PLane-crash

When it does go wrong, everyone will know about it – immediately

The good news is that all 103 passengers and crew survived the crash of an Aeromexico flight that came down shortly after take-off from Gaudalupe.

That really should be all there is to say, were it not for the fact that passengers who escaped the aircraft took pictures of the crash and posted them online, even before the emergency services arrived.

That is how fast news travels today, via social media. Anyone with a mobile phone can be an on-the-spot reporter. For businesses considering their crisis management plans that knowledge should be an immediate jolt to review such plans and be prepared for immediate response. Even if only to prepare holding statements, to be used until facts can be ascertained.

How many businesses with, any sort of public profile, can say they are prepared for such immediate response? Waiting to have all the facts at hand is becoming a luxury that can make a public facing business look slow and disengaged.

Immediate review of public response protocols and standby statements should be, if not already done, an urgent priority.

It may be impossible to predict every eventuality but it is possible to be ready for the unexpected.

RMK+A has long experience in managing media and public response to significant situations and in providing businesses with the tools to react, in a reputation sensitive manner.

myhealthrecord

What could possibly go wrong? Privacy & government databases

In the last few weeks the Federal Government has faced community backlash to another of their ‘big-data’ plans. This time the brilliant idea to create My Health Record. A central repository for all the health data any health practitioner, and the government agency, may have collected on any individual.

On the surface, the idea of providing health professionals with a central point of information on patients sounds like a good idea, for the health professional, arguably even for the patient, should they find themselves dealing with a new doctor, in emergency situations, or not able to keep track of medical treatments. But, the flaw in the plan was almost immediately obvious to anyone who had even the slightest concern about the security of a central database of such personal information. A concern not made any better by the initial intention to allow access to that information by law enforcement agencies, without a Court Order.

The ensuing media hubbub and resulting public concern about the scheme was, to all but the Minister’s office and the Health Department, entirely predictable.

In the resulting back-down, by Minister Hunt on July 31, agreeing to amend the enacting legislation to require Court Order for any access by law enforcement or government agencies, and to extend the three month opt-out period. No matter how much spin attached, it was an embarrassing admission of a failed initial communication and a lack of understanding of the public mood.

It may appear odd that millions of people are willing to volunteer personal information on social media platforms but are concerned about a health record site. However, the fundamental difference is in, at least the appearance of, choice. Even then, Facebook has encountered enormous push-back when it became clear that they were commercialising user information without users’ knowledge.

Public trust of big-government is, increasingly and around the world, at an extremely low level. For the Federal Government to foist a centralised health database on all Australians, with limited public engagement and no understanding of the likely resistance, only feeds public perception of a cavalier attitude to individual privacy. The endless litany of database breaches, from airlines, to tax offices, to banks to … well you name it, only feeds a deep-seated scepticism.  As one online security expert put it – ‘there are only two types of database, those that have been hacked and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked’.

It is no surprise that more than 10% of eligible patients have opted out of My Health Record. A number that runs into the millions and that continues to grow.

The lesson is clear. In an increasingly interconnected world, the issue of data-privacy is coming to the fore, perhaps a bit too late, but the public concern is now live. Failure to recognise that fact and to communicate effectively will result in the sort of push-back the Health Department and its Minister have endured.

legendsin-their-lunchtimes

Legends in their lunchtimes

As the basket at the foot of the AMP guillotine begins to fill, for those of us who have had the privilege (or curse) to have been active in business for more than 3 decades, the unfolding events appear all too familiar.

Hubris, and wilful blindness have never combined to end in a positive result. Never-the-less, both tend to manifest as part of a regular business cycle.

An outbreak of believing your own PR is likely to resulting in mounting casualties.

Business success depends not only on sound strategies – well executed – but, annoyingly, on a degree of luck, timing and a supportive broader social and regulatory environment. Too often management and boards can mistake a fair proportion of the latter three (delivered by regular variations in business and consumer confidence) for their own genius.

The resulting natural tendency is to lessen the focus on detail and begin rewarding one another for the job well done. A tendency naturally increased if it is other people’s money that is being used.

The mess uncovered at the AMP is almost certainly the beginning of a long stream of hubristically driven shambles that the, much delayed, Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services will bring to light.

The damage to personal and corporate reputations will, in some cases be irreversible and in most cases, take long periods to recover from.

Two things confound and disappoint the public and work to lessen an organisation’s social licence to operate. First, the evident avarice-driven disregard for rules and customer benefit. Second, the failure of boards, as houses of review and management supervision, to identify and act on such abuses.

