Thinking About 
Public Relations and 
Communications Management:
Terence (Terry) Flynn, Ph.D., APR, FCPRS


April 2014

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The Cracks Begin To Appear: The Difficult Road to the New Normal

As I suggested in my last post, the recovery efforts in the wake of Superstorm Sandy will encounter a number of significant barriers as communities and civic leaders begin the process of rebuilding -- for those who suffered the most damage and have seemingly received little support the thought of rebuilding is far from their immediate need to survive, days after the crisis.

The questions that residents of Staten Island are asking are real and must be addressed by all levels of emergency management -- why are their interests taking a back seat to the interests of New York City? Is it because they don't have the same economic power as Wall Street? And why, in the face of electricity, water, food and personal safety issues is the Mayor of New York City welcoming the NYC Marathon this weekend, when the resources need to stage that event could be deployed to help Staten Island residents recover. 

Getting to the "new normal" will be a bumpy road for all -- some will encounter pot holes while others will feel the road wash away from under their feet. Natural events don't inflict equal pain and suffering on all -- in some towns lives and homesteads were washed away while in others, the inconvenience was limited to suffering a few days without power (and the use of video games).  Organizational assets, apparently well placed before the storm, are now stressed to provide an equitable response for all communities -- but we know in reality this is at the best difficult and more realistically almost impossible. 

If lessons were learned in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, then a civilian and military response and recovery plan must be initiated at the local level to address area specific needs and local concerns -- in the wake of significant devastation, small and immediate actions are more important than waiting for days without information, for the large scale recovery efforts.  

Better yet, what these communities need and deserve is local crisis leadership to provide information, resources and plans of action for residents -- where and when help will be available, how can they access resources and who is in charge.  This information is best delivered face-to-face, in small neighbourhood groups at regularly scheduled intervals. Obviously a chain-of-command organization like the National Guard is best organized  to deliver the resources and information (one of the lessons learned from Katrina) in a timely manner. State emergency management officials should be working with their local units to strategically organize immediate response efforts to the most effected areas to deliver the necessary resources to meet the needs of the residents -- shelter, food and water being among the most important.

Communications must be consistent, constant and community-centric (meeting the needs of the specific audience(s) that your communications is intended for). With almost no access to the internet, street corner communications will have more immediate effect and impact -- setting up information tents in local neighbourhoods where residents get their immediate and important questions answered will go a long way to establishing trust and credibility for the local emergency management providers. Helping them cut through the red tape to access necessary resources to begin the process of rebuilding will also be critical as will be access to local crisis and grief counselors. The personal rebuilding will be as important as the physical rebuilding for community members -- and some may feel that the effort is to great, to difficult and to painful and just walk away. 

Communicators and emergency management responders must understand that the anger and outrage are real -- it isn't necessarily directed at them personally (unless they have engaged in disrespectful communications) but unfortunately they are the face of the forces that have caused their pain and suffering. Let them vent, try to help them make sense of the challenges and then, empathetically, begin the communications process. It's not easy -- in fact it is very difficult to deal with residents whose lives have been turned upside down -- but a listening ear, a helpful hand and the reassurance that you will help them through this terrible disaster is sometimes all your can provide.

The devastation in the impacted areas was beyond what the disaster planners had anticipated: Whole neighbourhoods will need to be rebuilt, gas lines relayed, electrical grids reestablished and lives repaired. And once the news organizations go back to covering the results of next week's Presidential election, community will need to come together to begin the process of establishing their "New Normal". 

Getting to the new normal -- post crisis recovery

I know that it has been far too long since I posted an update on this blog. I've become too comfortable providing short (sometimes pithy) tweets as a way of staying on top of the overwhelming volume of information that we as educators and communicators are attempting to sift through.

