Thank you for your patience

Patiently listening while being thanked for my patience.

“Thank you for your patience.”  When I see it in a letter or hear it from a customer service representative, I often think, “Hmmm…but maybe I’m not being patient.”

As a homeowner and business owner in Houston, Texas, I’ve seen and heard this more than usual in the past months.  That’s because we are living in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, when recovery and other services are in high demand and not always readily available.  As a result, so many affected by Harvey’s flooding are routinely thanked for their patience – or understanding, or cooperation.

Out of curiosity, I conducted some informal research.  I asked a few friends how they feel about being thanked in advance for their patience.  I also searched online.  Both friends and the online community reveal the same thing:  phrases like this can be perceived as presumptuous, even insulting.

In an effort to be polite, the person communicating these platitudes may actually offend the customers they are trying to communicate with.  They are thanking the customer for something over which he or she has no choice.

This is a seemingly minor communication faux pas, but it’s now endemic in our culture.  The internet server is down, the flight is delayed, an urgent service call is put on hold for an inordinate amount of time – these are all cases where you can gain or lose a customer simply by how you communicate.  Thanking someone for their patience when they cannot communicate with clients, reach their destination in time for a meeting, or have sewage leaking into their home can seem insensitive.

Is there a better way to handle these situations?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Indicate that you know how inconvenient the situation is and that you will keep them updated.  (Then follow through.)
  • Apologize for the inconvenience and assure the customer that you are working to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.
  • Give the customer a time estimate when the problem will be resolved – or if they are on hold, what the “wait time” is.

Many companies are already doing this, and customers do appreciate it.  Most people understand that “stuff happens,” but when it affects important aspects of their lives, they just want as much information as possible about what’s going on and when things will be resolved.  That’s how a company shows respect for its customers.

Posted by Lisa Dimond Vasquez

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Protecting Your Reputation: No “Spin” Involved

Mark Twain is said to have coined the phrase,  “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”  Twain died in 1910.  One wonders what he would have thought of a world dominated by social media because his comment is truer today than ever.

Just a decade ago, it was a much different situation.  Public relations counselors would occasionally get calls from potential clients who needed to dispel a bad reputation – mostly earned, unfortunately.  This is not the best time to contact a PR firm.  It’s much easier to begin a PR firm-client relationship with a company that already has a good reputation – or even a reputation that is essentially a blank slate.

The problem isn’t that a company’s bad reputation cannot be turned around; it just takes time and is often hindered if a company doesn’t want to change its practices – just the negative perception its practices have generated.  In these cases, the PR firm ends up spending a lot of time trying to convince company executives that there are no magic wands that can make reality disappear.  The company actually has to change the way it does things.  Perhaps due to the overuse of the word “spin” to describe what PR people do, these company executives expect a miraculous turnaround.

But now, it can be even worse for companies who are not prepared.  Disgruntled former employees, disappointed customers, and competitors can fill online “review” sites with negative comments – earned or not.  Damaging blog posts, photos and videos can spread to literally millions of people before their content can be disputed or explained away.

Entire businesses have sprung up to deal with online reputation management.

And yet, the basic PR approach still applies:  Build a positive reputation to begin with, and it will be easier to control any attacks on your reputation down the road.  No “spin” involved.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Your Crisis Communication Plan

Do you have a crisis communication plan?  Crisis planning is essential for any company or organization – but especially for one providing products or services directly to consumers.  With social media, small incidents can go viral, making company reputations one step away from shattering.

Sometimes it’s the response – or lack of response – to a real or perceived problem that causes the crisis.  Any delay in responding, or even a tepid response, can add fuel to the fire.  It’s important to show concern for those affected – whether they are employees, customers, or bystanders.  (Think of what happened to Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, after his initial response to the Gulf oil spill.)

Having a plan already in place makes damage control much easier.  With the understanding that specifics will change with each type of crisis, here is a basic overview of the essential elements of a crisis communication plan:

1.  Have a Crisis Communication Team.  The team should include key people in the organization who can develop a plan of action and decide on the spokespersons in case of an event.  Everyone on the team should have – and regularly update – a management roster with every type of contact information.  The crisis team should meet on a regular basis to keep everyone in a state of readiness.

2.  Identify Designated Spokespersons.  The main spokesperson should always include the CEO or someone of equal authority, plus anyone in a management position in the area where the crisis occurred.  All designated spokespersons should have media training with an emphasis on crisis communication.  Sending someone in front of a bank of television cameras without this type of preparation can backfire – even with the best of intentions.

3.  Establish a System of Communicating with Employees, Clients and Other Stakeholders.  The system could include email alerts, an online social network platform for web-based crisis communication or even a special crisis web page.

4. Designate a Media Center.  The site for media interviews should be some distance from the crisis communication office, which may be a hub of activity.  Depending on the nature of the crisis, policies and procedures should be set for media access to people involved in the crisis.

5.  Gather the Facts.  As soon as possible, the team should gather all of the facts surrounding the crisis and issue a prepared statement to the media.  They should also release new facts as they are confirmed.

6.  Establish the Message and Key Talking Points and Prepare the Spokespersons. A crisis situation is stressful; this is not the time to “wing it” with the media. Before doing interviews, spokespersons should be rehearsed on the message, key talking points and  questions that could be asked.  There will always be information that cannot be rehearsed, but it is important to be as prepared as possible.

7.  Monitor Media coverage.  Consistently monitor both online and offline media coverage throughout the crisis to make sure your message is being communicated accurately.  If not, you may have to adjust your strategy and messaging.Posted by Margot Dimond

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The Importance of Being Silent

Two things happened this morning that made me think about our new “very connected” world.  The first was a (thankfully, positive) discussion with a journalist about something that had happened years ago, but that is still present on the Web.  “Nothing ever goes away anymore,” he said.  So true.

