Issues, crises and social media tornadoes

Presentation to the Canadian Public Relations Society by
Sarah K. Jones, APR, FCPRS, LM and Eric Bergman, APR, ABC, MC, FCPRS


Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-presenting with Sarah K. Jones to the Canadian Public Relations Society on the topic of “Issues, crises and social media tornadoes.” Using Tim Hortons as a case in point, Sarah and I provided insights into how public relations professionals could better prepare their organizations for the issues, crises and social media tornadoes that often lie just beyond the horizon.

tornadoe on a field
We covered three concepts. Sarah first addressed the notion that, if stormy weather is anticipated, less time is spent dealing with the aftermath. Next, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better managed and prevented. Finally, we both talked about helping management understand the need for change, and provided a series of tools for steering management into effective, sustainable decisions.

Anticipating Stormy Weather
Sarah began by encouraging participants to think of the weather as a metaphor for managing issues. During winter, for example, Canadians assume that the weather will be cold, so they dress appropriately. If they’re planning a road trip during winter, they check the forecast for snow.

“For any communications professional, assuming there’s stormy weather somewhere on the horizon ahead should be a primary job motivator,” Sarah explained. “Preparing for same should be part of every job description.”

She pointed out that it’s critical to constantly ask questions. Where do storms pop up for the organization? Does it happen regularly? Is there a pattern?

How do you monitor what your stakeholders are saying? What are traditional and social media saying about your industry, your competitors, or your company? How do you monitor social media?

As the Tim Hortons case proved, whether or not PR professionals work in a directly regulated environment, it’s critical to pay attention to provincial and federal government activities and events—things like election promises, ministry initiatives, proposed legislation, economic statements and budgets all provide insights. If you don’t monitor the landscape, be prepared to be busy.

“My personal motto throughout my career is that it’s always better to spend five minutes at the front end identifying what needs to happen,” she explained. “It’s always better than spending five weeks at the back end cleaning up the mess.”

Stormy Weather Components
During the middle section, I talked about separating stormy weather into its components, so it can be better prevented and managed. To do this, I briefly explained the differences between issues, emergencies and crises.

“The dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem that has the potential of escalating into a dispute,” I said. “But that’s a long definition for someone originally from Alberta. To me, an issue is a fight looking for a place to happen.”

When someone “takes issue” with the organization, they’re mapping out the lines of that dispute. The crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention, whether traditional or social, leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.

An emergency is sudden, relatively unexpected event that demands serious attention and prompt action. But an emergency is not necessarily a crisis.

A crisis is a turning point. The crisis point is successfully passed if the resolution of one or more issues leads to positive change—a healthier organization after the resolution of an issue. If the positive turning point is not achieved, however, negative change is most often manifested as a hit on the company’s brand.

“It’s amazing how much crisis management and brand health have become intertwined over past 25 years,” I pointed out. “As Sarah so eloquently stated, if issues are clearly identified and subsequently managed, the odds of them escalating into crisis is drastically reduced.”

Mitigating Stormy Weather
For this section of the presentation, we provided three actions that public relations professionals that can use to help decision-makers do the right thing.

Eric Bergman and Sarah K. Jones present to the annual conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society
First, it’s important to speak the language of executives. Most executives do not want to get lost in detail. They are more interested in broad strokes and the forty-thousand-foot view. Why is this weather report important to them? What will they lose (or gain) by not listening or paying attention? Sarah shared insights into her experience working for the public sector, and I introduced the concept that shareholder value may be an important lever to get the attention of any company executive.

Once you speak their language, it’s important to get their attention. Humans will not change their behaviour without feeling some form of discomfort. The difficult part of this concept is that to get the attention of decision-makers, it’s important to make them feel uncomfortable with the status quo. If not enough discomfort is introduced with the weather report and potential fallout, they will ignore it. Likewise, if too much discomfort is introduced, the weather report will also be ignored. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.

Finally, once you have their attention, it’s important to change their behaviour. We introduced a number of ideas and tools participants could use to help change the behaviour of management groups they advise. It’s never a good idea to bring a problem without a solution, and we introduced a final tool that helps define potential solutions, identifies pluses and minuses of each solution, and the potential outcome of each proposed solution.

