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.

Media Interview Training Tips from Jimmy Kimmel and the Oscars

By Gerard Braud

Media interviews are jimmykimmeloften composed of opinion questions. Jimmy Kimmel Live provides us with today’s timely media interview perspectives, with interviews about the Oscars. As you watch and laugh at this, read on to the crisis communications tip at the end of this article.

Reports are infamous for asking leading questions. In media training classes, each potential spokesperson should be cautioned about not taking the bait when a reporter asks a leading question. In other words, when a premise is injected by the reporter, expert media training should teach the spokesperson to have the freedom to reject the premise.

Jimmy Kimmel live does a great gag called Lie Witness News, in which a fake reporter conducts what are known as “man on the street interviews.”

The Academy Awards is one of the most hyped events of the year. There’s a lot of pressure to have an informed opinion about the movies that are nominated. So, Kimmel sent a camera onto Hollywood Boulevard to ask people what they thought about some nominated movies and moments he made up.

What these people do is something you don’t want to do. They take the bait.

Be aware of another lesson that falls under the crisis communications category.

When your organization experiences a crisis, reporters will go looking for quotes and sound bites. If your company and your spokesperson fail to provide a fast sound bite or quote, the media will conduct man on the street interviews. These man on the street interviews are with uninformed individuals who have not had media training and are willing to take the bait to enjoy 15 seconds of fame.

Jimmy Kimmel creates some great laughs with his gag. If this happens to you in real life it is no laughing matter.

Crisis Communication & Media Hide and Seek: The ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery Explosion

By Gerard Braud

Where is the ExxonMobil news release for the ExxonMobil Torrance Refinery explosion? An explosion is a crisis, which requires expert crisis communications. The media would expect information on the corporate news release page. Media want it fast and easy to find.

But look what you find on the ExxonMobil news release page – A fluff release about a summer jobs program.

ExxonMobile-#1-No ReleaseReally ExxonMobil?

Oil may have come from the age of the dinosaurs, but public relations in 2015 shouldn’t be prehistoric in nature.

Is ExxonMobil playing hide and seek with their news release?

At the bottom of the ExxonMobil page I found three social media links. I clicked on Twitter and found a statement that I’ve written about before – the dreaded and preposterous, “Our top priority statement.” The Tweet says, “Our top priority is the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors in Torrance.” Obviously it isn’t your top priority, otherwise you would not have had an explosion with four people sent to the hospital, right?

ExxonMobil-Twitter-TopPriority

Come on PR people: Enough with the bad clichés that you can’t defend. My top priority is to get public relations people to stop saying, “Our top priority.”

The link on Twitter sends me to this news release page, which did not appear in my initial search. Note the time stamp on the hidden news release – 10 a.m. ET on February 19, 2015. Now note the first sentence of the news release – it indicates the explosion happened at 8:50 a.m. PST on February 18, 2015. If there is an earlier release, it is hidden from me.ExxonMobil-2-release

I have to question, why does it take nearly a day for a news release to be posted? This is absurd. This is 2015 and we live in the age of Twitter. No corporation should go more than one hour before a news release is posted. And don’t blame it on your lawyers or your executives. An expert public relations leader must learn to deal with lawyers and executives before a crisis so that your crisis communications can move with haste and professionalism. Your crisis communication plan should be filled with pre-written and pre-approved news releases. Geez!

Even on Twitter on the day of the explosion there is no ExxonMobil Twitter post related to the explosion, yet citizens are posting images and details about the crisis trending on #torranceexplosion.
ExxonMobil-Twitter-Feb18

Now let us examine the news release as ExxonMobil plays hide the facts and details. Compare the ExxonMobil release that mentions an “incident,” to the headlines on Google, which uses words such as “explosion” and a host of descriptors such as “rips though refinery,” “rocked by large explosion,” etc.

 

ExxonMobil-Google

 

While ExxonMobil uses clichés such as “top priority” and “incident,” the NBC Los Angeles website describes, “Crushed cars, mangled metal, flames and a health warning.” Their lead says, “Hours after an explosion ripped through a Torrance refinery, residents for miles around continue to grapple with ash, a gas odor and concerns over poor air quality…”

Something tells me this was more than an “incident.”

