Category Archives: Crisis Case Studies

Advice to CEOs: Don’t turn your PR over to lawyers

In most crisis situations it is absolutely essential for attorneys and PR experts to work well together. Indeed, in working on plans for organizations I always ask about who their attorney is, whether or not he/she will review releases, and if they are participating in any drills or exercises. In the majority of events I have been involved in I have worked with some outstanding attorneys who understood and appreciated the nature of the partnership and the reality of the court of law versus the court of public opinion.

But there are two situations where I was involved that stand out in my mind where the CEO deferred all PR judgment to attorneys. That was a big mistake. One was because the company involved was a small subsidiary of a much larger company and the CEO of the subsidiary running the crisis believed that his future was more secure if he deferred to the attorneys (corporate attorneys from the head office). That was understandable, if mistaken. (The subsidiary company went bankrupt.)

The other was because the attorney demanded it. Again, there are reasons from the legal perspective. What is said publicly often impacts court action. The legal challenges may very well affect the viability of the business. However, an attorney who demands full control over PR should be a major warning sign and give any organization leader pause.

The issue always is what is in the best interest of the business or organization. Sometimes, no doubt, the legal challenges take precedence. Sometimes, as was the case with Arthur Andersen, you could win the legal battle but lose the company before you even have a chance to go to court. Only the CEO can determine what is in the best long and short term interest of the business.

Our court system is based on the idea that truth will emerge with aggressive representation of both the plaintiff and defendant. Two different views of events are needed and ideally are presented with equal skill. That is the ideal situation in a crisis that involves legal issues–there should be a strong voice advocating for what is best to win in the court of law, and one that advocates with equal ability for winning in the court of public opinion.

To place an attorney whose job it is to represent you in court in the role of deciding what is in the best interest of the company puts that attorney in a conflict situation. Any attorney who demands it should be released. Any CEO who so defers has signaled that he/she does not have the capability of determining the best interest of the company.

The risks of one spokesperson

Tony Jacques, an Australian crisis communication expert, makes some good points in this post about smaller companies facing crises.

I certainly have seen that mid to smaller size companies typically lag in preparation. I think there is a sense that because they are not large they tend to be immune. Only big crises kill big companies, but of course that is not true. While the death of a brand to a reputation crisis may not be big news if it is a small company, to those involved, death is death.

I want to draw attention though to one important point of his blog: the missing spokesperson. Just recently I was in a message planning session with a client and a question came up about what do we say about such and such a situation. The answer from the head came back quickly: you say nothing, refer every question like that to me.

It may seem the safest approach, but often it is not. For a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on the obvious one highlighted by Jacques’ post. What do you do when your one and only authorized spokesperson is out of town, on an airplane, or worse in an airplane that has hit the ground with devastating impact.

In best practice planning, every major leadership position in a response plan has at least three and sometimes four people capable of filling the role. That gets harder with smaller companies, but it remains essential. A company with a dominant leader who has difficulty delegating authority is especially vulnerable in a crisis.

The company Tony refers to may very well have crafted a wonderful statement in response to the negative publicity. Doesn’t matter if when the media calls there is no one authorized to deliver it.

 

 

New study on social media impact on journalism–wanna know why media isn’t trusted?

Oh my, a quick glance at this new study by ING on social media’s impact on journalism very quickly highlights a big reason for public distrust of media.

A key finding: Most journalists say social media content isn’t reliable, but 50% use it as a main source of information. Only 20% check their facts before publishing.

OK, let me see if I understand this. You’re a reporter and you are using Twitter or Facebook as your source for a story. You know/believe that what you are finding on there isn’t reliable. But you rush to publish without checking facts. In fact, you publish first on social media where (60% of you anyway) believe that the same journalistic rules don’t apply.

While the study is Europe-focused and uses a small sample, the findings seem to ring true. Faster, faster with less and less concern about accuracy because, well, it can be corrected later. Professional journalism, rather than combatting the inherent problem with crowd sourcing news, is rapidly adopting the worst aspects of it–in fact amplifying the errors. PR Newser notes that PR folks are finding journalists are checking with them less and less to confirm information. Further, despite the fact that journalists recognize the inherent unreliability of social media content, they report they consider statements about a company on social media more reliable than what the company puts out. Again, that shouldn’t surprise us, but, think about it. A company puts out information knowing it has to be very careful to protect its credibility and the journalists they submit to find whatever any Joe says on social media to be more credible!

