Tag Archives: reputation crisis

Is Instagram TooLateagram?

It seems a bit ironic that an iconic brand with “instant” in its name may be severely impacted in crisis response by offering “too little, too late.”  “Too late” is now the classic story of much crisis response and may well describe the latest attempt of Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom to quell the storm and restore trust.

The good news is that he has come forward with the appropriate response regarding the attempt to change Terms of Service language to allow the photo-sharing service to sell users photos. His first attempt was weak at best: in it he said basically, legalese is hard for dummies like you to understand but you should know we never intended to sell your photos. Maybe you never intended it, but your lawyers made sure you had that right.

The second attempt is much better. Now Systrom says: “I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don’t own your photos—you do.”  Again, he is saying “intention.” But the critical key is action. He removed the offensive new language and reinstated the old language related to advertising. That is the key.

Big lesson here–he kept talking about intentions, but the language allowed beyond what he said his intentions were. Actions speak louder than words. The only meaningful thing he did was to remove the silly and offensive language.

Systrom also has committed to engaging with his customers before doing something this crazy again. Good idea. I don’t know how many big brands will have to stumble and even fall before they realize we live in a different era than a few years ago. Bank of America, Verizon, the Gap, Komen Foundation, Netflix, even the US Congress all have had learn a painful lesson that we no longer live in a time of making decisions behind closed doors, no matter how rational those decisions seem to be. Basic business decisions that used to be the sole right of the C-suite and board to decide on now require consultation.

Now Instagram will be added to that list of those who had to learn that lesson painfully. Engage, folks, engage. Or potentially pay a high price. And, if you forget that lesson and fiind yourself facing the wrath of the digital lynchmob, for the sake of your future, take action instantly–not days later. Or you may be another “Tolateagram.”



A behind the scenes look at Penn State PR efforts

I found this article from espn about Penn State’s post-crash PR efforts very interesting. According to the story four memos from new Penn State president Rodney Erickson to his board detailed the behind the scenes effort to stabilize the school’s reputation after the arrest of Sandusky and the firing of Paterno and the former president.

A few highlights:

– a lot of focus on donor contributions along with the message that previous contributions would not be returned. The donor picture was very positive with donations increasing substantially and the public statements of support from donors.

– some interesting comments about “aligning our message” and the confident declaration that “we are taking control of the narrative of the story.” That kind of triumphalism in light of the deep problems no doubt would serve as a red flag in front of the journalistic bulls.

– memos contained details of their monitoring efforts that showed sharp declines in interest in Penn State

The memos were released as part of a public records request, which is interesting because according to the article the school is largely exempt from such requests and declined to provide additional documents including memos beyond Nov 18.

Some important lessons here:

– everything you document in a high profile situation likely will find its way into the public arena–particularly if tax payer dollars are involved, but even if not, it’s a very transparent world

– Despite the overall negative tone of the espn article and the smarmy headline: “Officials focused on image” (like, duh!) the article demonstrates to me anyway some clear headed and effective leadership being demonstrated by the new president. It also gives an interesting inside perspective to a limited degree of the much maligned public relations team which suggests that whatever happened before, they are doing the things they need to do including focusing on key relationships, prioritizing major issues, and closely monitoring the internet for public sentiment.

– with all the press about the stupidity of the mistakes that were made, few commentators or reporters gave much recognition to the position the administration was in as the Sandusky story broke. They had the winningest coach in university football history, an icon, practically a god to some folks. They had fans and a donor base who would not stand for (indeed many did not) any perceived injustice against Paterno. In fact, many supporters still believe he was not treated fairly and take great exception to the way the university is trying to distance itself from his aura.

Crises like this, particularly complex reputation crises, are much more nuanced than how the story is typically told. Journalists have to tell a story in a way that simplifies, eliminates confusion, and to make it interesting, tell it in a melodrama fashion where the good guys are clearly separated from the bad guys. Bloggers and the millions of social media commentators seem to slide easily into extreme corners, amplifying the demonizing that happens in the media, or demonstrating what appears to be blind, unthinking support. The truth is somewhere in there, but with all the words spilled, it is often hard to find.

The problem with this is those on the inside who have to make the decisions see the complexity while those of us on the outside do not. What is critically important is that oversimplified outside perspective be brought inside, to the highest levels, to help guide the decisions that need to be made. Because, despite the complexity and conflicts in the Penn State debacle, the officials making the decisions did not have the clarity of vision to see how their action and inaction would be communicated and seen.

Are we losing perspective on reputation crises?

I receive several email newsletters on public relations issues and business crises are among the favorite topics. Pitches for blog posts from authors or PR pundits frequently focus on the reputation crisis of the day. Commenting and reporting on reputation crises is getting to be like the news business itself–it’s all about immediacy, and if it isn’t lurid enough, or big enough, or juicy enough, we tend to try to make it that way. I’m writing as a crisis comms pundit myself, so this is a big of navel gazing.

Bank of America’s debit card fee kerfluffle. Netflix and their ill-fated business model change and Qwikster division. RIM and their outage problems–did they apologize quickly and effectively enough. News articles talk about drop in share price because of the Blackberry outage such as the LA Times report that share price of RIM dropped 1.1%. Not sure with the volatility of the market that is such a big deal.

What I’m wondering about is are we making too big a deal out of these crises? No doubt the Internet and social media have created greatly increased crisis risk, its increased the speed with which crises evolve, and with the crowd or mob-effect can explode relatively small issues into huge ones almost instantaneously.

Let’s look at some of the ones in the recent past–Dominos and their dumb employees YouTube stunt. JetBlue and its sitting on the runway problems. Even Toyota with the massive recalls and safety issues. Did the big listeria problem keep you from buying cantaloupes? I’m just raising the question here, but are crises like this just becoming commonplace and so losing their impact? Are we becoming inoculated to reputation damage by over exposure? Is it possible that one of the effects of social media on reputations is to increase reputation resilience by making the many crises that seem to pop up over time less significant? Is Bank of America really harmed by all the anger and consumer threats about their debit card fees?

Clearly, the PR profession and particularly those like yours truly who are in the crisis communication business want to think that all these are really big deals. And if the impact of these random thoughts is to take pressure off crisis preparation, then I am doing a huge disservice to all the companies and organizations who are woefully unprepared. But I am wondering if we need to think about crises a little differently.

I remember talking with someone who worked in the press office of President Bush Senior. He said every day was a crisis. That certainly is the case in high profile offices like the president or mayor’s of major cities. Crises in the sense of high public interest, media activity, lots of conversation, potential risk of making the wrong moves–is commonplace in certain offices. And that may very well be what is happening in the social media world. Almost everyday can be a crisis–some far more significant than others. I suspect if you work for a major brand and you are doing your social media monitoring, you are dealing with a dozen minor crises right now, or ones that could erupt into something more major. Is it a crisis if it is a daily occurrence?

I wrote some time ago that crisis communication may be dead. I guess I’m coming back to that theme from a different angle. I said then that if you have an on-going conversation with your key stakeholders, with those people who really matter for your future, then crisis communication is just intensifying that conversation. I really think this is the new world of crisis communication–but only for those who are engaged in on-going conversation.

That seems to me to be the crucial difference. Crisis communication in the older and now increasingly outdated sense is when you need to rely on traditional media to address the concerns and communicate with the people that matter. The new crisis communication to a large degree can  afford to ignore the traditional media essentially entirely because you are already talking directly and engaging directly those people who matter most. If things go wrong, you listen, you respond, you explain, you clarify, you correct the wrong information and you carry on the conversation.