Edelman Falls Short As PR Industry Leader

It’s always instructive when PR teams entrusted with managing the reputations of major corporations run into reputation problems of their own. But it’s downright disturbing when it happens to one that presumes to lead our industry.

Mega-agency Edelman recently made waves by resigning a lucrative engagement working with for-profit corrections company The GEO Group, a top contractor for ICE. When news of its decision hit, some industry-watchers praised it, in part because it came in response to staff objections.

A Principled Decision…But What Principles?

Had Edelman finally grown into the principles it likes to espouse? After all, this is the agency that pioneered an early form of fake news, punted when competitors took a stand on climate change, and is notorious for pursuing growth at any price. But as the agency that has tried to align its brand with public trust, one hopes it has learned from its mistakes.

On closer examination, the Edelman/GEO Group situation is a great example of what not to do when faced with an ethical quandary. According to news reports, the agency originally pitched The GEO Group in May, and it won the contract last month. Surely it would have foreseen the possibility of staff misgivings and weighed the internal and external ramifications of the decision.

Mismanaged communications = bad PR

A good PR team would have considered the decision in advance, involving key internal stakeholders as appropriate. Once made, it would then communicate the rationale for the engagement and prepare to respond to questions from external audiences like clients and prospects.

But that’s apparently not what they did. It seems Edelman thought they would keep the GEO work under wraps. When staff opposition broke out, it tried to manage it in a series of internal discussions that seemed to backfire badly. Then it made what looks like a panicky decision to resign the client only two weeks into the engagement.

Why? Possibly because trade media coverage of its new assignment involved other agency clients who had publicly cut ties with for-profit ICE contractors. Presumably a corporation like Wells Fargo, which also happens to be struggling with reputation issues, might look askance at a PR agency with principles at cross purposes to its own.

Employee commitment matters

Adweek has receipts. Agency staff shared messages from staff members discussing the situation on the anonymous networking app Fishbowl, and they are damning. It appears that Edelman’s leadership thought they could keep the GEO engagement quiet while managing any internal dissension. That’s so not what happened.

But it gets worse! After the agency announced it had severed the contract, The GEO Group voiced its displeasure in a public statement. “It’s truly disappointing that a renowned public relations firm, which prides itself on helping companies tell their story, would allow the personal political beliefs of some employees to undermine a business contract,” read the statement attributed to Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez.

It’s understandable that personal beliefs – political or otherwise – might impact a PR firm’s decision on what clients to accept. But it’s far less clear how Edelman thought it could keep the work secret and somehow manage a staff insurrection. Then, to top it off, it backpedals after only two weeks, which would seem to indicate it never really thought the work aligned with its values at all. It was just about the bottom line, for as long as they could get away with it.

It’s hard not to question the judgment of a PR company that so miscalculates the reputation impact of a business decision and mismanages its communication. And it’s doubly frustrating that it supports the stereotype of PR agencies staffed with morally dubious hired guns without principles, ready to take any side for a fatter payday.

Mistakes happen, but this is unworthy of the largest independent PR firm, and unworthy of our profession.

Why Boeing’s Reputation Radar Failed

Boeing’s PR crisis deepened this week as a fuller picture emerged of its handling of serious problems surrounding the 737 Max. With the release of audio from a tense November 2018 meeting between the American Airlines pilots’ union and Boeing executives – after the Lion Air crash but before the Ethiopian Airlines accident – the scope of the company’s miscalculation is apparent. The narrative has moved from tragedy to scandal.

It didn’t have to be this way. And, sure, it’s easy to second-guess Boeing’s decisions, especially in the aftermath of the first accident last October.

In hindsight, it should have grounded the 737 Max until any and all problems were explored and fixed. Instead, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg resisted action to curb use of the aircraft, insisting that the problem could be corrected by a software fix and better pilot training. Even weeks after the second fatal accident, as other countries grounded the 737 Max and global attention focused on a possible connection between the crashes, it defended the inherent safety of its aircraft.

A narrow framing for a crisis

I tend to agree with Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher, who describes the ill-advised way Muilenberg framed the situation after the second accident. Faced with two fatal crashes only five months apart  – a highly unusual occurrence and one that raised huge red flags – he viewed the situation very narrowly. In his mind it was that pesky software flaw that could be fixed and handled with pilot education. That was his story, and he was sticking to it, both in public statements and in discussions with regulators and pilot groups.

