Category Archives: Eric Dezenhall

More bad news about Continental–mother and child get booted

First it was the infamous “poo” flight with victims displaying their outrage about how they were treated on the Continental trans-Atlantic flight with the bathroom backed up and human waste flowing into the aisles. I was sympathetic to the airline then, talking about how the media were falling all over themselves to get the victims on camera to talk about how horrible this was.

Last night on the local tv news show, another story involving Continental, another victim making accusations certain to generate outrage among the public and potential flyers, and another black eye for Continental. Now, I imagine most of us have been on flights with out of control children and completely out of touch parents and we wish a flight attendant or flight crew would care a little more for the comfort of the rest of the passengers and take some action. It never happens. But in this case, if you listen to the mother, the child only said three words and the mother and baby were booted before the plane took off. I find that hard to believe, but there she is, a nice looking young mother with a beautiful child making accusations that are certain to diminish years of brand building by this company. And no response by the airline other than “we are investigating the incident.”

That’s what gets me about this kind of news coverage and this kind of company response. I want to cheer for the airline because the media loves this kind of gotcha story, but I get frustrated when the PR departments and senior leadership do so little to protect themselves against this kind of damaging onslaught. Much better was American Airlines response when they were accused of racial profiling in the months after 9/11 when a Secret Service agent was kicked off a flight. In that case, they wasted little time in explaining that he was carrying a gun, would not produce identification, was angry and abusive. The issue immediately went away because in such circumstances, who could blame a crew for taking protective action.

Eric Dezenhall in his new book “Damage Control” (I still have to read it) takes the position that typical crisis response is far too namby pamby. I think he is right about this. More important, it is far too slow. Of course, there is no mention of the news story on the Continental website–but where are they going to tell their side of the story. I want badly to hear that this woman has significantly mis-communicated about the circumstances. I want to hear another side. But nothing. So, despite my pro-company/anti-gotcha journalism position, Continental fails. Guilty as charged. I’ll think twice about booking a flight on that airline when another one will get me where I want to go.

Mainstream media comment on the risks of the instant news world–its about Time

I found this article about the new world of crisis management interesting. It’s what we have been talking about for years–as any frequent reader of this blog or almost any blog on crisis management knows. And the key points about the changing world and its impact on crisis management and communication were made in the first edition of by book Now Is Too Late. But, Time is reporting on “The New World of Crisis Management”, so it must be news.

Here is the key statement:

But 25 years later, crisis management is proving harder than ever. (Just ask Don Imus.) The biggest change comes from the demands of always-on news. Companies now have to sweat not only the morning’s headlines but endless blog postings and runaway video clips that can (and do) appear 24 hours a day. Even when there isn’t much new information, blogs can keep a crisis alive–and smart companies must pay as much attention to them as they do to the national media.

One more thing–Eric Dezenhall has an impressive press machine behind the launch of his new book, as can be seen by his strong coverage in this Time article. Thanks for the copy Mark Fortier.

Don Imus and Michael Nifong–Two Careers on the rocks

Two interesting situations for crisis managers to think about: Don Imus and the Duke Lacrosse situation.

In the Don Imus situation the news is the advertising boycott. In the Duke situation, it is the dropping of all charges.

Imus is toast, like Michael Richards. The comments are so egregious that it is hard to interpret them as anything other than reflecting some deep-seated animosity and thoroughly unacceptable attitudes–unacceptable to our times and social sensitivities. I find it interesting that when white guys make these kinds of racial slurs that they go to the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons to make their apologies. One thought–the effectiveness of that is wearing off. While it may have been surprising before, it has suddenly become a habit. That may mean that even more stunning and surprising ways of showing remorse are required. In crisis management terms, apologies and remorse must always be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that you understand the seriousness of the offense and that will give some assurance that it will not be repeated. It is hard to accept any apology in these sorts of situations without the requisite acceptance that the offense is a sign of something quite significantly wrong. And that is both hard to do and potentially damaging. What can Imus say? I recognize that at heart I am an anti-female racist and now I am going to fix it? That’s why these sudden, unexpected, and deeply offensive and very public comments are very difficult to overcome. Michael Jackson is in a similar situation. Forgiveness becomes possible if he would be willing to recognize that he has a sexual problem involving children. But such an admission would be career suicide, but without it, there is little hope for reconciliation with a public that expects better.

As for the Duke situation, what is interesting to me is the white hat/black hat phenomenon. When the story broke, like all similar stories, the media played out the melodrama according to script: the white hat was the prosecutor, the black hats were the lacrosse players (and the university for not monitoring a rogue program better) and the victim was the stripper. As I have counseled in my book, this blog and to clients, some times, in extreme situations, your only recourse is to work to move the hat. Time and the facts apparently have moved the hat here. Now it is squarely on Nifong’s head–and of course the victim is no longer the victim but is now also wearing a pretty black hat. The boys are now the victim and the media may even play themselves as the white hat here.

The lesson for crisis managers is when you have the black hat on you are in a tough spot. In large part because once the media decides the story it wants to sell, it is very difficult to see that they may have it wrong. My answer is you must tell the story yourself. It’s a difficult situation, but if those responsible for communicating on the university’s and the boys’ behalf had been confident of the boys’ innocense (difficult while under the firm conviction of the media in the early days and weeks) they should have told the story as it is now being told. An over aggressive prosecutor who intentionally ignored evidence contrary to what he wanted to believe. A “victim” who was no victim but a malicious liar. And boys, guilty of putting themselves in a stupid and vulnerable position but who ultimately would be viewed as the victims.

Moving the black hat while under the intense pressure of a story that fits the media story telling mold so well, is very difficult. But in some cases, it must be done. And, when you need to do that, you need a crisis manager of the likes of Eric Dezenhall–combative, aggressive, angry, and righteous. (See my previous post).