Whether it’s the latest retrans fight or something else, basic principles of crisis mgmt can come in handy. For a refresher course, we spoke to HL Group corp vp and crisis mgmt expert Christopher Giglio, who cites accountability and leadership as key principles that apply to cable and beyond.
CableFAX: Retrans disputes are pretty cable specific. But what are some universal principles?
CG: I think in any of these things, the common thread is that most of them involve a pretty vigorous public debate. In so many of these disputes that are one party versus another, I see that they make very clear arguments that are in the he-said/she-said point of view… he-said/she-said will attract spectators but it doesn’t attract participants. What they really want to do here is attract people to their side, and the best way to not be defensive and attract participants is make it about the person you’re trying to attract.
CableFAX: Put that in the context of a retrans dispute.
CG: Make an argument that’s going to speak to the consumer, respect the consumer and really keep the consumer as a player in your argument. You want to co-opt them to bolster your side so you win the debate. I mean, they’re going to find any sort of distinctions you draw between yourself and the other party interesting but not galvanizing. What galvanizes support is when you make it about something other than yourself, about something broader. I think that’s what a lot of folks don’t understand in a very consistent way, and consistency is very important as well.
CableFAX: The MSO says it’s about keeping rates down; the programmer says it’s about funding quality content. But does that really resonate with the public one way or another?
CG: No, they probably really don’t care. But especially in this economy, value is one of the most important precepts to advance. Also I think value can be that people don’t want what they’re comfortable with being disrupted. So those are two important things. I think to say that one company is bigger and badder and so forth is really not going to resonate for the consumer. It might for the journalist. People are going to write it and understand it, but it’s not really going to move the ball. I think if you convince people that you’re coming at something from a fair spot, you’re offering them value, it’s something they rely on and something they’re going to want in the future, I think those are the most important points to make.
CableFAX: But how does one side break through?
CG: That gets back to the first point I made. Especially if you look at News Corp/Fox and how they prevailed [in the Cablevision dispute], they get out pretty aggressively. They’re an organization that stays pretty darned close to the customer. That’s sort of one of their operating ethics.
CableFAX: Is the operator side too wonky with the regulatory argument, at least when it comes to swaying public opinion?
CG: I think Cablevision came back at them sort of making Fox the big bad wolf… but at the end of the day I think that was sort of a non-starter. I don’t think it really moved the public. You could look at Hallmark versus AT&T. Hallmark came at it from a very promotional, marketing standpoint—again I think advancing an argument that didn’t really resonate and didn’t really carry. In any of these disputes really hang much closer to a political debate in a campaign than they do maybe for a traditional communications strategy. You’re really trying to keep people’s attention, and you’re trying to convert them and stay on message and all of that. They’re very distinct that way. I think probably News Corp has done a little better job thinking that way, maybe because of their political skills as well.
CableFAX: What techniques do you think both sides could use to go direct to consumers and avoid the media filter?
CG: There have always been ways to do that through advertising and traditional Web sites and the like. And social media makes it easier than ever. But one thing that I notice with social media utility in general is that sometimes people get caught up in the ease and directness of it, and they lose sight of the fact that content is still king no matter what you’re doing. So there are ways of going about it from paid advertisements to driving people to your Web page to setting up a Facebook page to having a consequential Twitter presence. But you still have to pay attention to your messaging and content because you can have all of these wonderful tools, but unless you’re saying something that people care to tune into, it’s really not worth much.
CableFAX: It’s also a very specific audience, no?
CG: In terms of using social media, I think you have to be really careful about the audience you’re targeting. I think you have to set up a Facebook page that’s going to cater to them. If you’re communicating via Twitter, I think you need to keep your mind on who is following you. If journalists are following you that way, then give the journalists something they’re going to want. If you’re using Twitter and journalists are following you, break news on Twitter. That’s a really smart thing to do. You have to keep people sharp and make it not a quaint gesture that they’re following you or using some sort of social media to access information about you… Look at everything as a way to break news for the people who you want to influence. It’s really not just ability; it’s about resonate content and having an effective, 21st century message to break through.
