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What Law Enforcement can Learn From the Reaction to an Amber Alert

March 31, 2015 1 comment

Screen Capture of the 3/28 Amber Alert

On Saturday, March 28, 2015 around 5:30 a.m., Michigan residents were jolted awake to an ominous alert on their mobile phones. The warning sounded like the sort of alarm one hears at the end of a James Bond movie, as the arch-villain’s lair is about to collapse on the minions running frantically in the background as 007 and his female counterpart zipline to safety.

A six-year-old child was abducted by her father from a small town near Flint, Michigan. The Michigan State Police (MSP) feared she was in immediate physical danger and had a solid lead on her abductor, so they made the decision to send an immediate message using the Wireless Emergency Alerts program which can deliver messages to any mobile phones in a geographic area. This system is different from text messages (it receives priority over other data sent to phones so that it can go out more swiftly).

What I’ve learned from my years in public relations and the crises I’ve worked on is that nothing teaches you more about crisis communications than an actual crisis event. This Amber Alert was no different – and here are some of the insights I’ve gathered:

Citizens are Customers First

Customers have come to expect options and transparency from every brand they interact with – and the Michigan State Police brand is no different. While it would be great if everyone treated the loss of sleep caused by the Amber Alert as a minor sacrifice all citizens should make for the safety of the whole – not everyone shares that viewpoint and they have the power to opt out of these warnings. As a result of that choice the citizen-consumer has, law enforcement needs to think about citizens more as consumers and realize that they have an obligation to persuade (even sell) them on the benefits of opting in to the alerts.

Unfortunately the tone thus far from the MSP has come off as insensitive to the “customers” that were startled awake by the alert. To wit: “The Michigan State Police’s AMBER Alert coordinator told 24 Hour News 8 Monday she doesn’t regret sending out a loud, early morning text alert over the weekend and that she would do it again if it would help a child.”

This leads to another insight…

Framing the Message is More Important Than You Think

Instead of adopting a defensive stance, this Amber Alert could have been treated as a heartwarming and concrete example of the effectiveness and importance of the alert system. It’s an opportunity to position the role of everyone who received the alert (to make them more inclined to remain opted-in): selfless heroes whose noble sacrifice helped return a child in danger to her home. Sure it’s hyperbolic – but it employs a tried-and-true customer service tactic: thanking upset customers changes the trajectory of an interaction by helping disarm anger.

Your Audience is Larger Than You Think

In talking to the Grand Rapids news media, I found that the MSP were treating this case as a local story in Flint and primarily giving interviews and comments to the reporters there. Yet the alert went out state-wide. That means it’s a local story in EVERY locality. The MSP should have braced for the deluge of both local and state-wide interest from the news in this story and used it as an opportunity to tell the success story of the girl’s recovery and shore up support for the Amber Alert system.

This is one of the things I love about social media monitoring in crisis situations – it can help you identify blind spots you would never have considered otherwise. Its reach and two-way nature means that you can be made aware of stakeholders, agendas, and questions you didn’t know existed.

In a Crisis, More Communication is Better

The actual text of the alert was very simple, and some recipients were confused by what it meant. Here’s what it read:

“Emergency alert

Bancroft, MI AMBER Alert: LIC/7KJC97 (MI) 2000 Teal Ford F-250 Pickup

Type: Amber Alert”

Mis-communication frequently occurs when we make assumptions about what the audience knows. For example; one Twitter user mistook the message for an alert about a stolen vehicle; since the missing child is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the alert. It assumes that everyone knows that an “Amber Alert” means a child in danger. It’s not an unreasonable mistake to make (exacerbated by the vehicle being the focus of the investigation, and not the perpetrator or victim).

The messaging protocol likely has a character limit, which is why details were so sparse (and why no information about the victim or the perpetrator was included). This is a challenge, but one that can be overcome with more communication through other channels. This leads to another important lesson…

Use Social Media Engagement to Your Advantage in a Crisis

The good thing is that after the initial alert, users (customers) took to Google and social media to find more information – which is now the standard practice for every significant event. Unfortunately they would have found little on social media to fill in the gaps in their knowledge; there were no tweets, Facebook posts, or pages on the MSP’s website with the full story. That’s a missed opportunity to both (1) empower citizens to help, and (2) explain to citizens who are upset what the justification for the intrusion was.