A short tweet last night, after watching continuous coverage of the Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts, caused me to ponder lessons learned in past natural disasters/crises
As cities/states move from #crisis response to recovery, the calmness & civility might be replaced with impatience & self-interest. #p731
12-10-30 9:51 PM

My good friend @josh_greenberg from Carleton University in Ottawa (my undergraduate alma mater) and expert on risk communications replied:

@TerryFlynn and the task for govt and communicators shifts from managing fear and anxiety to managing expectations and impatience
12-10-30 9:55 PM

Getting to a "new" normal is often confronted with growing impatience and, sometimes, unrealistic expectations. These are natural and expected reactions especially when you are suffering without electricity, water and a clear sense of when it will all be fixed. Unfortunately the expectations and impatience are often a direct result of communications efforts during the crisis itself. Effective and responsible crisis leaders  are able to give timely, directive messages to targeted publics before and during natural disasters (evacuate, shelter in place, stock up on supplies) to manage the preparedness stage of crisis and emergency management. As we have seen from the briefings in New York and New Jersey, many residents took those messages seriously and left the area in advance of Sandy's impact. However, as is often the case, some stayed to "weather" the storm in the security of their own homes. Risk communications and crisis management research has shown that despite best efforts, some people will just not heed the message for fear of abandoning their homes or properties.

The goal of crisis leaders during this anticipation phase is to communicate clear and concise directives to the intended audiences. Tell them what they need to do and when to do it. Strong leaders do it with confidence and conviction to inspire confidence and conviction in their audiences. 

Once the immediate crisis event has subsided -- in this case with the light of day on Tuesday morning -- crisis responders and communicators move into the post crisis recovery phase where the extent of the damage and destruction becomes clearer and the public are looking for reassurance, empathy, transparency and competence.

These competencies and attributes are demonstrated and measured at first instance -- especially in response to media questions -- as surrogates for the public's concerns. It is during those initial post crisis media conferences where true crisis leadership is displayed (or crisis failureship is exposed). The public and media want immediate assurances that things will be alright and that the recovery and rebuilding efforts will be quick and effective. 

In natural disasters like Sandy -- and community disasters like the Walkerton Water Crisis in 2000 -- crisis leaders need to focus on both short-term recovery initiatives and the long-term rebuilding plans. It's a juggling act that requires a clear sense of the "new normal" for the public and the media. It must be strategic (what could the "new normal" look like) and compassionate ("we can and must rebuild together") -- filled with patience and support for those whose lives have been fundamentally changed.

Crisis leaders must realize that despite their best efforts, members of their communities will get frustrated, angry and resentful with the speed of response and the recovery priorities -- how come that street/neighbourhood is getting priority treatment? Leaders must not take it as a personal attack but rather a predictable response to the uncertainty that the crisis has unleashed in the community -- "we all want it to go back to like it was before the crisis -- but that time has been fundamentally alerted and now we must work together to create a new and stronger community".

The challenge for most organizations is to manage short-term/immediate expectations and not to over promise on the delivery of those expectations. The public will trust you when you can deliver on immediate solutions while managing and planning for medium/long-term recovery efforts. Tell them what you can and can't do today -- don't give excuses and don't blame others. Take charge and communicate with a commitment to lead your organization/community through this crisis.

You will get to the "new normal" -- it will not be easy and without pain, anger and frustration. Clear, concise and effective two-way communications during the recovery phase is critical to achieving this "new normal".

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

The Summer Research, Writing & Speaking Season Starts

With classes, exams and final grades now behind me, I've jumped head first into my summer season of writing, research and conference presentations. In fact last week kicked-it off with three presentations in Saskatoon (IABC Saskatoon and the University of Saskatchewan), a CPRS Toronto panel discussion and attendance at health communicators conference at St. Michael's hospital in Toronto.

It was a whirlwind trip to Saskatoon where the topic of my presentations was the strategic connection between relationships and reputations. I discussed the need for communicators to begin to reframe and rewire their thinking in order to understand the strategic mindset of their management masters. I introduced them to the strategic analysis tools of PESTEL, Force Field Analysis and TOWS as a means of understanding the language and tools that strategic managers use to plan and manage their strategic objectives.

I provided participants with four communications tools and metrics to help them measure their level of stakeholder engagement, the strength of their relationships, the value of their reputations and the potential risks to that reputation. 

Thanks go out to the PD team of Jennifer Siemens and Maeghan Carstairs from IABC Saskatoon and Jennifer Millard and Ivan Muzychka (the newly appointed AVP Communications) from the University of Saskatchewan.

On Thursday evening I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion hosted by the CPRS Toronto Education Committee on "Can Public Relations Be in the Public Interest" -- based on the notion that one of the profession's mandates is to serve the public interest (see discussion of the development of the Canadian definition of public relations on PR Conversations). The event was organized by fellow Syracuse Newhouse alum, MJ Martin, APR and included panelist:
It was a small but very engaged audience of practitioners and students who were very interested in understanding how to balance what seems to be a conflict between the organizational interest and the community/public's interest. All participants provided their individual and organizational perspectives and we concluded that based on the ethical framework of the organization and the professional, public relations could be practiced in the public interest. MJ video taped the event and indicated that it will be available (details to follow).

