Cases of poor crisis communication: Herman Cain

Crisis communication is never a pleasant experience. And good crisis communication is particularly challenging these days when Social Media and the web further reduces how much time one has to get out in front of a story.

But one thing you should definitely not do in a crisis is what Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain did this week: change his story multiple times.

On Sunday evening, the political website Politico reported complaints that Cain sexually harassed two employees while leading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. The Associated Press reported a third complaint on Wednesday.

Cain is hardly the first Presidential candidate to be ensnared in a scandal involving the opposite gender. And while sexual harassment is certainly unacceptable, politicians have survived worse (see Bill Clinton). But Cain didn’t help himself by changing the story he presented to the media so frequently it was hard to keep track.

Here is the timeline of Cain’s “explanations,” as assembled by TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall:

  1. Cain claimed the Politico report was false.
  2. Cain admitted that there were allegations, but that the allegations were false.
  3. There were allegations, but they were false and he didn’t know what money was paid (how could he not know that if he were in charge of the organization?)
  4. He didn’t know whether money was paid and that it would be wrong to find out if money was paid because that is confidential (see #3)
  5. He was cleared by an in-depth investigation but didn’t know anything about it.
  6. Finally explaining the gesture that led to the complaint and admitting that he remembered discussing a settlement figure.

By changing his story so many times, he kept the story in the news longer than it may have needed to be. Had he simply responded quickly to the Politico report with a detailed explanation of what happened and stuck by that story (and assuming that that story held up factually), he could have gotten this story out of the headlines after a day or two. Even with the first Presidential primaries still two months away, there would have been plenty of news (political and otherwise) to take its spot. And if voters can forgive Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and lying under oath, they certainly could have forgiven  Herman Cain for a sexual harassment charge that may not even be truthful.

Instead, it became a major scandal that has been in the headlines all week. And that’s not a good thing for an public figure or organization in a crisis.

U.K.’s proposed Social Media ban is too late

Social Media played a significant role in two of the major political uprisings of recent years – the post-election protests in Iran in 2009 and the demonstrations in Egypt this past spring which ultimately led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. And it is reportedly playing a major role in this week’s massive riots in London and across the United Kingdom – to the point that, according to MediaPost’s Erik Sass, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that they should consider laws allowing officials to ban people from using Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media platforms if they believe they are using them to organize riots or otherwise plotting violence.

Cameron also reportedly said that U.K. home secretary Theresa May will meet with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Research In Motion, which makes Blackberry devices, to determine the feasibility of a social media ban.

Let’s put aside the obvious civil liberties argument here. There is another problem with this action that is more pertinent to this blog’s discussion of communication technologies – it’s too late.

The horse is already out of the barn. The riots have been going on for a week. Even if officials can develop a means to block people using Social Media for these purposes without inadvertently violating the freedoms of those not doing so, it’s too late to make a difference.

Plus don’t forget that, if these people can access Social Media, they also likely have text-messaging and other communications tools to set up riots, flash mobs and other illegal behavior. Even the most basic mobile phones can do that. Blocking their access to Facebook and Twitter is akin to playing Whack-A-Mole: as soon as you knock one mole down, another pops up. Are they going to take all mobile phones away?

It is sad to see the images of these riots on TV and the societal problems in the U.K. that appear to have led to them. But blocking Social Media access, in addition to being hypocritical (after all, we applauded the people of Iran and Egypt for rising up), simply won’t work. It’s way too little way too late.

 

The news is social

Last Thursday, I officially graduated from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater with my Master of Science degree in Communication Management. Even if the ceremony felt anticlimactic compared to my undergraduate graduation from Boston University seven years ago, it was still a great afternoon.

One of the highlights was the commencement speaker – NBC News President Steve Capus (shown in the fuzzy picture to the left). Among the topics he discussed were how this was a fine hour for journalism. There has been a lot in the news lately – the tsunami that ravaged Japan, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, the long-awaited capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden and the start of the 2012 Presidential election campaign, for starters. And Capus – admittedly tooting his own horn a bit – praised the work his staff has done to bring those stories to their viewers.

