastating to watch.

Roker’s video was also a devastating example of visual explanations. Instead of a verbal description, the video’s animation (approximately 50 seconds in) let viewers clearly see what damage is caused with winds of escalating force – from blowing palm trees to blowing off the roof of a house. Words convey the meaning, but the video packs a punch.

Animated videos are common in weather reports, most frequently to show the storm track of hurricanes. Even though the tracking videos carry a hurricane’s category, those numbers don’t really tell the story of the potential destruction they can wreak. Roker’s animated video put dimension to the numbers.

While animated videos can’t be plucked off the shelf or created in a wink, they also don’t require a major production. Anyone who can show a story would be able to work with a graphic designer, digital specialist or college intern to create an animated video of that story. For the adventurous, there are even tools such as Flipagram, Adobe Spark and Animoto that let you muck around and generate your own animated videos.

You don’t need to be an artist to create animated videos. For example, Flipagram lets users combine photos, video clips and music.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by  Cappelli Miles , a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

The OregonSaves animated video uses familiar imagery to explain the state’s new retirement savings plan for workers who don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The animated video was created by Cappelli Miles, a CFM strategic partner for advertising and digital media.

Whether you hire someone or do it yourself, animated videos are perfect content for social media and websites. People like to look at short animated videos that have eye appeal, are informative and offer entertainment value.

Successful animated videos are more than visual whizbang. They are stories told with moving pictures. Roker’s video about the force of winds in different categories of hurricanes worked because it put a visual stamp on the damage wrought by different wind speeds. The best animated videos simplify the complex and bring to mind the familiar in a refreshing new way.

Some stories can take the form of visual explanations, making a complex story seem simple. OregonSaves produced an animated video that walks viewers through the “whys” and “whats” of the new state-sponsored retirement savings plan.

Infographics can be converted to animated videos. Here are some interesting examples.

Emotions can drive animated videos. Think of all the animated cartoons you watched with your kids as they grew up that left you with a tear in the eye, even though the stories were aimed at 10-year-olds.

The bottom line is that animated videos work, attract clicks and stick in people’s minds. If they aren’t in your issues management, crisis preparation or marketing toolkits, then you should go to work to add them.

Televangelist Proves Proverbial Value of Crisis Preparation

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Televangelist Joel Osteen opened his Houston megachurch to flood victims, but only after a torrent of social media criticism alleging hypocrisy in a house of God. Whether or not his explanations hold water, Osteen missed a golden opportunity to convert his megachurch into a community refuge and turning a crisis into an opportunity, not a reputation casualty.

Houston-based televangelist Joel Osteen provided a fresh example of why crisis preparation is essential – and its absence can blow a serious hole in your reputation.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When a seemingly thoughtful Twitter post turns into a lightning rod of criticism. When an offer of prayer came across as far less empathetic than a willingness to open the doors of a house of God to desperate people.

When Hurricane Harvey crashed into Houston, forcing thousands of residents out of their homes with no place to go, Osteen offered prayers, but not access to his massive megachurch building, which was formerly where the Houston Rockets played. After a savage social media response, Osteen relented, then offered a string of explanations, none of which quieted the storm of criticism. Twitter users branded Pastor Osteen as a hypocrite.

Osteen already has faced criticism as a pastor-for-pay, with a net worth of more than $50 million, not a humble messenger of God to the downtrodden. His prosperity message of prayer-to-riches was oddly discordant with the equal opportunity ravages of flooding in Houston. His failure to open his church doors to flood victims only amplified that criticism, as well as put him in front of TV cameras, including NBC’s Today show, to explain his actions – or inaction.

Whether Osteen’s explanations hold water or not can’t drown out the reality that he wasn’t thinking ahead of what might happen if a huge hurricane barreled into the city bringing relentless rain in its wake. Osteen said he didn’t have the personnel available to manage a huge crowd inside his church. And he said no one could have anticipated the impact of the hurricane. Both explanations disregard the value of crisis preparation, which includes anticipating and planning for what might happen.

Huge hurricane, lots of rain, flooding, people forced to flee. Really not that hard to anticipate in a city on the Gulf of Mexico susceptible to big storms and with low-lying neighborhoods, some of which are named after bayous (bodies of water in flat, low-lying areas). Details of the building storm over the Gulf that became a Category 4 hurricane at landfall were widely reported days ahead. If there was massive flooding, officials would certainly be looking for some place to shelter them – like large convention centers or arenas that have bathrooms and kitchens. The bells should have started ringing.