The good thing is that there is still an opportunity to use social media to build the credibility and trust in both the MSP and the Amber Alert system (though the window is quickly closing). Were I to advise them on next steps – here they are:

  • Respond to every user you can find on social media that tweeted or posted about the alert. There are probably a few hundred of them, so it will take an investment of time – but realize that it’s time well spent. For every user you reach, you tap into their social graph (all the people they’re connected to) which exponentially expands the reach of your message.
    • For the Positive Comments: Thank the user for helping share the information that ultimately saved this child’s life and for their continued commitment to public safety.
    • For the Negative Comments: Apologize for the intrusion, tell them the success story, and tell them you hope they’ll consider remaining opted-in to the alerts.
  • Use this case to create an informational campaign about Amber Alerts while the event is still fresh in the mind of the public. You have their attention – USE IT:
    • Speak openly and transparently about the criteria used to make the decision to issue this alert (to assuage their concerns that this will now happen every weekend).
    • Inform them about how the technology works.
    • Empower the audience by telling users can find more information about these alerts (which isn’t easy to find – it varies by carrier and by phone).
    • Show them other examples from around the country where the system has saved missing children.
    • Expand your message to talk about missing & exploited children, public safety, and any other relevant topics you’d like the public know about.

Understand Conventions

Were I to make a recommendation to authorities and wireless carriers, it would be to change the tone currently used for the Amber Alert. The particular alarm that is employed already has a clearly-defined psychological implication to the general public: immediate physical peril to oneself. It’s effective in the case of severe weather or a national emergency, but an Amber Alert doesn’t fit that convention. It’s a crisis only to the victim and their immediate family – the rest of us are spectators and only a tiny handful of people who receive the alert have relevant information to help the investigation. Something as simple as changing the tone could do wonders to temper the negative reaction to being woken from sleep to an alert.

Another convention that customers are now well-accustomed to is being able to silence all of their messages for a given period of time (such as when they are asleep or in meetings). This message broke that convention, so the anger seen on Twitter was in part about the larger issue of a loss of control. That has to be factored in to the decisions about how to communicate with the audience.

In the big picture, this is an opportunity for wireless carriers and phone makers (perhaps even app developers) to use technology to mitigate this intrusion to keep users from opting out of receiving Amber Alerts. What if, for example, users had the ability to set the alerts so that they are delayed if the phone hasn’t moved in a given period of time? (i.e. when someone is away from it, or it is sitting on a nightstand because they are sleeping) – That might entice more people to stay in the system (which is only effective if a large number of people do so).

Consider the Context

The Wireless Emergency Alerts protocol has been available to law enforcement since 2012, and this was the first time the MSP opted to use it for an Amber Alert. That lends more significance to the event than one might think. This means two important things:

  1. Any communication about the Amber Alert protocol will have been forgotten or ignored by the vast majority of people because it didn’t immediately affect them at the time (now it does – which is the most important time to communicate).
  2. This case may be your ONE AND ONLY opportunity to convince the average person to remain opted-in to the alert messages. You have to seize it.

Hopefully someone in law enforcement finds this valuable and is able to put it to use in the next event.

For what it’s worth, below is a curated list of example social media posts I gathered from the West Michigan area that illustrate the conversation that took place after the alert went out.

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Social Media Director at U of M Becomes Casualty of Social Media Transparency

December 11, 2012 4 comments

Jordan Miller Case Study Collage

[Disclosure: I applied for the University of Michigan Social Media Director position.]

In October of 2011, the University of Michigan announced that it had created a Social Media Director position.  I was elated; it was a great sign that the practice was gaining the recognition it deserves.  In February of 2012 they announced that after “dozens” of applicants (a suspiciously low number for that high-profile of a position with an elite school that paid $100k/year) they had selected Jordan Miller to be their new Social Media Director.

