Cold Facts About High Bills: Crisis Communications Tips for Angry Customers

electric cooperative high bills gerard braudBy Gerard Braud

Today’s crisis communications tip looks at what happens when angry customers take to Facebook to complain about your company. Complaints on your Facebook page or complaints on a Facebook group page built for and by the complainers is creating public relations problems for companies.

All of us can learn from this perfect crisis communication lesson — It can be found at every utility company, where customers who are angry about their high winter bills and are venting their frustration and anger on Facebook.

Many utility companies do exactly what they should not do: They do nothing.

The men and women in leadership positions at both investor owned electric companies and rural electric cooperative companies have spent decades practicing the art of hope, as in, “I hope this just goes away.”

Hope is not a crisis communications strategy, especially in the age of social media.

However, engaging with these angry customers on Facebook can be problematic because social media is filled with traps.

Trap 1: If you comment on a post that is either positive or negative, it can lead to an exponentially high number of negative responses.

Trap 2: If you comment on any Facebook posts, it sends it to the top on everyone’s news feed.

What do you do?

Solution One: Fix the problem and/or make the anger and hostility go away. The reality is there will never be a refund for electricity used. And chances are, the customer has forgotten that their bill was likely this high during the coldest month of the year 12 months ago and just as high during the hottest month of the year six months ago. But they would rather blame their electric winter storm cleoncompany than to take personal responsibility.

The solution is to manage the expectations of the customer by eliminating the peaks and valleys in their bill by offering an option to have what many companies call bill averaging or bill levelization. It means the customer will see nearly the same amount on their bill every month. Often, it will reduce this month’s $400 bill to an easier to pay $250 bill, which makes the customer happier.

Solution Two: Take the discussion offline. In many cases, the best way to handle an angry customer is to have customer service pick up the phone and call them directly. Customer service is able to demonstrate the type of soothing, personal concern that would be lost on a Facebook post.

Make the Crisis Go Away

The problem with the, “I hope it goes away” philosophy is that the problem will go away within the next two months as spring arrives and many customers use little, if any heating or air conditioning. But the problem will return during the hottest month of the year, then go away, then return next winter.

If you have a solution that can make the crisis go away once an for all, then by all means do it.

When “It Hits the Fan: Effective Communications for Critical Times

By Gerard Braud

The need for crisis communication has never been greater. The need for speed in crisis communications has never been greater.

Williams ExplosionThe reality is that if you experience an incident that the public knows about, you should be communicating to them about it in one hour or less. The biggest problem with this one hour benchmark is that in a world with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that is still 59 minutes too long.

Look at this photograph. What do you see? Yes, those are workers running from a fireball as it is still rising. What else do you notice? Yes, when everyone should be moving toward safety someone stopped to snap a picture with a cell phone.

This event eventually claimed two lives and resulted in more than 100 reported injuries.

Williams FB pageWithin minutes of the photo being taken, workers built a complete Facebook page about the event. Meanwhile, the company took nearly three hours to issue the first news release. Other than the time of the event, there was nothing in that statement that was newsworthy or that could not have been written and approved three years before the event. It was boiler plate language. By the time it was released, the media and the public already knew every detail.

When “it” hits the fan in the age of social media, you have the option to control the flow of accurate information by releasing details faster than ever before. If you fail to do this you surrender control of the story to the general public, who may or may not have accurate information.

Granted, human resources needs to communicate with the families of the dead and injured. Granted, lawyers will want to avoid giving ammunition to the plaintiff’s attorney in your statement. Granted, facts need to be gathered by the home office. Granted, state police are acting as the primary spokespeople under a NIMS agreement.

But will you also grant this? The photo on Facebook and the Facebook page are providing more information to the public, the media, and plaintiff’s attorney than the official source is. And NIMS can provide a law officer to discuss evacuations, but a state trooper cannot express the necessary empathy that families need to hear, nor can they communicate the contrition that a community needs to hear.

What should you do? How can you get the upper hand?

Step one is to have an effective crisis communications plan that facilitates the fast gathering of information about any incident, combined with the fast dissemination of the details to key decision makers.

