Cyber-security company F-Secure has been protecting enterprises and consumers from cyberattacks and data breaches since 1988. We recently helped promote an extraordinary innovation.
Exposing Potential Threats in Hotels
F-Secure announced the outcome of a research initiative where it discovered extraordinary and disturbing vulnerabilities in the electronic key systems used by many hotels. Over a period of years, two F-Secure researchers were able to create a master key that can access any lock made by a certain manufacturer – translating into millions of hotel locks worldwide. Since that time F-Secure has worked with the lock manufacturer to mitigate the vulnerability and develop a fix for all affected hotel properties. As sensitive news, the story was embargoed until the flaw was resolved, then released to top technology outlets worldwide, starting with a feature in Wired, and followed by Reuters, Gizmodo, Fortune, The Economist, and scores of other outlets. The upshot is excellent positioning for F-Secure and its top team of security experts.
I apologize in advance to anyone reading this who can’t appreciate the insights offered in this post or who disagrees with the public relations expertise shared here.
See what I did there? Call it the no-pology, the fauxpology, or the if-pology – but it’s far too common today. A cheap and lazy way to publicly express regret, the non-apology is more false than fake news, because literally no one believes it. It places implicit blame on those who were offended. They’re just too sensitive, too unreasonable, or they don’t have a sense of humor. You’re wrong, of course, but I’m really sorry if you feel that way.
Non-pologies are far too common
Jay Rosen pointed out the latest example in a video of Facebook’s CTO stumbling his way through a non-pology to members of the British parliament when challenged on Facebook’s litigation threats to U.K. media. There are unfortunately many more examples of the evasive, manipulative, or even hostile fake apology. The #metoo movement and subsequent toppling of many in positions of power have contributed to the fauxpology trend.
Take actor Kevin Spacey’s response to a younger actor’s allegations of sexual assault. Spacey claims not to remember the incident in question but says that “if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”
Spacey’s statement is particularly empty because it seeks to both deny the behavior as well as wriggle off the hook for it with syrupy language. Also, it’s not credible.
Timing is important, too. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was famous for his sorry/not sorry statements after outrageous personal and professional conduct came to light. It’s ironic that his first truly sincere apology, to an Uber driver who challenged him about the company’s pricing, came in response to a tirade in which he accused the driver of failing to take responsibility for his own “stuff” (a euphemism.) In the apology, Kalanick admits he needs to “grow up” and pledges to get help. But for the Uber founder, the goodwill bank was empty, and he was ultimately deposed.
It’s time for the PRs, pundits, and lawyers to stop counseling clients to offer mealy-mouthed non-apologies as a way of checking off a box in their own reputation defense, or staving off legal action. They’re unlikely to work, and the public has grown far too smart and cynical to fall for the fauxpology. For more on how to construct a truly effective public apology, check out this post. But for those not willing (or able) to take responsibility for an action and offer a sincere expression of regret, don’t bother.
For almost two years, protests during the national anthem before the game have been a growing PR challenge for the National Football League. With the 2018 NFL draft beginning today in Dallas, speculation has intensified about whether the demonstrations will continue through the 2018 season and how the league will manage them.
Since 2015, NFL ratings have declined 8% in 2016 and almost 10% last season. During the 2017 season, unfavorability among fans fell to 32% — note that these are fans of the sport who watched at least two games. Though many factors can contribute to such a drop, surely the relentless public controversy hasn’t helped the situation.
Reputation and ratings are down, yet profits continue to rise. This poses a question for an organization that raked in about $14 billion in revenue in 2017. How much does the NFL really care about its tarnished image? Is the league too big to worry?
The answer seems to be no. Clearly, the league’s reputation management has moved beyond its annual kids’ “Punt, Pass, & Kick” competition. We took a look at some of commissioner Roger Goodell’s public statements over the past couple of years in response to the protests to analyze how well its communications strategy has worked.
NFL’s initial response was tepid
When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, Roger Goodell’scommunication was fairly critical of the protest but sought to find a middle ground. He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing,” while offering a morsel of empathy for the social movement. This broad message, “I support our players when they want to see change in society” came off as a bit generic.
Goodell’s statement reinforced the NFL’s alignment with quintessential American values — the flag, freedom, and the military. Given that NFL fan demographics skew middle-aged male, high-income, and white, it’s not surprising that football would play it safe. But at the time of the initial statement, it was still early, and Goodell probably thought the protests would fade.
