Seven Signs and the Jena Six

Thanks to the internet, any crank with access can write something that spreads. If you’re managing the reputation of a brand, the factor working in your favor is there is so much material being published that it is the rare message that cuts through the clutter.

But how do you recognize it before it starts doing its damage?

The following is a piece I wrote for the Now Is Gone blog, but now there is some added backstory. (Most of what I write has a backstory. It makes it easier to draw distinct conclusions; the trick is in generalizing them enough that you can communicate it without tipping the backstory.)

From April 2008:

At the most basic level, your participation in Social Media needs to include monitoring and listening. If you don’t know what’s being said about you, you’ll never have a chance to correct ‘mis-perceptions’ or outright lies. Being functionally deaf makes you blind in targeting future efforts.

For those organizations that fail to even listen, the top hesitation is the fear of finding “bad news,” and not knowing how to deal with it. Given the flood of information that you might find about yourself, it’s easier to play the ostrich and pretend it doesn’t exist. While that might make you sleep a little easier, your shareholders and stakeholders might see things differently. So how exactly do you prioritize these potential “reputation threats” as they circulate?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you use monitoring tools to find a knock against your company in a blog or public forum. Aside from simple traffic statistics and site popularity, here are a few measures of “viral-ness” you can use to determine which ones are capable of becoming a big problem down the road.

Viral Triggers, A through G

  1. Authority/assertion
    The message must give you the feeling that you now know something important that will truly affect future decisions.
  2. Brevity
    No one wants to read a manifesto, Dr. Kaczynski. If the negative message is too long, the average reader won’t want to be the one to foist it upon his whole network.
  3. Clarity
    A well-crafted message, to go viral, must be unambiguous. There can be no question about where the author stands.
  4. Detail
    The position must be rooted in incontrovertible fact. A random message that “Dell sucks” doesn’t carry the weight of “Having used your product for 9 years…”.
  5. Emotion
    How well-written is the message? Does it make you feel as though you could be just as passionate for simply passing it along?
  6. Focus
    The message must be about one thing, and one thing only. If it makes a reader mentally wander he’ll be less likely to feel compelled to pass it along.
  7. Gossip
    One reason people like to pass on juicy little tidbits is the rush of knowing that you knew something before (almost) any of your friends did. This places you in a position of esteem and authority within your circle.

A quick glance can usually knock a couple of these factors out for a particular instance, and you can move on. If you see a message that hits six out of seven flags, you may want to do an internet search for an unusual string within the message, to see if this is already moving and where.

If you see one that hits all seven warning triggers, you probably need to put it in the hands of whomever would handle your reactive messaging. A direct response might be in order, unless it comes off looking like an attack. But you need to be prepared for the likelihood that many people will see this attack on your brand and reputation.

As with all things in Social Media, your mileage will always vary. This tool is not scientific — but will empower you to concentrate your time on the messages that matter. It beats getting caught in the paralysis of analysis, or wasting resources on issues that will never materialize as real reputation threats.

And now, the Rest of the Story.

My advice is clear, but what it lacked was an example to ground it.

In September 2007, tens of thousands of protesters were to converge in Jena, Louisiana, to rally around six teenagers they felt were being abused by the legal system after a string of racial incidents and violence.

I have no position on the matter, and never really bothered to dive into it like a legal scholar would.

At the time, I was the Communication Director for the Southeast for the American Red Cross, and while Louisiana was not in my territory, Mississippi was. September is an important time of year for many of my Red Cross chapters, particularly those in military communities where the Combined Federal Campaign raises a large chunk of the yearly operating budget.

Being a neutral organization, the Red Cross had no position on Jena either. However, the arrival of that large a crowd on a small community threatened to create some public health issues, namely dehydration, heat stroke, and simple first aid needs that naturally occur when you have a group that size. The official Red Cross position would be to have no position on Jena… until the state of Louisiana made a formal request for aid.

The organization could not follow the mandates of the charter and ignore the need, and the state had followed proper protocol in asking for humanitarian assistance. The discussion about how to handle the messaging of this tricky issue was several levels above my pay grade – and many of my peers didn’t understand it at first. But eventually we were given a series of talking points to explain why we would be there, and the justification for it, and that we would be asking the state of Louisiana for reimbursement.