The second was an incident of someone I knew, planning to forward an outraged response to an email she had received, but accidentally sending her response to the original sender instead.  Ouch!

In the first instance, it does amaze me how a simple Google search of my name produces items from jobs and volunteer activities long forgotten by me – but not by the Web. In the second instance, who hasn’t meant to forward an email with a comment to a friend or business associate, yet accidentally sent it to the originator?

We have a tendency to think that famous people – actors, politicians, media figures – are the only ones who have to worry about this.  After all, they have such a large audience, and in many cases, a wrong phrase or embarrassing video gone viral can put the brakes on their careers.

But we all have audiences we care about, and we should be mindful that what we do and say may become public.  Obviously, we should behave well anyway; but a slip in demeanor nowadays can have wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

As public relations counselors, we’re often tasked with encouraging our clients to communicate – to tell their story, present their message and respond quickly and clearly in a crisis.  But we now have to add a caution to our communication trainings.  After all, anything you say publicly “can and will be used,” will never be forgotten, and may define your forever.

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Don’t let this happen to you!

In a recent Twitter campaign, McDonald’s sought to promote the fact that the chain bought fresh produce from farmers.  First came the #MeetTheFarmers hashtag on Twitter; later in the day, the company launched #McDStories to generate positive stories from consumers.  Almost immediately users began tweeting stories about food with worms, food poisoning, and other such appetizing fare.  The large number of negative tweets caused a flurry of press coverage, embarrassing the company.

McDonald’s is not alone in experiencing a social media disaster.  Australia’s Qantas, car-maker Honda, and clothier Kenneth Cole are just a few more examples of corporate social media marketing plans gone awry.

Social media offers a great new venue for widespread exposure – especially for companies selling to consumers.  But it’s a double-edged sword that can also offer an opportunity for widespread embarrassment – as disgruntled employees, disappointed customers or professional gripers vent their frustrations in a very public way.

Understandably, seeing campaigns such as McDonald’s fall apart may make a marketing executive shy away from using social media to promote his company’s products or services.  But this type of unintended consequence can be avoided by remembering two important things:

1.  Have a Strategy.  As with any other public relations/marketing tool, you should know why you are doing the campaign.  Does it advance your brand?  Is it a good fit with your marketing goals?  Does it reach the right people with the right kind of message?  All of these questions should be asked before any campaign – of any type – is launched.

2.  Be an Emergency Manager.  A big part of emergency management takes place before the crisis happens.  Good emergency managers think, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  If there is a good chance your brand could be hijacked and trashed, you may want to try something else.  Even if you can’t think of a worst case scenario, have a crisis plan ready for handling any negative fallout.

Finally, monitor your campaign on a regular basis, so you will know how it’s going, and be ready to spring into action if things go awry.

There are always risks when doing social media marketing, but if well-planned and monitored, it may be well worth it for your company.

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Reputation Management 101

Reputation managementReputation management is an important part of public relations.  It’s many times more difficult to repair a broken reputation than to maintain a good one.  So it would seem obvious that company owners and executives would keep reputation management as one of their top agenda items.  If only that were the case.

Ideally, company executives will consult with their public relations team on a regular basis – to make sure their actions are well-conceived and communicated accurately.  After all, the best communication is not solely from a company to its publics.  It’s important as well to facilitate communication to a company from its publics.  That’s why most PR pros work hard to stay in touch with public opinion on behalf of their employers or clients.

Often, however, company executives charge ahead without giving much thought to how their actions will be perceived.  If things do not turn out well, that’s when they bring in their PR people, expecting them to fix a public perception that by that time has already been sealed in concrete.

You rarely see PR disasters with companies or organizations that have been around awhile.  Their management has learned to head off any unpleasant reactions to what they do by including their PR staff in the decision-making process.

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A reputation is a terrible thing to lose

In the past several hours, the news of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s reversal of its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings has saturated the web. People have been weighing in left and right – literally – with opinions on both the original and subsequent decisions.  However, if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s that the organization’s reputation has taken a serious hit.

Komen is one of the best-known charities in the world.  Its ubiquitous pink ribbon is not only worn by individual supporters, it’s displayed on numerous consumer products.  Its Race for the Cure is a signature event that supporters of women’s health have been proud to participate in.  But the decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood’s screening projects put them squarely into the middle of a political fight, causing a huge backlash.

This could have been prevented if Komen had followed these simple public relations rules:

Consult your PR counsel.  Although an established charity, Komen made a rookie mistake by not fully considering the public relations ramifications of its original decision.   You have to wonder:  Were PR people even in the room?  Any competent public relations counselor would have taken them through the various scenarios of what could happen and counseled them in advance.

Respond immediately.  Predictably, the news of Komen’s decision flooded the web, and its critics dictated the terms of debate.  Instead of getting in front of the story, Komen waited 24 hours to post a response online and another day before doing any media interviews to try to explain their decision.

Know your message and stick with it.  In their comments, Komen executives gave three different reasons for their decision, making it look like either they didn’t have a reason, or they were covering up the real reason.

Have a crisis plan in place.  Perhaps because the Komen Foundation has previously had nothing but positive media coverage, its executives didn’t think crisis planning would be necessary.  But a crisis plan is like home insurance; you hope you never have to use it, but it’s important to have.

However things turn out, it’s almost a given that the organization will spend a fortune on public relations now to repair the damage that could have been prevented much less expensively.

Sadly, it may take years to do so.

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