BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Monday, September 29, 2008, 5:01 PM

Lessons from Wall Street

Sifting through the news on Wall Street this month, there are plenty of “if only” scenarios to explore. We’ll stick to what we know: communicating effectively. As The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) points out, corporate boards often have weak or nonexistent crisis communications plans. Here’s a clip from the article:

“This month's meltdown of several financial giants exposed a serious flaw in corporate governance: Many U.S. boards don't cope well with a crisis. But some directors are now ratcheting up efforts to anticipate, and avert, trouble. Too many boards are stocked with poorly prepared directors, who fail to ask enough tough questions or adequately scrutinize management, governance specialists say.”

Communicating effectively in a crisis usually means more than talking to reporters. Whether an organization is large or small, it often means communicating with management, board members, employees, customers, reporters, and if applicable, shareholders, regulators, and elected officials, to name a few. This is no easy task, but the more effectively we communicate with each stakeholder the more likely we are to eliminate confusion and weather the storm.

We are big believers in having a communications plan in place before a crisis. A good plan generally identifies an organization’s stakeholders, who will communicate with them, and what means they will use to communicate. It will also identify who is responsible for developing the message. Some companies even stage a "live fire" mock crisis that puts its plan and management team to the test. At the end of the exercise, management can identify what aspects of the plan worked, what didn’t, and how to improve it.

If you have additional questions about how to develop a crisis communications plan, give us a call or send us an e-mail.

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Friday, September 26, 2008, 10:21 AM

So, you've got an announcement. Does anybody care?

If you are about to call a reporter, stop. Put the phone down. Read this column from the business editor at The Frederick News-Post in Maryland (with whom I have worked for many years) about the volume of ineffective pitches he gets from businesses and their communications staff. It's a much-needed reality check about how "important" your pitch really is.

Media relations is an art, and respecting a reporter's time is one of the many techniques your organization needs to master. Before filling up a reporter's inbox or voicemail, consider whether there is a legitimate link between your organization's story and his or her audience. Still have questions? Give us a call or send us an e-mail.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008, 11:33 AM

Backdrops matter

(Photo credit: Nikki Khan, The Washington Post)

This photo of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson reinforces the value backdrops play in shaping public opinion. It appeared in The Post's coverage of a U.S. Senate hearing on the Bush Administration's proposal to shore up financial markets. To the hurried reader skimming The Post on a busy Wednesday morning, backdrops like this can be more impressionable than the articles themselves. Secretary Paulson was testifying on the Senate's turf and therefore had little control over the room. Yet the image reinforces the old adage that "pictures are worth a thousand words."

The same goes for any organization seeking to influence public opinion. Womble Carlyle has managed hundreds of press conferences and interviews utilizing unique images and backdrops that say a thousand words. Whether holding a press conference, hosting a forum, or conducting an interview on television, consider utilizing a backdrop that helps convey your prepared message.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008, 5:05 PM

Social Media: Is it relevant?

We have all heard of Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, and other social networking sites. We can all agree they are innovative and generating significant buzz. What is debatable is whether they are relevant to your business' communications plan. We don't recommend devoting valuable time to web communications without a credible plan, particularly if your target audience doesn't use social media. However, an increasing number of companies have seen their reputations become fair game on social media sites, and are harnessing these sites to avert PR disasters.

Look at Comcast: The cable carrier opened an account on, which allows you to stay in touch with friends through 1-2 sentence online messages called tweets. Comcast saw an opportunity to monitor public sentiment and respond to customers who "tweet" about bad experiences with the company. As one customer put it:

Within 20 minutes of my first Twitter message I got a call from a Comcast executive in Philadelphia who wanted to know how he could help. He said he monitors Twitter and blogs to get an understanding of what people are saying about Comcast, and so he saw the discussion break out around my messages.

What makes a single frustrated customer a PR disaster in waiting? The fact that Twitter has roughly 1 million users, many of whom are Comcast customers. Comcast wisely followed its audience online and spoke directly to it. The same could apply to a wide range of organizations, from brokerage firms and airlines to political campaigns.

Not everyone is smitten with Twitter, and not every organization should re-write its communications plan for social media. One blogger injects a good dose of reality in to the debate. Nonetheless, every organization should at least consider whether their audience is migrating to social media. If your audience is, it may be taking your reputation there too.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008, 2:12 PM

Help yourself; help a reporter

Looking to get quoted in the press more? There's a new website that may be able to help. Check out, a new site designed to link reporters with questions to experts with answers. Here's how it works: Subscribers receive 3 e-mails per day from HARO (as the site is known). Those e-mails include queries from reporters on just about any topic - health care, politics, biofuels, intellectual property, movies, and more. Subscribers who can offer insight on a given subject - and who are willing to be quoted - simply e-mail a response to the inquiring reporter.

HARO is increasing in popularity. It's easy to sign up and subscription is free, making it more attractive than subscription-based competitor Profnet. It is far from perfect (many reporters complain of responses from fraudulent "experts") but it is worth exploring. If your organization limits its interaction to reporters it can truly help, you may find it useful.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008, 3:48 PM

United Airlines, meet the press

United Airlines and its shareholders endured the bumpiest of rides on September 6th when Bloomberg released a story stating that the airline had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The problem? The article on which their report was based was six years old. Within minutes the stock was in a free-fall, plunging as much as 75% before trading was halted and the inaccurate report was pulled.

It's a long and sordid tale, with many fingers being pointed in different directions. What strikes me about this Poynter article is how the incident pits new media (Google) versus traditional media (The Sun Sentinel and Bloomberg).

The bizarre incident should reinforce for all of us the lightning speed at which news travels today, and the imperfections of automated technology. It also reinforces that reporters, like the rest of us, are human. The question is not whether reporters will make mistakes in their coverage; the question is how your organization responds when they do.

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Monday, September 8, 2008, 4:35 PM

Never underestimate the gadfly

We have all encountered the gadfly. Maybe it was that neighbor gathering signatures to stop construction of an adjacent retail center. Or the guy e-mailing community alerts "exposing" the local manufacturing plant. Too often companies - including developers, construction companies, and manufacturers - dismiss the gadfly as the lonely voice of opposition. This is a dangerous strategy. After all, one company's gadfly could be an entire community's hero. And an organization that ignores local sentiment is inviting public relations challenges.

Here's one example: Renewable energy companies are suffering the loss of $2 million in energy grants in South Carolina thanks in part to the grassroots advocacy of Greenville resident Edward "Ned" Sloan.

Here's another: San Francisco gadfly Rob Anderson almost single-handedly halted San Francisco's bike lane plan because, he argued, it was bad for the environment.

One more: Southlake Texas residents are fighting back against a mixed-use development that they believe encroaches on their neighborhoods, leaving developers scrambling to make concessions.

A company's public relations strategy must account for community sentiment, even if it's driven by just one persistent citizen. Reporters love to elevate the gadlfy to special status (see above), whether he/she has the community's backing or not. If your company's work has an indirect impact on local communities - traffic, noise pollution, hazardous materials - ask yourself: could today's gadfly be tomorrow's public relations nightmare?
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