The NFL offered more measured responses as the controversy grew. In August, Goodell said, “The national anthem is a special moment to me… But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” It was an accommodation to both sides but like most such statements, it didn’t convince anyone. Things really escalated when the president weighed in a more direct, and far more negative, way. Trump blasted the protesters in a widely reported speech, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
After that, Goodell was forced into a defensive mode, decrying the comments as divisive and warning that they “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” The response unified the fracturing NFL for a hot second.
Goodell takes decisive action
In late 2017, the league sent a letter to NFL owners asking them to require players to stand during the anthem. Goodell wrote, “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.” At the ensuing press conference, the commissioner delivered the clearest messaging yet on the issue. He maintained that players should stand during the anthem. the action was decisive and – the NFL hoped – patriotic.
He then spoke about trying to “deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they are protesting.” These statements communicated greater empathy than in the past, but, more importantly, seemed to take a measure of responsibility in finding solutions to the crisis. The NFL’s position had evolved, and the organization’s next actions showed greater urgency.
The NFL’s answer: a social justice initiative
In January 2018, Goodell trumpeted a landmark seven-year,deal with the Players Coalition, wherein the coalition agreed to end the protests and focus on an unprecedented $89 million social justice initiative. From a corporate citizenship/community relations point of view, the initiative moves well beyond PR expediency. The NFL executives collaborated with the players on the project, helping to mollify any antagonism and sharing responsibility. In accompanying public statements, the league admitted that it failed to understand the depth of the issue for many players, a candid admission of its mistakes. The announcement remains controversial, and there’s no guarantee that some players won’t protest in the future, but it marks a major commitment as well as the first truly unifying step by the league.
The NFL’s next play
Unquestionably, this corporate crisis has perplexed the league’s executives, and the social justice initiative comes very late in the game. The best outcome would involve concrete results that could be showcased in a serious, non-self-congratulatory manner. The NFL PR team seems to have learned from its mistakes, guiding the organization through these tough times while maintaining its association with traditional American values.
There are still many reputation land mines for the league to fight, including brain injuries among players, violence against women and other issues. But it is at last making progress in tackling the painful and divisive problem of racial justice with the right kind of constructive action.
Most people think of third-party influencers as YouTube stars with millions of subscribers, or Instagram gurus pushing beauty products. Yet influencer PR for B2B brands is also an effective way to reach prospects throughout the customer journey, from lead generation to purchase and beyond. For B2B companies, programs that involve third-party influencers can require more time and effort than consumer programs, but they yield far-reaching results over the long term.
The association and advocacy of unbiased industry experts is a time-honored way to build brand trust through earned media, high-quality content, or special events. Influencer relations is a logical extension of media relations, but less transactional and more collaborative.
But where do PR teams find third-party influencers? Before jumping in, the PR and marketing teams should develop a detailed strategy, complete with goals and KPIs.
6 Sources of B2B influencers
A PR team often fosters good analyst relationships in much the same way they do with media. Because analysts are viewed as impartial experts, an implied endorsement builds credibility and holds greater weight than that from a paid consultant or endorser – even though some analyst relationships are paid. Media and influencers read analyst reports and white papers, so the reach can become exponential. See our previous post for more on making the most of solid analyst relations.
Authors, experts, and academics
Known or up-and-coming authors, academics, or consultants are often the most accessible influencers for B2B companies. Look for authors of recently published papers and studies, books, or industry consultants who teach as adjunct professors. This is a sign that their expertise is relatively up-to-date, and academic credentials are a plus, particularly when it comes to being quoted in media interviews.
Companies in related industries can also make great influential partners. A software targeted to small businesses may look at other service providers for SMBs – those that offer accounting, networking or loans, for example. One way to reach many potential influencers with a single initiative is a partnership with a professional organization. For example, we arranged a joint study between a client wishing to target HR professionals and SHRM, the professional human resources organization. The study’s results were featured at the group’s annual meeting and in local chapter seminars.
Attending conferences and trade shows benefits young companies in many ways, not the least of which is the opportunity to network with various breeds of influencer. If you have booked your executive as a speaker or panelist, you’ve created opportunities for face to face connections with analysts, journalists, and other thought leaders. A conscientious PR pro will work hard to nurture these relationships in a mutually beneficial manner, perhaps by offering to collaborate on content
Media contacts as influencers
In some niches, journalists can do double duty for a brand, although a working journalist is very unlikely to serve as a paid endorser. Key journalists are industry insiders, so their presence adds gravity to any event, attracts other influencers, and boosts the social media reach at an event. They don’t even have to do a story on the event, although that may be a goal. But just the association can generate good word-of-mouth.