The week ended at the Toronto Academic Health Science Network -- Education Day for Healthcare Communicators conference -- hosted this year by St. Michael's Hospital (in the new Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute). The day kicked off with a keynote speech from the Ontario Deputy Minister of Health, Mr. Saad Rafi entitled "Recalculating: The Business of Health Care."
It was a very good perspective setting discussion on the priorities and changes that healthcare communicators must grapple with over the next decade. I found the speech to be especially interesting as Mr. Rafi challenged the communicators to help their organizations better communicate both policy and institutional directives in order to help their patients and the province become healthier and more sustainable in the years to come.

Another interesting presentation was given by Lee Aase, the director of social media for the Mayo Clinic -- a pioneer in the field of social media communications. I first became aware of Lee's work when one of my Master of Communications Management students did a research study on the Mayo Clinic's SM endeavours about three years ago. 

The last presentation was also of interest as my two good friends from Hamilton Health Sciences, Jeff Vallentin, MBA, APR and Heather Pullen, MCM, APR presented on the community engagement strategy. It was a comprehensive look at how HHS strategically planned and executed a community engagement initiative to involve the Hamilton community on a reorganization of emergency care. They will be going me in Victoria at the CPRS 2012 conference to discuss another important topic in healthcare --- disclosure. If you plan on attending the conference, please be sure to join us for our session.

This week is dedicated to writing: I've got a number of journal articles and a number of chapters for our new book on public relations in Canada must be finished this summer. 

Here's to your travels this summer.

Catching Up With Great Frontline Friends

Today I unfortunately met up with three dear friends from my days at Frontline Corporate Communications and Frontline Environmental Management (Shelley Facey, Peter Gray and Keren Adderley). It was unfortunate because it was at a funeral for Shelley's dad -- a man I never met but whose daughter became a very important part of my consulting career.

I started Frontline Corporate Communications on November 8, 1993 after spending six years as the General Manager of WTM/International, a public relations/public affairs consulting company in Kitchener. After a series of failed administrative assistant hires at WTMI, I came across Shelley whose smile lite up the room and whose laughter was contagious. She became my right-arm and had a "Radar O'Reilly" like ability to predict what I needed done. In most cases she had already completed the task before I even had to ask.

When I left WTMI in 1993, she became a priority hire for me -- after I was able to negotiate her away from my old employer in 1995. While she wasn't my first hire, she was my most important hire. Over her 12 years with Frontline she grew to become our business manager and then in 2001 became an equity partner in FCC. In 2007, our partner company, Frontline Environmental Management was sold to a local engineering company, MTE Consultants and Shelley decided to join that company as Director of Administrative Services.

Today she is the Director of Corporate Communications & Business Services at the 200+ person MTE. 

Recently she was at a professional communications conference in Toronto and sent me an email saying that the presenter was talking about crisis communications -- which was a large segment of our business at FCC -- and she was telling me that I should have been the speaker. A true complement from a true friend -- her next email was both funny and haunting. "You know how I said you should be the guest speaker...the guy just quoted you and your research on Maple Leaf Foods."

Today was a day to reflect on Gerald Lannin's life and to thank he and his wife of 48 years, Sharon, for raising such a beautiful friend. Shelley and her husband Glen will raise a glass of wine to Gerald as they rest and recover on a much needed vacation. 

I Resolve 2012

It's hard to believe that it's been six months since my last post. My transition to the Faculty of Humanities and the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia on July 1st and the development of two new courses (2PR3 Intro to PR and CSMM702 Media Sociology) occupied most of my summer as did the organization of my new office in Togo Salmon Hall back on the main campus at McMaster University.

The fall term flew by and the Christmas/Holiday break was almost too short to call a break -- what with the university reopening on January 2/2012.

So this week saw me teach my first 300+ student class (CMST1A03 Intro to Communication) and one of my favourite courses (P731 Crisis Management & Communications).  Our first class for both courses was held this past Wednesday and I have to admit I'm glad I have at least an hour between the undergrad class of 300 and the MBA class of 30 -- it course requires a different type of teaching and the hour helps me wind down and refocus for the evening MBA class.