Boeing clung to that view even after the aircraft was grounded, even after two major U.S. carriers canceled flights through August of this year. As lawsuits piled up, it rejected calls for a larger investigation. Professor Sucher argues that, had Muilenberg framed the accidents more broadly by acknowledging uncertainty and pledging to investigate a possible connection between the two crashes, he might have limited the damage to Boeing’s reputation. She contrasts his decision-making to legendary Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke’s framing of the Tylenol tampering. For Burke, the fatal product tampering wasn’t an assault on the company or a supply chain issue; rather, it was a public health emergency. All subsequent actions flowed from that broad framing of the deadly event.

Of course, an executive’s framing of a situation is naturally colored by his own interests, and those of the organization. It’s not unusual that Boeing CEO Muilenberg viewed his crisis in the context of his short-term responsibility to employees and shareholders. One could argue that a leader in his position is conditioned to frame the accidents as he did, given Boeing’s prior safety record, its business clout, and its relatively cozy relationship with regulators. Why expand the problem if it’s not necessary?

A B2B company’s faulty radar

Yet industries where large numbers of operator and/or customer lives are at risk, like the automotive, aircraft and pharma categories, to name a few – should strive for the broadest possible framing when it comes to safety matters. And I believe one key to Boeing’s missteps, and a factor behind Muilenberg’s myopic framing of the situation, was its history as a B2B company. Had Muilenberg and his communications team been more accustomed to handling consumer pushback, more sensitive to the impact of anonymous (pilot) comments in news reports and to the social media furor, it might have framed its situation differently.

In some ways it’s analogous to the 2017 data privacy scandal experienced by Equifax. Equifax was slow, even clumsy, in responding to the scope of the breach and the impact on those affected, in part because it lacked those early-warning systems that signal a major public backlash. A consumer-products company, on the other hand, typically has a fine-tuned sense for a reputation threat. A B2C chief communications officer will function both as a mouthpiece for the company and an ear to the ground. When the social media chatter takes a turn, or the same rumor comes up in journalist inquiries, the PR media will consider a course-correction. It’s in the DNA.

Today’s news ratchets up the pressure on Boeing. It seems that the 737 Max had greater problems than previously known, and that at least some pilots were unhappy with the situation. Any early-warning system that could have helped safeguard Boeing’s reputation and guide its public response failed, or maybe it was on auto-pilot, thinking it could frame even a fatal air crash as a one-in-a-million catastrophe. There was no “reputation radar” here, and for Boeing, the brand damage will be worse because of it.

2017 Crisis Management That (Mostly) Worked

Armchair PR experts get lots of mileage from critiquing crisis management by major brands and businesses this time of year. But what about the crisis situations that are handled well? Those instances are less clear, presumably because we don’t hear about the bad news that never hit the press. But in the spirit of fair play, here are some examples of reputation management that succeeded in 2017.

Pepsi’s graceful mea culpa

Remember the short-lived Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner? It seems almost quaint now, given the explosion of reputation-killing headlines that have followed the brand “scandal.” Yet Pepsi’s fast action helped stanch the outpouring of criticism that the commercial was tone-deaf and trivialized true social activism. The ad itself fizzled, but Pepsi’s apology was a win. It was well-crafted, on-target, and even included Jenner in the mea culpa. Most importantly, the brand took full responsibility for the misfire and backed up its words by pulling the ad. It will be remembered primarily by marketing and PR professionals. Well handled.

Southwest Airlines’ soft landing

Everyone recalls the PR fiasco United Airlines experienced when footage of a dazed and bloodied passenger being dragged from his seat went viral. But consider how Southwest Airlines handled a tricky passenger situation in September. A woman who noticed two dogs on her flight claimed to have a life-threatening pet allergy, yet wouldn’t leave the plane. Police were called, and when she couldn’t produce necessary medical documentation for her claim, the airline had her taken off the flight. Her exit was captured on other passengers’ cell phones and enjoyed a brief viral moment on social media. Even though it was within its rights to deny boarding to a passenger who couldn’t travel safely with animals, Southwest acted swiftly to contain the damage. It issued a formal apology to the passenger the very next day and reached out to her directly to make things right. Fast action and a sincere statement of regret helped resolve a situation that could have grounded its reputation.

