Analyzing First Responders In Crisis PR

A crisis situation presents abundant challenges for public relations and business leaders, not the least of which are the critical first communications. The tone of the language, the medium of the message, and its timing contribute to public perception of a company’s management of the situation. First statements say a lot about what a brand stands for, and they reflect on the quality of its leadership. As with a first impression, you never get a second chance to issue an initial response.

Five crisis PR first responses

Facebook dodges blame

Facebook’s response to the recent data privacy controversy was immediate – so immediate that it happened the day before the scandal broke. It preempted the bombshell New York Times investigation by releasing a statement on March 16 announcing the suspension of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook crisis response

But timing can only go so far. While the speed was admirable, the content of the message and its tone were less successful, given the complicated nature of the data privacy issues involved. Facebook’s first instinct was to claim it was a victim of Cambridge Analytica’s mistake and to deflect with a series of privacy policy changes.

The March 16-17 statements come off as antiseptic and legalistic CYA – maybe not surprising since they were authored by Facebook’s VP and Deputy General Counsel. #DeleteFacebook quickly became a trending topic. Within four days, amid a public and media reaction and a deepening crisis, CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an apology tour with social posts, a more contrite and complete news statement, and TV interviews. Despite these missteps, Zuckerberg’s well-executed TV apologies and a flow of news about Facebook’s fresh privacy measures have helped it bounce back, at least in valuation. As of this post, it has reclaimed $134B in lost market value.

carnival cruise Lines crisis PR

Carnival Cruise – the unsinkable PR ship

When a passenger’s video of water flooding a Carnival cruise ship hallway went viral on May 3, it spawned thousands of references to Titanic and some sensational news headlines. The company could easily have jumped the gun and responded defensively, given that the ship was in no danger.
Instead, they spoke with action. After doing a phenomenal job of cleanup and caring for passengers, Carnival let its brand ambassadors to do the talking, as many passengers posted positively about the excellent responsiveness of the ship’s staff. A day later on May 4, Carnival’s first news release clearly detailed the event and compensation. The follow-up May 6 release offered some skillful humble-bragging about the strong response and praised its passengers and crew. It does not attempt to shift blame or to run away from embarrassment. Carnival has deep experience responding to emergencies, and it shows. Its deft handling of the mishap kept things in perspective, and it was a public relations win.

Musk shocks nobody with aloofness

On March 23, a driver was killed after colliding with a concrete divider while using the Autopilot feature in a Tesla Model X. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the first Autopilot-related fatality, neither Tesla nor its famously outspoken CEO Musk made any comment on social media about the incident. To be fair, the legal team may have warned against a public expression of sympathy, out of concern it would imply admission of responsibility. However, it would have served Tesla to acknowledge the accident and express regret even if there was no culpability on its part.
Tesla didn’t issue a statement about the accident until four days later, with a blog post titled “What We Know About Last Week’s Accident.” The statement offers a clear recounting of what was then known – and not known – about the accident, between bookended expressions of sympathy. The language fits the Tesla brand: aloof, calculated, and confident.

The final paragraph of a March 30 follow-up blog stands out as a piece of sincere communication. In it, Tesla addresses its own perceived emotional distance, and itcrisis PR seems defensive in doing so. Tesla goes on to lay blame for the accident squarely on the driver. Whether fair or not, the statements come off as consistent with the brand. Since then, Tesla has found itself embroiled in multiple controversies (including a subsequent accident), and its stock has fallen about 70 points since February. In the wake of so many controversies, its communications has been slow and reactive.

Southwest’s emotional intelligence

Southwest Airlines CEOAfter an emergency landing in which a passenger was killed on April 17, Southwest released an initial statement on social media and its press page saying it was gathering information about the situation. Unlike Tesla, Southwest made the simple acknowledgement, showing that the situation had its attention and showing concern for loved ones seeking information. The follow-up news release came four hours later and included a link to a video featuring CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly emphasized that the family of the victim was the primary concern. He spoke from the heart — without regard for the airline’s possible culpability. The initial communication demonstrates emotional intelligence in the wake of a truly terrible accident.  Southwest later showed good taste along with solid PR judgment by suspending its marketing and advertising.

Starbucks’ solution to a venti problem

Starbucks routinely engages with its customers on Twitter and other social platforms, responding to many questions and customer service issues. Yet its first public response to the April 12 arrest of two African American customers who simply hadn’t ordered anything at a Philadelphia location was in a tweet the following day. The update was a simple ‘we are looking into it’ boilerplate, as many posted indignantly about what had happened. There was no mention of the customers’ race, or of why a Starbucks employee had called the police. A day later, however, Starbucks issued formal apologies, both on social platforms and through a CEO video and statement on its news site. {For a PR view into video CEO apologies, see this earlier post.}

starbucks crisis PR

The language was strong, peppered with words like “reprehensible,” and it faced the elephant in the room by condemning racial profiling. Moreover, it outlined steps to address the situation. Here, the response was slow, but true to form, once the company grasped the impact of the incident, it engaged fully. In the weeks since the controversy, Starbucks has not seen a drop in business, even in Philadelphia. It plans to close 8000 stores on May 29 for a half-day of employee education around racial bias.

