Category Archives: Crisis Case Studies

Dell Flack Attack

Attn Corporate Bloggers. Here’s a good example of what not to do. Apparently Dell’s PR firm assigned one of their staffers to review blogs for negative comments about Dell. OK, standard procedure. But the guy commented on a well known blog in terms that, well don’t even meet the “angry blogger” standard of decency. Let alone, appropriate in defending his client.


Here’s what the anonymous “PR” guy wrote on Jeff Jarvis’ blog:

Hey Jarvis. I honestly think you have no life. Honestly? Do you have a life, or do just spend it trying to make Dell miserable. I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over that frigen blogosphere and I cant honestly say that Dell is trying to take a step towards fixing their customer service. They hire guys like me to go on the web and look through the blogs of guys like you in hopes that we can find out your problem and fix it. But honestly I dont think you have a problem Dell can fix. Your problem is you have no life.

Interesting that Richard Edelman, head of the largest independent PR firm and a competitor of the firm in question decided to raise this issue on his blog.  Well, I guess it is OK for a competitor to help point out a serious mistake on the part of a competitor. At least Edelman was gracious enough to point out that the culprit was likely a summer intern.

The point here is that there is no such thing as anonymity on the web–and the sooner anonymity as a presumed option goes away the better as far as I am concerned. So warn everyone who presumes to be speaking in your defense to not be so stupid. And to conduct themselves as they would as if everything was in the light of day. As it should be. And as apparently it is.

Zidane apologizes?

I heard on tv last night that Zidane finally apologized. Typical, I thought. Like most companies caught in a crisis with their reputation at stake, they finally think about long enough, consult with all the attorneys in the Outlook, get lots of conflicting advice, and then do the right thing. Too little. Too late.

The problem with Zidane’s presumed apology is that I can’t find it. The Seattle news station who carried the story didn’t show Zidane apologizing, they showed video clips about how the French treat tourists (you guessed it, a whole series of vicious headbutts with the words “merci.”

And now I did a quick search of news sites and I can’t find the apology. What I do find are more and more videos that not only replay the vicious headbutt but take it to outrageous new extremes. Here’s one from a UK website that shows the headbutt as seen by the Germans, French, Italians, Americans, etc. Pretty good.

But for crisis communicators there’s a really big lesson here. Apologize early, apologize often, and get it out there fast. If you don’t you will get lost on the far more entertaining comment that is web-driven and far more compelling than your most tearful mea culpa.

Video or not?

The linked story talks about the growing use of video on the web.
Video use growing story in LA Times.

The future was highlighted by Robert Scoble leaving his post at Microsoft to go to Podtech.net which is in the video podcasting business.

The question for those involved in crisis management and reputation management is how to use video as part of their efforts.

The comment in the linked story from CNet is important. Video is not always necessary or appropriate. Gratuitous use of video will not only not help, it will hurt. So, video should be used only if it contributes to the communication effort. Does it make the message more interesting, compelling, complete, accurate, understandable?

The US Coast Guard uses video frequently and very appropriately in my mind. They use it to show rescues and the work that they are doing to keep our borders and waters safe. It tells stories that simply can’t be conveyed in words alone. Go to almost any of the district public affairs websites and you will see what I mean.

Which raises one issue. As a communicator, can you quickly and very easily process and upload video to your organization’s website? If not, get to work on it.

The advantages of being "not cultured"

Apparently Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer star who head butted an opponent, was responding to an insult the opponent, Marco Materazzi hurled at him. Zidane said Materazzi called him a terrorist. But according to this story posted on newsvine, the Italian said he couldn’t have called him a terrorist because he doesn’t even know what a terrorist is. He’s “not cultured” enough for that.

Here’s what Materazzi said according to the news story.
“I did insult him, it’s true,” Materazzi said in Tuesday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “But I categorically did not call him a terrorist. I’m not cultured and I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is.”

Now this is rather ripe for comment. Apparently professional soccer players are isolated enough from the world that they aren’t familiar with one of the most commonly used and over used terms of the last half decade. Also, apparently, it takes a cultured person to throw the really hurtful insults. An only cultured people have much familiarity with the Islamic world. This is all rather bizarre.

But my question was, if you are the crisis manager for Mr. Zidane, what the heck would you do to try to rescue his reputation? The head butt now has been seen by multiple millions of people and of course we did not hear the uncultured insult that prompted it. Is there any hope for the French star’s reputation. He received the award for the top player but now that is a matter of controversy. The whole world cup is overshadowed by one instantaneous act of outrageous stupidity and frustration, as is the career of someone at the top of his game.

Any ideas we can pass on to Mr Zidane?

ebay stock plunges and paypal exec shuffle

While I’m not claiming this is in response to my post of a couple of days ago, but clearly things are in turmoil at ebay with some management shuffles, etc. The market does not seem to have responded well to ebay’s decision to put a wall around paypal. See techcrunch story.