What about the future? Those responding to the study fully expect more of the same, and worse. Faster and faster reporting, more reliance by them and the public on crowd-sourced news and social media, less fact checking–and presumably, less trust in corporate communications.

What does this mean? To me (no surprise) it means “you are the broadcaster.” As professional journalism comes to mimic and look more and more like crowd journalism, for companies and organizations the emphasis HAS to be on communicating directly through their own channels. The press release was declared dead a long time ago. Seems to me this study might have just buried it.

 

Seattle City Light SEO-boosting contract ridiculed

Seattle City Light has two significant PR issues going, and this is a case of one plus one equals ugly.

First is the action being considered by Seattle City Council to raise the pay of the CEO of the city-owned utility, Jorge Carrasco, to a max of $364,000. He is already the highest paid city official in Seattle but Council is considering giving him a raise of $60,000 per year.

Second, Seattle Times Columnist Danny Westneat, is having a problem with a $47,000 contract signed by Carrasco with Brand.com to burnish its online reputation. Westneat says the goal of the contract was to “buff up” the eco-credentials of Carrasco and to counter some negative online content about the agency thereby creating better search results.

Westneat has several problems with this: Brand.com apparently offered “doctorate level content” but some of the articles showing up looked to be written by an algorithm rather than a person–although I can see a beginning writer churning out such jargon-laden meaninglessness. The other, of course, is the idea that Carrasco would spend utility-rate-payer-city taxpayer dollars on anything related to burnishing his image.

All of this represents a conundrum to me. Reading Westneat’s column, the entire thing looks ill-conceived, ham-handed and downright foolish. And of course, that is what Westneat wants it to look like. But is it really?

Online reputations are a big issue as we as a society in general turn to the internet and what’s on there to become informed. Nasty reviews or negative articles can take a position in searches not warranted by the organization involved or any action. It’s just that outrage tends to attract attention and the internet seems to be a great place to express outrage. Seattle City Light, like any responsible public or private entity, wants to have an online presence that represents reality and not have searches dominated by a few with gripes. So what do you do? The strategy employed by them of countering the negative with more positive is a common strategy. Others, like those in Europe, have turned to the courts and have successfully forced Google to remove content from its searches that they don’t like. The folks asking for removal are demonstrating why this may not be such a good idea.

Having worked with a major city utility for a number of years (not Seattle City Light) I am well aware of how local reporters and news agencies love to demonize such organizations any chance they get. Reasons are obvious: people need power and if provided by the city they get no choice and it gets tied to every other issue or gripe that people have. That means it is rich fodder for columnists and reporters like Westneat. So let’s recognize that they have a hound in this hunt too, and anything that smells like combating the rather one-handed game they play is something they will attack with vigor.

That being said, it seems if City Light wanted to burnish their online image they should not have considered a contract, and apparently particularly with brand.com. Don’t they have some talented young PR staffers who could do some of this? Aren’t there other ways to improve search results? Or maybe they should do like the guy in Europe who tried to kill his family, and ask Google to take any bad stuff about City Light off the search results.

A dilemma indeed.

 

 

 

Chobani, Whole Foods and GMO–stopping the bullying

Chobani, a very popular maker of the wildly popular Greek yogurt, is facing the hijacking of their Facebook page by the anti-GMO crowd.

As frequent readers here know, I think the GMO-haters are out to a non-GMO lunch.  If there was one shred of scientific evidence behind their scare tactics, it would be one of the biggest news stories of the decade. And despite trying exceptionally hard to find evidence of risk, the scientific consensus is firm–there is no proof of risk or harm. You may recall this convinced one of the leading anti-GMO campaigners to come clean and admit he was wrong.