While the fall term saw the very successful launch of our new,Journal of Professional Communications, the welcoming of our 5th Master of Communications Management (MCM) cohort in October, and the completion of the Niagara Health System "Trust and Reputation" Study, it didn't allow for a great deal of writing.

However one of my more successful contributions was to the PR Conversations 'A defining moment for public relations' -- a review and analysis of the process my colleagues (Jean Valin and Fran Gregory) and I took when we developed our definition of public relations in 2008/2009 -- the definition that was unanimously adopted by the Board of Directors of the Canadian Public Relations Society in 2009. My contribution to the debate on defining public relations was a result of the Public Relations Society of America initiative to develop a new definition of public relations. My post created a great deal of interest from leading practitioners, scholars and critics of the profession (including Dr. Jim Grunig). To date, it has received the most views in the history of the PR conversations site.

So with a renewed focus with a new year, I'm going to use this blog to keep my writing and thinking focused on my primary goal for 2012 -- the publication of at least three academic articles. It shouldn't be too difficult given that we already have the data from the NHS study and Alex Sevigny and I are writing a chapter for Josh Greenberg's 'Communication in Question' book. I'm also editing a special edition of the Journal of Professional Communications on 'Issues, Risks and Crisis' -- in which I will certainly contribute a editorial on the state of crisis preparedness.

It's been a busy and productive six months. I look forward to updating this site more frequently -- Friday seems like a good day to make a weekly contribution -- and I would value your comments and insights. In between I'll be tweeting, teaching and trying to keep on top of the ongoing changes and challenges within the world of professional communications.

A Week In and I've Got to Get Shades!

As you all know, I've begun to transition from my 7 years as a faculty member in the DeGroote School of Business to my new position as a faculty member of the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia in the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster. As I mentioned in a previous post, transferring between faculties is rare and takes some patience as the systems figure it all out. Not to mention that the program I started at DSB is also transferring -- and that is yet an even rarer occurrence. So the last week has been filled with lining up my actual move, waiting for my new office to be painted, and figuring out how my research accounts get transferred to CSMM. All I have to say is that there are excellent administrative staff in both Faculties and I'd certainly be lost without their support and institutional knowledge.

So while the move is ongoing, my teaching, writing and research is in full gear. I'm still teaching a summer MCM course  -- Crisis Communications and am looking forward to seeing the research proposals that the students will be submitting within the next week. I also started a three week module on public relations, reputation management and crisis communications in the Master of Health Management (MHM) program at McMaster (joint program between the DSB and Faculty of Health Sciences). The MHM students are much like the MCM students in that they are working health care professionals that are busy completing a masters degree in a blended learning format. 

The MHM module has been quite interesting as many of the students had never interacted with public relations within their workplace. After analyzing two readings on public relations in health care, I asked them to buy their public relations/communications manager a coffee and ask them how the position/department operates within their strategic management framework. It's been an interesting week of discovery for these students as many of them didn't even realize that the organization had a pr/cm function. So there have been many "aha" moments in our discussions.

This week we will be reading and discussing the field of "reputation management" -- with a general overview of the RM research and questions and discussions on how these RM factors translate in the the Canadian health care sector. Should once again be some interesting "aha" moments for the students. Our last module will focus on crisis communications and management. I'm having them read my research on the "Maple Leaf Foods" case study -- which actually brings together much of the content from the three weeks. Their final assignment will be a case study written by one of my MCM graduates, Heather Pullen, who wrote on the Easter Health Breast Cancer Screening crisis that happened in Newfoundland a number of years ago. Heather's case study won the grand prize in the A.W. Page Society International Case Study Competition in 2009. The entire case study will be published in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Professional Communications later this month. 

Of note for this case study and the MHM students -- two of the MHM students currently work for Eastern Health in Newfoundland and I asked them first if it would be okay to use the case study as it was a very difficult time for those who worked for the organization. I'm glad that they were in agreement that the lessons they will learn from the reading and writing of the case study will help them to further their understanding of these three important fields.

Lastly, I took my good friend Dr. Alex Sevigny's advice and have been getting up early each day and with coffee in hand, heading out to our backyard patio and am writing and creating important teaching and research elements. It's wonderful to reflect and write in this pool-side setting -- better get it all done by October as I think the wonder will turn to cold and the effective may not longer be positive.