Step two is to have a “First Critical Statement” document in your crisis communications plan. The First Critical Statement is a fill-in-the-blank document that can be modified in five minutes and then posted to your corporate website, emailed to all employees, emailed to all media, read to the media at a news conference if needed, and also used as a link on your corporate social media sites.

(Get a free sample and use the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN)

Step three is to write a library of pre-written news releases with a more in depth system of fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options. Such news releases can be written on a clear sunny day, months or years before you will ever need to use them. The goal of the document is to answer every question you might be asked about a specific incident – ranging from fires and explosions, to workplace violence, to executive misbehavior. The pre-written nature of the release allows your leaders and legal teams to proofread the templates and pre-approve them. This saves time on the day of your incident. Usually, the pre-written document can be edited within ten minutes and approved nearly as fast. Once it is ready to use, it can be your script for a news conference, a post to your corporate website, an e-mail to all media and employees, plus a link on social media.

Check your calendar: It’s 2015. Check your computer and smartphone: Social media amplifies everything the public sees or thinks. Check your decision-making: It is time for you to have a modernized fast moving crisis communications plan.

The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue depend upon it.

When “It Hits the Fan: Effective Communications for Critical Times

By Gerard Braud

The need for crisis communication has never been greater. The need for speed in crisis communications has never been greater.

Williams ExplosionThe reality is that if you experience an incident that the public knows about, you should be communicating to them about it in one hour or less. The biggest problem with this one hour benchmark is that in a world with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that is still 59 minutes too long.

Look at this photograph. What do you see? Yes, those are workers running from a fireball as it is still rising. What else do you notice? Yes, when everyone should be moving toward safety someone stopped to snap a picture with a cell phone.

This event eventually claimed two lives and resulted in more than 100 reported injuries.

Williams FB pageWithin minutes of the photo being taken, workers built a complete Facebook page about the event. Meanwhile, the company took nearly three hours to issue the first news release. Other than the time of the event, there was nothing in that statement that was newsworthy or that could not have been written and approved three years before the event. It was boiler plate language. By the time it was released, the media and the public already knew every detail.

When “it” hits the fan in the age of social media, you have the option to control the flow of accurate information by releasing details faster than ever before. If you fail to do this you surrender control of the story to the general public, who may or may not have accurate information.

Granted, human resources needs to communicate with the families of the dead and injured. Granted, lawyers will want to avoid giving ammunition to the plaintiff’s attorney in your statement. Granted, facts need to be gathered by the home office. Granted, state police are acting as the primary spokespeople under a NIMS agreement.

But will you also grant this? The photo on Facebook and the Facebook page are providing more information to the public, the media, and plaintiff’s attorney than the official source is. And NIMS can provide a law officer to discuss evacuations, but a state trooper cannot express the necessary empathy that families need to hear, nor can they communicate the contrition that a community needs to hear.

What should you do? How can you get the upper hand?

Step one is to have an effective crisis communications plan that facilitates the fast gathering of information about any incident, combined with the fast dissemination of the details to key decision makers.

Step two is to have a “First Critical Statement” document in your crisis communications plan. The First Critical Statement is a fill-in-the-blank document that can be modified in five minutes and then posted to your corporate website, emailed to all employees, emailed to all media, read to the media at a news conference if needed, and also used as a link on your corporate social media sites.

(Get a free sample and use the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN)

Step three is to write a library of pre-written news releases with a more in depth system of fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options. Such news releases can be written on a clear sunny day, months or years before you will ever need to use them. The goal of the document is to answer every question you might be asked about a specific incident – ranging from fires and explosions, to workplace violence, to executive misbehavior. The pre-written nature of the release allows your leaders and legal teams to proofread the templates and pre-approve them. This saves time on the day of your incident. Usually, the pre-written document can be edited within ten minutes and approved nearly as fast. Once it is ready to use, it can be your script for a news conference, a post to your corporate website, an e-mail to all media and employees, plus a link on social media.

Check your calendar: It’s 2015. Check your computer and smartphone: Social media amplifies everything the public sees or thinks. Check your decision-making: It is time for you to have a modernized fast moving crisis communications plan.

The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue depend upon it.

