October 16, 2014

Every crisis has its defining moment when an action, statement, picture or video seals its fate in the minds of Americans.

Who can forget President Bush’s praise for his FEMA chief – “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” – in the midst of the Katrina disaster.

Then there was BP’s former CEO, Tony Hayward who earnestly said “I’d like my life back” as oil from one of his company’s wells was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sometimes the moment earns a company or organization huge praise and turns around a potential crisis such as when Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled all Tylenol medication off the market after some bottles were found to be tainted, replacing them within days with a tamper proof package.  More recently, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lanced the potential damage from the crisis created by LA Clippers former owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments with a strong, decisive and action-filled press conference.

When the history of the current U.S. handling of the Ebola crisis is written, the CDC’s apparent decision not to stop Nurse Amber Vinson from flying home to Dallas, after she reported an elevated 99.5 fever which fell below the CDC’s Ebola threshold of 100.4, may be such a defining moment.

Why?  Because in any large scale crisis, the people in charge have to manage both the technical elements of the crisis – in this case, containing Ebola – as well as the confidence and trust of the American people.  The CDC made the wrong call on Ms. Vinson’s air travel because it applied strict public health protocols to a decision that should have been made by also applying the standards required to maintain public trust and confidence – standards that would have dictated a no fly decision.

To be clear, I think most Americans have great trust in the CDC on infectious disease issues and view it as one of the world’s leading health care institutions.  But the CDC’s mistaken call on Ms. Vinson’s flight, and its slow recognition of the fact that hospitals like Texas Health Presbyterian have not adequately trained their staffs in CDC Ebola protocols, make clear its limitations.  

To manage the Ebola crisis effectively, the CDC’s voice must be supplemented by national leaders who have their fingers on the pulse of Americans, and recognize when public trust, not just a public exposure temperature threshold, is on the line, as it was in the decision regarding Ms. Vinson’s air travel.  We need leaders who understand that when it comes to American hospitals treating Ebola patients, trust alone is not sufficient; we need to verify that they can and will implement the CDC protocols without fail as Emory appears to have done.  

More complex, but equally important, the current Ebola crisis clearly requires a multi-faceted approach that involves public health, international relations, coordination with state and local governments, screening of travelers, education and training, communications with the American people and much more.  The Obama Administration may be doing the proper work on most of these fronts, but if there is one glaring shortcoming in its CDC-centric communications, it is that they are not doing a very good job of communicating the full scope and magnitude of the effort underway.  As a result, the Administration is allowing the Ebola response to be defined by mistakes in protocols and temperature threshold decisions – and that is losing ground on which to manage this crisis with the American people.


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July 17, 2014

Following the Malaysia Airlines' decision to release its first public statement on Flight MH17 on Twitter, Bob Chlopak sat down with PRWeek to discuss how businesses should communicate during a crisis when the facts are unknown.

Crisis experts: Malaysia Airlines had to respond where news is breaking - on Twitter
By Frank Washkuch, Diana Bradley, Lindsay Stein
July 17, 2014

Comms experts who spoke with PRWeek largely supported Malaysia Airlines’ decision to make its first public statement on Flight MH17, reportedly shot down over Eastern Ukraine killing all 295 people on board, on social media. Yet many acknowledged its drawbacks, as well.

Because the crash set off a fluid, fast-moving story, trying to "stay with it or stay in front of it" is important for the airline, says Bob Chlopak, founding partner of CLS Strategies. He adds that it is particularly important after its reputation took a hit following the disappearance of Flight MH370 earlier this year [...]

Read the full article at PRWeek here.

July 2, 2014

Following JPMorgan Chase's announcement that CEO Jamie Dimon will undergo chemotherapy for throat cancer, Bob Chlopak sat down with American Banker to discuss how businesses can prepare for (and respond to) similar emergency situations:

Four Lessons from JPM's Handling of Dimon Health Matter
American Banker
By Andy Peters and Dean Anason
July 2, 2014

JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) announcement that its top executive, Jamie Dimon, will undergo eight weeks of chemotherapy for throat cancer should make banks from Main Street to Wall Street ask themselves an important question: what would we do if our leader got sick?