Another category of industry influencer is the brand-name customer who is able to endorse your brand in published industry testimonials or appear at high-level conferences to discuss your work together. If your company has an innovative product and/or great customer service, you’re in a position to ask clients to write online reviews or blog about their great experience using the product. The worst thing that happens is they say no.
Top ways to work with influencers
White papers, simple bylined articles, or guest blog posts are very effective and SEO-worthy ways to collaborate with influencers.
The key here is to make any customer video short, sweet, and shareable.
Panel appearances and other speaking opportunities
These are often covered by trade or industry press and can be converted into bylined content.
Customer education events
Investing in one or more big-name influencers for a private customer or prospect education event – whether a webinar or an exclusive black-tie dinner – can pay dividends in PR, word-of-mouth, and customer good will.
Sponsored surveys or research reports
Co-sponsored research, while it comes with a price tag, is one of the most effective ways to tap the expertise of a partner like an academic expert or even an industry trade group.
Finally, although influencers are often paid for their time, compensation shouldn’t be the foundation of your relationship. For an influencer program to thrive, it should be founded on the individual’s credibility and based on a relationship of mutual respect and collaboration.
An early-stage company with limited resources expects a good return on investment from any tech PR firm it uses. This is true of any organization, but for a startup, the stakes are a bit higher than for a long-established business. Young companies may not have much experience outsourcing public relations work, and they may not fully realize when they’ve chosen the wrong team to help lead them to greater glory.
Any new agency of record deserves a 90-day trial period. Good PR pros still make mistakes. No PR firm is perfect, but chances are, there’s an agency perfect for you. If a young tech business enters a partnership with the right like-minded agency, then it will be better equipped to compete in a crowded marketplace.
Instead of moving forward wondering if your agency is providing the best possible service, let’s take a look at some of the warning signs that it’s time for a come-to-Jesus meeting.
A great PR team has eyes on the prize
The big picture, that is. If, after placing your story in a key outlet, your agency congratulates itself and moves on, they may be wasting valuable opportunities for building momentum. A good PR agency will have a plan to ride the wave with additional tactics like follow-up interviews, panels, and bylines. They should also offer ideas for merchandising high-value earned media placements. Some teams are good practitioners, but if they execute from week to week without looking at mid and long-range goals, they’re shortchanging the client. A unified PR or communications strategy that is revisited once per quarter will support the strongest outcomes.
If they don’t create, they wait
Your agency should be producing a consistent flow of fresh new ideas. They should call you with new angles for bylines in key outlets. They will skillfully insert you into trending conversations within media and influencers. They should make your brand a fixture in relevant industry conversations with minimal lift on your part. The best PR teams will seek out and build new relationships with influencers, analysts, and media – on your behalf. Rapidly growing businesses usually don’t have the time to come up with all the ideas, or to nag about deadlines. They need a team who waits to be told what to do like they need a third leg. If your agency is just an arms-and-legs team skilled at execution, that’s okay, but it’s not optimal.
Your PR team should bring it — and measure it
A startup or mid-sized tech company should expect specific deliverables and outcomes – and the two aren’t the same thing. Your thought leaders should have at least one published byline each month and meet with industry analysts each quarter if those are key plan elements. In addition to weekly calls, you should receive a monthly results report, with specific industry-relevant KPIs. The PR agency should send over press recaps promptly after a story runs. If the agency is not producing desired results, it should be able to clearly explain and offer solutions to course-correct. They should be accountable and reliable.
They feel the connection
If they don’t “get you,” then they won’t be able to inspire the press and the public. They need to speak the language of your brand fluently. The agency should show genuine passion for your story, and know how best to tell it. This is not to say that they shouldn’t push back or question aspects of the brief, the PR plan, or the messaging. In fact, critical thinking is an important benefit of a PR agency relationship. But the ideal agency team shows an understanding of your ethos and mission. If not, they must be able to get up-to-speed very quickly.
Your agency contacts should feel like seasoned members of your own team. If your PR agency of record behaves like a distant vendor who mechanically does the minimum, it’s time to make them permanently distant.
Never get ghosted
A good technology PR team will respond in short order to any emails or calls. They should be enthusiastic and well prepared for a regular check-in phone call at least once a week. These are communications professionals. They should be aces at proactive communication. You shouldn’t feel like one of many in a long roster of clients. If your agency of record is ghosting you, it’s time to make them disappear.