CableFAX: So has the role of traditional press diminished compared to a decade ago?
CG: It’s not diminished. It’s broadened. The way I look at it, the press is the consumer as well. The press is the consumer of all of these platforms. So anything you say—any release you make—you’re making it to the press, but you’re making it to consumers. It’s sort of one in the same. One of the arguments that News Corp was advancing in its dispute with DISH lumped sports and coverage of National Geographic and FX together, and they were called out by Reuters on that. So the press has got the traditional role of calling people out… but you should consider them a consumer just like consumers are consumers. And it’s a way to reach them.
CableFAX: Whether it’s a cable dispute or the BP oil spill, what do you think is the biggest mistake companies make with crisis communications?
CG: The biggest mistake is first of all not owning up to issues that are obvious. I think in any crisis—especially something on the scale of BP—the public and the journalists who interpret things for the public—they want to see someone take accountability. If mistakes were made, say them. But whenever you admit problems, give a blueprint for what you’re going to do to go forward and correct them. At times of crisis, people yearn for two things: Accountability and leadership. And those two factors should be a component of every single message you make. That’s number one.
CableFAX: So what’s number two?
Number two is consistency. When there is crisis in the air and people are reading about it, listening about it and speaking about it, they become naturally an incredibly skeptical audience. You get a hundred times more scrutiny at a time like this than you would normally, so make sure your message is tight, make sure it’s progressive, make sure it’s moving along in a very consistent way, and you’ll be fine. But the two things that people really care about is accountability and leadership. And they’re also the two voids that often aren’t filled. So it’s an opportunity for the company or operator or whomever to fill the void and take control of the message.
CableFAX: But you can’t just own up. You also actually have to offer a solution, right?
CG: If you just own up to it, that’s great, but the train will leave the station and someone will take the leadership over the next day. I think it’s much better to come out early and strongly with a bifurcated message about owning up and then leading. You have to kind of think about not just filling the first paragraph of the story, but the second paragraph and third paragraph. This is what happened, this is what the facts are, this is what we’re doing, this is what the results will be, keep focused on us, we’ll tell you more—that type of thing. It’s why it’s such a high-wire act. You have one or maybe two shots of getting it right, and then the court of public opinion moves on to other sectors.
CableFAX: With the BP crisis, it seems like they were doing well at the beginning but then it went off the rails about a week into it. What happened there?
CG: I think they were extremely strong and yet extremely optimistic in the beginning. I don’t think they were terribly mindful of the timeline they were up against. So while the messages in and of themselves—in the vacuum of the early days—seemed pretty weighty, I think they might have been somewhat unreasonable in context in terms of timeframe.
CableFAX: The CEO’s gaffes certainly didn’t help either.
CG: The other issue about the scrutiny of the CEO is a very good point. And this wasn’t true in the 1990s, but I think in the aftermath of Enron and a lot of the financial meltdown that happened in the 2000s, people don’t look at the American CEO the way they used to… People are more skeptical of CEOs. So everything that you say I think should play back to accountability and leadership—and anything you say that doesn’t fit into those two buckets is probably going to be scrutinized in a way that you don’t like. I think CEOs can be very easily vilified and dismissed with a lot of support from the public right now.
CableFAX: This comes up a lot in cable too. Should the CEO do interviews? Should he or she write a blog or engage with the public? Is there one answer or does it depend?
CG: It depends on the CEO and the industry. I like consistency. I think that if a CEO has a number of characteristics and ideas and a persona that can carry it, I think that’s great. If the CEO does not have a profile or the benefit of having a very clear and dynamic plan to lead things through, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s better that the spokesperson does it at that point. But if that CEO is that leader, is that evangelist and is that person who can be accountable in a very coherent and credible way, that’s really what everyone is looking for. They’re looking for that man or woman to stand up, own up, take action and lead.