As I said in the headline, it's amazing how much progress you can make in a week; when the future looks so bright I gotta wear shades! (with apologies to Timbuk3).

July 1st: Canada Day and New Beginnings

Yesterday we celebrated Canada's 144th birthday in the quintessential Canadian style: a modest toast to a great country. We had the pleasure of hosting my friend and co-author,  Dr. Alex Sevigny, for a poolside BBQ. It has been a cold and wet spring in Kitchener and last night was our first night to enjoy the company of friends while enjoying a wonderful dinner and conversation.

Alex and I had planned to get together on July 1st as we both were celebrating our new beginnings. Following a ten-year joint appointment between the Departments of French and Communication Studies (CSMM) Alex is now solely appointed to the CSMM. This might seem odd to those who have only known Alex as a member of the CSMM department but when he was first hired in 2001, there was no CSMM and the Dean of Humanities at the time, Dr. Daniel Woolf (now Principal of Queen's University in Kingston, ON) had to place him in a recognized academic department. 

So while Alex said goodbye yesterday to the Department of French, I said hello to the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia.

For those that don't know my history at McMaster University, let me take a few moments to recap:

After completing my Ph.D. at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in 2004, I was appointed as an Industry Professor (a 3-year contractually limited appointment) in the DeGroote School of Business by then Dean Vishwanath Baba. It was a good and safe way to start my academic career (after 20 years of public relations consulting); a test of fit and future for both DSB and me. I was also given the academic responsibility to develop the School's first new graduate degree program in 25 years, the Master of Communications Management (MCM) -- in partnership with Syracuse University.

In 2007, I accepted a tenure-track appointment at DSB as an assistant professor of communications and director of the MCM program. 

Over the last four years it became very apparent that some of my DSB academic colleagues didn't value professional/executive degree programs and/or my contributions to the School. There were also a number of people and issues that challenged the future vision of the School and the senior academic leadership. I found this time to be the most difficult period in my 25-year working career. It became very apparent that if I wanted to continue teaching and researching at McMaster University, my academic future was not at DeGroote.

And that's where my good friend Alex returns to our story -- we've worked together on a number of academic and professional endeavours over the last seven years and I have come to truly enjoy his insights, inspirations, knowledge and counsel. Alex provided me with critical academic guidance over the last two years during my tenure renewal process. He saw first hand how I had been treated and made a very serious suggestion to me: "why don't you leave DSB and join us in CSMM". It was his way of saying that my contributions to the university have been significant and that there was a place were colleagues worked together to build a future where all could succeed. 

His timing was perfect (of course it was because he had been thinking about this idea for some time and wanted to wait for the most opportune time to share it with me). Over the last year, I met with a number of colleagues in CSMM, including the former Chair, Dr. Graham Knight, who was open to further exploring the possibility. We all knew that academic transfers within the same institution are rare but not without precedent. I presented my research on crisis communications to members of the Department and Alex presented my case to his colleagues who voted to accept the transfer and have me join them as a colleague on July 1, 2011.

Over the last three months, I have participated in a number of caucus meetings (in the DSB we called these "area" meetings), a hiring committee, and the Department's most recent strategic planning retreat. I have also been included in the development plans for a proposed Ph.D. program in Communication Practices and a new undergraduate program in professional communications. Needless to say I have been welcomed warmly by my new colleagues and the administration of the Faculty of Humanities.

There are so many new and exciting plans in place for CSMM: first is one of the new courses I'm teaching this fall "2PR3 -- Introduction to Public Relations in Canada" -- a course that Alex proposed and was approved by the Faculty last year but has never been taught. So I'll be the first professor at McMaster University to teach an undergraduate public relations class! It's a second-year elective for students in CSMM and we had to cap it at 150 students! So guess what I'm doing this summer...trying to figure out how to introduce, engage and excite 150 undergraduates about public relations. Don't think it will be too difficult to introduce and excite -- but engaging 150 students (any suggestions???)

I'll also be teaching a graduate-level course on Media and Society (CSMM 702) -- a media sociology course which will be a great deal smaller (thinking around 10 students). This was one of my favourite courses at Syracuse and I hope that I can bring the same insights and passion as Dr. Pam Shoemaker did for my class.