 

ExxonMobil-NBC

In a crisis, it is important for official sources to provide official information. It is also important to control SEO. From a control perspective, the corporation should be controlling the flow of accurate information, rather than surrendering to the rumors and opinions for the public.

In the 2014 Fortune 500 list, ExxonMobil is listed as second. Some might wonder if their PR is second rate.

So what do you think about how ExxonMobil manages its crisis communications?

The Fog of Decision Paralysis: A Lesson in Crisis Behavior

Fog_CrashYou should know it is fog season in New Orleans. With fog season comes some significant lessons about human behavior in a crisis.

Dive in with me, if you will, on an incredibly foggy morning. We are crossing a 12 mile long bridge over Lake Pontchartrain from Mandeville, Louisiana to New Orleans. We’re on this 12 mile bridge because the 24-mile long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge is closed because of zero visibility.

The fog is so thick it’s as though our headlights are reflecting off of a bright, white wall.

Our forward visibility is at most three to four feet.

If you were in this situation, what would you do?

What would you foresee happening?

I was actually in that situation on December 31, 1996. I was still asking myself this question and preparing for a possible crisis, when a white, Ford F-150 pickup truck swept by me. He was in the left lane driving far too fast. It took only a flash for him to disappear into the fog.

Within an instant I saw his taillights bounce high into the air. He had rear-ended a slower moving car. The two cars were then faced sideways blocking both lanes of the interstate.

Because I was driving slow… I was able to stop short of making impact. But then I heard the horrendous sounds of screeching brakes behind me.

As I looked in my rear view mirror. I could see headlights closing in on me rapidly.

I steered slightly to the left; the lights veered to my right and smashed into the truck.

I was witnessing the beginning of what would soon be a 70 car pile-up.

There were more screeching brakes… more headlights… more crunching metal.

I continued to steer slightly more to the left and out of the way with each continuing wave of arriving headlines. Each cluster of cars piled into the debris field in front of them.

Soon a green minivan hit the pile and flew in the air tumbling end over end. It landed upside down. Soon a small white pick-up was being crushed like an accordion.

The sounds of crashes seem unending. By now I had inched from the right lane, across the left lane, and onto the shoulder of the bridge. I was making spit-second decisions. I was taking action based on the events around me.

Then there was a brief lull. I reached my left hand slowly across my body and unbuckled my seat belt so I could help rescue those in need. I suspected some are likely dead. The lady in the flipped minivan was first on my mind, followed by the guy in the truck that was squished like an accordion.

But before reaching for the door handle I glanced in the rear view mirror one last time.

And as I looked up into my rear view mirror, all I could see were these letters. They were backwards: G- r- e-y-h-o-oohhhhhhhhh…greyhound-braud

I jerked the car one last time to the left until my rims were grinding against the curb. And by some miracle… the bus slipped by me in slow motion.

And as I followed the bus with my eyes, there in front of it was the first car to have been hit. It was still blocking the highway. The woman driving the car had been frozen in panic. All this time she had done nothing. All the while I was making spit-second decisions and taking action to avoid being hit. Meanwhile she was just sitting in her car, sideways across the left lane of traffic; the left lane now occupied by the Greyhound bus that was sliding past me in slow motion as the bus driver stood on his breaks. And the woman in the car… I watched the horror on her face… she raised both of her hands across her face. I watched as she screamed…

…and the Greyhound plowed into her car door. He windows shattered into a thousand shards of glass. Her car crumpled like a tin can, spinning down the bridge the way a tin can spins when kicked down the street by a child.

Then there was silence.

I exited my car. I crawled out onto the railing of the bridge.

I walked around the back of my car into the piles of crumpled cars and dazed drivers. The space between my car’s right side and the side of the bus was approximately eight inches. I eased between my back bumper and the bus so I could go check on the lady in the first car.

Out of 70 cars, my car was the only one without a scratch. No one had hit me.

It was a miracle. But I also did something the driver hit by the bus did not do: I took action.

In this world… there are some people who react and respond… and there are some who fall into fog of decision paralysis.

The fog of decision paralysis often strikes people in public relations, the men and women in the c-suite, and the leadership positions in the corporate world. When faced with a crisis, they often do nothing to effectively communicate to key audiences, as if they are paralyzed with fear.

Sure, fire crews are authorized to fight their fire without approval. But it often takes 4-8 hours for a news release to be written, approved and released, following the onset of a crisis.

