A Media-created crisis? The Delta Zeta Sorority Problem

A crisisblogger commenter requested my take on the Delta Zeta sorority crisis, and as I have had my head down in two solid days of meetings, I have to admit to only hearing a passing reference to some sorority problem in conversation. And that comment was, interestingly, that they kicked out everyone who wasn’t pretty.

So, I thought I would look at what this is all about. I found the New York Times story which ran on February 25. Then I looked up what Delta Zeta might have to say about this. What I found, from this quick little review, is a crisis vulnerability that faces far more organizations than most realize. At this point, I would put this one in the category of a media-created crisis and not a crisis created by egregious action on the part of the organization.

What the Times said happened: Some psych prof at DePauw did a survey and found the perceptions students had of the Delta Zeta sorority were “socially awkward.” The sorority, concerned about its image, responded by dumping all the less than attractive and popular women, all the overweight girls, and picking particularly on all the members of non-white races and colors.

Wow. Pretty damning. That is one bad bunch of ladies. They could only find a dozen that fit the profile of members they wanted, however half of them were so upset by the profiling and evictions that they quit. The president of DePauw was so upset at them that he wrote a long letter of reprimand. Then the newspaper story goes on to list the long history of other racial offenses this DePauw university chapter has had over the year.

Is this the truth?

Let’s hear what Debbie Raziano, the National President of Delta Zeta has to say:

- because of recruitment problems the organization voted to close the DePauw chapter last year to relieve the few women there from the duty of active recruitment

- The university denied the request saying that if they left now they couldn’t come back. The university asked the chapter to do a “membership review.”

- Based on this request the chapter asked who would be willing to aggressively recruit new members. The women who were “evicted” decided they did not want and therefore were given a certain period of time to leave.

- that was the sole basis for determining who would go or who would stay

If you look closely at the NYT story, you see that explanation barely covered in there. But it is completely lost in the spin of the story. Now, I am going to take what the sorority president says at face value here, partly because it makes sense and partly because the media’s behavior here falls so typically into the way the entertainment-based “news” media operates that this is too good to pass up.

The story the reporter had in mind was clearly made before he did any interviews. He was careful not to let the facts of the story interfere with the story he had already created in mind. Yes, he offered their explanation. But only after he says the officers “declined to be interviewed” but then provides emailed answers to questions (apparently to this reporter, only talking to him on the phone counts as an interview. Warning to communicators–beware the reporter who does not treat your email communication as legitimate response because you have a high degree of likelihood that they do not want a written record of what you provided. Gives you basis for complaint about being misquoted.)

In short, this looks to me to be an all too typical hack job. From the NYT no less–but after watching the three part series “News War” on PBS, my trust suspicions and mistrust about the news media has been amplified.

If what Delta Zeta says is right, there is a real problem with the president of DePauw. He might have had the opportunity as an objective third party to stop this train wreck from happening. If they are right in saying it was his actions that prompted their membership review and he put the pressure on recruitment, then for him to stand on the side and say oh my god look at those bad ladies is political but not honorable. I’d love to see his explanation.
I may not have this right at all. In my take on this, the NYT put the black hat squarely on the sorority and got complicity from the university president. If they are right, they not only don’t deserve this but the black hat should be squarely placed on the NYT. As for their crisis management of this–not good. If my understanding and interpretation is right, a lot stronger sense of righteous indignation against the paper and the university would be necessary for people to understand that this is one more example of name calling in order to grab headllines. What they did right, however, was put their statements–very poorly written and constructed–on their website and made them accessible to people like me sitting on the sidelines and making probably incorrect judgments about it all.

Media tracking during a crisis

Communication is of course about listening as well as speaking. And a key part of listening is paying attention to what the media, bloggers and others are saying about you. At no time is this more important than during a crisis.

I was sent an excellent white paper on this subject by Chip Griffin, CEO of CustomScoop. Chip mentioned that he was a crisisblogger reader, which pleased me no end. And I emailed him and told him I was a very happy user of his CustomScoop service (which seemed to please him). In fact, I was introduced to CustomScoop by my oft-mentioned associate Jonathan Bernstein, who was and is using it in a major “blogwar” crisis that both he and I are involved in.

CustomScoop has a blog that will be of strong interest to PR professionals, and I strongly recommend that you read this white paper by Mr. Griffin. It is critically important to not only track what the media is saying but also what the 70 million or so bloggers may be saying about you.

For the record, I have no arrangement where I am paid for recommending this service to you and have no financial involvement in your interest in them whatsoever. This is also the first time I have recommended a product or service in this blog.

POST SCRIPT:

Right after I posted this I found this article from PRSA–only 19% of PR professionals monitor blogs. That’s amazing to me considering the role that blogs are playing in PR these days. Chip–you got a big market in front of you!