If your company spots one of these red flags, it need not be fatal. A candid conversation may clear up misconceptions and improve performance. But if your PR firm is dropping the ball on more than one of these issues, a conversation may not be enough. For additional guidelines on what companies should expect from their agencies, see this earlier post.
Last week, seven of the public relations industry’s top PR professionals offered unusually candid insights into one of the hottest issues of the day – corporate activism.
Values-Based Decision Making in a Provocative Environment was produced by the Museum of Public Relations, which has grown into an impressive thought leadership organization since its founding by Shelley Spector.
The panelists agreed that most corporations need to build trust by conducting themselves with transparency, honesty, and finesse. What’s more, today’s public increasingly expects corporate leaders to take a stand on social issues. That’s great news for the PR teams who support such organizations, but it does warrant a careful approach. When embarking on an issues campaign, public relations pros should make it relevant to stakeholders, engage their employees, consider their customers’ values, and be prepared for blowback.
Here are highlights from the corporate activism panel discussion, which included executives from Weber Shandwick, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric.
PR’s Deep Impact: The CCO
Event panelists worked through some of the most well-known episodes in PR history, including the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis (Johnson & Johnson). Some had come of age in the days before digital and social media, then lived through the extraordinary communications revolution that transformed the nature of information. They bring a valuable perspective to the state of today’s communications.
Not so long ago, public communication was a one-way process; organizations sent press releases and news statements to media for public consumption. Today, PR is a two-way conversation, and the sheer volume of news has exploded. The role of the Chief Communications Officer has therefore grown in importance. The CCOs working today have the opportunity to make a great impact on society. But it’s easier said than done.
PR’s currency has never been greater
As pointed out by several panelists, emerging generations place a particular premium on truth. Bill Nielsen, retired Chief Public Relations & Communications Officer for Johnson & Johnson, believes that the PR and journalism industries share a common currency: dedication to facts. A healthy journalism sector and corporate communications driven by honesty and authenticity will elevate the public dialogue and strengthen our institutions. As we have seen, flawed journalism and phony corporate speech will only weaken public confidence and degrade the national conversation. It’s a downward spiral.
As Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed pointed out, in today’s communications arena, companies have a social contract with society and must earn the license to do business. But, some corporations fall victim to short-term thinking, or they don’t know how to engage in a more challenging social environment. Several panelists offered observations and advice to communicators who want to gain (or regain) public trust, particularly among rising generations.
Doing the right thing is hard
Your company just needs to do good things and get on the right side of whatever issue arises. Simple, right?
No. And it’s important to recognize that fact. “People mistake ethical decision-making for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Most ethical crises are (difficult) moral dilemmas,” said Roger
Fine, the retired J&J General Counsel. Before you broadcast your position to the world, you must consider how various stakeholders will react. Expect pushback, because it will probably come.
Today’s PR teams are working in uncertain, acrimonious times, but that can’t be an excuse to hold back. In fact, it’s a reason to engage. As Dr. Erica Taylor Southerland of Howard University points out, “There’s an entire generation of workers who don’t recognize this atmosphere as provocative. To them, it is the normal everyday.” This is a crucial factor for many communicators who came of age before the digital age. Today’s consumers have different experiences and expectations.
If your company speaks out, will most be pleased and embrace your message? Will new customers be attracted to the brand? Will you alienate certain customers, influencers, or investors? When J&J joined other companies in pulling advertising from Laura Ingraham’s show to protest her criticism of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg, there was pushback. Many Fox viewers responded, launching counter-boycotts using the hashtags #boycottJ&J and #boycottjohnson&Johnson.
Walk the PR talk
Were J&J’s actions worth the blowback? It’s arguable, but as a global health organization with a stellar brand reputation, it’s reasonable to weigh in on a public health matter. That’s not always the case. When Dodge aired a Super Bowl ad using a Martin Luther King Jr. voice-over to sell its Ram trucks, it faced a storm of criticism. If a company has no substantial or authentic connection to a cause or issue, it can descend into a quagmire of public skepticism.
As explained by Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick, “It’s not just about doing good things. It’s about identifying a social need. And what skill sets do we have that can help that? And still make money.” A company must be able to explain and support an advocacy position. The position should be expressed in an authentic way. Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard is known to be utterly frank in his messaging, including his recent offensive against the Trump administration. It makes sense that an outdoor apparel retailer like Patagonia would take a public stand against the opening of national park lands for commercial use.