Selecting the Right Spokesperson: Should it be Multiple People?

DSC_0114Who should be your media spokesperson? In this series of blogs, we have reviewed the argument for the CEO serving as the spokesperson and the PR person serving as the media spokesperson.

Consider option 3: Should a Variety of People Should Serve as Your Media Spokespeople?

A subject matter expert, with proper media training, can be a great spokesperson. In fact, an expert in the subject is often the most credible with the media and the audience.

Numerous people should be media trained as spokespeople, with each ready to go when called upon.

In a crisis, the PR person should speak during the first hour of the crisis, as explained in our previous article. By the end of the second hour of the crisis, a subject matter expert should serve as the spokesperson. If needed, the subject matter expert can remain the spokesperson if the crisis is ongoing. The final news briefing of the day may be the best time to feature the CEO as spokesperson, as explained in our previous article.

Think of your spokesperson selection process the way sports teams operate. You have stars and strong people on the bench, ready to step in as needed.

Media training helps identify your star players and secondary players. Most of all, never let anyone speak without intense training. Media play hardball. Don’t send out an untrained person with little league skills.

Train your CEO. Train your PR expert. Train multiple subject matter experts. The number of experts you train is based on the type of organization you represent. A hospital, for example, could have multiple doctors from multiple fields, as well as one or two nurses. An electric company could train multiple supervisors and line workers, as well as someone who is an energy conservation expert.

The key to effective media training is to help these subject matter experts learn to put their daily jargon aside and learn to speak at a level that a sixth grader could understand. This is especially true for persons with an analytical mind, who have a propensity to focus on tiny, technical details, rather than focusing on the big pictures.

Who will be your media spokesperson?

About the author: Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC (Jared Bro) is a media training and crisis communications plan expert. He has helped organizations on 5 continents. Braud is the author of Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter. www.braudcommunications.com

You’re “Excited” AND “Pleased” ??? Wow, That’s Effective Communications: NOT

Emergency News Release  Gerard BraudWhat if you learned that your writing and communications skills are really sub-par? Would you want someone to tell you? Here is an example– An IABC e-mail just reached my inbox. The lead sentence says, “I’m excited about…”

That is sub-par writing and public relations. It is shocking that public relations people cannot write a lead sentence for a news release and that they continue to use tired, old clichés. It makes me wonder if their public relations teachers accepted this as good writing in college.

Effective communications focuses on your customers or your audience. However, every day while teaching media training or in message writing workshops, I see PR people and CEOs all making inward facing comments, rather than external facing comments. They focus on themselves by using words and phrases such as, “I’m excited to announce…” or, “We’re pleased to tell you…”

Your audience, however, is excited and pleased when your opening sentence says what’s in it for them.

Ironically, the e-mail was promoting an IABC event, which likely needs a session on writing without clichés.

Take a moment to search through your e-mails and news releases to determine if you are guilty of using these clichés, especially in your lead sentence. Akin to this is the sin of writing a fake quote from the CEO that says, “We’re pleased and excited about this event,” says CEO Pat Jones.

If you find you are guilty of these sins, write to me at gerard@braudcommunications.com and confess your sins. I’m willing to conduct an intervention on your behalf… or should I say, “I’m pleased and excited to help you stop saying pleased and excited in a lead sentence.”

By Gerard Braud

The Doctor of Crisis Communications

Crisis communications doctor gerard braudIf you were a smoker and your doctor told you to stop or you would die of cancer, would you stop?

If you had diabetes and your doctor told you to change your diet so you don’t die, would you change?

Amazingly, there are people every day who ignore the advice of an expert and do the wrong thing. Some are stubborn. Some are in denial. Some just magically hope the problem will go away.

I’m watching two crisis communications patients die right now. As their doctor of crisis communications I submitted to each a plan of action that they could have taken long ago, when the early warning signs of a crisis were on the horizon. Both are major smoldering crises on the brink of igniting.

Time was on the side of each patient 60 days ago when they first contacted me. Time is now their enemy because the flash point has arrived and the media are writing stories on each. No messaging has been written. No news releases created. No media training has been conducted.