Conclusion
If participants learn to effectively manage stormy weather, they’ll spend less time dealing with the aftermath. If they learn to break stormy weather into its component parts—issues, emergencies and crises—they better manage and prevent stormy weather. If participants have a larger tool base, they will better mitigate and manage any storms that arrive.

“We hope we’ve provided a wider range of tools to better prepare your organizations for issues, crises and social media tornadoes,” Sarah concluded. “That way, you’ll better help your clients and yourself prepare for any problems that often lie just beyond the horizon.”

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tigher shot
As Canada's most experienced, credentialed and effective media training consultant, Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS has been providing media training as his core business for more than 25 years. He believes that, in an age demanding greater transparency from institutions, organizations and individuals, spokespeople should be taught to answer questions clearly and concisely, and stop talking, as their primary skill. Only after they have mastered that skill should they be taught to weave in, not drive home, messages that influence the attitudes, opinions and behaviour of specifically-identifiable audiences important to the organization's success.

Contact Eric if you'd like to pursue a balanced approach to media training, one in which spokespeople learn to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.


Witless in Witless Bay

There is an issue washing ashore on Canada’s eastern edge that clearly serves two notices to municipal politicians and developers across the land: Integrity and transparency are growing issues everywhere; social media isn’t going anywhere.

This particular issue is unfolding in the village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, a community of 1,000 souls on the Avalon Peninsula—located about a half-hour south of St. John’s and east of Butter Pot Provincial Park.

The council in Witless Bay, NL needs media training
The village council, all of whom were acclaimed in last fall’s municipal election, recently voted to “retain an independent criminal lawyer to review recent social media accusations against current town council or councillors to empower the finance committee to take disciplinary actions.”

In other words, they are using taxpayer money to investigate whether they can retaliate against those who speak up against them on social media.

Huh?

Perhaps someone should remind them that they were acclaimed as elected officials, not named supreme leaders because nobody ran against them.

There are a few other things worth noting. First, one of the councillors, developer Fraser Paul, was recently taken to court by local resident Lorna Yard. Mr. Paul was elected in a by-election in 2016. However, Ms. Yard made the case that he faked his residency in the town prior to the election and did not meet the six-month residency requirement required in municipal election rules, which require candidates to be residents in a local area 30 days before being nominated.

The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador agreed. Mr. Paul was forced to step down before establishing a permanent residence in the community prior to the 2017 election, when he become one of the acclaimed members of council.

Second, there is a long-standing dispute over Ragged Beach, an area for whale- and puffin-watchers that someone (perhaps a developer who’s now on council?) would like to see developed. There’s a big hint here. Whenever someone develops a “Friends of …” presence, whether on or off social media—such as “Friends of Ragged Beach”—it’s a strong hint that it’s time to stop talking, sit down and listen. In my experience “Friends of …” movements do not go quietly into the dark night.

You have the same choice I've seen while advising clients on issues across the country. Either listen to what they say or enter into a dispute in which they try to ram their words down your throat—some more gently than others.

Third, one of the first acts of this new council was to revoke the town’s existing policy manual that provides direction on a number of issues, including transparency. To be fair, the manual was only enacted by the previous council. However, transparency is much easier to evoke than revoke because, when it’s revoked, everyone’s first thought becomes “what are they hiding?”

Free advice
I have some free advice for this council. First, although my understanding of libel and slander is rudimentary, I do know that I can say or write anything about someone as long as: a. It’s true and b. I can prove it’s true.

For example, it’s quite easy to say that Mr. Paul cheated in 2016. Ergo, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him a cheater. Obviously, that’s not what the Supreme Court would have said, but the inference can be made when he was asked (forced?) to step down for stretching the rules. The people posting on social media for which this council decided to seek legal help to quash opinions have been nicer than I was in this paragraph.

Second, if you think that eliminating a policy for transparency or changing meeting times for council in an effort to make it difficult for others to attend is all you need to do to get your way, you are truly being witless. These people aren’t going away. Threatening them is nothing short of bullying and all you’re doing is bringing a global social media microscope to everything you do. If you thought it was tough to get your way before, welcome to the 21st century.

Third, if you can’t sit down, listen and negotiate, no amount of criminal lawyer assistance will help you. This issue has extended well beyond Witless Bay (I can’t wait to see how you plan to financially punish me from my office here in Toronto for criticizing your actions).

Gather your wits, swallow your pride, listen carefully and talk prudently, and represent your constituents effectively.