But when companies trumpet sustainability programs but don’t back them up with behavior, it’s likely to be seen as greenwashing. When they do back it up with behavior, it’s called stewardship.
Speed kills, but so does hesitation
Companies must weigh many factors when jumping into a divisive social dialogue – and they must do it fast. They want to drive the conversation, yet in today’s fragmented and fast-moving mediascape, controlling the narrative is impossible. “It’s almost lethal to try and be first (in speaking out),” said Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed. PR teams must take time to evaluate the implications and consequences of corporate speech.
For example, Sneed sees his own company’s decision on the Ingraham show as too hasty, driven by the relentless news cycle. “We call it trigger process: something (an action) that could affect the whole organization… We took it from all sides,” was his observation. It seems that the best way to proceed is for corporate communicators to have a firm grasp of their organization’s values and those of its customers, so it can swiftly map public responses to the corporation’s value system.
People have good reasons not to trust corporations, but “communications is the currency of change,” observes Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick. With the veracity of journalists being questioned, the public relations industry may be in a unique position to step forward and be a force for truth. PR pros can help counsel corporations to speak out against wrongs, do good works, be authentic in words and actions, and do it all fast. This kind of strategic corporate activism can help to earn back the good faith of the American public.
Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington this week marked a high-stakes PR challenge for the Facebook CEO as well as its brand. After months of negative coverage following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and a series of half-hearted public responses, Zuck faced the music. So how’d he do?
Above all, Zuckerberg was well prepared. Some might even say too prepared, given the frequency with which he prefaced answers with the questioner’s title. In fact, “Senator” and “Congressman” were used more than any other words. That, plus Zuckerberg’s flat, emotion-free affect gave his answers a stilted, overcoached quality.
Facebook came prepared
But for an occasion like a meeting with Congress, overpreparation beats the opposite. The Facebook communications and policy teams clearly left nothing to chance. A shot of Zuckerberg’s notes, which an AP photographer managed to snap when he left the room for a break, revealed neatly typed message points on every conceivable topic. (It also raised an interesting question about his right to – well, privacy.) Zuckerberg’s seat was even supplied with an extra cushion – possibly to make him look taller and more authoritative.
Mostly, he stuck to the script, patiently elaborating on key points over and over. In response to questions, he repeated that Facebook doesn’t feel it violated the 2011 consent decree about user privacy; that it has a reasonable attitude toward regulation; and that Facebook doesn’t actually sell data – technically true, of course, but lacking context.
The first day of testimony was highlighted by awkward moments that showed the Senate Committee’s relative lack of sophistication about digital advertising and privacy issues. Zuckerberg seemed a little baffled by the ignorance of some questioners, which gave rise to plenty of mean tweets and gifs about the average age of the Senate committee members.
Jokes notwithstanding, there were plenty of landmines during the two days of hearings. Senator Lindsey Graham’s queries about how much Facebook’s offering overlaps with other platforms like Twitter or Snapchat may have seemed naive, but there are antitrust issues lurking behind them. And on day two, House Committee members were far more aggressive than their Senate colleagues, asking pointed questions about the nuances of web-tracking, data-sharing by third-party apps, and underage users.
The best thing that Zuckerberg did was convey a sincere sense of responsibility for Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of data and Russia’s misinformation campaign on the platform. At times he showed real indignation. He reminded his audience regularly of Facebook’s humble beginnings in his Harvard dorm. He wasn’t defensive or prideful; in fact, his insistence that Facebook would welcome the right kind of regulation was disarming, at least on the face of it.
Media company or agnostic tech platform?
Maybe most importantly, Zuckerberg edged a little closer to identifying Facebook as a media company. He still contends that it is, above all, a technology platform “because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people.” Yet when the question was whether Facebook is responsible for the content shared on the platform, Zuckerberg was unequivocal: “I believe the answer to that question is yes.” This represents a more mature Zuck and an evolution of Facebook’s communication of its role and responsibility. But if the goal is reputation rehabilitation, the hearings were just the beginning.
This is where the hard part begins. Facebook-watchers remember Zuckerberg’s past apologies, and regulators have eagle eyes on that 2011 consent decree. On the serious matters of user privacy and outside manipulation, after the carefully constructed apology tour and two days of choreographed testimony, Facebook must walk the walk.
Thought leadership is part of public relations best practices, and it’s particularly powerful in B2B and technology categories. By shaping and serving up a unique perspective, expertise, or insight, a young company can gain a competitive advantage over larger and more established companies.