The third class that I'll be teaching is not new to me but will be new to the CSMM -- "MCM 711 Organizational Public Relations" -- the introductory theory course in the MCM program. Late last week the Faculty Council of the DSB voted to transfer the MCM program to Faculty of Humanities. It was the right decision given the future vision and growth in CSMM. I'm glad to continue in my role as the introductory professor for MCM students and to be a part of the growth and development of the program -- as I have for the last 7 years. I want to acknowledge Acting DSB Dean Bob McNutt and Dean Suzanne Crosta for their leadership in ensuring the smooth transfer of the MCM program.

So as you can see, I have a busy summer ahead of me -- moving my office back to main campus from the DSB Ron Joyce Centre; planning my new courses; figuring out how to engage 150 undergraduate students; writing, researching and oh ya, working with my co-authors, Alex Sevigny and David Estok on our new book "Understanding Public Relations in Canada" to be published by Oxford University Press

The future is bright and I'm looking forward to shining in CSMM.

The Future of Power: Hard vs Soft Influence

Foreign affairs columnist, Campbell Clark, writing in today's (Feb 10/11) Globe & Mail, briefly reviews a new book on public diplomacy written by former U.S. State department official and dean emeritus of the Kennedy School at Harvard University, Joseph Nye -- The Future of Power

In his column, Clark refers to Nye's use of the terms soft and hard power to describe the types of influence that a country or an organization must have in order to influence decision-making and behaviour. 

For those that know me, I hate the terms "soft" and "hard" because they have traditionally been used to down play the role, influence and ability of communications management and public relations to effect and affect change within organizations. I've heard it countless times, from business managers and now business students -- oh public relations, "that's the soft stuff" -- inferring that what public relations professionals do is mushy, fuzzy and non-essential when compared to the "hard stuff" like accounting, finance and even marketing. 

My response is always the same: "soft" is lining up numbers in an excel spreadsheet; "hard" is having to explain those numbers to a group of angry stakeholders (not just shareholders). From my perspective, these so-called "soft" skills/competencies are "business critical competencies" -- they are necessary and fundamental for any organization/communications professional to possess but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. 

I do agree with Nye's general thesis that to have influence -- and here is where I'm taking it from the public diplomacy realm to the public relations realm -- that public relations professionals need to have command of both these types of competencies in order to have both influence and power within an organization. 

With respect to the so called "hard" -- these are skills and competencies necessary to provide effective organizational and societal level counsel: financial literacy, business acumen (not only knowing the language of the organization and the sector but also a deep understanding of what drives the business/organization and how it achieves its goals and objectives), boundary spanning/environmental scanning, and issues anticipation/management. In short, it is the ability to define, document and defend the organization's "business case" -- not just for commercial enterprises but for any organization that has committed resources to achieve their overall strategic mission. This is what Nye calls "contextual intelligence" -- the ability to make sense out of signals in the environment in order to provide influence and insights to the organization.

Courtney Pratt one of Canada's most influential business leaders spoke to these competencies at the 2009 CPRS conference in Vancouver and at the 2010 Canadian Public Relations Leadership Summit in Toronto -- provide this same counsel to the delegates in attendance at these events. In order to have influence, you must possess the requisite knowledge and understanding that the other management executives and leaders have learned and earned in their journey to the top floor -- C-Suite. However, seasoned communications professionals who effectively utilize both of Nye's "hard" and "soft" powers will certainly have a profound impact on the organization's ability to influence decisions and events well beyond the bounds of their own strategic plans. In effect they will have strengthened their relationships with their priority publics/stakeholders and thereby enhancing their reputations.

Was That My "Online" Voice?

I'm sure that many of you have already heard/read the Twitterstorm surrounding fashion designer Kenneth Cole's Twitter misstep from yesterday (February 3, 2011). I happened to be home working on the first draft of my crisis communications chapter for 'Understanding Public Relations in Canada' and had the pleasure of watching this online train wreck happen. I'm going to limit my critique of Mr. Cole and instead focus my remarks on how organizations, who are struggling with building a business case for entering the social media arena, need to establish boundaries and procedures or just plain "rules of engagement" for the enterprise.

Here's how it all started for Kenneth Cole -- apparently any twitter post with KC initials verifies that it is from him (according to his own reports).  While the demonstrations and violence was taking place in Egypt, Cole decided to use this event to announce his upcoming clothing line.

