Archive for April, 2009

Swine Flu: What Companies Can Do

Prize Pig by The Pug Father

“An informed and responsive public is essential to minimizing the health effects of a pandemic and the resulting consequences to society.” One principle of the HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan

Several years ago, when there was a large fear of avian flu, I spent a considerable amount of time researching past flu outbreaks, and what worked and what didn’t work for business preparedness planning and response.

Businesses and other large organizations (like non-profits and religious organizations) play an important part of the broader communication efforts both before and during a pandemic flu. The tricky balance for businesses (as well as governments, officials and other bodies) is in communicating important and helpful information while not unnecessarily alarming or panicking employees.

It’s important to note that we’re not currently at the pandemic flu phase with the swine flu situation. As of today, there are 64 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States and hundreds of cases worldwide, the United States has declared a public health emergency, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has upgraded the pandemic alert level from phase 3 to phase 4. The phase 4 designation means that “the likelihood of a pandemic has increased, but not that a pandemic is inevitable.”

This is not the first time swine flu has affected human populations in the U.S. The 1978 book, “The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease” is a review of the federal swine flu program from March 1976 to March 1977 by two Harvard professors, Richard E. Neustadt and Harvey V. Fineberg.

The 1970’s swine flu outbreak in the U.S. is believed to have started at Fort Dix, NJ. At Fort Dix, there was 1 death, 13 illnesses, and 500 people who caught but resisted the disease. The federal swine flu program launched in March 1976, and over 40 million Americans were inoculated.

(If you’re interested in the history of pandemics, the book “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry is a fantastic account of the 1918 pandemic.)

Whether in response to swine flu, avian flu, or other potentially pandemic flu’s, there are some best practices that organizations can adopt to help employees.

General flu prevention and communication generally boils down to a “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” approach:
1.    Cover mouth + nose when coughing or sneezing (but avoid touching)
2.    Wash hands frequently for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”
3.    Keep work area clean
4.    If sick, stay home
5.    Avoid close contact with sick people

Pandemic flu communication from businesses should include:
1.    Basic protection information for employees + their families
2.    Unique aspects + symptoms of swine flu (vs. other types of flu)
3.    Facts + misconceptions about vaccines
4.    Company policies about working from home, office leave, transportation, etc.
5.    Support services available and/or mental health resources
6.    Discussion about uncertainty

The best practices for pandemic flu communication for businesses:
1.    Coordinate communications internally
2.    Develop language and culture-appropriate materials
3.    Communicate uncertainty
4.    Plan for rumors and misinformation
5.    Coordinate with all stakeholders, including public health agencies if necessary
6.    Use correct information
7.    Stress universal hygiene behavior and show ways to minimize risk
8.    Use multiple channels to communicate
9.    Communicate a company response plan (if there is one, and if not, think about developing one)
10.  Explain HR policies

Companies should also be prepared for unexpected questions with uncertain answers. For example, some employees might wonder if their pets are at risk. It may seem silly, but pets are an integral part of many of our households (certainly in mine), and often feel like members of our families.

Social media is also playing a role in how people are learning about and sharing information on swine flu through Twitter, Google Maps and other channels. (There’s also some debate about whether social media is a contributing factor in spreading more panic.) Ogilvy’s London office has a “Swine Flu Dashboard” that shows the aggregated swine flu conversation across the social web.

Other Resources

There are many pandemic flu resources from governmental and health sources that may be helpful for businesses:

We’ll be covering this topic as it progresses. What else do you want to know about swine flu? What else should organizations keep in mind? Do you think social media is playing a role in amplifying fear?

Domino’s Social Media Crisis

Domino's Pizza by Nemo's great uncle

I’ve been a little reluctant to chime in on the Domino’s social media crisis this past week because of the sheer volume of coverage, but after a few conversations I wanted to post some thoughts here.

If you’re not aware, on Monday, April 13, two Domino’s employees at a Conover, NC restaurant filmed themselves doing “disgusting” things to food that, in the video, they claimed was going out to customers, and then posted the video on YouTube. (Read the New York Times summary here. The original YouTube video has been removed due to copyright claims by the female employee who filmed it, but as of this posting you can view it on this site.)

