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.”

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.

Media Interviews Don’t Have Two Steering Wheels

I absolutely love this YouTube clip. The best way to watch it is to think of two people in a car, each of whom believes they have a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a brake, and each of whom believes they can steer the vehicle to their destination.


The journalist is steering the interview to why Adobe charges Australian users $1,400 more to download the same Creative Suite software than users in the United States. It seems like a reasonable question. After all, if the premise is true, it’s cheaper for Australian users to fly to Los Angeles to purchase a boxed copy than download the software from down under.

The CEO, however, doesn’t want to go there. He keeps trying to take the vehicle over a bridge to the destination that appeals to him—his belief that “the Creative Cloud is the future of creative.”

But the journalist ignores the bridge and keeps steering the vehicle to where he’d like it to go.

Who wins? In this case (and in many, many others I’ve seen), not the spokesperson.

By the end of this YouTube clip, other journalists start asking why Adobe charges more. The story then becomes:

There is only one steering wheel, one gas pedal and one brake during media interviews. The journalist ultimately controls all three. Some journalists exert more control than others, absolutely. But organizations that want to control destination and direction should buy advertising, not arrange media interviews.

The best interviews are carefully negotiated in advance, with the intent of building to win-win outcomes. With negotiation, Adobe would discover that the journalist is intensely curious about a pricing issue, and the pricing destination will need to be visited before any new destination can be considered.

If the company is unprepared to visit that destination, it should not conduct a news conference to announce a new product offering. The risk is too great. Any credible media training consultant would tell them that.

If, as a result of effective negotiation, the pricing issue is resolved with a positive announcement, the vehicle can then be driven over the new bridge of “the Creative Cloud as the future of creative.”

The journalist wins because the story can answer a question that the journalist clearly states “readers have been asking.”

The company potentially wins twice.

Not only could it have a positive announcement for Australian customers if pricing can be synchronized, it is demonstrating what lies over the bridge with a business partner that actually listens to their concerns.

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About the Author
Eric Bergman is Canada’s most experienced and credentialed media training consultant. Media training has been his core business for more than 25 years. During that time, thousands of spokespeople from five continents in the private, public, corporate, professional, entrepreneurial and not-for-profit sectors have benefited from Eric’s approach, coaching and feedback.
Eric Bergman

Eric holds a bachelor of professional arts in communication studies from Athabasca University and a two-year diploma in advertising and public relations from Grant MacEwan College.

He is an accredited business communicator (ABC), an accredited public relations practitioner (APR), and a master communicator (MC)—which is the highest distinction that can be bestowed upon a Canadian member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). In 2014, he was named a member of the College of Fellows of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS).

Contact Eric if you’re interested in applying his proven approach. Your spokespeople will gain the competence and confidence to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization every step of the way.