Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Doctored photo "crisis": BP just can't catch a break

We've been reading in the last couple of days about a new front that's opened up in BP's oil spill PR crisis: an altered photo of its crisis command centre.

Photos from

The original photo was altered so as to show images from actual BP cameras on all the crisis centre screens, rather than having two of them blank (I read somewhere that the blanks were feeds from equipment that was undergoing maintenance when the shot was taken). A BP spokesperson is quoted as having admitted that the photo was altered, and having shared the original photo when the alteration was pointed out.

Was this an attempt to deceive the public about BP's crisis response?

I doubt it. Whoever did the editing likely just thought the photo would (objectively) look better with all screens showing images -- which of course it does (again, objectively). That person's job is to produce quality images; he/she isn't necessarily a PR person, and isn't necessarily thinking about the potential perceived implications of altering an image in this way.

I once had a designer Photoshop the open eyes of a woman over the closed eyes of a man, for an annual report. The male subject was a member of the company's Board of Directors, with a very full schedule: the designer just figured it'd be easier to Photoshop in some open blue eyes (hey, who's gonna notice? Blue eyes are blue eyes!) than to try to get on the guy's calendar, replicate the lighting, etc. etc. in the short timeframe we had available before going to print. Of course, this gentleman was now wearing a thick layer of mascara, but still...

Fortunately, I noticed it before the report went to print, and we found an alternate solution (also involving Photoshop: we put the previous year's open-eyed picture on the current year's background). But if I hadn't noticed, it would've gone to print that way, and I'm sure I'd have had a little PR crisis of my own as a result, even though no harm was meant by the photo edit.

(I also learned an important lesson, and from then on, wrote a clause into all agreements with designers that no changes were to be made to any images or text without our express agreement.)

Did the photo editor have bad intentions when he/she made the change?

I doubt that too.

As in the case of my well-meaning if judgmentally-impaired designer, I suspect this photo editor just wanted a better image. He likely didn't see the alteration as material to the message communicated by the photo, and probably thought he was doing his client a favour.

Does the incident exacerbate BP's already enormous PR problem?

You bet it does.

I've already seen a number of posts from online commenters equating the doctored photo with dishonesty in BP's crisis response in general -- the overall theme being "if we can't even trust that their photos are real, after all this time, why should be we believe anything they say?" The story linked above quotes Americablog reporter John Aravosis as having said "I guess if you're doing fake crisis response, you might as well fake a photo of the crisis response center."


BP is taking it on all fronts. Its crisis response has been condemned at all levels (both in terms of its actions to stop the leak and its communications), and what may be well-intended actions of people on its own team are making it worse.

I have to admit, a part of me is feeling sorry for BP's corporate communicators.

Can you anticipate the bad decisions your team members are going to make? Sometimes yes, but usually, no.

All you can do is to keep everyone involved in your crisis communications response as tightly-knit as you can, do what you can to ensure everyone understands the stakes and is plugged in to the existing and changing perceptions "out there," and communicate openly both within and outside the organization.

And keep your fingers crossed. And if it's what you do, pray.

If you're lucky, no-one on your team will do anything that'll make a very bad situation even less flattering to your client.

If you're not lucky, at least now you'll know that, once upon a time at BP, someone likely had it worse.

Monday, July 19, 2010

You can't hide from your own typos in cyberspace... proofread well.

Note: this is a post about typos and Twitter, not what should or shouldn't be built at Ground Zero.

Mediaite ran a piece yesterday about a message Sarah Palin had tweeted earlier in the day.

The story says it appears someone inside Palin's camp recognized the vocabulary error (i.e., that "refudiate" is not a word), and the tweet was quickly replaced on Palin's Twitter account with the following:

While deleting the original tweet was the best thing Palin could have done under the circumstances, the quick action didn't stop many, many people (like comedian Andy Borowitz, below) from having fun with the error.
If it was deleted quickly, how did so many people see it?

Programs like TweetDeck download tweets in close to real-time, meaning that once you've tweeted something, it's likely been downloaded somewhere.

Once it's been downloaded, the TweetDeck user can save the tweet indefinitely -- and can post a screenshot that will last long after you've deleted the original from your Twitter account.

I've experienced this myself: I recently published a tweet containing an error, recognized it immediately, logged in to, deleted it and published a new one... but not before one of my followers had re-tweeted the original to all of her followers.

Luckily for me, there are fewer people in the business of catching and ridiculing my mistakes than Sarah Palin's.

Proofread, proofread, proofread.

The moral of this story, of course, is to make sure your message is correct before you hit "send."

To do that effectively, you need to be able to spot your own error as such; so I'm not sure that even extra-careful proofreading would have helped Sarah Palin this time around (see video below, about 1 minute in).

But still.

Proofread. It's good for you.

And if you have a tendency to invent words, have a friend proofread for you, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How PR can return Mel Gibson to his former glory

That's a trick title. It can't*.

*Even in the seemingly unlikely event that the latest Mel Gibson violent tirade recording doesn't turn out to be authentic.