The video spread like wildfire, the two employees were identified, fired and arrested, and Domino’s has had to respond to the maelstrom.

Domino’s USA President, Patrick Doyle, issued an apology and response on YouTube on Wednesday, April 15, including a detailed outline of steps the company was and will be taking to make sure such a situation never happens again. The company has also been using a new Twitter account to listen, respond to concerns and thank people for their support (when appropriate). (As of 4/20, the company response video had been viewed 538,000+ times on YouTube.)

To review the timeline:

I’ve read a number of sides to this issue, both supporting and critizing the company’s response. Many have criticized the company for not responding soon enough, and in the New York Times article the spokesperson says that executives hoped “the controversy would die down” and so didn’t respond immediately. Some have criticized the president’s apology video as not effective enough, saying that he looks like he’s reading a script and that he doesn’t look into the camera.

But there’s the crux, isn’t it? On the one hand people get upset when a company doesn’t respond quickly, but on the other hand, they criticize the performance of the response when it does come.

In the choice between perfect performance and getting the response out relatively quickly, I think Domino’s made the right decision.

All in all, I think that Domino’s has done a pretty good job responding to this crisis. I give them kudos for:

  1. The apology. The Domino’s video apology does all of the things that my colleague Oxana Trush said makes an effective apology in her post last month: acknowledgement of wrongdoing, expression of genuine remorse, promise to not do it again, and restitution. To me it comes across as genuine, direct and personal, regardless of the performance.
  2. Going to the source. By posting the video on YouTube and (not just on their corporate website, for example), they respond in the channel where the conversation is happening. Ditto for Twitter. And they seem to be listening. Also, on a more technical note, they use the title of the original video in their response video, “Disgusting Dominos People – Domino’s Responds,” so that when people search for the original video the company’s official response will also appear in the search results. Very smart. I know this may be obvious to most social media folks, but for other people I think this is very counter-intuitive.
  3. Matching actions to words. The best apology in the world can’t rectify an underlying problem. The company appears to be acting in ways that demonstrate their recognition of the severity of the problem and what they can do to try to change it.

What could Domino’s have done better?

  1. Maybe they could have been a little faster in their first public communications response, but I think that, all in all, they did as best they could given the circumstances. They also were taking action behind the scenes to deal with the problem directly. From my experience working with large and sometimes decentralized companies (Domino’s is a franchise organization), large organizations are often simply not equipped to respond as quickly as the online world might want. That’s changing with time, but it doesn’t change overnight. Domino’s is not the only company learning from the past weeks’ events.
  2. Had a crisis plan in place. This is just supposition, of course, because perhaps they did have a plan in place. Also, there are always going to be situations that no plan could anticipate. However, from the outside, at least, it seems like this type of thing might have been something Domino’s could have anticipated. This exact thing? Probably not. But something like, “Employee malfeasance at a franchise location” would be a category I’d include in planning.

(And then it’s not just having the plan. It’s educating employees, coaching senior staff on how to deal with the media [even if the media is talking into a camera for a web video], establishing a presence on online communities and engaging with people before a crisis hits, etc.)

But just as we’re all figuring this social media stuff out, so are large corporations too. And best efforts – not just perfect efforts – should be recognized, especially during crisis situations.

Humility Update: President Obama on the World Stage

Humility is strength.

More than a year ago I began a series on this blog about humility as a leadership attribute.  I noted that

A dollop of humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting.

Humility also helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that more likely thrive; to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders.

Yesterday at the close of the G-20 Summit in London, President Obama put his leadership in full focus as he demonstrated both confidence and humility on the world stage.  It worked.

He gained the confidence of world leaders, including those who had previously been America’s adversaries or who had predicted that the Summit would fail.  He even got a rousing ovation from an otherwise skeptical world press corps.

In a press conference closing the Summit, President Obama demonstrated a tone that was a stark contrast to that of his predecessor, and that rallied other world leaders to seek to cooperate with the United States rather than to resist us.

President Obama set the tone before a single question was asked: (more…)