NBC’s live Lauer reckoning

The speed whereby the #metoo movement has toppled boldface names in journalism, politics, and entertainment is breathtaking, and major media companies have not been spared. In the wake of Matt Lauer’s firing for sexual misconduct, NBC will be scrutinized for what it knew and when, but it’s hard to fault the network’s handling of the announcement itself. Lauer’s visibly shaken co-hosts Samantha Guthrie and Hoda Kotb faced a live television audience within hours of learning about Lauer’s ouster.  Guthrie eloquently conveyed her conflicting personal emotions while being respectful to those who had come forward to end her colleague’s career. The “Today” Show’s ratings are up sharply since Lauer’s departure, ironically. The sincerity and honesty of the on-air disclosure may be why; it humanized the network talent and drew viewers into their experience in real time.

SoFi is spared major scandal

One company that may have escaped the brunt of the cultural shift on workplace harassment – at least for now – is online lending startup Social Finance, or SoFi.  A fintech darling, SoFi has grown rapidly, exceeding $4 billion in student loan and mortgage refinancing and building a reputation among millennials by hosting local-market social events for customers. So when a wrongful dismissal suit brought to light allegations of sexual harassment and faulty loan application cancellations, SoFi faced a dangerous situation. It responded aggressively to the allegations, pointing to an internal investigation that cleared the company on its loan cancellation policies. Yet as the drip-drip-drip about sexual misconduct by founder Mike Cagney grew, the board pressed Cagney to resign, and he ultimately did. SoFi may have gotten lucky with the timing of its crisis, and its troubles could have been overshadowed by those at better-known companies like Uber. But Cagney’s resignation removed a lightning rod from a situation that could have been far worse.

Uber’s reputation work gains speed….then stalls again

And then there’s Uber. It was beset with not one, but many reputation scandals this year, and the crisis isn’t over. But like SoFi, Uber accomplished one important thing during 2017; it replaced controversial founder and CEO Travis Kalanick with respected technology executive Dara Khosrowshahi. With Kalanick’s exit, some of Uber’s negative baggage departed also. But unfortunately the new CEO was immediately confronted with a fresh crisis – the disclosure of a 2016 security breach resulting in the theft of data from 57 million customers. What’s more, Uber covered up the breach after paying a six-figure ransom to the hackers to delete the stolen data and disguised the payout as a “bug bounty” for testing software. Khosrowshahi’s blog post detailing the situation and the planned fixes represents a good first step in managing the situation. But there’s no doubt about it; he has a long way to go before full confidence in the Uber brand will be restored.

PR Lessons From The Bungled Equifax Crisis

Public relations people like to talk about “getting out in front” of a crisis; in fact, for a taste of real-life preparation, check out this stress-inducing story about a crisis simulation by The New York Times‘ Sapna Maheshwari. Yet it’s a myth to think you can prevent any event that could wreck a company’s reputation. Sometimes it’s a struggle just to mitigate the damage in the days and weeks after a crisis blows up. Still, one goal of all communicators – similar to the physician’s creed of “first, do no harm” – should be to avoid making the situation worse.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened when the news broke that credit-reporting giant Equifax suffered a breach that could compromise the privacy of some 143 million consumers. How did it escalate? And what can we learn from how Equifax handled the crisis?

First, Do No Harm…To  Your Brand Credibility

Take the full measure of the situation

Maybe Equifax believed that the media and public would shrug off the breach. If so, that was a big error in judgment. The situation was unprecedented in its sheer size and the number of people it placed at risk. YouGov BrandIndex, which tries to quantify reputation impact of negative events for brands, compared the Equifax situation unfavorably to the Volkswagen diesel scandal. One difference, however, is that not everyone owns a Volkswagen. As a YouGov spokesperson put it, “Equifax is on a different scale – much wider and more personal.” My personal theory about the company’s failure to assess the situation is that as a largely B2B brand, Equifax underestimated the level of concern and anger on the part of those affected.

