“Coal Cares” Crisis: What Peabody Energy Should Do Now

By Crisis Communications, Media, Public Relations, Social Media

Today’s news includes the story of a hoax launched as an attack on coal company Peabody Energy. In short, an activist group calling itself Coal is Killing Kids developed a false campaign including a news release, a Coal Cares website and a Twitter account. The campaign positions itself as a Peabody Energy sponsored initiative (it’s not) to provide free inhalers and discounts for asthma medication for children living within 200 miles of a coal plant.

Close reading of the content on the site quickly reveals the true intent of the site’s creators. From the site:

Coal Cares™ is a brand-new initiative from Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, to reach out to American youngsters with asthma and to help them keep their heads high in the face of those who would treat them with less than full dignity. For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler, Coal Cares™ lets them inhale with pride.

Yikes. Peabody Energy should be in full crisis communication mode, prepared to react to this action. The company, however, seems to be under the impression that a social media-based initiative can be fought with traditional public relations. They’ve released a statement, and placed it on their website. The story has been picked up by CNN and Wired Science; CNN noted that “A Peabody Energy spokeswoman did not immediately return a call or an e-mail from CNN” and Wired Science mentions the company’s “immediate response” with the aforementioned statement released to the media.

Unfortunately, Peabody does not seem prepared to react and respond appropriately, using digital communications to combat a digital communications-based attack. Here are six things the company should do right now.

  1. Launch a website with a blog (I’d say launch a blog on their current site but it’s clear the Peabody Energy website needs a complete overhaul and there just isn’t time for that). The blog will provide a platform for the company to respond to questions and publish content correcting the misinformation the company says is being shared by the Coal Cares campaign.
  2. Appoint an active, visible spokesperson who will be accessible and is authorized to engage with the media and the public to address questions quickly.
  3. Create and post videos of the Peabody Energy team talking about the company’s efforts to run a safe and clean coal operation.
  4. Mobilize the coal community (employees, partners, political allies) and enlist their support in “liking” a multi-platform campaign and content designed to share positive stories about the company.
  5. Offer Vic Svec, the leadership team member with a Twitter account, counsel and coaching to leverage the effectiveness of that account and the ability to use Twitter to engage and share content that casts Peabody in a more positive light.
  6. Begin today working with the leadership team to help them understand the culture of transparency, the power of the social web and how they can use it in their own interests, and developing a social strategy that can be executed by members of the Peabody community so future attacks won’t have quite the same effect.

Coal is a difficult industry to defend, but it is not indefensible, nor is it an industry we can do without. Peabody deserves the chance to set the record straight and to have the tools to do so in the same platforms as their detractors. One thing social media makes available to all of us is a level playing field; you just need to know the rules of the game.

Tornado Hits St. Louis Airport: When Crisis Communications Training Pays Off

By Crisis Communications, Media, Public Relations

We woke up to reports of a tornado hitting Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s hard to look at footage of a place so familiar, a home-away-from-home in my former home. The devastation to the area is still being uncovered in the daylight this morning. The airport is closed, they’re saying, indefinitely. The economic impact of that is difficult to calculate but will no doubt, be years in recovering.

The footage of passengers being evacuated to the safer, lower levels of the main terminal are amazing; everyone seems calm, there’s no shoving or panic in evidence, even while in the background, it appears scenes from the Wizard 0f Oz tornado are playing through the windows. The shot of a Southwest jet moving away from the jetway in the wind is hard to believe. From an outside perspective, and based on the fact that no one was killed in the crush and damage of the storm, it appears that the airport team is to be commended. Without airport employees training for crises like these, conducting drills and managing consistently to keep up with continuing education, it would be almost impossible to manage a crisis of this magnitude with the speed and efficiency required. From all I’m seeing on TV and online, this crisis was managed as well as could possibly be expected.

I’ve been in the main terminal at Lambert many, many times. I’ve flown in and out of St. Louis probably more than 50 times. That main terminal is made of a lot of glass. Reports say that more than 50 percent of the windows are broken and blown out. It will take some time to clean up and restore the airport to safe, working order.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport’s director, is in a role she hoped she’d never have to assume, as the spokesperson for an airport hit with catastrophic damage. I just watched her in an interview aired on CNN. She’s handling the crisis communications beautifully and very quickly had Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley on the scene. It was touching when, as the CNN reporter asked the airport’s director at the close of the interview, how she felt about the tragedy. Hamm-Niebruegge smiled but was visibly choked up and said, “It’s sad. It’s just sad.”

Our hearts go out to the people in St. Louis affected by the storms; many homes have been damaged and lost — it may be a long time before St. Louis recovers from this Easter weekend.

Agencies: You Can’t Fake it Till you Make it in Social Media – 3 Tests to Try

By Media, Public Relations, Social Media

Public relations and marketing agencies have been trying to take a slice of the social media pie for about five years now. Grow it or hire it, are the two options for incorporating new capabilities into agencies. Growing it means extensive training and support for existing team members. Firms have had limited success with this, since agencies often find it difficult to create a structure of accountability, forcing employees to get with the social program.

Forcing PR people (or old school marketers) into social media engagement just plain doesn’t work. Everyone I’ve known who is engaged in social media and who also has it as an element of their career does it because they love it. And because they love it, they do it well. They spend the time necessary to teach themselves and continue learning (which social media, by nature, necessitates).