Patient Zero

Every good infection story has a Patient Zero, where the disease is first identified.

I recall getting a call from one of my chapter executives near the coast, who was concerned about an email that was spreading throughout the community. It was written by a James Broadwell, an attorney in Jena, and read as follows:

I thought that the mission of the American Red Cross was to help people in times of disaster. I have a problem with what I saw happening in Jena, La. yesterday. My problem is not with the people coming to Jena to march, they have that right, but with the American Red Cross giving away supplies to the marchers. The newspapers have stated that approximately 25,000 bottles of water were given out. I will not mention any medical care that was provided, but we do have a local hospital that offers excellent medical care, but not for free.

I sat on the balcony of my office and watched the marchers arriving carrying no supplies, but when they left Jena they were carrying bottles of water that was supplied by your organization. These people were not in a disaster mode, they knew what they were getting into when they came to rally, and should have planned better and brought their own supplies.

I had a house burn in 1985 and lost everything, including my cars and dog, but never got a call or note from the Red Cross. I did not mind that I was not contacted by you and have not ever given it a second thought until yesterday. I have donated faithfully to the Red Cross for the better part of my 56 years, but no more.

I know that in the scheme of things I am just a small drop in the bucket, but I will tell everyone that I know what has happened here, and maybe this small drop will turn into a flood. And yes you can use my name it is James L. Broadwell 111, my address is 329 Pleasant Hill Road, Jena, La. 71342

Email Epidemiology

If you want to learn about how a virus spreads, you have to isolate its path. Then you can determine the mechanism most likely for transmission, incubation and illness.

If you want to learn about how a viral email spreads, you need to do the same thing.

When I first saw this email from Mr. Broadwell, I knew we were going to be in for a rocky ride. Compound that with the Combined Federal Campaign, and how this would resonate with those who had been very supporting of us.

I got the exec to forward me the email, and I sent it up the chain to National Headquarters. They looked at it, cataloged it, and I didn’t hear back.

The next day, I got a call from the chapter executive in Jackson, Mississippi. She was worried about this email that was circulating in her community. Same one.

I had her forward it to me, because now I could compare it to the one I had the previous day from the coast. The message was completely unchanged. (That’s more rare than you think – often people will tweak a detail or two, or something gets lost in the translation, and you end up with a mutant variant strain.)

What I was really interested in was the epidemiology. Where had this message been? Among the headers I found government agencies, politicians, media, members of the chapter board of directors, and others identified as real movers-and-shakers in the community. This was moving quickly through the heavy hitters, the potential big donor crowd.

Even more alarming was the speed. The Jackson version was three generations removed from the coastal message. It was spreading fast, and going wide. I called National Headquarters, and I was told not to worry, that they had only received two calls into the public inquiry line about it, and saw no reason to over-react.

I felt like I was the protagonist of a Hot Zone movie. Patient Zero was a walking zombie, going straight for the brainzzzz of the organization.

Calling My Shot

The next day, a Friday, I heard from my executive in Meridian, the far eastern side of Mississippi. Her version was still pristine, and had the same forwarding signature – heavy hitters, and fast delivery times. When you start dumping a message into the Send All on your address book, three times a day will hit a broad distribution.

I called NHQ again, this time begging for an updated set of talking points. My chapters were getting hammered with questions they were not equipped to answer. Furthermore, because of the sensitive nature of the issue, they were instructed to not go off the talking points, for fear of making things worse. (A tactic I did agree with, because in this instance inconsistency would have been even worse.)

The original talking points were not bad, they just weren’t specific enough. And they certainly didn’t answer Mr. Broadwell. I knew full well that if I could sit down with any one of these people, I could explain it to their satisfaction. Even then you would have a percentage that will believe what they want anyway, but often those are the people who are just looking for an excuse to not donate to begin with.

I could answer the questions Broadwell raised. The crew at NHQ could do it, too. But it was thought too risky to jump out with even more communication on it until it was necessary. Give it a chance to blow over. The last thing I said was “Just please have someone get a deeper set of reactionary talking points approved, by Monday this thing is going to blow up, not blow over.”

Not five seconds after hanging up the phone, I got a call from Tuscaloosa.

