From the Front

July 26, 2006: 6:45 pm: From the Front, Personal

There’s a reason the blogging has been slow-going.

I’ve been offered a position with the Southeast regional office with the American Red Cross.

There are some ideas in the hopper — and I promise to leave all (twelve) of you with a parting gift:

“How I wrote the greatest pickup line in history, and its applications to PR.”

(How’s that for a tease?)

May 22, 2006: 9:24 am: From the Front, Personal

Don’t think I’m spiraling down for another funk.

I’m headed to Atlanta for most of the week, to help with this year’s Red Cross Hurricane Communicator Conference. I’ll be doing some training, and presenting information about the Birmingham Chapter’s Alert System.

The goal is to get everyone up to speed and ready to handle communications for what shapes up to be a busy Gulf/Atlantic hurricane season.

I’ll blog as I can, but if I don’t — no big deal. And thanks for sticking around.

May 19, 2006: 3:19 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

I didn’t sign up to become an expert on RSS implementations. I just know a lot of people who can use it, and know even less than I do. So I do what I can.

Today, that meant leading about a couple dozen American Red Cross chapter communicators through an ad-hoc teleconference about the Alert System we put together in Birmingham. Not having a budget for a real Webex, I made a 50-page “slideshow” made up of relevant screen captures. Arg. (I felt like “Mr. Filmstrip,” telling everyone to click “next“.)

I hope I did enough explaining to get them interested, and not so much to scare them out of it. These PR folks are scattered across most of the Western U.S., minus California and Hawaii — and a great deal of land to cover. Any tech tool to push critical information out more quickly can make a big difference.

Anyway — as to the shameless part. As part of my evolution from “media relations guy” to “real PR guy,” I’ve been doing the metric thing. In this case, I’ve been counting the number of downloads from various outlets. For instance, if you download the customized RSS reader from our chapter website, you trigger a counter. If you download it from the Alert Page itself, it triggers another counter. That way, I can keep a log of where the real traffic is, and where to focus the interest. (And I can have a neat little project for my APR certification process, whenever that might be.)

So far, here are some key stats to date:

  • Downloads from chapter website: 303
  • Downloads from direct e-vites: 29
  • Downloads from March newsletter: 8
  • Downloads from April newsletter: 20
  • Downloads from this blog: 91

We didn’t get much in the way of local media on this until after the April e-mail, so we’ll see how much steam this generates going into the May newsletter.

April 10, 2006: 9:31 am: From the Front, Personal

While assisting the national media in central Tennessee this past weekend, I was also paired up with a volunteer photographer from the American Red Cross.

Marty Robey is a talented guy, and it’s obvious he loves what he does.

At an aid station in a northern Nashville suburb, he found a woman with an amazing story. I spoke with her late last night, and we should have the story posted on the Red Cross News Page later today.

: 9:23 am: From the Front, Personal

I’ll be on the road in a couple of hours, headed back home after a weekend of media wrangling in Tennessee. It was a decent experience, and I got national hits on Fox News Channel, Fox News Radio, and MSNBC. During the calldowns, I did observe a factor that I’d never thought much about.

One of the advantages I bring to my job is my past experience in television news. There’s a lot to be said for knowing what the reporters, producers, and decision-makers want before they want it. Whether you are with the Red Cross or any enterprise, the gatekeepers of the media are more inclined to use what you offer if it comes in the right time, the right format, and the right content.

As I was cycling through the national media list, I sensed something other than waning interest in the relief effort in Tennessee. It was more of a hesitance, or a reluctance to commit. And I think it firmly had to do with the weekend.

For all of the talk of the 24-hour news cycle being “dead,” there certainly remains a strong 7-day cycle. A lot of old-school PR advice was centered around the notion of when to release the bad news for the minimum impact. As I’ve noted before, some specialized beats are too savvy for this practice, and it ought to be re-examined.

Don’t let that wipe out the distinction between weekdays and weekends, and I’m not talking about the consumer level. If you are a journalist, you work and struggle to get a shift with more normal hours. In television, the young up-and-comers would still want the weeknights for “facetime,” but the older established ones wanted “dayside” so they could see their kids. (The few who had families, anyway.)

The same is true for editors, assigment managers, and producers. The ones working the weekend shifts don’t have the seniority and the status as their weekday counterparts. And here is where human psychology comes in:

  • You are a weekend manager.
  • Sources and contacts are calling in, pitching stories.
  • It’s Sunday.
  • There are a few good leads out there, but nothing that is a total no-brainer.
  • Tomorrow, you will see your weekday counterpart who has an agenda lined up.