A doctor can’t miraculously cure cancer in a patient that has refused to listen to expert medical advice. Likewise, we in public relations are called upon too often to make miracles happen. We can’t always do it.

I could try to save each of these patients, but I know the effect of the communications we would do so late would be about 1/6th as effective as what was originally suggested. I know that this marginal benefit would cost them much more than the original plan, with less than satisfactory results. I don’t know that I want my name associated with a marginal response that lacks planning and execution.

Persuading audiences, engaging employees and communicating to the media takes time. Strategies are best done on a clear sunny day. Media training and writing a crisis communications plan should have been done weeks ago.

In one case, an organization will face very expensive legal bills and payouts. Their reputation will be damaged. People will likely get fired.

In another case, lawsuits will likely be filed, the institutions reputation will be damaged, I predict their revenue will fall, and there will be an employee revolt. The best employees will quit and go to work for their competition. Many angry employees will remain on the job, polluting the human resources culture for a decade or more. In the process, customer service will suffer, leading to a greater loss in revenue. This institution may also get gobbled up by a competitor as the value of the company drops.

Why do people ask for advice and ignore it? Who knows? They just do.

By Gerard Braud

Ebola Crisis Communications, Finding God, and Your Leadership Team

findinggodExecutives and crisis communications enthusiasts remind me of criminals who find God 15 minutes after then enter prison, then forget God 15 minutes after they are back on the street. Here’s why…

True story from this week: The president of an institution wants crisis communications help now! Why? Because a crisis is at their door, related to an Ebola rumor. At this point, it doesn’t matter what it costs, because their reputation and revenue are on the line. Their dark day has arrived.

A public relations person invited her leadership and executive team to join her for one of my recent Ebola crisis communications webinars. She sent an e-mail to me after the webinar to say her management team is on board and ready to implement all of the crisis communication strategies I suggested. They have seen the light. Amen.

Then 24 hours past and their budding crisis disappeared. All bets are off. The leaders are not ready to spend a dime. They are not ready to do any preparation to ward off the next crisis.

This disturbs me less than it used to because I see it every day in my line of work. But it still disturbs me. I always try to have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Most people have no plan and pray for miracles when the crisis hits. Most executives expect their PR team to rise to the occasion on a moments notice. Most executives are in denial about the need to have a plan and practice that plan on a clear sunny day, so they are prepared on their darkest day.

Like a criminal who finds God in their crisis, then forgets God when the crisis is over, many executives are ready to do what it takes when the crisis is at their door. However, they have short memories about the reputation and revenue damage that awaits them any minute when the next crisis arises and they are unprepared.

Have you seen this where you work?

I’d love to hear how you deal with it.

By Gerard Braud

The NFL’s Commitment to a One-Year Crisis: 7 Mistakes Causing the Crisis to Drag On

Goodellcrisisgerardbraud GoodellcrisisgerardbraudBy Gerard Braud

What expert would advise their client to let a crisis drag on for one year? I suspect the answer is zero. But the NFL’s failure at crisis management and crisis communications essentially means that the punch Ray Rice threw on Valentine’s Day 2014 will have repercussions through February 14, 2015. Here is why and here is how you can keep from making similar mistakes where you work.

1) Failure to fully investigate the Ray Rice case, or a willful attempt to hide all of the facts by officials in the NFL and/or the Ravens, have already caused this crisis to drag out six months longer than necessary. Speed is always your friend in crisis management and crisis communication and it should be a vital part of your written plan. As TMZ pointed out with their video and through their questions at the recent Roger Goodell news conference, it wasn’t very hard to get the facts and evidence.

2) Failure to do the right thing the first time will always haunt you and will cause the crisis to reignite. Just think about it — the Ray Rice case could have been finished by March 1, 2014. Here we are approaching October 1, 2014, and it is still front-page news. This is unacceptable and unprofessional. This demonstrates the NFL doesn’t have a crisis management or crisis communications plan that they follow. This demonstrates that the person at the top lacks true leadership qualities because a good leader would not allow the organization’s brand, reputation, and revenue to be tarnished over eight months.