But lack of evidence is not stopping the nutcases from attacking anyone and everyone who they think can be bullied. Chobani works hard to cultivate an image of healthy food–all natural and all that. But, the anti-GMO crowd doesn’t like the fact that the cows that produce the milk that produce the yogurt eat grain that is grown with seed that has been developed to enable farmers to be more productive and use less chemicals. These (gasp) “Round-Up Ready” seeds come from (double-triple gasp) Monsanto, perhaps the most hated company on earth. The problem that Chobani and many many others in the food business face is how are they going to compete and meet the demand for their products by relying on milk from non-GMO fed cows when that milk is far far more expensive and in very short supply?

There are two issues that really trouble me. One, how does a company like Chobani fight against the kind of irrational but extremely passionate attacks of an ill-informed but noisy crowd? And second, how do others who are connected to the brand in some way avoid being tainted with the attacks–knowing full well that the fury of the bullies can turn on them in an instant?

Whole Foods dropped Chobani in December, 2013. They said it was because of the GMO issue. The Washington Post and New York Times both made clear that if that was the case, Whole Foods is being very hypocritical. They attributed it to other reasons–making more room for more niche, higher margin brands.

This decision did two things that have hurt Chobani and the rest of us: it helped bring Chobani’s GMO issue more to public attention and it further encouraged the bullies.

That’s the real problem I have here. I see voters in Jackson County, Oregon just voted to not allow GMO crops to be grown in their county. The GMO nuts are putting their labeling initiative on the ballot again in California. They continue to gain ground in their campaign of lies and misinformation precisely because otherwise good people are afraid of being bullied by them. Who wants to be sucked into such a controversy even when you know the fears are unwarranted? Who needs that kind of problem? So, just avoid them by staying clear. And the bullies win. Every time they win, they help convince those uncertain about the dangers that there must be something to it.

WholeFoods not carrying Chobani because of GMO? Well, that certainly means that Chobani and GMO must be dangerous. Thanks a lot Whole Foods–you just gave some major points to the bullies.

Remember the MSG allergy scare–the Chinese food syndrome? Completely bogus, based on a paper published in a prestigious scientific journal. Many people “suffered” by being deprived of “umami” one of the tastiest substances on earth. But that is nothing compared to the vaccination scare. People are not deprived of something tasty, children are suffering from increased levels of diseases and deaths are caused by a completely bogus “scientific” study. In 1998 a guy by the name of Andrew Wakefield issued a study showing dangers of vaccines. The media, of course, loves this sort of thing because scaring the be-jesus out of people through a new source of fear is a great way to get readers or viewers. And this was helped tremendously when a seriously overblown celebrity jumped into the fray and helped raise attention.

People get hurt by this nonsense and the bullying tactics of the true believers. That’s why it is essential that we base our political and personal decisions on the best available science, particularly scientific consensus. And that we resist caving in to the bullies. Will people get hurt by the bullies attacking Chobani? Yes, the people who would otherwise eat a good and healthy food. But more importantly, if the bullies win in the anti-GMO craze, the impact on food prices will be considerable. Now we are talking about significant numbers of people at the very lowest poverty levels starving. Yes, it does matter. The bullies have to be stopped.

 

 

 

Effective reputation management–the toughest and most important element

Two unrelated opportunities recently caused some reflection on basic communication issues and particularly reputation management. One came from the Mayor of Bellingham, WA, my beautiful little city by the bay who invited me to speak to her city department heads, managers, administrators and the like. The topic: communication and leadership.

The other came in the form of an invitation to speak at the Global Energy Crisis Communication Summit in London put on by Valiant Business Media. I had to turn down the trip but they graciously agreed to have me participate virtually by means of video then live discussion via Hangout following.

I decided that the key message was the same in both. As I put it to the Bellinghamsters, the hardest and most important lesson in communication (and leadership) is….(drumroll please)…it’s not about you. That’s right. It’s not about you.

How do you say that to a CEO, Chairman of the Board, or even the head of communications of a global 100? If you want to see my attempt at that

here’s a link to my video on “Making Reputation Management and Crisis Communication Part of Your Culture.”

I’d love your feedback. And if you like it I’d really like to hear if you shared this with some of the senior folks in your organization.

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.

 

Can cyberattacks improve your reputation?

Think Target and the hit it took when hackers stole the private information of millions, requiring many to update credit cards and the like. It’s a disaster that most executives believe will happen to them–not if, but when. So, that makes it even more amazing to find out that most executives think, according a study published in the Economist, that two thirds of CEOs think a good response to such an attack will enhance their reputation.