Now, are you the least bit intimidated that your decision to keep a crew on scene might be second-guessed? Are you at all worried about making the justification for continuing coverage? Are the “Monday morning quarterbacks” a territorial bunch, who resent not having all their resources ready and able to deploy?

Don’t assume that the weekend managers have their own discrete resources to draw from. Correspondents and field producers don’t necessarily clock in the same shift every week, and their schedules run the gamut.

I build toward this point: All things being equal, do you stand a better chance pitching for more coverage on a Wednesday than on a Sunday? I say the answer is yes.

There are a whole host of insights you can have into the news business, and those thoughts can greatly enhance your ability to promote your message through the media. But first, you have to buy into the notion that “the media” are really just people first, and susceptible to the same emotions, foibles, and irrational impulses that the rest of us are.

April 8, 2006: 10:20 am: From the Front, Personal

It’s been a while since we’ve done news “From the Front.”

The Birmingham area was spared most of the bad damage, but there was significant trauma and casualties as the storm hit north of Nashville.

I’m being deployed to just north of Nashville, around the Gallatin, Tennessee area. I’ll be assisting the national media that is assembling, and probably fulfill a lot of interview requests. I’m packing now, and ought to be on the road just after lunch.

This will likely knock me off the blogging trail until about Wednesday or so. I’ll add as I have the time and web access.

If you are inclined to be the praying sort, remember me, but moreso remember those who lost loved ones or will be starting completely from scratch.

If you want to help financially, the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund is a good place to start.

January 23, 2006: 1:42 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

When crunch time hits, you have to think in terms of communications in both directions. When people can’t reach you, they either leave disenfranchised or outright disgusted.

When Hurricane Katrina sent tens of thousands of people to Birmingham, we were getting deluged at the Red Cross office with people trying to call in to offer “something.” The biggest complaint was that “we weren’t answering the phones” and “we weren’t acting fast enough.” The worst PR we faced early on was the swarming and overwhelming of our communication system.

The year before, we faced a similar dilemma on a smaller scale, as local media pounded us for shelter information and updates with Hurricane Ivan. We got around that issue by pushing the assignment desks and producers to a page on our website that was updated every hour. We even pushed that information to police departments and other dispatch agencies to use as an online resource for people calling from the evacuation routes. It worked like a charm, and within a half-day our incoming media traffic was again manageable.

That wouldn’t work as well for Katrina, because “the public” is magnitudes larger than “the media,” and the expectation level was far higher. So we went a different route.

Through our media partners, we urged the general public to not bring us random items and non-monetary donations — but to register them with us on the internet. We set up a special e-mail address, and asked that they put the “proposed in-kind donation” on the subject line, and their personal and contact info in the message body. Those without internet access were sent to a volunteer who would take their information and send it in e-mail form for them. We set it up on a free gmail account for some key reasons:

  • It kept the bandwidth off our server
  • Our volunteers who needed to access it could do so without a special network connection
  • It is easily searchable, allowing us to get exactly what we needed without looking at every message
  • We could use what we needed, and not collect a bunch of items that would have cost us to store or even dispose of

(In the end, we had a nice database of folks that we can discreetly call on in the future for training opportunities…)

This did have a measurable impact on our incoming phone traffic. The message we delivered with this move was “We want to be responsible stewards of your donations, whatever they might be. By registering your wish to donate an item, you can rest assured that we will only call if it is really needed — and you don’t have to wonder whether your charitable effort was wasted.” That message really hit home with people, and I think it enhanced our overall stewardship position within the community.

We also used the e-mail and webpage to explain our policies about donations, as well as the sorts of things we might could use versus the things we could not accept second-hand. That in itself did more to educate the community than anything else. In the end, we had more than 170 bona-fide offers of goods and services that people registered with us — and we availed ourselves of a few of those offers.

December 16, 2005: 9:51 am: Big Blunders, From the Front

With a hurricane season of this past year’s magnitude, there are bound to be a lot of little lessons learned.

From communication lapses for communications companies, to the artful use of worst-case scenarios to manage expectations, you’ll find a mixed bag of PR success in the wake of Hurricane Wilma.

December 13, 2005: 10:15 pm: From the Front, Rants

You know, when I was putting together the previous entry, I thought I had done my due diligence…

I did a Google News search for “Marty Evans” just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Well, lo and behold, just a little bit later stuff start spilling out on the Red Cross Congressional hearings, and the resignation of “Marsha Evans.

Yeah, her resignation is going to raise a hell of a lot of red flags for those people who aren’t plugged into the reasons I outlined previously. But what are you to do?