“Ike, we’ve got a little problem down here. There is an email circulating through the community, apparently written by this guy in Louisiana…”

Aftermath

By Monday, we had a set of reactive talking points, that more keenly addressed the issues raised by Mr. Broadwell. That didn’t salve the sting for the chapters immediately, but they did proceed.

At the time I wrote the original “Seven Signs” piece for Now Is Gone, I knew that my days were numbered with the Red Cross. My entire field office — and the entire regional structure as we knew it — was being shed as part of a massive layoff. I was one month away from my end date.

Clearly, I wasn’t in a position to air inside scoop. I tell the story now because there are instructive elements I left off the table.

Everything he said in the letter was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. There were facts we didn’t put out initially because they had the potential to confuse, but by the time Broadwell’s interpretation was circulating there was nothing to lose in communicating it.

And I do stand behind the decision to play this one carefully – when you have hundreds of individual spokespeople across the country, any variation in such a sensitive message can come back to haunt everyone.

My seven viral triggers were not some homily, some cute link-bait way of getting attention. (If that were my aim, I would have published it here on Occam’s Razr two years ago, instead of Geoff’s “Now is Gone” site.) They were based on an exacting examination of the Broadwell letter. What was it about that email that resonated with so many who forwarded it on? There is value in isolating those factors, so you can prioritize your time to the things that matter (and not waste effort preparing reactive talking points for every conceivable crank.) Most importantly, by honing the list I was creating a process whereby others could help me find the trouble before it starts. No sense in having only one soldier in a platoon equipped with binoculars.

I read that letter dozens of times, looking at the way it was written. It told a story. It used proper grammar. It was quick and clean and focused. I looked at the variations as it spread, looking for the tell-tale clues, like the person who felt the need to highlight parts of it with bold or italics. What made this such a delicious thing to spread?

After much consideration, I found seven things this email had going for it, that set it apart from the rabble. And I found a way to definitively describe those characteristics using the letters A through G, as a mnemonic. Then I published it.

I hope you find it useful – and if you found it useful before, maybe it’s even more so now.

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Comments

  1. @Ikepigott: Thanks for sharing the backstory about your viral-trigger checklist. It’s a good cautionary tale about the need to address problems early, and about how to actually do it.
    Do you think it would have unfolded like that today, when it would be easier to show the HQ the retweets and other metrics beyond just the two phone calls they knew about?

    • @KarlSakas – Thanks –

      When such messages unfold on Twitter, you do have a wealth of tools to track the Link Epidemiology and gather stats about reach and frequency and speed. (Link Epidemiology is one of the reasons I chose to create my own custom link shortener.) However, a couple of very important points to consider:

      1) The top medium for sharing remains email, which doesn’t provide the stats in an easy dashboard
      2) Despite its installed user base that dwarfs Twitter, there is no way to do automated searches within Facebook. And because the majority on Facebook have little awareness their status messages are searchable, they are often more candid and open than they are on other networks. You also can’t backtrack who shared what from someone else’s page.

      That goes back to the meat of my Seven Signs. When you see something, you evaluate the message itself for its likelihood to be spread. Then you can do targeted searches for the unique phrases in the message and know for sure where it is at a given time.

      Thanks again, Karl!

  2. Just a brief addendum here.

    This wasn’t meant at all to be critical of the Red Cross, nor of their speed in recognizing the threat posed by that email. I have no idea how many other potential threats were being scanned at the same time, nor what other issues they were juggling that week for comparative purposes.

    What I do know is that as long as such determinations are left strictly to subjective judgments, you are stuck with a system that only scales with people. And the more people you add, the more inconsistency and confusion you introduce.

    My development of the Seven Signs (and finally revisiting their genesis in this post) is meant as a way to institute some sort of process. It’s the first step toward a mutual vocabulary of reputation threats, so that you can have more people involved.

    My phone calls from Birmingham were just cries from the field.

    But if there was already a process whereby I could say “check this email, it scores 6 out of 7,” it becomes communication triage that can push the most important threats to the top of the stack where they can be addressed appropriately.

  3. This is a brilliant case study. I’m gonna be sharing this with clients for some time to come. Thanks for writing it!

  4. Now that Solis is writing shorter, we are all writing longer. Ack!

Trackbacks

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