Prepare for a negative reaction

Yes, this one’s laughably obvious, especially when a company is lucky enough to be able to control the announcement of the bad news. And Equifax did have that luxury; it disclosed the breach a full six weeks after it occurred, and new information suggests it had experienced a similar intrusion in March of this year. With so much time to prepare, it should have started an internal security investigation, and maybe it did. But it also needed to stage carefully crafted communications with customers, stakeholders, and regulators, as well as a media announcement and full plan for mitigation of harm to those affected. Instead the company seemed unprepared for the response to its disclosure. The site it set up for customer inquiries was quickly overwhelmed, and after the initial statement, the CEO did not formally respond until four days after the announcement.

Let professional communicators lead the way

This is what top PR professionals and crisis experts are paid for. In the wake of the breach Equifax offered free credit monitoring to customers – but the offer required anyone who enrolled to waive their right to sue the company. (Equifax later backpedaled on the waiver.) This is a sign of a classic crisis management mistake — letting lawyers manage the response messaging. An attorney’s goal, of course, is to limit  liability. But this particular move worsened the reputation damage by making Equifax look like it was trying to avoid culpability at the customer’s expense.

Take responsibility

To some extent, Equifax did this, despite the liability it can bring. CEO Richard Smith‘s apology is frank and forthright. “Protecting your data should have  been our highest priority”… his comment in the press release notes. “We let you down, and it’s going to cause enormous pain. For that, I apologize. Obviously, we’re overhauling our security now.”
Yet, plans for the “overhaul” were not explained. And if you look closely at the language in the company press release, it’s – well, weaselly. The headline details a “cybersecurity incident” (not a “breach”) and later refers to “the application vulnerability” – huh? It also apologizes for the “frustration and inconvenience” experienced by consumers, which obscures the graver potential consequences of damage to one’s credit rating or even identity theft. Again, lawyers are crafting the communications, at the expense of clarity and transparency.

Tap a crisis response leader

When things blow up, it truly takes a village – or a skilled team – to cover rapid media response, on-the-record media interviews, social media communications, stakeholder and government outreach, and other aspects of a swift and appropriate crisis response. But there should be a single expert who is empowered to lead the response — a communications professional, not the CEO, and not the on-camera spokesperson. Too often, companies give decision-making power to a group of individuals that may comprise their legal counsel, Board of Directors, and key executives, leading to group paralysis.

Address any questions about the company’s response

Surely one of the senior executives planning the public announcement of the breach noted sales of Equifax shares by insiders just days after the breach was discovered. Those officers included the Chief Financial Officer and the U.S. Information Solutions president, who, along with another senior executive, sold nearly $2 million in company shares. Corporate officers sell stock all the time, and the timing of the transactions may have coincidental, but the optics are terrible. Equifax responded by dismissing the insider sales as “a small percentage” of its shares, emphasizing that the executives weren’t aware of the breach when they sold. That’s not an ideal response, as it sounds far too casual about the transactions, and it raises the question of who did know about the breach, and when they knew it.

Align communications

It may seem a small thing, but the day after it disclosed a cyber-intrusion affecting nearly half the U.S. population, @equifax tweeted, “Happy Friday.” Of course, the tone-deaf tweet was pounced on by critics, with good reason. It’s hard to imagine why the brand’s social media communications weren’t looped in as part of a unified response to the announcement of the breach. Ditto customer relations; those who called the number provided by Equifax and managed to reach someone or receive a return call were told that the call-center company brought in by Equifax had no information to share. Aligning and centralizing communications to respond to a business crisis is simply PR 101.

The good and bad news for brand Equifax is that this situation will drag on for a very long time, as lawsuits mount, an FTC investigation proceeds, and a DOJ inquiry into the insider trading commences. Just yesterday we learned that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and 34 state attorneys general have announced inquiries into the attack. And, of course, this is the kind of thing that members of Congress jump on. Smith, the Equifax chief executive, will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in October, and the Senate Finance Committee has requested information about the timeline of events. He may very well lose his job over the breach, and such a move, though traumatic for any such corporation, might help Equifax move past the worst of it.

There’s plenty of time for the brand’s reputation to sink even lower, and yet there’s every opportunity for Equifax to learn from its mistakes and take steps to improve the situation over the longer term. The best thing is can do is to explore the causes and ramifications of the breach so thoroughly, and invest in solutions so heavily, that it becomes a data security poster child for other companies who are vulnerable – and that means everyone.