If you’re a company founder, you have expertise that others don’t. Chances are, you’ve come up with a solution to a problem that differentiates your company. Even more significant, you’re an innovator whose job it is to foster that same spirit of innovation at your business. You’re full of informed opinions, fresh ideas, and predictions about your industry. How do you leverage that thought capital?
The answer may be a strategic thought leadership plan. But remember that thought leadership is not directly about capturing new business. Before you begin, make sure you or your key executive has a novel point of view and is committed to joining — and staying — in the conversation.
Here are 8 tech PR tools for a B2B thought leadership plan
Stellar bylined content
Seeing your byline next to an article in VentureBeat or AdAge is a great feeling. It’s a sexy way to display a CEO’s unique insight and often a great way to tell a story. The PR team should be constantly generating ideas for articles to pitch to journalists. But be sure to adhere to best byline practices. Consider editorial policies and trending topics, and be strategic when targeting technology media outlets.
Seize the stage at conferences
A well-researched speakers’ bureau can vault a little-known company into the media (and influencer) spotlight and help turn an established company into a market leader. A CEO delivering a speech, sitting on a panel, or giving a “fireside chat” can elevate their stature as an industry player. Until the conferences start contacting you, your company will need a team member dedicated to submitting to strategically targeted annual conferences. For a PR guide to executive speaking gigs, go to our earlier post. Women entrepreneurs in particular are in demand.
Tech and business media are uniquely receptive to interviews and commentary from executives who are subject-matter experts. An impressive resume, coupled with a track record of blogging or speaking on a given topic is often all it takes to launch a founder as an SME. At that point, he or she can be offered to key media for comment on relevant news of the day. Are there rumors of a merger in your category? Activate your CEO for a comment on what it might mean. A scandal like a privacy breach? Perhaps it’s a chance to confirm your own security protocol. Relevant legislation pending? Offer an analysis to the business broadcast press. Here’s more about how to build a resume as a subject-matter expert.
Reach out to analysts
Establishing relationships with influential industry analysts like Gartner and Aberdeen Group is a great way of establishing impressive expertise that can lead not only to inclusion in analyst reports, but in the top-tier media who read the reports. The reports can influence customers, investor interest, press coverage, and general reputation, and they typically have a long shelf-life. But an analyst program required meticulous thoroughness and preparation. See this earlier post on making the most of analyst relations.
Publish your manifesto
The founder should be contributing to the latest industry scholarship by penning insightful white papers, which offer the opportunity to take a well-differentiated point of view on a topic of interest. It’s okay, in fact, desirable, if the opinion is lightly controversial or even contrarian. Additionally, if the CEO has a truly unique insight and/or an inspiring origin story, then publishing a full-length business book can yield substantial B2B thought leadership content and visibility. Long-form written content can reinforce the executive’s expertise, thereby elevating the brand’s authority.
Blog early and often
We feel that in the ideal world, a business technology founder should be publishing a regular blog series on the company website and on LinkedIn, dedicated to offering a perspective in the form of entertaining, informative content. One or two weekly posts can demonstrate an executive’s broad insight and communicate a distinct brand voice. Additionally, the CEO could strive to guest post on trade industry blogs. See our earlier post for a deep dive into blogging best practices.
Be the host with the most
Your founders need not wait to be invited to participate in other people’s panels. Create and put on your business discussion panel about a hot-button topic on which your CEO has a specific insight. Invite other distinguished business leaders, experts, and tech journalists to either be on the panel, moderate, or attend as an audience member. Thought leader panels can yield a ton of useful content like white papers, videos, bylines, and blog posts. We do this routinely for our B2B clients, with great success, and we have lots of information about business panel best practices.
Be a pod(cast) person
Guesting on a technology or business podcast can be another interesting platform for your CEO to shine. For guests, podcasting typically requires less effort and preparation than television appearances, and the medium offers an intimacy that print media cannot match. Like other media, podcast shows exist in every conceivable niche. Whether your company specializes in API, blockchain, or AR, there’s a podcast that fits the bill. For some cool shows check out our PR guide to tech podcast gigs.
Most public relations experts agree that the rules of the public apology are relatively simple. Be sorry. Do it quickly. Take full responsibility. Where possible, communicate how you will fix the problem.
But if apologizing is so simple, why do so many CEOs botch the apologies? Sometimes it’s because legal advice conflicts with PR counsel. It may also be due to those who are delivering the mea culpa.
