Sterling and Bundy–the worst kind of reputation crisis

You can think about reputation crises in a couple of major categories:

1) people think ill of you for the wrong reasons
2) people think ill of you for the right reasons

Number one can be and often is very serious. Bad press. Competitor or activists attacks based on lies or mistruth. Maybe even a bad mistake in which people determine wrongly that it reveals your true character (a series of unfortunate accidents could leave such an impression). But category one is usually quite fixable even though it can be very tough. You can vigorously correct the misinformation. You can show the situation is more complex than it appears. You can apologize for the mistake and work to fix it.

But number two is almost impossible to fix. That’s when the crisis is about an event or incident that is not fundamentally false or misunderstood, but accurately reveals true character. I would argue that Paula Dean’s racist comments revealed in court showed more of the true Paula than was good for her reputation. Similarly, Tiger Woods’ philandering and unfamily life was revealing of his character that seems to be made more obvious by his clearly unpleasant character revealed every time he steps onto the course and doesn’t win.

We have two more such cases in Clive Bundy and Don Sterling it seems. Bill Boyd pretty much nails it I think (though I disagree with his comment that puts Phil Robertson in the same camp).

I’m presenting tomorrow to the Global Energy Crisis Communications Summit in London, via video and follow up discussion. My video is on reputation risk and crisis management–specifically how to build it into your corporate culture. Unsurprisingly to frequent readers here, I focus on the integrity and character of the leaders. Even suggesting that if it is not there, if the lack of character is evident in prevention and preparations (or lack of them), then it will certainly be evident in response and you may be better off finding different employment.

Similarly, if you got the PR job for Bundy or Sterling, what would you do? It seems their problems stem from fundamental character issues that are only revealed in what they said. Can a tiger change his stripes? Pretty dang hard. Best is to quietly go away–and best for a PR person to quietly go away as well.

 

Tesla provides classic example of how to head off bad news

If I had a top ten list of PR models, it would be Tesla and Elon Musk. He got a bum review in the New York Times and his damage control strategy was to demonstrate that the reviewer was less than honest. I thought no way could he win that battle. He did. The US government, typical of government-by-headline, launched a safety investigation against the cars after a battery fire caused lurid news stories. What did Tesla do? Used the opportunity to make it clear to the world just how safe their cars actually are. Lemons to lemonade. (I blogged on these stories earlier–just enter Tesla in the search on this blog).

Speaking of lemons, a “Lemon Law” lawsuit was about to be filed against them, presumably for failure to address a customers concerns. Do they meekly wait for the news headlines to hit, then say, we are very sorry we failed to meet this customers expectations and will do better next time? Heck no. They scewer the guy and his slime ball attorney (I’m making my judgment on this attorney strictly on the basis of the information provided by Tesla.

I would consider their blogpost on this lawsuit to be a classic in aggressive reputation management. It should be must reading for everyone in PR in my humble opinion. (By way, I just asked my broker to buy some Tesla stock. I like how they operate when facing trouble.)

A bad story is coming out…now what do you do?

You got a call from a reporter asking for your comment about an issue you were afraid might see the light of day. So, you know they’re onto it and going to run something.

This is a fairly common situation and unfortunately for PR and crisis comms consultants, this is often when you get the call from the client. No time to lose, but what is the strategy?

My thoughts on this were prompted by PR Daily’s post today on “Five Ways to Respond to Bad Press Before the Story Runs.” I have great regard for Brad Phillips, who wrote the post and the book: “The Media Training Bible.”

Now, if crisis communications was still just about managing the media, four of Phillips’ five suggestions would be perfectly right. But I think we passed that time some time ago. This is the age of the Internet, of direct engagement, of social media, of multiple channels and the more direct the better. This is the age of you are the broadcaster. This is no longer the age of begging and pleading with the media to get it right, and as Elon Musk showed, this is the age when it does make sense to enter a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

So New York Times is going to write a story and you know its not going to be pretty. Now is the time to tell your story straight ahead to those people who matter most to your future. Tell the unvarnished truth. Did you screw up? Fess up. Is the reporter twisting the facts to conform to a pre-conceived narrative (nah, never happens). Then say where things went wrong.

If you don’t have a way of directly reaching those most important to you (phone, email, text, social media) in time to beat the NYT’s press schedule then you should fix that critical problem right now, because, as they say, now is too late.

I’ve been beating this “you are the broadcaster” and “go direct” and “be fast and be first” themes for, oh about 14 years now and most of the time I think, jeez enough already, they get it. But then I see this or talk to a client and realize that while the world has changed, the basic thinking about crisis management has not changed nearly as much.

So, the drum beat continues.

Chevron’s publication of community news causes a stir

“You are the broadcaster,” or “you are the publisher” has been a favorite theme of mine since 2002 when the first edition of Now Is Too Late was published. It is the recognition that the Internet provides the opportunity for those making the news to go direct to audiences and circumvent (to some degree) the traditional media. Media, after all, are intermediaries, and not always so friendly to those making the news. So, go direct.

Chevron in Richmond, California (near San Francisco) launched a community newspaper called the Richmond Standard. According to Chevron’s PR agency leader, the paper was established to fill a void left by the demise of a local newspaper. However, the launch has created a mini-storm of controversy.

This story in O’Dwyer’s notesMM criticizes Chevron for “continuing a disturbing history of using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts.”

Apparently there are a number of other publications in Richmond but they tend toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum. And they don’t like Chevron getting in the publication business one little bit: Andres Soto of the Richmond Progressive Alliance puts it more bluntly. “Richmond Standard is a pseudo online newspaper to try to counteract info that’s coming out in La Voz, the Pulse and the Bay View. It’s part of their mass propaganda campaign to try to influence the democratic process in Richmond.”

Reminds me a lot of my hometown. It had (still has) a number of independent publications that were openly and stridently on the left side of the political divide. Even the daily was seen as left-of-center by a very left-of-center populace. Working with a business-oriented group on the other side, we launched a publication called Better Community Solutions. Holy moly, what a stink that was. The attacks got ridiculously personal even though our approach was positive and non-emotional. Of course, the fact that the funding for our publication came from business interests meant to those attacking it that it was tainted by ugly profits regardless of anything wise we may say.

But the question here isn’t one group or the other wanting to stifle the voice of those holding different views (that’s a big topic in itself.) The question is is Chevron’s move a good idea?

I believe it is. Those opposing Chevron and its refinery in Richmond will object to anything and everything said by the company. A community newspaper could become an important and valuable vehicle as a platform for community discussion on important issues. But the success of this, ironically, depends on Chevron not using it for propaganda purposes, not being overtly or heavy handed in any way in promoting its position on specific issues. You can say, then why do it?

The opportunity was well stated by one resident of the community in this article by newsamerica: “It’s obviously an outlet for Chevron by Chevron, but as long as that’s clear—and I think it is—I don’t see a problem with it.” Hunziker said he sees a need for more balance in the papers currently circulating. Unlike Smith, who sees Chevron as the loudest voice in the room, Hunziker said he feels bombarded by progressive messaging. “Most of the yelling is being done on the far left. I think it’s important that people in the center start standing up.”

Stakeholder engagement is and should be a top priority for almost any organization with public license to operate issues (which means almost everyone). Funding and running a community newspaper is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but may be a valuable part of an engagement strategy mix. It will be interesting to watch how long this paper lasts and how it evolves.