Flash-forward to December 7 when a post appeared on Reddit titled “UM Social Media Director Jordan Miller lies on resume about bachelors degree, keeps job.” posted by citizenthrowawayx.  The post contained links to three scans of documents that pretty conclusively demonstrated that Miller had indeed lied on her job application claiming to have completed her studies at Columbia College in Chicago when in fact she had not.

Jordan Miller's Followgram Profile Description

Jordan Miller’s Unfortunate Followgram Profile Description

As of today, Miller resigned from the position at U of M.

There’s a lot more to the story (that the anonymous individual who did the legwork and posted the damning information is an ex-husband who happens to also work at U of M and who is involved in a custody battle, alleging that Miller manufactured child abuse allegations against him to negate his custody of their child) but I’m less interested in that than the larger ramifications of this case study in how not to approach social media.

Beat the Dead Horse: Radical Transparency

What I can’t get over is that someone would think they could get away with something like this in applying for (1) a social media leadership position at (2) one of the best universities in the US.  Who thinks this sort of deception can last in such a position of scrutiny?

Forget unethical (although it’s certainly that), in the age of radical transparency duplicity is just plain impractical.

Digital Shrapnel

Here is just a sampling of the ripples Miller’s lying has sent off in the direction of everyone she’s had contact with:

U of M Human Resources: Why doesn’t the University of Michigan’s Human Resources Office vet the higher education credentials of its applicants?  How many of the rest of the university’s employees are lacking in degrees from accredited higher education institutions?  Why didn’t the HR department take action on this information when it was forwarded to them “a few weeks ago?”  Why did it take contacting the university’s Compliance Hotline to get something accomplished?

Past Employers: Now that we know Miller lied on her U of M job application, does that mean that she lied on her application to the Ann Arbor News?  As a journalistic organization that trumpeted her hire and is now reporting on her downfall – it’s incumbent upon them to now shine that same light on themselves and their hiring practices.  How many of their other reporters are lacking in degrees from accredited colleges/universities?  Why don’t they verify higher ed credentials? Ditto to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the advertising agency that employed her for a year and a half.

References: This kind of situation makes me less inclined to want to give out references or endorsements, which are becoming ever-present on social networking sites.  You practically trip over them logging in to Linkedin, they’re on Facebook and its apps (like Branchout) and everywhere else.

Past Work: If Miller lied about something as substantial as her higher ed credentials, what else is lurking in her past?  Has she fabricated any of the information in the stories she wrote for the AnnArbor.com?

What They Think I Do - Super Hero

Social Media Pros: Specializing in social media is already a profession that hurts for credibility.  Here’s a comment from the story announcing Miller’s hire typical of the opinions of many people on social media:

“Wow. $100K per year to Twitter (aka “gossip”) and create seminars teaching other people how to Twitter (aka “gossip”). It’s too bad the UM doesn’t have any marketing students or anyone like that, who could devise and maintain “social media” strategies as part of their degree programs. What’s another $100K in taxpayer dollars anyway? It’s just disgusting. A hundred THOUSAND dollars a year. It’s incredible.”YpsiVeteran

This act can’t help but contribute to the sentiment that social media pros are charlatans and hucksters.  As a result, all of us suffer.

The Other Applicants for the Position: There were some other applicants for the position who were probably better-qualified than Miller (whose social media credentials I found to be surprisingly sparse – leading me to long suspect that there was some sort of backroom arrangement for the hiring process which is depressingly common at higher ed institutions).  Forget me, Lindsay Blackwell comes to mind – even I was impressed by the multimedia site she set up to apply for the position.  I worry that U of M will eliminate this position and kill a great opportunity for someone else (and an opportunity to show how far ahead of the business world the academic world is in terms of social media acumen).

The Silver Lining

Radical Transparency is here to stay.  It is the norm.  It is one of the rules of the ecosystem.

As we work to get past the social norms that are in conflict with this new reality, we can facilitate this by making use of all of the amazing computing power arrayed before us.  There is value in verification – think of what Linkedin could do to further attract employers as a job posting website by offering the verification of credentials.

I’m not optimistic about the odds of it happening, but hopefully the human resources world takes this opportunity to reflect on how outmoded its conventions for vetting job applicants are.  There are so many ways to measure the abilities of people online, and so few HR departments are flexing all of those resources.