Why success can kill your reputation

In this world we have a love for creating reputations via the media, then destroying them. Pride goeth before the fall, how have the mighty fallen and all that. Witness Microsoft and Wal-Mart. Microsoft’s reputation plummeted as their power grew and the aggressive (hyper aggressive?) business practices that vaulted them to the top of the software business and the business world became the very thing that people hated them for. While bloggers Scoble and Israel in Naked Conversations rightfully claims an important role of blogging for Microsoft’s remarkable reputation recovery (I saw one list that had them as the most respected company in the world) I attributed in this blog more to the fact that people were starting to see that Google was a real competitor and Microsoft had reason to be afraid. We like companies more when they have competition to fear it seems.

Wal-Mart’s business practices did not change when they became top dog in the world of retailing and top in revenues. It was these tough practices that got them there. But once there, the hoots and hollers have never stopped.

Toyota seems to get this. Not sure if that means it is a universal culture thing, or whether they are smart enough to have observed that being number one can take a real toll on an otherwise stellar reputation. This article talks how Toyota is preparing for the day when the media proclaims them king of the US car manufacturing world.

Market leaders, and all those with dominant or monopolistic market positions, take note.

The Letter from JetBlue CEO

I’m upgrading my evaluation of JetBlue’s performance in this crisis. I was a little tough on them before, but overall, they are doing pretty well given their situation. I say that in part because I have a great deal of respect for Shel Holtz and he is giving them pretty good marks. Also, because one kind commenter (thanks Paul!) on this blog today provided a copy of the letter sent DIRECTLY from CEO Neeleman to I don’t know how many.

Here’s the letter:

Dear JetBlue Customers,

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.

Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue’s seven year history. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences. The storm disrupted the movement of aircraft, and, more importantly, disrupted the movement of JetBlue’s pilot and inflight crewmembers who were depending on those planes to get them to the airports where they were scheduled to serve you. With the busy President’s Day weekend upon us, rebooking opportunities were scarce and hold times at 1-800-JETBLUE were unacceptably long or not even available, further hindering our recovery efforts.

Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.

We are committed to you, our valued customers, and are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us. We have begun putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to you, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties in the future. We are confident, as a result of these actions, that JetBlue will emerge as a more reliable and even more customer responsive airline than ever before.

Most importantly, we have published the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights—our official commitment to you of how we will handle operational interruptions going forward—including details of compensation. I have a video message to share with you about this industry leading action.

You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to welcome you onboard again soon and provide you the positive JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us.

Sincerely,

David Neeleman
Founder and CEO
JetBlue Airways

There is a lot I like about this letter. The tone, the unqualified acceptance of responsibility, the information about what is being done, the compensation. But what I like best is that it is direct. I don’t know how many were sent. If I as JetBlue, I would want as many sent as who read the newspaper accounts. Not possible, but that means I would send it to any and all where it would not be considered spam.

One key principle of crisis communication today is directness of communication. Don’t allow the media to carry your message. You have more options than ever to communicate directly–take full advantage, and I see JetBlue doing that.

Here’s what I don’t like: why allow people to sit on the airplane for six hours. Pull up to the gate and let them get off for Pete’s sake. There is no mention of that or sense of understanding that is really bad behavior–almost to point of kidnapping. Also, while there is mention of a comprehensive training program, this is light on details. Not everyone would be interested in the details, but what would have been better in my mind would be to say that for those interested, a complete description of our program will be posted on our website for the next three months. And if it is still in development, explain what is there, what will come yet, and when the updates will be.

Frontline on the Freedom of the Press

I hope you caught last night’s airing of PBS Frontline’s “News War” program. The issue is freedom of the press–particularly in a society that is facing the unprecedented threat we call the war on terrorism.

Freedom of the press is one of our most unique and valuable contributions to the history of civilization. But in a free and law-directed society, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility or else the law must take over. That is the essential issue here. This story contrasted nicely with the news I heard on CBC radio this morning about how Arab countries are “waking up” to the threat from bloggers and moving aggressively to shut down those voices who are critical–even mildly–of the government or its policies.

I have deep concerns about the decision of the New York Times to publish the story of a highly classified and completely legal program of the US government that was a particularly effective tool in the intelligence activity against terrorists. If publishing this kind of information results in the loss of innocent lives needlessly, then I think it is appropriate that people making irresponsible decisions would be held accountable. We would have no problem prosecuting an individual who found out about such a clandestine program and communicated the details of it to those who were seeking to destroy our nation and its freedoms. Somehow we think that if the means of communicating those details is through the media, such actions can be excused under the concept of freedom of the press. There is a boundary in here somewhere where most would agree would be wrong to cross.

But, it is far more clear to us that the Arab governments who are shutting down bloggers are doing so to the great detriment of their countries and its freedoms.  The government may be protected for a time, but at the expense of loss of trust and respect until there is no popular support. Obviously, that perspective comes from our deep commitment to democracy and the freedom of expression and the press that it depends on.