Bad decision, poorly communicated in my estimation. It will be interesting to see how ebay attempts to recover. Will they reverse positions? Ist seems inevitable but how long will they wait? I can imagine the discussions going on right now. When they do reverse positions, what justification will they offer for making the original decision and what conditions will they claim have changed that justify a reversal. Being painted in a corner is what I call it.

Sony, racism and zwarte piet

So Sony is in the news today. The charge: racism. An ad they have run in the Netherlands has prompted cries of outrage in the US for racism. See the ad and story here from the cnn money site. I’ll let you decide if you think the ad is racist or not.

My comment is about vulnerability around the issue of racism. The increased awareness of the public of the power of the media and messages in the media have prompted a much much higher level of concern about anything that may be considered racist. Completely innocent expressions can be seen as sinister and reflecting an unconscious level of racial insensitivity. One problem is that while most in your audience may not see an issue, only one or two who have special sensitivity or even hypersensitivity can make the claim. Calling out “racism” is like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater except the fire yell is illegal and claiming racism is seen as positive. It almost always means that accused party is guilty immediately–again, even if only one or two saw a problem.

I experienced this working with a client a while ago regarding the character of Zwarte Piet or Black Peter in a Christmas celebration. Black Peter is a central element of the Dutch Christmas celebration as he is Sinter Klaas’ helper. Traditionally Zwarte Piet has been presented as a child in full black face and that is still the way it is done in the Netherlands. But do it here, even in a strong Dutch community and you are certain to have a few voices cry out “racism.” The organization wisely chose to alter the custom, but there were those angry about the changes because they do not believe they were being insensitive to celebrate an old tradition in the traditional way. Those demanding change were the insensitive ones, they felt.

The point is, here is a good way to lose both ways. Obviously the best way is to find ways to avoid it even while that recognizes limits on freedom of expression. But if you get caught in the racism cries, there’s really only one alternative for companies like Sony. Pull the ads. Say you’re sorry that people understood it in a way they never intended. And create a new ad.

Ebay and Google look set to square off

My guess is ebay is going to fold on this one soon. According to this story in auctionbytes.com, ebay won’t allow its users to use Google’s new pay system Google Checkout.

Well of course not, since Google Checkout seems pretty well aimed at ebay’s Paypal. But here is a clear example of where business strategy conflicts with internet culture and values. We are still in a time where openness will win the day almost every time in my view. So ebay is between a rock and a hard place and something is going to get squeezed.

What will be interesting to me is to see how they try to defend this position and the impact it will have on their reputation.

The meat industry and Eric Schlosser get bloody

For those interested in reputation wars and the new battlefronts of such wars, looking at the war between Eric Schlosser and the meat industry is very interesting and instructive. Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, a very popular and highly critical book about how we produce and sell food and how we consume it. Now he is the co-author of a children’s book called Chew On This, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Now I have not read either Schlosser book so I won’t comment on whether he is right or wrong, factual or not. But it is clear that the 18 associations representing most in the meat and restaurant industries don’t think too much of what he has to say. They are obviously concerned about his impact on children which seems to have prompted much of their counter-propaganda efforts. They have launched www.bestfoodnation.com as a coordinated means of dealing with the “misinformation” they believe is being promoted.

I read the site and like the straightahead approach to what the critics say. I think they could have done a much better job in many of their answers and they lose some credibility by not expressing some recognition of validity for some criticism. It looks like they think everybody in the industry has only done perfectly right in all circumstances.

But what I find particularly interesting is Houghton Mifflin’s response to this “public relations attack.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The company through its VP says that the industry (or rather its PR advisers) are launching personal attacks against the message and the messenger. But I didn’t see any of that, except in the publisher’s broadside. They do exactly what they accuse the industry of doing. It is a diatribe of name calling, guilt by association and politicizing that does nothing helpful in a very important debate.

What I find especially curious and interesting is their interest in politicizing this. Clearly the publisher wants to make this a red vs. blue issue. Why does everything need to be politicized, partisanized and polarized?

My advice:

To the meat industry–you are showing you are out of touch with the changing values of consumers here. Show that you recognize that not all that has been done in the name of making a safe, affordable food supply has always been right or doesn’t need re-evaluating. Don’t just defend. Give some credence to your critics–it is through them that the industry can improve.

To the defenders of Schlosser– don’t be so ridiculously defensive. Your hero is apparently making strong accusations and goring a few sacred cows. Don’t be so surprised and stunned that someone would want to defend themselves. Stick to the issues about the important topic at hand. Do as you say your opponents should do, and don’t do what you seem to be falsely accusing your opponents of doing. And stop politicizing, for goodness sake. Don’t you think Republicans read books too?