3) Failure to do the right thing the first time and the eventual re-ignition of the crisis causes the media and others to ask, “What else might we not know? What might they be hiding? What don’t they want us to know?” Those were the questions I asked when I was a reporter. Once a reporter starts digging, it is like pulling a thread on a sweater – eventually it all unravels. The unraveling in this crisis is the additional focus. Scrutiny and penalties have been placed on other players who were previously not clumped in with the Rice case, but who have their cases tainted because of poor crisis management and flawed executive decision making.

4) When the threads unravel, it becomes safer for those who are holding secrets to come forward. This is what led to the ESPN report alleging the Ravens knew everything about the Rice case and allegations that the Ravens worked to have Goodell go easy on Rice. Although the Ravens refute the ESPN report, you can bet ESPN is doubling down on their investigative reporting. As a result, don’t be surprised if this crisis reignites again very soon.

5) Goodell made a further mistake by announcing that by the Super Bowl in February 2015, committees will make recommendations about the consistency of punishment for players and will report on the true status of domestic violence among players. This means Goodell is tainting and overshadowing Super Bowl coverage with an extension of a negative story. This is just dumb. This is intentionally stretching out brand damage, reputational damage, and revenue damage. No smart leader would tie a crisis-related deadline to the most high profile day associated with your organization.

6) Saying you got it wrong is a start, but it is not enough. The reason it is not enough is because there is no plausible reason to have gotten it wrong the first time. Furthermore, throwing money at anti-domestic violence organizations appears to be an insincere act of desperation and diversion. Also, the cynical minds in the audience believe Goodell and team owners, who used the “We got it wrong” line, were really saying, “We got caught and we regret that we got caught,” not doing the right thing, for the right reasons, the first time.

7) Trust is lost when bad decisions are made in the beginning, when flip-flops happen months later, and when the crisis is extended by bad decision-making. When sponsors drop their sponsorship, it means they have lost trust. When customers spend less on merchandise and are less likely to watch games, the lack of trust is amplified. Don’t forget your loss of trust with employees. In this case, Goodell has lost the trust of players.

A few weeks ago when this crisis became front-page news, I called for Goodell to be suspended for one year. This was for the same reason he suspended Saints coach Sean Peyton for a year, based on the concept that the leader should have known what was going on in the organization.

But in light of the seven items outlined above and Goodell’s failure to show leadership in managing and terminating this crisis, my professional advice to the team owners would be to fire Goodell. He has hurt your brand, your reputation and your revenue. Surely there is someone else who can do a better job this time and in the future.

3 Questions to Ask about the Intersection of Crisis Management, Crisis Communication, and Crisis Communications Plans: The NFL

By Gerard Braud

rayrice apAnother crisis management and crisis communication lesson plays out in the NFL as the Associated Press reports the NFL had a copy of the videotape showing Ray Rice punching his fiance in the face.

This exposes a crisis management and crisis communication weakness found in many organizations, which either involves leaders intentionally covering up a crisis or the crisis management team not fully sharing information. This prevents everyone from connecting the dots in a way that results in the best resolution of the crisis and full, honest communications about that resolution.

Here are three questions you can ask today to have a better crisis management and crisis communications plan.

1) When a crisis unfolds, do you have a central hub within the crisis management team in which all information is collected and disseminated to the key decision makers? If there is or was such a system within the NFL, a videotape of the punch would have been shared with the crisis management team. If there is and was a system, then we have a case of unethical behavior, personified by a cover-up and possible lies in media interviews by Roger Goodell.

2) Does your crisis communications plan have a predetermined list of questions that you will ask in every crisis so that everyone is always on the same page? This is one of the most powerful tools you can have and a vital part of all of the crisis communications plans I write.

3) Is there conflict in your organization because ethical decisions about a crisis often take a backseat to legal arguments by lawyers or financial arguments from the CFO? Those arguments often result in everyone taking a vow of silence so the organization doesn’t get sued, resulting in a loss of reputation and revenue. This is the job of communication experts in the room: Connect the dots for everyone else. Focus on the long-term reputational and financial health of the organization by doing the right thing and not the most convenient thing in the short-term.

