Tag Archives: crisis communication

What The COVID-19 Pandemic Really Needs – A Communicator

17 May

     Yes, the world needs a vaccine.  But until scientists create one, we need communicators too.  

      In times of crisis, leadership of course matters.  But so do words.  In a fast moving multi-channel, multi-platform world where communication networks are no longer linear and centralized, finding authentic voices to coalesce around a unifying message has never been more difficult or important.   Our elected leaders command a bully pulpit that gives them not just great opportunities to lead with their words, but equally great responsibility.  It’s one thing to hold daily news conferences, it’s quite another to persuade, inspire, and drive attitudes.

       Ultimately, historians will judge whether our leaders such as President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci and many of our state governors have risen to this high mantel.  But one leading epidemiologist believes that on a national level, no one has—yet.  Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota along with three other academic colleagues recently released a paper projecting three scenarios for the progression of the COVID-19 virus.  The scenario that they believe government and healthcare leaders need to prepare for is a second, more powerful wave of the virus to emerge in the fall.  And Osterholm believes there is a national vacuum of urgency.

       “Generally, I think our leaders at the state level are doing an incredible job, as have most of the governors across the country,” said Osterholm when I spoke with him.

       But on a national level, Osterholm is looking for a voice from the past to come forward to the future.  “What I’m looking for is an FDR for a fire side chat.  Or, a Winston Churchill. There are going to be some really tough days ahead, and we need to be brining people together instead of splitting them apart.”

 

       In one important aspect, part of Osterholm’s wish is granted, although not in America.  It’s a voice that represents the past and the present—Queen Elizabeth II.  In her April 5th speech to the United Kingdom, the queen represented the pinnacle of Aristotelian persuasion.  She embodied ethos, or credible and ethical appeal.  The queen in her own properly stoic English way projects pathos, or emotional appeal based upon her experience in the Royal Family during some of Britain’s darkest hours.  And finally, she exhibited logos, or logical appeal to reinforce her message of resilience.   She did it all in just four and a half minutes.

       The queen proves long held communication theory that the messenger enhances the message.  This is precisely what Aristotle meant by his term ethos.  Yale psychologist Carl Hovland called it a source effect.  Hovland and his academic colleagues led research in the 1950’s that would become known as the Yale Studies of persuasion.  They determined that the source effect—or messenger—be it a celebrity, expert, or person of authority was among the four essential effects for a cognitive learning process that led to changing attitudes.  In the queen’s case, one could argue she is a celebrity, expert, and authority figure wrapped in one.  And because she is a beloved figure with an 81% approval rating in the U.K., her message is looked upon with more reverence and credibility than perhaps a similar message from a polarizing figure such as President Trump who struggles to maintain at best a 50% approval rating.

     But part of what makes the queen’s address so powerful is what Hovland would call the message effect.   Her words are deliberate in how they warn of darker times to come, yet reassuring that as a country Britain is up to the fight like so many it has faced in the past.   She also steals rhetorical tricks from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare and Lennon.  Her use of polyptonton—repeated words—and periodic sentence structure cements the message in the mind.

 “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

                The repeated words, ‘we will,’ and ‘again’ are a rallying cry.  They stick to the brain.  She stole it from Churchill who so strongly used his own polyptonton in 1940:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

       To this day many believe Churchill was talking about the allied invasion of Europe.  In reality, he was talking about a German invasion of Britain.  Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth is rallying the country against the invasion of a virus.  Part of the enormous gravity in both passages is the periodic sentence structure that saves the most powerful verbs until the very end: meet again; never surrender.

       There has also been another voice.  This one comes from the not so distant past—President George W. Bush.

      President Bush’s message is also a call to action.  “We all need to do our part,” said the former president. 

     To be sure, President Bush was a leader who sometimes struggled as an orator.  He often made light of himself as someone who mangled the English language.  But his sincerity and empathy were rarely ever in doubt and that was in full display here, too.

     “Let us remember that empathy and simple compassion are powerful tools in our national recovery,” said Bush.  “We rise and fall together.  And we are determined to rise.”

     This too, Aristotle and Hovland would argue makes the messenger and the message incredibly powerful.

     Dr. Osterholm is right.  We need a national voice.  Not just a voice from the past, we need them from the present. 

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United Airlines & Sean Spicer — Two Case Studies in Crisis Communications

28 Apr

 Crisis Comm Title Grapihcs.002    United Airlines and the White House are among the world’s most powerful brands and both recently gave divergent examples in managing crisis communication.  Within a 24-hour span, one had to foam the runaway for a public relations crash landing, while the other managed to grab the stick in a mid-air tailspin and get back on course.  Together, both United Airlines and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offer unique case studies on how to manage and not manage a crisis.

    By its very definition, a crisis can happen at any moment.  And how organizations immediately respond and manage the messaging can make all the difference in either containing potential damage, or creating a contagion that spins out of control and causes severe damage to the brand and the business.  That’s exactly what happened on April 10th.

    When United flight attendants forcibly removed passenger Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight 3411 in Chicago, it not only caused a scene, it caused severe social turbulence.  With the speed of a smartphone shutter button, the images and videos flew faster than non-stop flight on a clear day.

  As outrage virally spread on social media, United issued a tone deaf response apologizing only for having to “re-accomodate passengers.”  Spokesman Charlie Hobart told the New York Times, “We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.”

    It took took two full days for United’s CEO Oscar Munoz to issue an outright apology and launch a communications strategy, but by then the damage was already spiraling out of control.  United’s stock price stalled like an airfoil.  Within five days United lost $1.15 billion in market capitalization. (Figure 1) That’s a steep price for forcibly removing passenger who refused to give up his seat for $1000 voucher.