A sidenote–Wikipedia continues to damage its credibility by overt bias as well. They join in the Houghton Mifflin pity-party by complaining about the public relations “attack” contained in bestfoodnation. Sorry guys. Didn’t know it was against the new rules of the blog world to attempt to defend yourself and try to set the record straight. Apparently it is.

The myspace battle

Myspace.com is in the news again. At least it was last night on my local tv news channel (KING5 NBC affiliate in Seattle). Another child preyed upon by creeps who use the information provided by some of the vulnerable young users to do ugly things. It made me wonder what myspace is doing about it.

I came across this site (tech.monstersandcritics–jeez, there's a site for everything these days) which although written in April gives a hint as to myspace's strategy.

SANTA MONICA, CA, United States (UPI) — The highly popular but often criticized youth Web site MySpace.com has hired a former federal prosecutor to oversee content, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Child-safety advocates praised the choice of Internet safety expert and former Justice Department pornography prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as MySpace`s first chief security officer.

Nigam, most recently with Microsoft Corp., will oversee content at the Web site, which is No. 2 in U.S. daily page views behind Yahoo! Inc.

News Corp., the parent of the Santa Monica, Calif., Web site, also launched a public service advertising campaign Monday to warn MySpace.com users against sexual predators.

The spots, which are playing on other News Corp. Web sites and TV outlets, say 'don`t believe the type' when strangers approach children online.

'There are certain issues on MySpace that are endemic to the Internet that are endemic to society as a whole,' MySpace Chief Executive Chris DeWolfe told the newspaper. 'Having a safe site and having a cool site that lots of people are into aren`t mutually exclusive ideas.'

If you look at the comments on this site, some of the kids were freaking out. Omigod a cop policing the content on the site. But others have to think what will hiring one former federal prosecutor to "over see" content going to actually do. There are 78 million users of mspace.com. I'm not sure he can get through more than a few dozen sites a day. They probably already have filters that helps him find the questionable stuff. Omigod! They're filtering my stuff!

The problem is that the myspace issues are close to the heart of the cultural battle that increasingly rages around the internet. It is largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable. The internet culture, now increasingly firmly established, resists controls and values complete openness. While the CEO Chris DeWolfe made some sort of attempt at highlighting this problem, I can't imagine he and/or his communication advisors, could have done a worse job of expressing the problem. "Certain issue"? Endemic? Isn't endemic some sort of medical term for hideous swelling? Oh no, that edemic I think. The point is he had a chance to express this dilemma in a thoughtful way and instead chose to obfuscate.

The real issue is that society (whoever they are) needs to come to grips with the clash of cultures which says that controls are good and necessary in a world in which predators predate, where crooks crook, and where bad people are bad. The truth is our society keeps moving further and further into a culture of control with new laws being passed over every perceived risk or danger with little thought to the unintended consequences of such laws. But these are demanded by a society which somehow believes that we ought to be protected from all risk.

At the same time we have the internet. Open, free, without controls, inhabited by millions or billions now of people–many of them young, naive and inexperienced–who share their thoughts and intimate details with little awareness of the consequences.

One suggestion for an area of compromise. An element of blogging and commenting and posting on sites like myspace that I don't particularly like is the anonymity. I posted a link to an article about the viciousness of much blogging and I think part of it is bloggers and other posters can hide behind pseudonyms. Myspace is apparently moving in the direction of requiring those who participate to be findable by email, real name, etc. That may increase vulnerability for some but will also allow law enforcement to have better access to those who are using the site for their evil. 

In the meantime, myspace is and will continue to be for some time at the forefront of this culture war between the culture of control and the culture of unlimited freedom. I hope they learn to do better in both strategy and communication.

Brand values

Reputation protection and enhancement is what crisis management is about–particularly crisis communication. And that means brand value. From a corporate standpoint, potential impact on the brand value is what keeps CEOs awake at night as they contemplate the bad things that can happen.

If you are interested in a quick and easy way to check on brand value, go to www.yougov.com. This market research firm tracks measures of brand value on 1149 brands in 32 sectors. They say "all brands" but mine isn't on there and chances are yours isn't either. If it is, clearly your organization has brand recognition and therefore crisis exposure of a pretty high level.

Folks in the PR industry (See PR News, April 24, 2006) are using Yougov brand index as a means of evaluating whether or not a companies PR efforts are effective. This issue highlights the considerable difference between the social conscious brands of The Body Shop and Tom's of Maine as they managed their mergers with corporate giants. Very interesting.

A quick view of the headlines on Yougov's site also provides a good indication of brands under stress. I'll be using this to comment on some of these companies in trouble and what those responsible for protecting that brand value are doing right or wrong and what they could be doing better.