Evidently, Osteen’s organization never had talked with Houston officials about storm response and apparently there were no internal conversations either. Not only was that a huge oversight, it also is a huge blown opportunity, as pointed out by Brad Phillips in his blog. “Beyond being a communications failure for Osteen,” Phillips wrote, “it’s also a missed opportunity. He had the chance to offer Lakewood [the name of his church] as a refuge or to do something else substantive to help.”

In other words, Osteen blew a chance to convert his megachurch into a community refuge.

Osteen is a great speaker. But great speech isn’t always what’s needed in a crisis. TV news reports, social media and YouTube were filled with images of desperate people being rescued and knee-deep neighbors helping neighbors escape their roofs. Nothing provided a better contrast to Osteen’s crisis response than the picture of a long line of Houstonians who queued up to volunteer in rescue and relief efforts.

As the Harris County sheriff put it, the scenes were at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. To thousands of flood victims and many others, Osteen’s slow-opening church door simply struck them as heartless.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Fake Video: Newest Reputation Challenge

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Technology now exists and may become easily accessible and learnable to produce fake videos, creating a more troubling and harder-to-refute reputation management challenge.

Reputation managers have had to deal with fake news, but soon they also may have to contend with fake videos.

New technology makes it possible to doctor a video of someone speaking and literally put words into their mouth. The results can be quite convincing and put the speaker on the defensive for something he or she never said.

The proof of concept is the Synthesizing Obama project at the University of Washington. Researchers took video of the former President and edited audio from numerous speeches, which they lip-synched to give his speech a totally opposite meaning. Researchers at Stanford are experimenting with technology to modify facial expressions to make fake videos even more convincing. Adobe has software that can alter audio add totally new and fake phrases, mimicking a speaker’s voice.

With tools like that, mischief can’t be far behind.

Combine a malicious tool with the instantaneous combustion of social media and you have a reputation crisis on steroids created on a laptop in someone’s dank basement.

William Comcowich, who leads Glean.info that provides customized media monitoring, encourages companies, PR firms and the news media to “develop ways to detect altered videos.” Easier said than done.

Whitewashing away fake videos isn’t really possible, and would be foolish to try. (The concept of trying to bury bad news online with a spate of good news stories doesn’t have much merit to begin with.)

Short of some technological Sherlock Holmes or a forensic army, the best defense may be vigilance and documenting with video key speeches by principals. If you find a video of the boss on social media that doesn’t sound quite right, the best way to fight back is to produce a raw video of the actual speech, with verification that it is complete and unedited.

Comcowich notes that it is natural for people to trust what they see. However, that trust was undermined when people realized how images can be manipulated with tools such as Photoshop. That may eventually happen to video, but meanwhile fake videos can destroy a reputation and mischaracterize what actually happens at an event.

Think how the violence last weekend in Charlottesville might be reshaped in the hands of a creative video editor with a story to spin. Think how the alternative narrative of the tiki torch march was undone by embedded journalist Elle Reeve who had raw footage from the beginning to the end.

Dismissing fake videos are too difficult to make is burying your head in the sand. Just as sophisticated production boards have been made to fit on laptop keyboards, the tools to create videos will be in the hands of mischief makers sooner than you think. It’s not too soon to modify a crisis plan to account for
the advent of fake videos.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Miracle on Your Crisis

Safely landing a commercial airliner with two disabled jet engines on a frigid river is an amazing feat. It also has been the launchpad for its pilot to champion confidence-building pilot safety.

Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger became an instant hero January 15, 2009 when he set down his gasping Airbus A320-214 on the Hudson River minutes after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The emergency ditch resulted in no loss or life and only one injury among its 150 passengers and five crew members.

Appearing Sunday on Face the Nation, Sullenberger credited the successful emergency landing to discipline that allowed "doing our jobs under stressful conditions."

Sullenberger has leveraged his act of heroism to push for stricter rules on how long pilots can fly without rest and more strenuous requirements for flight training. He said pilots must understand the basic operation of the planes they fly even as aircraft becomes more technologically advanced. That's what makes them pilots.

The Miracle on the Hudson River was less a miracle, Sullenberger said, than an example of pilots improvising in an unanticipated situation while relying on their basic training.