It's a more frequent problem than many realize, as only the most high-profile cases get attention and many of those quickly fade from memory except among those who had to battle illness or its effects on business operations [...]

Read the full article at American Banker here.

June 26, 2014

Photo by Kai Mörk for the Munich Security Conference.

Often it is the easy questions that cause corporate executives and politicians alike to stumble. Case in point, the inability of Hillary and Bill Clinton to put to rest the issue of whether their wealth means the former Secretary of State is out of touch with working families. Watching the questions persist reminds me of Roger Mudd’s interview with Ted Kennedy during the 1980 election when he asked why the Senator wanted to be President. Kennedy didn’t have a good or quick answer to that question either and it became an Achilles’ heel of his campaign. If Secretary Clinton is to avoid a similar fate, she needs a much better answer to the wealth and out-of-touch question than she has given to date.

I’d suggest the following:

1. Acknowledge you are wealthy. There is nothing wrong with success in America, unless you try to hide it or get defensive about it.  

“Yes, we’ve been fortunate to do well as a family since Bill was President, and it is one of the great things about our country that if you work hard and are fortunate to have success, you can live well.”

2. Then dismiss that wealth is a measure of one’s values or ability to connect in public life.  

“Bill and I have been in public life for a long time and we know well that it is the values in our hearts – and not the money in our pockets – that guide our views and drive us to fight to help working families.”

3. Last, there are also some important don’ts that the Clintons should follow. Stop trying to persuade us that you are not rich because you don’t have the wealth of Warren Buffett. That just makes you look out of touch because to families earning $60,000 or so a year, you are very wealthy. And, don’t try to relate to working people by talking about your trips to the grocery store or gas station. Most people probably don’t believe you really go to either, and besides, the grocery store in Chappaqua surely doesn’t look anything like the ones in Topeka, Portland or Norfolk. Instead, keep talking about your views on the issues that matter to you and working families.

May 21, 2014

The latest embarrassment in GM’s much delayed ignition switch recall is the release of its 2008 training manual that discouraged or banned the use of words like “safety,” “dangerous” and “problem,” among many others. GM’s intent was to discourage employees from using colorful language that could, and likely would, be used against the company in potential personal injury lawsuits. But the release of this six-year-old manual after months of revelations about GM’s malfeasance in recalling cars for a faulty ignition switch feeds the narrative of an orchestrated corporate cover-up. It looks like GM gagged its own employees to keep its safety problems a secret.

Business leaders and communicators should take a few moments to consider GM’s naughty words embarrassment because the reality is that all of us seek or provide counsel daily on the language companies should use to tell their stories or make their cases most effectively.  Reacting to the GM story, a professional in our industry told me recently that he regularly advises clients on the words they should use and the ones they should lose.

So, how does one navigate the line between sound, professional advice on language, and the censorship or cover-up stigma that now surrounds GM? The key is to recognize that Americans expect straight talk, especially when it comes to important subjects like health, safety and personnel issues, to name a few. Indeed, Americans credit companies and government leaders alike when they are forthright and factual even when admitting problems, and will punish those that they feel hold back important information or mislead them. Thus, to help companies and avoid the kind of backlash GM is experiencing, communications counsel not only needs to be grounded in sound research, it also needs to pass a common sense straight talk test. Business leaders and communicators should ask themselves: Will those hearing or reading our words (and our strategic advice which often does not stay private) believe that we have been forthcoming and sincere in our communication? Under this test, GM’s manual prohibiting the use of both common and bizarre language would fail.

The irony of the situation is that GM was correct to instruct employees not to conclude that a part is “defective” unless and until the company has made an official determination because this finding triggers a government reporting obligation within five days. However, waiting years to reach that conclusion on the ignition switch and officially report this safety problem to the government was a major GM defect.