We live more and more in an age of transparency. It is harder and harder for their to be secrets of any kind. We have to think as a society about what it means if our government is not allowed to keep any secrets–will we be as safe and secure as we want? At the same time, we instinctively know that keeping secrets designed to protect the government and not the people they serve is not only wrong, but perhaps the greatest threat of all to democracy.

Can JetBlue Recover?

The ultimate question of crisis management and crisis communication has to do with recovery. JetBlue has given itself a monstrous black eye. And now, they are in the middle of the traditional media ‘black hat” spin cycle. Can it recover?

The basic rules for response when things have gone wrong are:
1) Accept responsibility
2) Apologize and make restitution if possible
3) Clearly identify the changes that will be made to prevent recurrence
4) Identify how future reports on progress will be made

Oh, yes, and do this all in the first few hours after the event–or as soon as is feasible given the distribution of the bad news in the instant news world.

So, how is JetBlue doing. Here is today’s New York Times report (thanks Neil!). http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/19/business/19jetblue.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper&oref=slogin

1) Accept responsibility. Yes and No. Neeleman’s quote that he was humiliated and mortified is good–very good even. But he blames management. Who is management? Ultimately, he is. He certainly doesn’t go as far as Johnson and Johnson executive in charge of the foreign divisions who accepted full responsibility and resigned–even though he was not aware of the problem. I’m not saying that Neeleman needed to resign–but acceptance of his own level of responsibility for not putting in place the management that he now says is missing is a problem.
2) Apology and restitution. Yes and No. He said he would announce a compensation system tomorrow. Too bad not today. There certainly sounds like genuine repentance in there, but until tomorrow comes, we don’t know. And that’s a problem, because the judgment is being made today in many people’s minds. Tomorrow, the plan will have to better than what it would have been if announced today.
3) Clearly identify the changes to be made. Mostly No. While Neeleman identified the problem as communication and lack of trained staff, the solution presented is to train 100 corporate office staff to help do the resource allocation work that was missed here. I don’t know about that. I think I would have been more comfortable with something a little more substantive addressing specifically the lack of staff, or inadequate training, or inadequate communication infrastructure than just saying we have to train some more corporate staff.
4) Report back. No sign of promise about future communication on this.

Mr. Neeleman did make an interesting comment: “We will be a different company because of this.” As I learned recently from Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group and one of the nation’s best crisis communication experts, every organization is a different organization coming out of a crisis. In fact, a crisis can almost be defined as an organization altering event. So, Mr. Neeleman spoke the truth here, even if it is a somewhat obvious one. What is not completely clear–and needed to be to come out of this with a higher likelihood of regaining credibility and confidence–is whether it will be a better company. Mr Neeleman and his communication team still have some work to do to convince the public and passengers of that in my opinion.

Do the Right Thing–the new website

I find this absolutely fascinating. A new digg-type website has recently appeared that promises to change the world by evaluating if companies are “doing the right thing.”  The site is called dotherightthing.com. You might also be interested in seeing what other bloggers are saying about this new site. Here’s a post called “Do the Smug Thing.”

This is fascinating for a couple of reasons. In my most recent presentations I have been focusing on two key points on how to build trust: 1) do the right thing (in the minds of the stakeholders) and 2) communicate about it. Yes, those were my words–do the right thing.

It’s also fascinating because while it looks like it ought to be one of the those things that Ken Blanchard talked about–catching people in the act of doing something right, it looks right now to be not much more than another place for the disgruntled and angry people with too much time on their hands to complain about how all these companies are ruining their world. That may not be fair but a quick look at the companies “under evaluation” in order of “popularity” Walmart is on top with Starbucks right behind. I suspect most of those spending time “evaluating” are not looking to find Walmart doing the right thing.

Mostly, this is another incredible example of what we have been talking about. I suggested earlier here I might write a book titled: It’s Everybody’s Business. A subtle but powerful shift has occurred. What I do is now my business and what you do is now my business. Particularly if you in any way whatsover impact my little world. For young people, they think it has always been that way. But for us fifty-somethings or beyond, it is staggering to consider the degree of ownership that today’s stakeholders perceive they rightfully have. This website is but one more example of that phenomenon.

The trouble is this–most senior execs and communications managers are in my age category–and they too frequently don’t get it. They continue to operate in the world that says “it’s my business” and I have a right to do what I think is right. Wrong. Those days are gone–possibly forever. That means all the communication policies and efforts have to take into consideration the “it’s my business” thinking. I see far too little evidence that this is happening.

Now THIS is how to build trust and protect a golden reputation

Bulldog reports that Johnson & Johnson’s golden image is being tarnished by the revelation of improper payments made by foreign subsidiaries. I think just the opposite. Perhaps even more than the Tylenol case–which is routinely heralded as the best ever case study in managing a crisis–the way J&J is handling this serious situation sets the tone for crisis management in this age of transparency and authenticity.