All five of these recent corporate “first responders” behaved in a fashion aligned with the brand involved. You can see Zuckerberg’s fingerprints on Facebook’s response, just as Elon Musk’s personality is evident in Tesla’s. The first statement in crisis response carries great importance, because it sets the tone for what will follow. Despite the fact that every major corporation prepares a crisis communications plan, the urgency of first response demands a certain degree of improvisation. It’s this initial response that often reveals a more authentic, unvarnished brand voice. The public glimpses the voice of the company, and the company gets to show its strength — or weakness.
See this fascinating Wired article for a deeper peek into the inner mechanisms of crisis PR.

5 Ways PR Beats Paid Advertising

PR, advertising, and marketing should be working together as well-oiled gears in a powerful machine that propels a brand toward success. While it shouldn’t be a contest, it’s worth noting that in some instances, public relations can yield a greater return on investment. Especially in the B2B tech sector, PR programs are essential to gaining competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace.

PR can shine in B2B tech

PR confers third-party endorsement

Many B2B companies engage in lengthy sales cycles where customers make a large commitment of capital – and faith. Ads alone may not inspire the confidence a customer needs to make an important decision. Customers who read or hear about an amazing enterprise software company in analyst reports, recommendations from third-party influencers, white papers, executive bylines, and in tech news outlets have gain a degree of trust that an ad campaign can’t provide.

 

For smaller firms, PR can reduce marketing spend

If you’re a scrappy startup or an early stage tech company, you may not have the capital for massive advertising budgets. By supplementing advertising with a PR campaign, a brand can earn visibility that attracts leads. Ads pop up and disappear, while blog posts, news articles, and white papers stay searchable for months ie even years. The longer life span of PR content and the snowball effect of earned media and can lead to great ROI for smaller B2B companies.

B2B decision-makers rely on research

And that research comes from PR content. Both profitability and reputation ride on the decisions of B2B buyers. In 2017, Forbes reported: “Most B2B buyers say they rely heavily on white papers (82%), webinars (78%), and case studies (73%) to make purchasing decisions. Close behind are e-books (67%), infographics (66%), and blog posts (66%).” In a 2018 study by TrustRadius, 75% of respondents said they used info from third-party sources (analyst reports, independent media news, and consultants) to make their decisions. Business buyers prefer hard, unbiased data over sales pitches and marketing collateral. When it comes to differentiating yourself from the pack, these PR can surpass advertising.

PR offers more bang for the content buck

In many ways B2B PR is a more efficient engine of promotion. The life span and versatility of PR content allows it to do more work with less effort. For example, a research study conducted by the PR team can be used and reused in many different formats, like white papers, blog posts, and earned media coverage. An executive’s participation in a trade show panel can yield video, media coverage, blog posts, and social media engagement. Plus, earned and owned content can boost SEO over the long haul, driving more leads in your direction.

PR offers credibility

Credibility begets trust. In today’s growing atmosphere of skepticism, trust is a priceless commodity. The fundamental power of PR bears repeating: impartial third-party endorsements outshine the tooting of one’s own advertorial horn. Sound marketing and advertising can be a good start in building credibility, but a well-conceived PR plan builds the type of reputational value that lasts. And solid reputation management creates a litany of benefits. A good reputation is social currency that can diminish the effects of a crisis event, assist in attracting the finest talent, and inspire the team.

MDG Advertising reported that 70 percent of internet users want to learn about products through content versus traditional advertisements. People don’t want the hard sell. Plus, advertising is usually a one-way communication. In this era of two-way communications, public relations is a better tool for engagement with stakeholders. If you’re in it for the long haul, it is unwise to neglect the PR part of the equation. If your marketing, advertising, and PR teams are collaborating in accordance with the brand’s business goals, your company is setting itself up for sustained growth.

8 PR Tools for B2B Thought Leadership

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.

Expert commentary

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.

Five Ways PR Can Build Brands

It’s been said that PR drives reputation, while marketing builds brands. But that simplistic premise defines both PR and brand far too narrowly. It may not always take the lead in brand-building, particularly with large, global companies, but there are many ways in which the classic PR approach and tactics help defend, deepen, and even create an indelible brand identity. Here are some of the most common.