Agencies who are claiming to “do” social media or offer digital communications as a practice area to clients think they can do this with limited personal experience in the social web. They’re trying, in my opinion, to “fake it till they make it” and in social media, that just doesn’t work. Having worked with several firms in my time, I know that immersing yourself in a client’s business, that learning on the fly and applying communications knowledge to the industry is how agencies work. It does work for PR practices, crisis work, media relations and a ton of other communications work — much of which is done behind the scenes and white-labeled with client brands and spokespeople.

As soon as a practitioner claims to offer social media counsel to clients, however, a quick look at that person’s digital footprint tells a very fast and accurate story. Do three things to test out anyone seeking work in the social media arena:

  1. Google them. What do you find? Do they have a Google profile? Is the content you find from them? Is it what you think they’d want you to find?
  2. Read their blog. What’s that you say? They don’t have a blog? Ditch them. If they “contribute” to a collaborative blog, check them out personally — how much of the content on a firm blog is theirs? 10 percent? 20? How many posts in a year?
  3. Check their score. It’s not a perfect measurement system, but it will give you an overview of the outreach and impact your social media consultant has to offer on your business’s behalf.


When Tweets Turn into News or, My Perez Hilton Moment

By Media

I tweeted something yesterday that in hindsight, I regretted.

I was working in a coffeeshop and spotted one well-known public figure having lunch with another well-known public figure. To me, that kind of sighting is tweet-worthy. So I tweeted, providing names and location, even poking a bit of fun at myself for being a gossip tweeter. It was, as my friend Ashlyn said, my Perez Hilton moment.

Less than ten minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a news crew (videographer and reporter) enter the coffeeshop. At first I thought it was unrelated, then the reporter approached the pair and requested an interview.

I wanted to disappear. I felt terrible! I had no idea my tweet would result in such an invasion. Fortunately the reporter was polite as were the subjects of his interest. They politely declined his request and he left immediately, to my great relief.

I have worked with the media throughout my career in public relations and also as part of it, writing for a newspaper and on television as a social media expert. I regularly provide news ideas and information to members of the media and think I have a pretty good relationship with the local teams. I was surprised, then, that the reporter hadn’t direct messaged me on Twitter, where he clearly got the tip (or called, or e-mailed or smoke signaled).

What’s interesting is that I found myself amid the very issue I’d blogged about a few weeks ago in All the News that’s Fit to Tweet.

I learned something from this and I hope you will, too. In my case, yes, the media is paying attention to what I tweet, and I have a responsibility to make sure I’m anticipating reactions like yesterday’s attempted coverage. It’s likely I’ll never publicly tweet something like that again, unless, of course it is my intent to attract news coverage. This is a lesson for others as well — the media is paying attention to our tweets, and following up on those that seem like potential news — often without contacting the source.

I feel bad about unintentionally interrupting a private lunch between two public figures. I also feel bad that a reporter and camera-person wasted their time driving across town for a story that wasn’t a story.  If the reporter had contacted me, I would have steered him away, and tried to come up with another bit of news for him to use, instead.

It’ s a sticky issue, but a conversation I think needs to be opened. What do you think? Should I have refrained from tweeting, or should the reporter have contacted me?

Time vs. Newsweek and the Demise of the English Language

By Media

I’m a fan of Newsweek. I have been a subscriber and avid, cover-to-cover reader of the magazine for about 20 years. In high school, my family subscribed to Time and given my choice of magazines in a doctor’s waiting room, I’ll choose the Time over Southern Living or People every time.

In 2009 Newsweek underwent a total redesign. It was jarring. The font is different. The editorial content is sometimes indistinguishable from the advertising. Some of my favorite features were dropped. The content seemed less newsy and more, well, editorial. We discussed the change at the dinner table. My husband, irritated by the changes, was tempted to drop the subscription. I’ve wavered. I’m a very loyal consumer and still enjoy the work of the staff and admire and respect Editor-in-Chief Jon Meacham.

It was with all of these thoughts in mind as I selected an issue of Time magazine from the airport newsstand last night as I awaited my departure. * (A Kindle user, and full-flight reader, I require non-electronic reading material for takeoff and landing). I made my way through the issue well beyond the pilot allowing passengers to use electronic devices. Having finished the same week’s issue of Newsweek recently, it was a good real-time comparison of content. Haiti was the cover story of each and similar news coverage throughout. I found myself enjoying Time, and starting to wonder if we could switch. Could we be Time subscribers and drop Newsweek?

And then I saw it.

On the second to last page, in an article about the Sundance Film Festival, there was the following phrase: “sneak peak.”


Peek. Peek. Peek.

Peek – a quick look. Peak – the top, as in, of a mountain. Pique – to increase, or spike, as in interest.


I’ve often had to have the Peek, Peak, Pique conversation with junior writers, college students and the like but come on, a Time reporter (Steven James Snyder, I am not so much looking at you as I am your editors)? Unacceptable.

Incredibly, looking for the article online I am shocked to find that the typo is there as well — in fact, here’s a screen shot as proof, in case the error is caught and really, I hope it is.

How to Couch-Surf the Sundance Film Festival

How to Couch-Surf the Sundance Film Festival

Trust  me; my own children have had this very lecture. They, from a very tender age, have known the difference.

All right; people make mistakes – fair enough. And I certainly don’t claim to be perfect. I understand typos. But this one stopped me so cold in my tracks it helped make the decision easily.

I’m sticking with Newsweek.

*see the second comment below from SJS. I couldn’t leave that crappy sentence the way it was after THAT.