As the face of the corporation, many CEOs are naturally charismatic. Some are effortlessly sincere. But in a high-stakes situation where a strong apology is required, most leaders need help with the art of expressing remorse. Media training can be a useful communications tool, whether it be for national TV interviews or phone chats with small trade press.
Several factors determine how the public will receive a video/interview apology. A good apology can actually be turned into an advantage for a company. Netflix, for example, bounced back after it mishandled the announcement of a short-lived split of its services. (Remember Qwikster?)
Not all behavior is intuitive. A study of video corporate apologies conducted by researchers Leanne ten Brinke and Gabrielle S. Adams found that the more the CEOs smiled, the more the stock prices dropped. Yet share prices rose as the CEOs expressed more regret.
Here are our nominations for best CEO in a video apology:
CEO John Stumpf, Wells Fargo
Scandal: 2016. Charging customers for phony accounts Time elapsed before TV apology: 5 days Contrition? He does express regret, but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to the fake accounts or the negative PR that resulted. In interview with Jim Cramer on his CNBC show, Stumpf accepts no real responsibility. Before the interview starts, he jumps the gun by cutting off the host, stuttering a bit, and leaping into his statement. He does say “we are sorry,” but not “I am sorry.” Most significantly, he blames lower-level employees, saying they “misinterpreted” the company’s sales incentive policy. Yet anyone watching can spot the flaw in his explanation. If 1% (over 5000) employees are fired for defrauding their customers, how can management not take responsibility for this behavior? Body language: He used lots of hand gestures but sometimes they make him look defensive. Yet it’s worth noting that overall, Stumpf is a good spokesperson. The eye contact is strong; he leans forward and sits at attention. Apology accepted? Denied. He was forced to resign about a month after the scandal broke. Even a strong on-camera performance couldn’t overcome the problem with the apology itself.
CEO Rick Smith, Equifax
Scandal: 2017 Epic data breach Time elapsed: A video statement was released on the same day *(but the breach had been discovered by Equifax two months prior) Contrition? It takes Smith a full minute to get to the apology. He expresses regret, but hardly takes full responsibility. To his credit, he uses the pronoun ‘I,’ but his language is stilted. The stock phrase “I deeply regret the incident” sounds designed to distance him from the problem. It would have been more effective to say, “I am very sorry that our customers’ information was stolen on my watch.” Body language: His posture is a bit stiff. He omits a tie, so he looks more relatable, yet he speaks in a monotone. His eye contact is shifty, which is a hazard of using a teleprompter. This video apology raises the question of when to use a recorded statement instead of an interview. The advantage is that there’s no aggressive journalist to challenge him, which can be very important for a nervous or media-shy executive. The problem, however, is that it’s easy to come across as stiff and antiseptic. And if the lines aren’t memorized it’s likely to seem fake. At least in an actual interview, there’s a chance for the CEO to seem like there’s blood coursing through his veins. Apology accepted? Not accepted. After getting grilled by Congress, he “retired” with golden parachute intact.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Scandal: 2018: Not informing the users of a massive data breach Time elapsed before TV interview: 4 days. Contrition? Yes, Zuckerberg is sorry. You’d be sorry too if you lost $9 billion in wealth in 48 hours. In the CNN interview, he never evades the tough questions. He outlines coming solutions and good things Facebook is doing. He appears reasonable and credible. He does not appear aloof, or as if he’s making excuses. Zuckerberg does not like interviews, and he admits as much in this one, which is a show of honesty that actually helps the apology. He later admits that perhaps the company should be regulated, explaining that the question isn’t “whether” but “how” regulations should be applied. It’s a disarming approach, both in the message and the delivery. Body language: Excellent eye contact (too much?). He is actively engaged, yet fairly relaxed. His dress is casual – in typical big-tech fashion — which helps promote an image of accessibility. Apology accepted? Remains to be seen.
CEO Oscar Munoz, United Airlines
Scandal: 2017: Ticketed passenger dragged off plane. Time elapsed before TV apology: 3 days Contrition: Not sufficient. After releasing a pair of inadequate public statements, Munoz is forced to go on TV. In his interview with ABC’s Rebecca Jarvis, he says he feels “shame” and clearly attempts to appear regretful. Instead, he comes off as more annoyed and angry than ashamed. Munoz fails to evoke much humanity. He uses the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “I” — which can indicate a lack of acceptance of personal responsibility. Body language: His posture is fine, but he sits back in his chair, which can make one seems defensive. He does not maintain good eye contact with the journalist. He often looks as if he’s trying to remember his messaging. Accepted or denied? Accepted. Still CEO, though his planned promotion to chairman was scuttled.
