BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Thursday, July 31, 2008, 11:06 AM

Do "gag orders" work?

The recent gag order imposed on employees of the US Environmental Protection Agency reminds us of the importance of preparing an organization’s employees – not just its executives – for when the press comes knocking at the door. We’re fond of reminding company managers that they must have a communications plan in hand. Opportunities will arise when outsiders demand answers – reporters, shareholders, government investigators, customers, to name a few. Will your employees know what to do and what not to do?

When your organization comes under public scrutiny, reporters won't just call you or your communications chief -- they will call your employees. Reporters look for that tidbit of information they don't expect to get from an official spokesperson. And who better to dish it up than an employee not used to talking with the press?

Your organization should have a stated policy about what employees should do in the event a reporter contacts them. An effective way to prepare employees for today’s communications challenges is to include them in the strategic communications plan. Simple rules for managers to remember when stakeholders are at the gate:

1) Information is key: employees must be kept in the loop. Uncertainty can threaten morale and prompt rumors.
2) Display management confidence: employees want to see that the bosses have a plan -- and are following it.
3) Have an outcome: make sure everyone sees – and understands - the end game.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008, 5:26 PM

What California's earthquake means for your company

After this week's earthquake, Californians aren't the only ones who should be dusting off their emergency plans. Your company should too. Read below to find out why.

Every corner of the country can be impacted by a natural disaster. The West is subject to earthquakes and wildfires; the Midwest bears the brunt of tornadoes and floods; hurricanes and droughts regularly target the South and the East; the list goes on.

Public communications are an important part of any company's emergency plans. There are five immediate communications questions every organization should ask itself:

1. Does the public depend on our product in the event of a disaster? The answer is "yes" for more than just utility companies.

2. How do we communicate with our customers and employees in the event of a disaster?

3. How do we communicate with the press and the public if we provide a vital public service, such as electricity or transportation, and who is our spokesperson?

4. In addition to delivering our product, what can our organization do to help the surrounding community in the event of a disaster?

5. If we provide a vital service, what can we do before a crisis to educate customers, the press, and the public about what to do in an emergency.

Ordinary companies do only what is required of them before, during, and after a crisis. Innovative companies raise the bar when communicating with their stakeholders in an emergency. So, is your company ordinary or innovative?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008, 12:43 PM

T. Boone Pickens separates from the field

Check out the following television ad from legendary Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens and then continue reading below.

Mr. Pickens' public awareness campaign should prompt an important question: How does your organization elevate its message in a crowded field? In the case of Mr. Pickens, he has waded into a crowded debate over energy policy. Cable news and newspapers are saturated with ads promoting the latest solution to our energy challenges. They are sponsored by an alphabet soup of business coalitions - U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the American Clean Coal Coalition, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Americans on Energy Independence to name a few - making it virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other. The end result is muddled messages and a disconnected audience.

The Pickens communications strategy is different. There is no coalition. There are no actors. There are no professional voice overs. The audience hears from one man - a well-known, authentic oil executive speaking his mind. The entire Pickens public awareness campaign - from newspapers and television to radio and the web - follows a strategy unlike others in the energy debate: one man, one voice. As a result, the message in my view is more compelling than its competitors.

Some may consider the Pickens campaign effective; some may not. Either way, it begs the question every organization should ask: does our message stand out in a crowd?

Monday, July 14, 2008, 9:51 AM

Washington is getting anxious, Part II

Last month we looked at the gathering P.R. storm confronting oil futures traders in Congress, where lawmakers are fretting over the idea of voters paying $4 per gallon of gas as they enter the voting booth in November. With lawmakers exploring punishing new regulations, the industry has finally launched a public awareness campaign to soften anxiety on Capitol Hill, educate the voting public, and separate their business from other market forces impacting oil and gas prices. The question is whether it is too little, too late.

First, the industry launched this website to help the press, public and Congress separate fact from fiction. Second, they've kicked off a paid advertising campaign in newspapers like Roll Call that are read by Capitol Hill staffers. Third, experts are publishing their own commentaries in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere arguing that regulating the futures market will do little to curb prices. Fourth, the industry is furiously lobbying Capitol Hill to stamp out burdensome regulations before it's too late.

The P.R. push is more than warranted. Twelve airline CEO's just called on Congress to regulate the futures market and launched a populist website of their own. A tri-partisan coalition of Senators introduced a plan last week to bring the futures industry to heel, joining dozens of other congressional proposals. This political drama - and the high stakes battle to shape public opinion - bears watching in the coming weeks and months.

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Monday, July 7, 2008, 1:45 PM

Some lawsuits are more than just lawsuits

America's favorite coffee shop has dominated the headlines of late due to its dramatic "right-sizing" announcement, but today we focus on a seperate matter that has dogged Starbucks for years: a series of class action lawsuits alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most recently, a Superior Court Judge in California ordered Starbucks to serve up $100 million in backtips to its baristas, who claimed that supervisors were sharing tips in violation of state law.

Put yourself in a reporter's shoes: The enormity of Starbucks' market share, its large and increasingly unionized workforce, and the ubiquitous role the company plays in American life makes the story too good to pass up. When the press catches interest, the company's reputation is at stake with the public at large.

Lawsuits like this reinforce our belief that crisis planning is as valuable as crisis response. Forward-thinking companies identify vulnerabilities, anticipate challenges to their reputation, and plan accordingly. Enter McDonald's, the fast food giant that is taking an innovative approach to communicating with employees. McDonald's intends to hire a company blogger for its internal website - called "StationM" - to more effectively communicate with an increasingly web-based workforce. StationM also allows employees to network with one another, share photos and videos, discuss best practices, and - hopefully - build a sense of family pride in the McDonald's brand. It also gives McDonald's a hi-tech approach to preventing the employee discontent Starbucks faced by educating mid-level supervisors about acceptable and unacceptable practices in the workplace.

Hiring a blogger will not alone prevent FLSA lawsuits, particularly for companies like McDonald's and Starbucks that have combined workforces of nearly 900,000. However, innovative approaches to employees relations can help mitigate the challenges many companies face in such a litigious society.

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