Within minutes the Twitterworld exploded with outrage and indignation. Tweeters and bloggers were responding while the cynics were preparing to take a page out of the mock BP Public Relations twitter account saga. In less than an hour, the first "mock-u" twitter account appeared:

And then, four hours after the original post and a short apologetic twitter post, Cole moved the discussion to his Facebook page with a more formal apology. 

By this morning (Feb 4/2011), more than 11 pages of comments (376) were posted on his Facebook site  -- some nasty and some accepting of his apology. While less than 400 comments in 24 hours doesn't seem like much, a fellow blogger Shel Holtz reported this morning that a simple Google Blog Search resulted in more than 25,000 hits. 

This post obviously hit a nerve with the online community. But for some communicators, they think that it is much ado about nothing and expressed concern that there have been bigger crises that we should consider teachable moments, like BP and Maple Leaf Foods, and perhaps this was nothing more than a promotional stunt -- after all, shares in Coles company were up 30 cents over the last two trading days.

Stock chart for: 03NA000000KCP

Whether it was intentional or not, this case has demonstrated the need for organizational social media communicators to think first before blogging -- to reflect on the intended and unintended consequences of our communicative actions. It suggests that even when we encourage and "empower" our CEOs and leaders to actively engage with Twitter Followers and Facebook Friends/Fans, they need to know what the potential impact of their communications could become -- good and not so good.

As Shel Holtz reminds us, stuff does happen, even to those organizations that don't want or intend it to happen. In those cases, the organization needs to quickly reflect on their action and decide what actions it should take. My question to the KC organization is why it took 4-hours for it to publicly respond/apologize. Nature abhors a vacuum and as a result, the train wreck began to unfold. A 4-hour wait gives the critics and cynics enough time to frame your response and the damage to your reputation (among those that are paying attention) has taken its toll.

Here's my simple recipe for reflective communications A+P2 = C6 -- which means: Anticipation + Preparation & Practice = Credible, confident, clear, concise, and critical communications.  

I know, easier said then done.

I Got a Kick Out of CCPRF's 1st PR Boot Camp!

Late last week (Jan 28/11) I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural PR Agency Boot Camp put on by The Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms

The day-long event, with a mix of key note panels/speakers and break-out sessions was the first industry-wide professional development session designed for up and coming public relations consulting professionals. Under the leadership of Pat McNamara from Apex Public Relations, (apologies to Pat, after bugging her all day long for a video interview, my technical mastery of my relatively new Flip video recorder got the best of me and I guess I hit the delete button instead of the save button!) the "boot camp" was designed to provide agency-sponsored employees an opportunity to hear from some of Canada's leading public relations consulting industry thinkers and advocates. 

The morning kicked off with a panel session of agency clients -- providing insights on what clients are looking for in an agency relationship. Moderated by CCPRF chair, Carole Levine  (see my interview with her below) from EnergiPR (the recently created agency from the former Communications Meca and Palette Public Relations). Some of the issues discussed during the 45-minute session included the impact of technology, the influence of measurement, the role of segmentation and what clients are looking for in consulting agencies.  Representing the client side were Martha Cass (PayPal Canada), Barbara Haynes (DAS Canada), Julia Oosterman (RSA Canada), and Wendy Rozeluk (Google).

(L-R -- Pat McNamara, Carol Levine, Martha Cass, Wendy Rozeluk, Barbara Haynes, and Julia Oosterman)

Here's what each of them said about what they look for in selecting an agency:

Martha Cass -- "intelligence, integrated social media capabilities, chemistry and fit"
Wendy Rozeluk -- "fit, ability of the agency to mirror how I work, intelligence and ability to be a team player, understand the tone/culture of the company, ability to challenge our preconceived notions -- 'we know what we are doing well. We need someone who is going to tell us where we've missed."
Barbara Haynes -- "culture/fit, creativity, connections and do what you say you are going to do."
Julia Oosterman -- "creativity, fit, a desire for my business 'give me some love...I want to be special'."

There are obvious commonalities between what each of the panelists presented -- they are looking not only for smart agency counsellors but they want their agencies to provide "intelligence" -- about the market, their publics, and the social/traditional media outlets. Each one of them also said that fit/culture is also critical for a successful client/agency relationship. I liked how Wendy Rozeluk put it .. " you have to mirror how both my company and I work -- understand our tone/culture" Julia Oosterman's perspective on wanting love and being special points to the perspectives that she gained from being on both sides of the agency/client table.

Excellent and timely insights from what appears to be very good clients.

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