CEO Steve Ells, Chipotle
Scandal: 2015: E. coli & norovirus outbreaks Time elapsed before TV interview: Over a month. Contrition? As CEO apologies go, this was solid. In the interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the concern shows on his stern, serious face. He has clearly benefited from excellent media training. He gets to the apology immediately and uses the pronoun “I.” He shows his fallibility and seems very authentic. Ells talks extensively about all the things they will do to correct the problem, promising they will be 10-15 years ahead of the industry in food safety. When Matt Lauer asks him about stock prices, he smartly says, “That’s not what we’re thinking about now. We’re thinking about safety…” Body language: He sits with good posture and leans forward. He maintains good eye contact, but not too much. His dress is a bit more casual than most CEOs – a sweater under a jacket, which makes him appear less aloof or corporate than, say, Munoz. Accepted or denied? Debatable, because, as strong as Ells’s performance was, Chipotle continued to struggle with fresh outbreaks of food-borne illness among customers. Ells stepped down in late 2017, which shows that you can be an excellent apologizer, but if you don’t fix the problem, it won’t matter in the long run.
Web 2.0 has radically changed journalism and public relations, two industries that rely on the free exchange of information and ideas. But one highly undesirable outcome is “fake news.” It’s a war of information being waged on keyboards and in the cloud and it affects all of us. The online communications revolution has unleashed a Pandora’s box of disturbing problems that threaten privacy, democracy — even the concept of objective truth.
But whose responsibility is it to fight fake news? If the big tech platforms try to identify and sift out hate- mongering posts or users, then they become editors. If big tech chooses to sift out bad news sites, then they become publishers. Another dilemma for the platforms is that both human intervention and technology algorithms have disadvantages, so in a way, they ‘re in a trial-and-error phase.
The tech giants
Alphabet’s Google News Initiative earmarked $300 million in the war against misinformation. So, what does that entail? They will work to curb bad information during breaking news by attempting to prioritize accurate and legitimate news. The initiative will create a subscription tool for consumers, so readers can safely subscribe to their favorite news outlets through Google. It also includes the development of educational programs for young journalists and programs to assist the growth of reputable news outlets. It’s their way of supporting journalism into the future, which is a good thing.
After catching heat for a Parkland shooting conspiracy video, Google’s YouTube took steps to thwart the promotion of extremist or misinformation videos. Any time YouTube finds a questionable piece of video content, it will add a text box linking pertinent “factual” information supplied by Wikipedia. The platform will label government-funded videos as such. It’s also launching a media literacy campaign as part of its larger strategy.
Facebook & Twitter
Even before the Cambridge Analytica controversy, Facebook had come under fire for its role in featuring fake news that may have influenced the 2016 presidential election. For well over a year, Facebook has been trying various tools to curb the spread of misinformation. In February, the platform retooled its algorithm to deprioritize paid publishers’ content.
Now, Facebook is considering vetting news organizations. This comes in contrast to the approach taken by Alphabet, which warns that social platforms shouldn’t become news editors. Meanwhile, Twitter is attempting to weed out fraudulent news outlets manually. It has recently been fighting spambots and retooling its automated posting options.
But the big tech companies aren’t the only ones fighting fake news.
What’s interesting about the fake news crisis is that some tech startups are also fighting misinformation. Newsguard Technologies will in effect create a ratings system, or as they put it, a “nutrition label” for news sources. They say that a battalion of journalists will be vetting the legitimacy of news sites. Another software startup, the UK-based Serelay, claims to be able to find fraudulent online photos by combing through the metadata and the pixels to detect manipulation. Of course, for every AI company charging ahead to parse out misinformation, there’s likely an AI company working to spread misinformation.
If Facebook and Google decide it’s not their job to regulate the content, and tech startups cannot do the job, then the government might decide to do so. Despite protests, the Malaysian parliament passed a fake news bill. The bill will punish the malicious spread of false news with a fine of up to $170,o00 or up to six years in prison. Such harsh government censorship of media, however, is unlikely to work in the U.S.
The truth is we have unleashed a beast of sorts with Web 2.0. In some ways the billionaire creators of this social media revolution have lost control of their creation – and are scrambling to regain it. Time will tell which actors and methods prove effective in the battle to preserve journalistic integrity. One thing is certain: the fight against fake news is not only a technical problem, but is also a moral and ethical one.