Smoldering crises like the NFL Ray Rice case often cause various leaders to connect the dots only in a way that is immediately best for their interest, rather than in a way that is best for the long-term health of the organization, its leaders, and in many cases, the victims of the crisis.

Rayrice blog gerard braudFor example, in the case of Penn State, we saw the university fail to expose the crime of sexual abuse out of fear of reputational damage and a loss of revenue. This short-term failure resulted in more boys being victims of sexual abuse, greater reputational harm, a larger financial loss, and top leaders being fired.

In the case of the NFL, many experts believe the only reason the NFL has taken a tough stand on concussions is because of a lawsuit that would damage their reputation and lead to a huge financial loss if the lawsuit went to trial. It was not done years ago when it could have been.

When powerful people hide the facts from the world, as a way to avoid reputational and revenue loss in a crisis, you are witnessing unethical behavior in a crisis. In most cases the secret becomes public, executives get fired, the institution’s reputation is damaged, and revenue is lost. Stay tuned to see what happens with the NFL.

4 Crisis Communications Lessons as the NFL Management Struggles with the Ray Rice Smoldering Crisis

Rayrice blog gerard braudBy Gerard Braud

The NFL has a crisis. Do they have a plan? Will the crisis get worse because of non-verbal communications? Can the NFL management communicate their way out of the crisis? Below are some observations and suggestions to help you cope with your own corporate crisis.

The non-verbal message from the NFL is that they are more concerned about one man hitting another man in the head on the field than they are about a man – essentially an employee – hitting a woman in the head, or more specifically, punching the woman in the face.

That non-verbal message speaks volumes and creates a crisis within a crisis.

Another part of the crisis is the NFL’s failure to obtain the most compelling video of the actual punch. TMZ – not even the mainstream media, but the tabloid media – did what the NFL could not or would not. From a non-verbal standpoint, this communicates that the NFL didn’t want to try as hard as they could, fearing the crisis might get worse. As we see, the crisis did get worse and is getting worse because the NFL executive management failed to fully investigate the crisis, perhaps in fear of what they might discover.

On the plus side, NFL commissioner Robert Goodell has done media interviews and apologized. In too many crisis case studies there is a clear failure to apologize.

On the plus side, sporting goods stores have positioned themselves as heroes in the crisis by communicating their willingness to exchange Ray Rice football jerseys for new jerseys if a fan regrets owning a Rice jersey. This is great customer service and frankly, great public relations, for essentially “doing the right thing.”

On the plus side, AE Sports is removing Rice from their video games. Again, this is great public relations, for doing the right thing.

Both the sporting goods stores and AE Sports have actually capitalized on the crisis in a way you might not have expected, but in a way that creatively allows them to denounce violence against women.

When crisis management is botched because of failed communications, there is usually fallout. Usually people get fired and revenue is lost.

People are already calling for Goodell to resign. Will he lose his job because of the perception created that he and the NFL were protecting their player hoping the fallout would not get worse? More than one expert is predicting a revenue loss for NFL sportswear among females, after years of high revenue growth from apparel sales to women.

What can you learn from this crisis?

1) When a smoldering crisis breaks out, you, the public relations professional, must vigorously investigate the case behind the crisis. Approach it like an expert prosecutor or an expert investigative reporter. You need to know what the executives might not want to know or what the executives know but have not told you.

2) The PR team must also look for executives who are in denial. Denial is characterized by the executive team’s subtle attempts to move forward as though the smoldering crisis will not ignite.

3) On a clear sunny day, make sure your crisis communications plan outlines procedures for investigating a smoldering crisis and responding to a smoldering crisis. Too many PR people and corporate crisis communication plans are structured to respond only to natural disasters and sudden emergencies. It is a huge crisis communication plan failure to not anticipate your reaction to a smoldering crisis.

4) Define a crisis for your organization as anything that can affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization. The NFL crisis is a perfect example of something that is neither a natural disaster nor a sudden emergency, but certainly something that will affect both the reputation and revenue of the organization.

Experts will tell you that in most organizations and corporations, you are more likely to face a smoldering crisis than you are to face a sudden emergency or natural disaster.

If you have more questions about preparing for a smoldering crisis please give me a call at 985-624-9976.