Well, first of all, you take on some of the assumptions in the Brian Ross piece on ABC.

After both hurricanes, many local officials complained the Red Cross was often missing from the worst-hit areas. Survivors found it impossible to get through on the organization’s phone hot lines. And witnesses today claimed the Red Cross turned away victims who were disabled.

“One Red Cross official told me, ‘We aren’t supposed to help these people, we can’t hardly help the intact people,’” said Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

First of all, you aren’t going to find Red Cross volunteers in the “hardest-hit areas” because as a rule, they aren’t safe. We don’t set up shelters in places that are inherently dangerous.

Phone problems? You betcha. Point taken.

As for the remark about the disabled being turned away… I’d like to know more about that specific allegation. Speaking on behalf of what I know with regards to Alabama, the Red Cross here does not operate medical needs shelters. If there are any folks with specialized needs for life-saving equipment, power, or medical supervision, it’s not our thing. Couple that with the fact that there were so many untrained spontaneous volunteers pressed into service, and I can see where someone was directed to an appropriate facility by someone who did not have the knowledge nor the sensitivity to explain why.

(Side note: find me any organization with 220,000 “associates” where there are absolutely no customer service issues raised.)

More from the ABC piece:

Leaders of other charities say Red Cross’ ability to raise money — $1.8 billion after Hurricane Katrina — outpaces its ability to spend it wisely. “Their reputation is that of a charity quick off the mark to raise funds but very slow in spending it effectively,” said Richard Walden, president of Operation USA.

For anyone with knowledge of how the Red Cross operates and the role it plays, this statement is laughable. From Day 1 with Katrina (and going back to pre-landfall) the organization was spending the money just about as fast as it came in. “Other charities” aren’t tasked with immediate response. “Other charities” don’t open evacuation shelters. And in what is the ultimate slap, “other charities” work hand-in-hand with the Red Cross, which is able to coordinate assitance to eliminate duplication of services. When you’re asked to be the first link in the chain of recovery, you don’t sit back for several days and wait for the checks to clear.

I cannot claim psychic knowledge of the balance sheet for every day of the operation, but I’d be willing to bet that the dollars coming in didn’t sit for more than a day or so at most. In fact, there were several days the ARC was operating on float. That’s not something you’d ever want to publicize to donors, because no one likes the idea of their contribution going to retire a debt — they want it to go to direct service.

Sorry for the rant — but man, this crawls under my skin. Bring the criticism, but bring it from a level field.

: 4:50 pm: From the Front, Helpful Hints

Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is better than knowing why to fold them…

The CEO of the American Red Cross, Marty Evans, is stepping down at the end of the year. In the light of criticisms over the entire response to Hurricane Katrina (mostly pointed at the government), some might look at her leaving as a parachute landing or a forced resignation. I don’t buy that interpretation for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s not uncommon within the Red Cross for “disaster burnout” to claim those in key positions.
  2. Marty is a retired Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and it follows from the natural rythym of things that officers don’t set roots for very long.
  3. Of the tiny fraction of the hurricane response criticisms that even mentioned Red Cross, most all were focused on local chapters — not the national organization.

In her statement, Evans explains that it was her desire to retire after her third year at the helm, August 5th. Had she left in the middle of hurricane season, the organization would have been in a lurch, and there would have been big questions. Had she bowed out any sooner than she did, there would be all kinds of people digging around looking for the “smoking gun.” Announcing her intentions now, in a time of calm, will at the very least provide no new fuel to those who like to criticize.

Timing is everything…

December 12, 2005: 10:47 pm: Big Blunders, From the Front

Like when Rome is burning, for instance… or when New Orleans is flooding.

The after-action reports on Hurricane Katrina are still quite preliminary, but already we’re getting a better view of exactly what did and did not happen in the days leading up to landfall. Worse, it seems as though the after-landfall response might have at times taken a backburner to political theater.

Even worse — a new batch of e-mails released by a congressional panel seems to suggest that the Lousiana Governor’s office was a little too preoccupied with perception, and not spending enough time on the actual reality.

In one e-mail, Blanco’s assistant chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, complained to her executive counsel and other staff members on Sept. 2 about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s evacuation of thousands of Louisianans to other states.

“I think that we should make every effort to keep as many of our evacuees in state as possible,” Anderson wrote.

“It is not acceptable to allow FEMA to send more people out of state than in state. That will come back to haunt us,” he said. “You send that many black folks out of state, we will have a perception problem. Why can’t we make every effort to send folk to the northern part of the state. Word is already (sic) that we are only sending blacks out of this state. We are make (sic) a strategic error. FEMA will not have to answer the people, we will.”