Storytelling.  This sums up PR’s advantages. A corporate or brand story might be threaded through all aspects of its marketing, but only PR can tell it in depth. Those stories aren’t just the splashy entrepreneurial chronicles, like Steve Jobs’ life or Richard Branson’s latest exploits. The most influential storytelling might involve how an innovation saved a business, improved a life, or rehabilitated a community, and it can usually be done in far more detail and with greater authenticity through social and traditional media relations than through paid media channels.

Third-party endorsement. To be strong, a brand promise must be credible. The essence of good PR is having someone else talk about your brand rather than the company itself. The third-party endorsement – either implied or explicit – is often very effective, sometimes more so than paid media. It helps when the publicity results include “proof points” that reinforce a brand proposition or identity.

Thought leadership. Staking out a position on a relevant issue and sharing new insights or ideas can yield far-reaching brand benefits. When Starbucks’ Howard Schultz weighs in on healthcare reform, or unveils a jobs program, for example, it’s more than a corporate reputation campaign. It’s an example of thought leadership about a critical matter relevant to most customers that has nothing to do with its products, but everything to do with its brand.

Education. In PR, “education” usually evokes unbranded behavior modification campaigns that seek to impact public safety or health, like obesity prevention or safe sex. Yet for companies and brands in “high-involvement” categories like automotive, technology, and some luxury industries, the depth and detail that product education provides can be a strong brand differentiator and a way to inspire customer confidence.

Creating advocates. This is where branding and reputation come together. Social media is like word-of-mouth on steroids, and its ubiquity brings an explosive acceleration of the cycle whereby regular citizens become passionate advocates, either for or against a brand. Through the power of social sharing, every customer interaction is potentially a public one, and a brand reputation can be formed – or dismantled – in a matter of days.

Ready Or Not, Here Comes SideWiki

sidewiki
Lately I’ve been involved in discussions about companies who don’t want their brands to engage with consumers online. Most PR practitioners agree that there can be legitimate reasons for a business to avoid social media – be they regulatory issues, a narrow or niche positioning, or lack of preparedness. It’s a brand’s choice, after all.

Until now, that is. If Google’s new Sidewiki toobar application takes off, brands and businesses might be facing a hypersocial Web, whether they’re ready or not. Sidewiki’s only been out a month, but already it’s the subject of controversy. It’s been called “brand anarchy,” a communicator’s “ nightmare,” and “borderline reckless.” Could it lead to brandjacking? The nicest thing I read compared it to a heckler at a press conference. Not very comfortable for brand reputation pros.

Sidewiki is just what the name implies. It’s an application that acts as a wiki, open to participation by anyone. It allows users to post comments on a sidebar just next to a given site. It looks like this. As Google describes it, Sidewiki is a wonderful tool that enables all of us to contribute “helpful” information next to any webpage. Nice, right? And, there’s that term “wiki.” To me, it conjures images of a sober-minded editorial administrator, a la Wikipedia. A stern-faced, detail-oriented academic who’s ever-vigilant for incorrect, slanderous, or obscene comments.

That’s not the case here. With Sidewiki, the people are in charge…which is both wonderful and awful. The comments belong to the toolbar, not the site. It’s not Wikipedia; it’s more like someone standing just outside your fence, posting notices, spray-painting graffiti, or even yelling taunts or chucking rocks your way.

It can be beneficial to learn about the experiences of others when it comes to a specific business or brand, sure. But, playing nice isn’t always the nature of the Web. As I’ve mentioned before, social media is the new bully pulpit for disgruntled consumers. It’s a whiner’s paradise. With Sidewiki, any site can become  a social media platform. We can vent about horrible customer service, complain about a tasteless ad, or slam a product we just tried. And there it is, right next to the company website.

And that’s not all. There are all kinds of implications if Sidewiki takes off. Competitors could theoretically place ads on the sidebar, just as they do now alongside search engine results. And, healthcare marketers already have a migraine just thinking about how pharmaceutical brands would cope with a sidewiki outbreak. By law, prescription drug brands cannot interact directly with users. And, let’s not even talk about the spam potential.

So, what’s a brand to do? Well, Google says not to worry…or something like that. Its algorithm won’t rank comments by recency, but by “quality” and “usefulness,” and it will take into account user feedback and a commenter’s previous posts, as well as “other signals.” This is Google-speak for downgrading or deleting gratuitously nasty posts. I’m assuming there will be a similar solution for spam.

Wikis have a spotty history, and Sidewiki might not even catch on. But, even if it doesn’t, brands and businesses are being mentioned every day online. If someone takes a shot at a brand on Sidewiki, chances are it’s not the first time. It’s up to us – the communicators, the brand reputation gatekeepers – to monitor, engage, and respond. Whether we like it or not, the Web is getting more and more social. We need to see the writing on the wall.