Regardless, it’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out (and it is literally playing out right now on Reddit as Miller’s ex-husband is able to respond to the questions and comments of other Redditors).

FedEx Deserves a Black Belt in Crisis Management for Response to Viral Video

December 22, 2011 2 comments

Earlier this week, a YouTube video from a security camera made the rounds showing a FedEx employee carelessly tossing a package (containing a computer monitor) over a fence to deliver it.  As of today, the original has over 4 million views and opportunistic content-scrapers who have re-posted to their own profiles have garnered hundreds of thousands more.

Huge public relations crisis, right?  Nope.

FedEx delivered a master class  in crisis communications with its response that should be taught in PR classrooms.  Check it out:

Let’s break down what happened (which is an affirmation of the principles articulated by Arthur W. Page):

  1. They responded quickly.  They didn’t wait for the situation to reach a tipping point; only two days passed between the uploading of the original video and the response.  Can you imagine the kind of effort it takes during the heaviest delivery season to negotiate and organize a well-crafted video response to a negative customer service experience for a global corporation?  Right now the response video is the #2 video, right under the original negative video which is #1.  It has over 116,000 views – six thousand of those were accrued in the time it took me to draft this blog post, so it’s gaining traction.
  2. They told the truth.  At no point did they try to write it off as an isolated incident, a hoax, or try to blame a third party contractor or regional human resources department.  They embraced it.
  3. They made it right with the customer (a YouTube user with the alias ‘goobie55’).  Before anything else, they reached out to the party affected and fixed the situation.  Unfortunately, goobie55 has not (yet) done the right thing – which is to post an update to the video noting FedEx’s response – hopefully that will still happen.
  4. They took it seriously.  FedEx knows how quickly information is shared online and they responded swiftly with senior management.  They didn’t let the situation linger unanswered or task local staff to handle it.  They also likely used all the resources in their arsenal – which may have included a traditional public relations pitch campaign (given the over 150 articles covering the response).
  5. They internalized the problem.  According to FedEx Senior VP Matthew Thornton, they are also are now sharing the video with employees as a case study in why careful handling of packages is important.
  6. They gave the organization a face.  You could hardly find a better face for the organization than VP Matthew Thornton; the nonverbal communication is fantastic.  He’s in a shirt and tie (no suit coat), with thick-rimmed glasses and a similarly-thick mustache – he looks like a working-class executive who is personally-invested in the company and doesn’t shy away from rolling up his sleeves.  Though he’s likely reading from a prompter, Thornton is convincing nonetheless.  In a way he projects the feel of a small business owner who knows well how accountable he is to his customers.
  7. They had a track record to stand on.  This is perhaps the most important part of any crisis is what happens BEFORE the crisis – something that can’t be emphasized enough.  Every organization needs to make quality service and products a priority (which should go without saying, but it doesn’t – plenty are operating on an old model of sub-standard quality upholstered in glitz and style).  No crisis response, no matter how eloquent, can save an organization that sucks at what they do from a high-profile example of their suckage – the companies that conduct themselves that way are only able to do so because they’re a monopoly (think AT&T or Comcast).

The only improvement I might have made is to have Thornton add an action item at the end of his video (you can provide hyperlinks within YouTube videos very easily) that invited any other customers with a bad experience to immediately share, or link directly to the process for resolving disputes, it so it could be fixed.  But that’s just me nit-picking.

Hopefully a lot of people are able to learn from this – kudos to FedEx.

How Not to do Social Media Case Study – Southern Illinois University Carbondale Facebook Page

November 9, 2011 1 comment

"The Net Interprets Censorship as Damage and Routes Around it" - John Gilmore

Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty.  As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.

Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages.  One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…

Kraft’s Less-Than-Golden PR Move

January 11, 2011 1 comment

Ted Williams for Kraft

I’m all for redemption and second chances, but I can’t for the life of me figure out Kraft’s move to give the “Golden-Voiced Homeless Guy” Ted Williams a gig doing a voiceover for a commercial.  It’s problematic for several reasons:

  1. Celebrities, as a rule, are a risky gambit when it comes to promoting one’s brand.  They’re human and one slip-up (easily documented nowadays with a smartphone or traffic cam) can bring down all sorts of image (and legal) problems.  Not only that, but slip-ups don’t have to result in a “Dateline” segment – they can be as simple as using a competitor’s brand in public.
  2. Celebs are already problematic, and that’s assuming the celeb doesn’t have a drug problem already.  Unfortunately Ted Williams already has a long history of addiction/substance abuse which makes him an even riskier bet.  If anything bad happens (like a relapse) – Kraft is risking being named every single time Williams is as a key bullet point of his biography.
  3. Many people (particularly those in the media) are acutely aware of the relative unfairness of giving a guy like Ted Williams a golden ticket given the decisions he’s made in his past.  As many (including Howard Stern) have pointed out – there are hundreds of out-of-work radio guys out there that have toed the line the past few decades and didn’t turn to drugs or become deadbeat dads.  Kraft is risking inserting itself into that debate and possibly becoming the target of a boycott.

That said, I hope everything works out for Ted and Kraft.  We seem to need more inspirational stories of late.

[Update: Shortly after I published this post, this came across the news wires: Ted Williams detained, released by LAPD after ‘minor disturbance’]

How Corporations can Stop Leaks of Sensitive Information

July 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the struggle corporations are having with leaks.   In this age, the information you don’t want to become public is going to come out one way or another. The strongest firewall can be subverted by a careless (or motivated) employee gossiping at a vending machine. A stack of non-disclosure forms can be undone by the video camera in a mobile phone.

The solution is simple: stop trying to hide everything.

As the WSJ story’s examples show (layoffs, pay cuts), the “sensitive” information is frequently merely unflattering (as opposed to, say, intellectual property a competitor could use). Given that this information would eventually become public anyway (when the employees actually are laid off, or have their pay cut, or are subjected to abrupt / impersonal conversations with the managers who dispatch them) – what is to be gained from hiding it?  All these corporations are doing is changing the timing (and in some ways they’re guaranteeing it will be a big, newsworthy event when it comes out at once as a big surprise instead of trickling out over time).

Read more…

MiBiz January 2009 Knowledge Roundtable

January 7, 2009 Leave a comment

I recently participated in a MiBiz‘s January 2009 Knowledge Roundtable (along with what looks like most of the other members of the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America board). Overall the piece was good, but the demands of concision meant that most of my responses had to be cut down (which I completely understand) but unfortunately they were cut in such a way as to look incomplete (so I look somewhat scattered and inarticulate; or at least MORE scattered and inarticulate than I usually am).

Here’s the piece. Below are my comments in their entirety.

———–

1. What skills do communications students need to learn to land good jobs? Are schools doing a good enough job of preparing them?

There are a number of skills; paramount among them is writing. Interpersonal communication skills may become more important than writing in the future as technology moves us away from text-based communication toward a more visual culture (some say Flickr is in the process of replacing blogging).

The skill of being able to learn (and it is a skill) is critical as well; often as communicators we are speaking on someone else’s behalf to an audience we must understand well to effectively reach – so the ability to learn on-the-fly about both sides (and the mediums through which you will be communicating) dramatically improves the effectiveness of the communication process. This is especially important given how diverse our world is and how rapidly change happens. Students will also need to know how to think critically, how to problem-solve, and how to be creative (which is also a skill that can be taught).

Students will need to know how to use technology and how to think about using technology, though noting this almost goes without saying because of how tech-saturated youth culture already is (it’s basically second nature to “digital natives”).

Unfortunately I don’t think most schools do as well as they could at formally preparing students with some of these skills (especially the non-traditional ones), however they do informally provide the forums and opportunities for students to acquire and develop them.

This reality is symptomatic of the fact that our entire education system (K-12 included) is somewhat outmoded; it’s designed to respond to the needs of an industrial economy and as a result does not focus on the skills and disciplines that will define the emerging global economy (which will require skills like learning, ideation, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.). As a result of the Internet and the ubiquitous technology available to us, it is a waste of time to have students memorize the exact year the Magna Carta was issued (1215, incidentally; I just looked it up on Wikipedia). Rather, we should be teaching them how to locate that information, and how to think critically about it when they do find it.