His speech also got me thinking about how the tools of journalists have changed just since Capus’ ascension to his current post in 2005, let alone since he graduated from Temple 25 years ago. I’ve written here before about how there is more of a rush to get the story first. And tools like Twitter allow NBC and other news outlets to do just that.

I first was alerted to Bin Laden’s death by Twitter. It was late on a Sunday night. I had just finished my participation in the weekly #hcsm (Health care social media) tweetchat on Twitter, and was preparing to shut off TweetDeck and call it a night, with a work day looming only a few hours later. All of a sudden, tweets started popping up in my feed stating that President Obama would speak to the nation shortly. It started as a few tweets posted by reporters and media outlets that I followed, and got retweeted by many others. When the media outlets confirmed that the address was to announce the killing of Bin Laden, the same thing happened. The media outlets used the 140 characters allowed by Twitter to get a brief message out to the masses and get them to tune in to their TV broadcast or read their website/publication. In short, it worked exactly the same as  some ordinary joe sharing a link to a TMZ story on their favorite celebrity.

Twitter even plays a role in the events themselves. An otherwise anonymous IT specialist became a global celebrity when he happened to be in Abbotabad, Pakistan and on Twitter during the Bin Laden raid and inadvertently live-tweeted  the most significant event to date in the War on Terror. During the uprising in Egypt, protesters used Twitter to share photos and accounts of the event, just as they did two years earlier during the Iranian Election protests.

This doesn’t include people sharing videos of the “celebrations” after Bin Laden’s death on YouTube and the sharing of content on Facebook that ensued after these major events.

The way news is delivered is changing to reflect the new tools available. The journalists and media outlets that can use those tools the best will be the ones who shine the brightest when big news occurs.

Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

One of the frequent complaints from this country’s political right is that the news media has a liberal bias. The political left sometimes says that the news media, specifically FOX News, has a conservative bias. Watching the TODAY show on NBC one morning this week, and seeing former House Speaker (and possible 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) brought on to criticize President Obama’s response to the crisis in Libya without anyone from the other side to offer rebuttal certainly does bring the former complaint into question.

Or does it? Does the news media as a whole actually have a liberal or conservative slant? Or does it just seem that way? Does the media actually favor one side of the political spectrum over the other? Or does it simply give more face time to whichever side gets the most people to tune in? I’m increasingly wondering if it’s the latter.

The idea of individual media outlets being liberal or conservative editorially is nothing new. But that decision has been driven by a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. Say what you want about FOX News, for example, but it definitely stands out from the crowd and gets people to pay attention, and its ratings reflect as much.

Ratings (or circulation in print media and pageviews in online media) drive what you can charge for advertising. The higher the ratings, the more advertisers will be willing to pay, and the more money you make. When your parent company’s board of directors also controls holdings in a variety of other industries, it is even more likely to value short-term profits above all else, and the more profits you can show them, the happier the board will be with you.

Getting ratings/circulation/pageviews in the news business these days requires more than simply reporting what’s going on. You need powerful voices and presentation. You need to be provocative. TODAY’s producers probably brought on Newt Gingrich that day because they knew he’d say something provocative that would get people talking about TODAY. Those people then tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Why doesn’t the other side get put on to rebut? It’s likely because, in TODAY’s opinion, it won’t do anything to boost ratings further.

If those on the left wonder why people like John McCain can get on the Sunday talk shows frequently while major figures on the political left can’t, this is probably why. The Democratic Party’s political leaders are, in a word, boring. Even if Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer and Tim Kaine have the facts on their side (sometimes they do, sometimes not), they don’t know how to push the public’s buttons the way their Republican counterparts do. The audience quickly gets bored and turns the channel. And ratings fall.