And be thankful you don’t live in a place called Transparency Bay.

The Crisis Brewing at Tim Hortons

Outside picture of Tim Hortons franchise.
There is a crisis brewing on Ontario’s coffee horizon that could soon spread its aroma to other parts of the country as minimum wages rise in other jurisdictions. While this brew-ha-ha will probably not decimate the Tim Hortons brand, it could leave a bitter aftertaste for the stakeholders involved if not handled properly.

When the minimum wage in the province of Ontario increased by approximately 21 per cent to $14.00 per hour on January 1, two franchisees in Cobourg, Ontario (about an hour east of Toronto), sent a letter to employees stating that benefits would be scaled back to offset the cost.

Other franchisees followed suit, cutting back on everything from medical insurance to paid breaks and a free drink at the end of a shift. While we could argue that some of these seem petty, there is an economic reality here of which we shouldn’t lose sight.

The increase in minimum wage will hurt franchisees, costing approximately a quarter million dollars per location. This is money that comes directly out of owners’ pockets. And it will hurt. Their profitability has been declining. About a year ago, they formed a franchisee association to bring this fact to the attention of the owner of the Tim Hortons brand, Restaurant Brands International (RBI)—months before anyone in Ontario even heard of a $14.00 minimum wage.

For managing their businesses to adjust to labour costs that could rise from 30 per cent to 43 per cent of franchise costs, franchisees have been labelled “bullies” for picking on workers by Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne and “rogue(s)” for messing with the Tim Hortons brand by RBI.

Quite the tempest. And nary a teapot to be found!

Advising the Franchisees
With an issue like this (which is not yet a crisis), if I were advising the franchisees, I would encourage them to not back down. I would strongly urge them to not stoop to the name-calling tactics of the premier and brand owner—to instead tell the honest story of how this impacts their stores, their families and their communities. I would also suggest that they consider focusing on the profitability of the Tim Hortons brand owner as a lever to get the corporation's attention.

The objective of any media relations activity would be to motivate the premier to acknowledge that franchisees are hard-working, tax-paying contributors to Ontario society and the communities in which they operate—ideally she should apologize for calling franchisees bullies—and to entice RBI to work with franchisees to find some middle ground while subtly reminding the brand owner that the minimum wage will soon rise elsewhere across the country.

This can only be done with a balanced, logical response—not by stooping to the name-calling tactics of the other players in this drama.

Advising the Brand Owner
If I were advising Restaurant Brands International, Inc., I would encourage them to sit at the table and listen—really listen—to what franchisees are saying. There are many hints that franchisees believe the brand owner is not listening— the formation of a franchisee association and an article in The Globe and Mail last September that highlights declining profitability.

As I’ve pointed out to clients for nearly 30 years, the phrase “you’re not listening” is either one or two things, and it’s their choice which. “You’re not listening” is always an early warning sign in issues management. If the warning isn’t heeded, “you’re not listening” can become the kiss of death in a crisis.

How likely is RBI to truly listen? Not likely, I’m afraid. A recent study showed that the very best organizations at listening devote less than one-third of their resources to listening—i.e. they talk twice as much as the listen.

For RBI’s sake, I hope they’re different. Right now, failing to listen may be the biggest threat to the Tim Hortons brand. (And make no mistake, other franchisees are watching.)

Advising the Government
If I were advising Kathleen Wynne, I would first urge her to quit being a bully by calling franchisees bullies. (If you’re interested in more about bullies, look me up on Facebook and read my post there.) And I would point out that she may have missed a glorious opportunity to come out of this smelling like a rose.

A quick search would have revealed that franchisees feel they’re being squeezed. Instead of calling them names to champion the downtrodden, she could have advocated on behalf of franchisees—perhaps not a bad thing to do during an election year.

She could have said that she knows they’re under pressure. But she could also could have used her spotlight to publicly encourage Restaurant Brands International to meet with franchisees and work out a solution beneficial to all. After all, as the company has publicly said: “Owner profitability is the backbone of our system.”

A media-savvy premier would encourage them to put their profits where their policy appears to be.



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Media training consultant Eri Bergman in Toronto
Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS is Canada's most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises during volatile times, everything from privacy breaches to environmental cleanups and, yes, disagreements with franchisees and other stakeholders.

Contact Eric if your organization needs assistance with managing polarization effectively.