Moreover, we’re too exclusivist about how we provide higher education. Our pedagogy too often responds to only a handful of learning styles well because it’s been acceptable if a large percentage of the population avoids or washes out of higher education. But if you look at educational attainment rates over the past 50-60 years, we’ve gone from 10 percent of the population having a bachelor’s degree to nearly 30 percent (a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma). In the knowledge-based global economy, a life-long pursuit of education is imperative to every worker. To remain competitive, the U.S. must have a highly-educated population – and higher education needs to provide more support services and new ways to teach those outside the top ten percent.

Humans learn surprisingly well through a hands-on approach of trial and error, which is why I see video games as one of the most promising avenues for education in the future (but that’s another essay for another time).

2. How can communications practitioners help guide the educators to create the most effective educational programs?

The best way for communications practitioners to help guide educators to create the most effective educational programs is to participate in the process. They can do this by becoming faculty (even part-time) or by involving themselves with the programs at their local higher education institutions (through offering internship and professional development opportunities for students or just through engaging in dialog with the program heads). Additionally, professional organizations frequently have commitments to help build educational programs in higher ed., which is one of the reasons why I’m on the board of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

3. With the maturation of the Internet age and the era of constant access to publics, how is the profession changing? What non-traditional skills will become commonplace in the next decade?

If it were possible, the profession has become even more of a “24/7” job due to the immediacy of the Internet. Transparency has gone from a lofty ideal to a practical imperative because of how difficult it is to conceal anything in an era when everyone has a blog and a web-accessible videophone in their pocket. Communications is more profoundly affected by globalization than other disciplines (but, conversely, has become more valuable to organizations – creating new opportunities).

More significantly, though, there has been a paradigm shift away from anonymous, mass communication and toward very targeted, intimate communication that many communicators haven’t quite grasped yet (which shows up in the clumsy attempts large organizations are making at trying to use social networking platforms).

It is difficult to say with accuracy which non-traditional skills will become commonplace in the next three years, let alone the next decade. Based on what we’ve seen so far from the decline of the traditional mass media and the rise of social networking platforms (like Facebook and MySpace), interpersonal communication skills (relating well to others on a one-to-one basis) will be invaluable. It’s also likely that fields like library sciences will be highly important given how critical it will be to sort and sift through the petabytes of data we’ll all have to wade through on a daily basis.

4. How would young professionals outside of the communication field benefit from more training in or exposure to communication skills?

Given how intrinsic communication is to everything that we do, they would benefit in every conceivable way. It’s virtually impossible to have any job that does not regularly involve some form of communication (even someone in a cubicle who writes code all day would find communications philosophy helpful in making their code more parsimonious and effective).

5. Given the current economic turbulence, how can professional communicators make their value known in the workplace and, more importantly, make the case for the importance of their jobs?

Ironically, communications professionals tend to be very lax at managing their own reputations and their department’s reputations (likely because they’re so focused on managing the reputations of others).

Nothing conveys value like doing quality work and being gracious and responsive to the requests of co-workers and stakeholders (good, old-fashioned customer service) – so one must start there. Related to that, communicators should get out of the office and physically circulate around their organizations (especially if they’re large) and talk to departments about their communication-related needs. In addition to learning about new opportunities (and threats) – you can raise your profile and be of service by “cross-pollinating” and connecting one department to another (I’m continually surprised by how many overlapping interests I find).

Another regular practice for communicators is continually benchmarking against competitors and other organizations similar to one’s own. Being able to demonstrate that a practice, policy or organization structure is utilized by another successful organization can be very compelling.

In addition, communications pros must make sure to “close the loop” on their projects by cataloging and analyzing what worked (and more importantly, what didn’t work) and making available that information and formulating plans to improve the next time around.

Another easy way to demonstrate your value is to repurpose/repackage the work you regularly do as a communications professional and syndicate it throughout your organization when it might be valuable to others outside the profession. So, by way of a really simplistic example, if you’re in PR, you’re regularly scanning the media – so put together a report of articles relevant to the industry your organization is in and publish/circulate it.