[Photo from]

A recently-released recording, purported to be of movie star Mel Gibson spewing hateful, violent, racist vitriol at an ex-girlfriend over the phone earlier this year, has renewed interest in the Mel-Gibson-is-a-hateful-jerk storyline, both online and in the mainstream media.

The AP story I linked to above (and again here) says that Radar Online, which broke the story, claims to have confirmed the authenticity of the recording, and says that Gibson has (so far) refused to comment on it.

A sequel even more action-packed than the original

In 2006, Gibson was reported to have gone on an anti-semitic tirade while being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving (an aside: if you Google "Mel Gibson anti-semitic tirade" today, you'll get 1.9 billion results).

Gibson may have recognized after the 2006 incident that his career could be in peril as a result. He apologized publicly, issuing statements including the following:

"I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said."

While I agree that reports of the incident portrayed what seemed to be a person "completely out of control," and that what he said was despicable, I never buy apologies in which people claim to have said things when drunk which they don't actually believe when sober. From what I've observed, people are more honest when they're drunk, not less.

To my ears at least, that statement sounded like Gibson was lying even as he sought to be forgiven for his racist remarks. In fancy PR terminology, we call that "not good."

Gibson's image has carried the stink of that incident ever since. Kim Masters, editor at large for The Hollywood Reporter, says that in "the mainstream Hollywood community" Gibson is "a pariah."

What will movie fans think this time around?

As bad as Gibson's 2006 statements were, his reported 2010 performance, which denigrates more groups in repugnant terms, is even more offensive (the recording is now available from a number of sources online, but do yourself a favour and take my word for it).

With that said, some people will still want to go see his movies because they like his movies, and don't care what kind of a person he is.

Yet others are racist and/or misogynist, and may be more likely to consider seeing his movies because they'll respect him for having expressed views similar to their own.

But if this recording is authentic, I suspect Gibson will have a much tougher time getting the rest of us to forget about this (now) pattern of hateful outbursts, and to want to support him by seeing his movies.

Is there anything he can do to improve his PR?

Of course; there are always things you can do.

  • He can get some help -- if not for continued alcohol abuse issues, then at least for anger management and sensitivity training -- and then come out the other side and be open about it. He doesn't have to (nor should he) go on at length and share every gory detail, but he should honestly admit to having been wrong, apologize publicly, and encourage others who share his problems to get help.
  • He can use his wealth, influence and profile to do good things; for example, contributing to the fight against racism and domestic violence.
  • And of course, he can change his ways and make good movies, in the hopes that, with time, people will gradually put their disgust on the back burner (Americans are, on the whole, a pretty forgiving lot).

But PR can't fix everything.

While some people may be able to excuse one racist/violent outburst, I suspect many more won't be able to ignore two. Mel Gibson now appears to have shown that his reported 2006 tirade wasn't an isolated incident; it's an alleged pattern of behaviour which would seem to reflect the way he really sees the world.

If he does get help, admit to/apologize for his hateful speech, and make some attempt to atone by helping combat the kind of thinking he reportedly espoused, I suspect a fair number of his former fans will admire his guts, even if they aren't ever able to entirely like him again.

Good, honest PR, reflecting an earnest effort to deal with his issues and to change, could do Mel Gibson's image a lot of good, and could help mitigate the damage at the box office.

But if this latest recording really is what it appears to be (and, frankly, even if it isn't), Gibson won't ever be able to fully restore the good-guy, family-man image of his Lethal Weapon days. His name will always have an asterisk next to it, which I don't think any amount of PR will be able to completely erase.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"The iPad changes everything."

This is my Mum, and that is her iPad.

Photo credit: Dad's iPhone

Mum will be delighted, I'm sure, to have me tell you she just celebrated a big birthday. And for her birthday, Dad got her an iPad.

Now, Dad has always been an early adopter when it comes to technology. Mum: not so much. She has never used a PC, doesn't have a cell phone, and took a while to warm up to automatic teller machines, if I remember correctly. Like many of her generation, Mum has steered clear of computers: not finding them intuitive, she always found it simpler (and friendlier!) to just talk to people if she had something to say.

Over the years, though, Mum has admitted to feeling a bit left out at times, when we kids and Dad would share items of interest by email and on Twitter. Every once in a while we'd talk about getting her an email account, but she wasn't too jazzed about using Dad's computer.

"The iPad changes everything."

A speaker discussing social media said this at the CPRS conference early last month. We've already heard that women aged 45-55 are the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook, and the speaker was absolutely right: the iPad will only add to that.

Little did I know that only weeks later, I'd see how devices like the iPad will bring new constituencies online in my own family.

Mum has had her iPad two weeks, and already emails regularly, reads all her kids' blogs, checks out YouTube videos, is on Facebook, and uses an app to play Scrabble with my sister and me. Its uncomplicated interface makes it all easy, and takes away the intimidation factor for someone who's never used a computer.

This isn't a sales pitch for the iPad

I don't even have one... yet! But it is worth thinking about from a PR perspective.

As devices like the iPad make online communication more accessible, ever-widening audiences will be looking to communicate with the companies, organizations, and governments that serve them on the Web.

The smart ones will be there, ready and waiting to engage.