As professional communicators, we are regularly asked to convey good news and minimise poor outcomes when engaging with ‘stakeholders’ (read anyone who can impact on a share price that drives bonuses or who can tip folks out of a job). Both on principle and in the longer-term interests of our clients, we never knowingly misrepresent the facts. We may focus on one element more than another, but to lie is to ensure you will, eventually, get caught-out. An outcome that damages all involved.

Board members of any public company, industry body, not-for-profit or other such organisations have a responsibility to ask management the difficult questions, to challenge assumptions and, where necessary, to check the detail. Even if all is presented, on the surface, as good news.

In getting to the facts, too often we have witnessed situations where process is relied upon rather than proper answers. Instances where to us, as so-called spin masters, it is obvious that either not enough substance is present and/or too much pre-spin has already been applied.

Thankfully, few such cases have involved our existing clients. But we have worked on quite a few crisis management cases where the damage has already occurred.

Business cycles have, even in our relatively short experience, displayed a predictable regularity. A longer view of business history does not support an alternate conclusion. Executive management and boards should, in good times and bad, take a close look at how their businesses operate, how they generate the results, consider the prevailing conditions and ensure that they are well insulated from possible ethical, regulatory and operational failures.

If that is happening, the task for the communicators is to tell a good story, well. If not – welcome to the town square, with the crowd baying for blood. The most that can be done at that point (at great expense) is make the best of bad situation and prepare the ground for the successors.

The-brave-new-world

The brave new world – well, not just yet

If we listen to some of the futurists and tech pundits, very soon, we will all be sitting back in the driver’s seat and letting the autonomous car do all the work. In this brave new world, there will no road fatalities, traffic will flow smoothly and we will all arrive at our individual destinations relaxed and on time.

Like all utopian dreams the impact of the single most troublesome variant is often omitted. Humans. Humans with individual needs, desires, objectives, with their capriciousness, unpredictability, selfishness, inattentiveness and competitiveness. All of which any autonomous vehicle system will have to cope with.

Even if we were to ban all direct human control of motor vehicles (and that’s just not going to happen) humans will still share spaces with such vehicles, interact with them and come up with incalculable variations as to what they expect such vehicles to do for them. Otherwise they will not be individual vehicles at all, they will be public transport – with all the predictability yet limitation that entails.

The technology to allow vehicles to be partially, even largely, autonomous already exists. What does not is an agreed public policy and regulatory framework for the operation of such vehicles nor the closed systems within which they can operate free from the risks of human vicissitudes.

In an ideal scenario autonomous vehicles will talk to each other, operate within a network that has infrastructure also providing interactive information, plan and execute trips based on individual choice yet consistent with capacity, and prioritise user and community protection. Never mind that there can be cases where that last dual requirement is not easily reconciled.

No road fatalities, even within an autonomous system, is impossible. Yet the argument runs that the fatality cases will be so few that the larger gains justify the far lesser exceptions. But who makes that ethical judgement? Moreover, who takes responsibility when things inevitably, go spectacularly and tragically pear-shaped.

One of the luxury car companies recently issued a very brave statement saying that they would take full responsibility for any failure, causing accident, of one of their vehicles operating in autonomous mode. Quite apart from the lawyer’s picnic that can be had from the effort to define both failure and cause, any company with international exposure would soon find even a tiny percentage of incidents within their global fleet enough to drown them in claims.

The truth is that fully autonomous private motor vehicles (that is running all the time autonomously) is as much science fiction as the flying cars of the Jetsons. Yes, there will be more and more sophisticated ‘driver aids’, many of which will allow full autonomous operation in certain circumstances, under certain conditions and with certain supporting infrastructure. Yes, there may even be closed systems – such as inner city grids – where only vehicles that can be switched to autonomous mode will be allowed to enter. There may well be a day when all new cars and heavy vehicles will have such capability. However, so long as there are humans in the mix, there will remain the need for personal responsibility and ultimately, intervention and control.

The more likely outcome is a sensible combination of both improved vehicle capability and improved infrastructure allowing for opportunities to decrease road trauma whist increasing efficiency. To say nothing of better driver education and increasingly convenient public transport options.

We already have a closed system mass transport platform where the operating vehicles can perform the tasks assigned to their human controllers, without intervention. The air transport system. Yet pilots not only remain in the cockpit they also continue to carry individual responsibility for controlling their aircraft. At all times! Can’t see that changing anytime soon.

RMK+A consults widely to automotive businesses on matters of vehicle industry and transport public policy and government engagement.