It seems as though the new release was meant to level things out, as the committee didn’t want to create a perception that then-FEMA director Mike Brown was the only suit thinking about suits.

Today’s release of e-mails seemed to signal a new line of criticism — one aimed at creating parity among Brown and Blanco, equally preoccupied with their images and equally detached from the suffering unfolding around them.

“Please put KBB in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc. she needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough, but hug on some folks and be sensitive,” consultant Liz Mangham, of the Southern Strategy Group of Louisiana, messaged Blanco’s press office five days after the storm hit.

“She looks tired, but too comfy in her suit,” Mangham advised. “Please put the secretaries in caps and jeans….I don’t care if they are in the field or not … they should look like they are.”

Of course, there are claims by both Blanco’s and Brown’s camps that these selective releases of communications are distorting the real picture.

I can certainly understand the importance of projecting an image of calm and of unity. You want the public to have confidence in what you are doing, or else you’re allowing an unnatural panic to hinder the effort. But this is just the sort of event that can make the public at large distrust the motives of a PR practitioner. Wrapping truth in easily digestible bites is an art, and a necessary one — as long as you aren’t substituting the wrapper for the truth.

So much of this could have been mitigated with a simple e-mail response that said “I’m a little busy to worry about clothing right now…” Anything that would have indicated a semblance of the sort of priorities the people would expect.

For future reference: Keep PR in the proper perspective… and remember that the internet leaves a wonderful paper trail.

December 5, 2005: 9:55 pm: Big Blunders, From the Front

Within a week after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, and while I was still deep in “Red Cross mode,” I got a lot of questions about FEMA.

Actually, the questions were more along the line of “Whose fault was this,” and more often than not, they were pitched my way from our shelter guests.

The best answer I could give them was that it really wasn’t anyone’s fault. When pressed about FEMA’s role, my answer today is the same as the answer I had then — “FEMA probably would have messed some things up, but it was already botched before it got to that level.”

Now, a congressional inquiry is examining thousands of documents related to that time frame.

The Louisiana documents released late Friday revealed delays and state claims that requests for federal help weren’t received, and reflected partisan battling between the Republican Bush administration and Blanco, a Democrat.

The Mississippi documents, though only a handful were released, showed no political tensions between local officials and Washington. But FEMA officials in the state were among the first to admit that needs weren’t being met.

The most serious external issue here is the total political breakdown between levels. I call that an external issue because there’s only so much an organization can do if another can’t or won’t cooperate.

The most serious internal issue for FEMA — the one they did have the power to handle — was their poor management of public expectations.

There’s a big public perception of FEMA as this superhuman agency, with tens of thousands of relief workers, and helicopters that drop gold dubloons. “Here comes the cavalry, to shower us with money and freshly built replacement homes.” In reality, FEMA is a ragtag band of anti-bureaucrats, who collectively have a better track record than most red-tape-jockeys when it comes to actually getting things done. There just aren’t enough of them (nor is there a need for enough of them) to meet the impossibly high standards we’ve imagined.

FEMA did a poor job of communicating what it does, plain and simple. Residents in hurricane zones wouldn’t be shaking their fists in anger if they understood that a lot of the lack of movement was someone else’s bailiwick. They’d be more understanding if they understood the process — and here is where FEMA failed horribly.

Actually, that’s just one place FEMA failed. But I’ll have something to say about Mike Brown later…

: 1:06 pm: From the Front, Housekeeping

One of the reasons I moved to WordPress was the flexibility to divvy up my categories. And one of the catergories I wanted to highlight on the return of the blog was stories from my Red Cross experience.

I probably should have been logging and blogging a lot of those experiences as I was in the moment. But had I done so at the time, I would have been failing at my job. There are very few times when communications are that critical — and during the first few days of Hurrcane Katrina I was running through 18-hour days of critical decisions on the fly. There were some good lessons there — and this is the place where I will share them.

September 16, 2005: 6:59 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

I could write a book.

I probably will.

I can’t wait for the chance to start thinking about some of the PR lessons I’ve culled along the way with Katrina.

Bottom line — we’ve stayed a step ahead, managed public/client expectations, and steered clear of negative publicity through good monitoring, good relationships, and good service.


And support the American Red Cross.

September 2, 2005: 10:41 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

I am tiring of 16-hour days with my former allies in the media, but they are eager to help me tell a great Red Cross story so I can’t complain.

When I get a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned (including a lesson about ambush interviews) I’ll post. (Someone ask me about our innovative use of e-mail?)

Howsabout a word of encouragement I can pass along to the Red Cross volunteers?