The media does not have a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It has a RATINGS bias – a desire to get as many people to pay attention as possible while expending as few resources as possible. If only one side of an argument can make its case in sufficiently captivating fashion to boost ratings, only that side will get air time.

Coverage of Giffords shooting shows news media has skewed priorities

Like the rest of you, I was horrified by the news today of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords being shot at point-blank range in an apparent assassination attempt outside of a grocery store in Tucson. Fortunately, doctors are optimistic that she will recover, although a federal judge and nine-year-old child were killed and 12 others were reportedly wounded.

There is sure to be much discussion in the days to come about what motivated the alleged shooter. But the media coverage of this incident was indicative of something that has become all-too-typical of the news media – the emphasis on getting the story first over getting the story right.

At 2:30 p.m. ET this afternoon, the media was rushing to report that Giffords had died. Less than an hour later, a representative of University Medical Center in Tucson announced that Giffords was alive and in surgery. And at 4 p.m. ET this afternoon, the hospital said that she was “responding to commands” and that they were optimistic about her recovery.

This was certainly not the first time the media has gotten the story wrong in an effort to get the story first. And therein lies the problem. When I was first learning the news business more than a decade ago, I was taught that getting the facts correct was paramount.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that this is an entirely new phenomenon (remember the networks calling and retracting Florida twice on Election Night 2000?), or that it is easy for the news media to avoid the temptation to rush the story out. Being able to claim that you had a story first is a tempting goal to shoot for. And the presence of so many media outlets that can report breaking news as it happens makes it that much harder to wait until you’re sure you have everything right before going with a story.

But the news media needs to resist that temptation. Can you imagine how people close to Rep. Giffords must have felt upon hearing that she was dead, when in reality she was not? Don’t shoot first and ask questions later. Get the story right. It’s better to have the story last and have it right than to have it first and get it wrong.

Is Fox News the future of news?

I’m a journalist by training. While I no longer practice that trade on a full-time basis, I still take a great interest in the field.

At this time 15 years ago, Fox News Channel didn’t exist. Now, if you look at the its viewership compared to cable news competitors CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, you’ll see that it is not only leading its competition, but crushing it.

Fox News gets accused of having a conservative bias in its reporting. Its top commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, are both very conservative and very provocative, and don’t make any bones about it. And Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and other prominent conservative political personalities make frequent guest appearances and/or have their own shows on the channel.

Many people love Fox News. Many people hate it. But there is no question people watch it. Which begs the question: is Fox News the future of news? Will news channels have to follow Fox News’ model – in terms of political bent and/or reporting style – to succeed in the current media environment?

I don’t think anyone will deny that journalism – and television journalism in particular – has changed dramatically over the decades. The days of stately, dignified legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite beaming into our living rooms each night and delivering stately, dignified news, as my parents experienced, are gone and not coming back. This satirical cartoon from JibJab (famous for their 2004 Presidential election satires) sums up the changes to news quite well, in my opinion:

There are far more messages competing for the audience’s attention than ever before. The louder and more provocative you are, the more likely you are to get noticed. And it doesn’t matter how good the substance of your message is if no one notices it.

Fox News seems to realize this. Whether you disagree with Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly or not, you can’t deny that they know how to get people to listen to what they have to say. Same with Sarah Palin. Fox News’ ratings reflect as much. And the higher your ratings are, the more you can charge for advertising, and the more money you make. With so many news media outlets now owned by major corporations with diverse holdings and profit-driven shareholders to appease, ratings, regardless of substance, are more important than ever.

As for the political slant, many accuse MSNBC, in particular its prime time hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, of having a liberal bias. Even if that is true, the fact that it trails Fox News in the ratings by a significant margin suggests that the viewing public does not buy into that bias.

All of this suggests that Fox News is on to something. Whether you never watch it or watch it every day, whether you love it or hate it, Fox News may become the model that news, or at least cable news, needs to follow.

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