PRNewser from mediabistro reporting on the Economist story notes that while 66% think they will come out of such an event smelling like a rose, only 17% surveyed say they are “fully prepared.”

Hootsuite, perhaps the best social media management and monitoring tool that I know of, today experienced a hack attack in the form of a Denial of Service attack. One client emailed me Ryan Holmes’ response. The CEO of Hootsuite was fast, empathetic, transparent and almost completely on target. (Only thing missed in my mind was an apology, but perhaps he felt there was nothing to apologize for and he may be right).

A couple of things stand out to me in this new arena of crisis communication:

- CEO’s seem to get the idea that fast, transparent communication can actually enhance a reputation even when customers/stakeholders have been hurt

- There seems to be quite a gap between the confidence displayed and the level of preparation. That is surprising. I would think the confidence would come after preparation, not before.

- The reality (certainty?) of this kind of crisis seems to be quite well accepted.

Now, we will see how it all turns out. My prediction: Another Target-type hacking will occur and the press and social media pundits will be better positioned to blame the company. “They knew it was coming but did not take the steps they needed to to prevent it–it was profits above people all over again.” Then, the crisis communication game really begins.

Crisis wisdom from Richard Nixon

Dartmouth professor of corporate communications, Paul Argenti, wrote an interesting and useful blog on Harvard’s HBR Blog on crisis communication. Specifically, it looks at GM’s CEO Mary Barra and how she is dealing with the inherited crisis of the current ignition switch recalls.

This is a concise and very useful summary of the key crisis communication principles–some of which I saw put to use to very good effect recently on a situation where I was a close observer.

At the very end, Professor Argenti quotes Richard Nixon from his famous Checkers Speech.  Nixon:

 “The easiest period in a crisis situation is actually the battle itself. The most difficult is the period of indecision—whether to fight or run away. And the most dangerous period is the aftermath.  It is then, with all his resources spent and his guard down, that an individual must watch out.”

Not sure truer words about crises have been spoken.

 

The hardest part of communications

Reflecting on some of the most recent crises I’ve been involved in as an advisor, I asked: what am I really contributing?

I concluded by far the most valuable contribution was an outside perspective. Looking at the event and issues from the viewpoint of the customer, the stakeholder, the reporter, the victim, the detached observer. It is often very difficult for even the best communicators who are deeply embroiled in a problem to maintain that outside perspective. It’s the main reason why I think it is probably essential that your crisis communication plan include a qualified person completely outside your organization.

I worked on a plan for a major oil company a few years ago and saw in their plan the role of a Communications Advisor. In their case, it was intended for a specific PR expert who had a strong relationship with the President. But, it struck me as such a good idea I have built that role into almost every plan I have worked on since then. The responsibility of that person is to maintain a 30,000 foot view, maintain contact with stakeholders outside the organization, and represent an honest, objective and uninformed perspective.

I say uninformed because there are always so many good reasons to not do what is needed. We can’t do this because our lawyers say we can’t, because we had such and such problem in the past, because the union leaders would have a hissy fit, because senior management doesn’t like so and so–whatever the reason. They are powerful obstacles but the outside perspective says: it doesn’t matter. It has to be done.

I’ve often said being a consultant is the best job for someone like me because I have so little to lose. Sure, I can get fired, but after about three plus decades I’ve gotten some confidence I can get another gig. I don’t have my future tied to relationships within the organization, to political sides, to protecting anything. Therefore I can be honest, even undiplomatic (which seems to come too naturally to me).

The hardest part of communication is taking a three foot jump from your skin to that of the person or people you are talking to. If you do look at the situation with their eyes, all the “yeah, but…” excuses melt away. All the obstacles that look insurmountable become hurdles that must be bowled over.

The purpose of suggesting this is not to sell my services or even other crisis consultants (I’m plenty busy enough right now, thanks very much). It is rather to point out that the first thing you learn in your very first communication class should be learning to think like the one you are communicating with. But, as foundational as the”you attitude” is, it remains the biggest obstacle to effective communication and the very hardest part of this job.