In this case, some people affiliated with the company did some bad things (from a US perspective–global companies all struggle with a wide variation of what is ethical–but that is another matter). So what did the company do:

1) they disclosed it to the officials who would be charged with investigating them

2) they made their disclosure publicly–while making it clear that the company discovered and disclosed it proactively

3) the highest level executive who had oversight over this resigned, making clear that he accepted responsibility by virtue of his position. No mealy mouth talk about not knowing what was going on–if it happened on his watch, he accepted responsibility.

Bulldog’s headline writers consistently get the story wrong, as any long time reader of this blog will note. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe J&J will take a beating for this. It certainly is possible given how eager we all seem to be to take down those people and organizations who we have up on a pedestal. But from what I can see, this is a text book case of how to do it right when it hits the fan.

Do blogging and political campaigns mix? Edwards and Marcotte issue

I’ve stated frequently in presentations that the blogging world is changing how public information is dealt with. There is an ethos around blogging that is in direct conflict with how communication has been traditionally managed by corporations–and politicians. That conflict is being highlighted right now in the John Edwards campaign.

The Edwards campaign had a blogger, Amanda Marcotte, who wrote some relatively outrageous things–not outrageous in the blog world which thrives on the colorful opinion, but outrageous if viewed as an authorized expression of the candidate’s perspective and style. And that is, of course, the rub. Does a paid blogger represent the candidate in all that is said and the style with which it is said?

Those wishing to make an issue of this put pressure on Edwards to fire Marcotte. He distanced himself from the content, but declined to fire her because of freedom of expression. So, here is the other rub: to fire a blogger because of content is to violate the freedom and personality ethos of the blogosphere. The blog world would go nuts. And yet clearly from his comments, Edwards was aware of the potential damage that Marcotte could do to him. Yet, if she toned down her approach, everyone would be watching to see if he put the clamps on. A no win situation.

In this article, the situation is resolved. Marcotte continued to post in ways that were offensive to some (reassuring to others I am sure that Edwards was following through on his pledge of freedom). But Marcotte resigned, (or “resigned”) when the pressure on Edwards continued unabated.

The dilemmas are clear–not just for this season’s crop of political candidates, but also for companies and organizations needing to deal with the blog world. It is an issue in my own company–what fits the blog ethos and what doesn’t? What is OK in the wild west world of bloggers who despite their cries of freedom have an increasingly narrow view of what is socially acceptable to them and what is not. The herd mentality seems to have taken over to some degree and pity the poor soul who violates the increasingly clear ethos.

Do Republicans lead in techelectioneering?

Here’s an interesting article on how the campaigns compare in preparation for what some are calling Googlelection.

And another “Just an Online Minute” post on the bungling of candidates in the blog world.

ExxonMobil's Welcome New Stance

Under former chairman Lee Raymond, ExxonMobil’s position on global warming tended toward the head in the sand perspective. With new chairman Rex Tillerson in place, the head is definitely being extracted. (see Houston Chronicle story) The question from a reputation stand point is was the sand tar sands–in other words, how dirty will the face of ExxonMobil be as it emerges?

Setting the record for profitability is a bit of a two edged sword when you are in the oil business. ExxonMobil is one of the most admired companies in the world by investors, financial managers and those who respect an incredibly disciplined and well-run organization. But, while making bookoo bucks makes the investors happy, it makes those who distrust big companies and particularly big oil companies feel justified in their view that all such companies care about is making money.

Lord Browne of BP recently commented that business needs to make money to stay in business, but the real business of business was to provide products or services that consumers need, want or demand. There is no question of all of our demand for oil products. John Hofmeister, CEO of Shell Oil Company recently said in Seattle that it is incumbent upon oil companies to better inform the public about the realities of global demand for energy and how that can and should be met in the future. Both of these statements need a much wider audience.

While it is very important that oil companies recognize the realities of stakeholder expectations (and good science), it is also very important that the media, our education institutions, our thought leaders, and fellow bloggers communicate the truth about energy. That truth is this: you cannot hate the people who supply what you  need while you are busy gobbling up their products. My computer is on so I can blog because hundreds of thousands of good people around the world and working their butts off to try and deliver the energy you and I need and do so in a way that is most efficient. And now, more than ever, they are also working their butts off to make certain that delivery is not only efficient, but sustainable from a save the earth perspective. If you do not believe that, you clearly have not had the opportunity as I have over the past few years to talk to these people and see for yourself what they are doing.

I’m glad for the change I see in ExxonMobil–and also glad they are disciplined, hardworking and marvelously successful. It won’t change those who love to hate “big oil.” But nothing will change that, I am afraid, until they replace their wall socket with a gerbil in a cage running a generator.