UAL Stock Price.001

Figure 1

    Less than 24 hours after United’s crisis, White House spokesman Sean Spicer created his own self-inflicted PR wound.  In trying to frame the seriousness of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, he invoked Adolf Hitler.   At his daily press briefing on live television, Spicer said Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”  Never mind that Hitler’s SS used chemical gases to exterminate Jews in Germany’s concentration camps during WWII.  The reaction was swift, incredulous, and furious.  The difference in Spicer’s crisis is in how me managed it.  Within an hour he not only issued an apology, he was on the air live with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer retracting his remarks and admitting he made a tremendous error in judgement.

     By owning his mistake and taking immediate action to correct the record and apologize, Mr. Spicer managed to deftly keep the story out of the next day’s news cycle.   As I’ve written in this forum before, there are established best practices for crisis communication:

  1. Cease and desist—stop doing what you’re doing.
  2. Apologize to those you’ve wronged—and mean it.
  3. Change your tactics.
  4. Communicate the change to employees and customers.
  5. Establish performance measures for how the change is working.

     Mr. Spicer followed the most important of these mantras in a mater of hours.  United’s Oscar Munoz took a week and a half to form a cohesive and strategic response that was finally posted on Facebook and communicated to its employees and customers.  The response issued a strong apology and pledged to customers to no longer force anyone out of their seats, and to reduce the amount of overbooked flights.  United’s attorneys also settled with Dr. Dao.  But the changes come only after United had already caused significant damage to its brand.

 

     What’s especially troubling for United is this incident completely destroys a unique brand equity that it has spent decades earning with its customers.   For years before its merger with Continental Airlines, United implored air travelers to “fly the friendly skies.”    It wasn’t just a marketing slogan, it was a brand promise.   When passengers flew with United, they expected something special–it was part of United’s ethos.  Many successful brands such as Johnson & Johnson have famously made their own brand promises part of their corporate culture.   Johnson & Johnson has a credo that dictates its core values in guiding everything from product development to employee relations and customer service.   In responding to the passenger incident, United’s customer service and communications team lost site of its historic brand promise to use as a guidepost.

    United may now be in the process of charting a customer service flight plan, but it took a disastrous grounding to make it happen.

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Wide Left–Lessons From Vikings Kicker Blair Walsh on Crisis Communications

18 Jan

Blair Walsh Graphic

        Brands that drop the ball could very well learn from a man who kicks the ball.

        When the Minnesota Vikings field goal kicker Blair Walsh missed the 27 yard chip shot that could have won their NFC wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks, he found himself in the crosshairs of crisis and scorn.

        The game time temperature was -6, but the Vikings loss burned fans with the heat of decades of blown-up playoff dreams.  The backlash against Walsh on social media was swift and condemning—and that’s being overly polite.

        Walsh’s response could have taken many paths, among them hiding in the bowels of the stadium with the dirty laundry—and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, he did something admirably remarkable.  He didn’t run.  He didn’t dodge.  He didn’t blame.

        He owned it.

        Walsh’s contrition is a road map for brands, corporations and individuals on crisis communication.

        His actions after that missed field goal can be broken down by his own apology, admission of failure, and plan for corrective action.

        First, his apology.  As reporters descended upon Walsh in the locker room perhaps expecting excuses, they instead got a lesson in humility.  The sting of TV lights, microphones and sharp question can wither mere mortals.  Walsh never blinked.  He looked into all of those cameras and apologized.  He kept his composure for more than five minutes before breaking down in tears only after his teammates came to console him.

        Second, his admission of failure.  Walsh could not have been more upfront.  “It’s my fault,” he said.  “I should be able to put that through.  I’m the only one who didn’t do my job.”

        Third, his plan of action.  Walsh promised to essentially get back to work and fix it in the off-season.  “I will be working hard to erase this from my career,” he said.  Under the circumstances, one can forgive him for not having specific details.  Brands and corporations get no such leeway—their plans must be timely, actionable and measurable. 

New Issues Scale

Figure 1

        Public Relations practitioner Phillip Lesly argues it can be a difficult dance re-shaping public opinion after a negative event.   On any given issue that divides public opinion he argues that people will fall into several groups. (Figure 1)  Lesley holds that 1% on either side of the issue are zealots—those wholeheartedly accepting or rejecting Walsh’s actions.  Another 45% on either side are leaners.  The 8% in the middle are thought leaders that can greatly influence the leaners. 

        Blair didn’t necessarily realize it but a day after the game, he got an important gift from a set of thought leaders that may have helped him soften his deepest critics and shift the leaners.  It turns out those thought leaders were first graders—just six years old.

        The students from Northpoint Elementary School in Blaine sent him letters and pictures assuring him all was forgiven. (Figure 2) 

Art 2

Figure 2 – Letter to Vikings kicker Blair Walsh from Northpoint Elementary School 1st Grader

     “Everyone makes mistakes,” little Sophia wrote.  “You can still help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year.”

       Walsh wisely delayed his flight back home to visit the children in person.  It was a made-for TV-moment, and TV and the kids didn’t disappoint.

        “Kids like you are willing to do kind things like that for someone you don’t even know,” said Walsh.  “It really meant a lot to me and I just wanted to say thank you.”

        The NFL books will forever record the last Vikings play of the 2015 season was a missed field goal wide to the left.   Let the record also show Blair Walsh’s response to teammates and fans was straight through the uprights. 

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