Doing nothing is unacceptable. Doing nothing makes things worse.

In the age of Twitter, you must decide today how you will communicate at the speed of Twitter when a crisis strikes.

If the answer eludes you, call me at 985-624-9976. Your answer awaits.

 

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

Ebola Crisis Communications Plan Question: Would an Expert Approve My Plan?

Gerard Braud Crisis Communications PlanAn expert would ask you these questions:

1. Count the pages of your crisis communications plan. If it is 6-10 pages long, it is likely only a list of standard operating procedures and not a true plan. Most organizations have been lead to believe this is a plan. My description is that this is little more than an outline for writing a plan. If your document outlines what should be done, but really assigns those tasks to no one, you have a problem.

2. Could your plan be executed by anyone in your organization who can read and follow directions? This sounds like a strange question, but it is a good test. My mantra when I write crisis communications plans is that is should be so thorough that nothing is forgotten and nothing will fall through the cracks, yet simple enough that it could be read by anyone who can read, and executed by them without mistakes. If your plan reads like a technical manual that is as frustrating as assembling your child’s bicycle on Christmas Eve, you have a problem.

3) What time limits have you placed in your crisis communication plan? At a minimum, the first communication document from your plan should reach the public within one hour of the onset of any crisis. The vast number of plans I’ve reviewed over the years have no mandate for speedy communications. This causes the communicator and the executive team to spend too much time analyzing and second-guessing every decision. Speed is important. If your plan doesn’t set time limits for speed you have a problem.

4) Does your crisis communications plan contain the names and phone numbers of everyone you need to reach during your crisis or does it require you to research and find that information as you execute the plan? Valuable time is lost when you have to stop on the day of your crisis to look up information that you could have looked up and collected on a clear sunny day. If your plan says you should contact a list of people and that list contains only job titles and no names or phone numbers, you have a problem.

5) The magic of a plan is when the plan tells you precisely what information to gather, who to call to assemble a crisis management team, and directs you to a library of pre-written news releases. If you are missing these elements, you have a problem.

Think oCrisis communication workshop gerard braudf Goldie Locks – Your plan shouldn’t be too simple and your plan shouldn’t be too hard. Your plan shouldn’t be too long and your plan shouldn’t be too short.

If you need help determining if your plan is just right, phone me at 985-624-9976.

Ebola Crisis Communication Plan Update: Ebola Hysteria Requires Communications

cruise ship ebola gerard braudBusiness leaders and public relations professionals should continue to monitor signs of Ebola hysteria. The damage to the reputation and revenue of your organization is real. It can come from a direct Ebola contamination to one of your employees or customers. In the case of public institutions like schools, the institution could face a costly shut down or closure.

Since outlining how real or imagined Ebola threats could trigger your crisis communications and crisis management plans, in last Friday’s Ebola webinar, the weekend revealed more examples. (Click here to listen to the webinar) A customer/passenger aboard a Carnival cruise ship out of Galveston was identified as having been in contact with lab samples from the deceased Dallas Ebola patient.

Listen to the re-broadcast

Listen to the re-broadcast

The crisis cascade of events included the ship being turned away from Belize and Mexico, plus the closure of a school in Moore, Oklahoma, because a student was on the same cruise ship as the hospital worker from Dallas. Not only did each of those institutions or governments need to communicate, but so did various ports of entry and various emergency response or decontamination companies. And while this ship sailed from Galveston, every port city in America could have just as easily found themselves in the same position as the Port of Galveston. Likewise, any school in America could be forced to make the same decisions as Moore, Oklahoma.

Are we seeing too much hysteria? Is the threat real or imagined? In my expert opinion, it doesn’t matter because either a real threat or an imagined threat can trigger both your crisis management plan and your crisis communications plan. Either a real threat or an imagined threat can damage the reputation and revenue of your organization.

Should you take steps today to prepare or should you wait and see? My mantra is be prepared. Use this potential crisis as an opportunity to set aside time on a clear sunny day to prepare your plan and your crisis communications should you need it on your darkest day.

Crisis communication workshop gerard braudShould you prepare only for Ebola or should you prepare for everything? My mantra is to do it all at once. You can have a comprehensive crisis management and crisis communications plan that is completed today and ready to be used for years to come.

Doing it right is always the path of least resistance.

By Gerard Braud