American Airlines Soars Through A Potential Crisis

At least one company learned something about PR and reputation from the United Airlines fiasco earlier this month. Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook lit up with smartphone videos of a fresh instance of passenger distress on an airplane. This time it was a scuffle between an American Airlines flight attendant and a passenger who had tried to put a stroller in the overhead compartment. Apparently the attendant pulled the stroller from the woman’s grasp, striking her and narrowly missing her child.

The videos of the American flight captured only the aftermath of stroller-gate, and they didn’t match the disturbing pictures of Dr. David Dao being pulled screaming from his seat. But most of the images, which quickly went viral, showed a deeply distressed mother of twin toddlers, sobbing openly, as the flight attendant shouts down another passenger who comes to her aid. It’s not a good look for American, yet the outcome in this case was very different from that of the United incident.

American avoids the worst with a fast and sincere apology

And here’s why: American posted a statement on its website within hours of the altercation. Although it notes that it is investigating the situation, the statement conveys empathy for the female passenger and reports that preliminary steps have already been taken.

“The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.”

The statement also includes a carefully crafted and sincere-sounding apology to the woman affected. Unlike the mealy-mouthed mea culpas that often result from such incidents (for fear of litigation), it emphasizes that the passenger was wronged, and that some kind of rectification has already been attempted. We learn that the woman and her family had been put on another flight to their destination and upgraded for their trouble.

The message here is clear – despite the fact that the airline’s rules state that only collapsible strollers can go on their planes and that they must be checked at the gate, American doesn’t try to hide behind a legalistic response. It knows that it doesn’t matter if the passenger was technically in the wrong; what matters is that a mother of small children is sobbing because of the actions of an airline employee, who is recorded shouting at another passenger.

Unlike the initial response from United to its crisis, the communications team at American shows awareness that public sympathy would naturally be with the passenger, and that a quick, clear, and apologetic response to the situation was essential to controlling the social and traditional media coverage. And of course American had the advantage of learning from the United fiasco. Other companies, both within and outside of the airline industry, should take note. This is how it’s done.

Rolling Stone’s Weak ‘Apology PR’ Won’t Heal Its Reputation

Rolling Stone’s explosive story about sexual assault on college campuses was horrifying, but from a PR and reputation point of view, it seemed like a journalistic milestone.  “A Rape on Campus” was the type of piece that produces headlines and drives traffic, but also sparks real change. The outrage it triggered echoed some of its most influential journalism, like Matt Taibbi’s takedown of Goldman Sachs, or the late Michael Hastings’ profile of General Stanley McChrystal.

Except for one thing. The central narrative, a stomach-turning first-person account of a brutal gang rape, was not accurate. It may not have even been true at all. Richard Bradley, the first journalist to weigh in on the story’s weaknesses, detailed the ways in which it failed to meet basic journalism standards on his blog just before Thanksgiving. His post is a must-read for anyone following the saga, or for those curious about media bias.

Bradley was followed by many others who questioned the story. As the discussion intensified, the issue became politicized, and ugly accusations flew back and forth. In the eyes of some, questioning the victim’s account was equivalent to being an apologist for “rape culture.”

When it all fell apart only 9 days later, Rolling Stone was left with a battered reputation. Worse, the mess has probably set back years of work to bring attention to campus rape and support its victims.

It shouldn’t have been this way. The entire situation was avoidable. The primary error was the one of running with a highly sensationalized story that wasn’t thoroughly vetted and fact-checked, of course. Those mistakes have been covered by journalism experts. But Rolling Stone compounded its errors in the way it communicated (or didn’t) with those who questioned and reported on the story. Here are some key points where it could have better handled the PR behind the rape story meltdown.

Preparedness. “Jackie”‘s account of her assault is so horrifying that the editors had to know it would make waves. Yet they appeared unprepared to respond to inevitable questions about the central anecdote. When writer Sabrina Erdely was asked by Slate about her efforts to seek comments from the alleged assailants, her answers were vague and even inconsistent. When the questions grew, editors tried to shut down the discussion.

Transparency.  Stonewalling rarely defuses controversy. In fact, it often makes the media more determined to get to the bottom of things. After Erdely’s uncomfortable podcast on Slate and a similar Washington Post interview, Rolling Stone refused to answer more questions and directed queries to its PR director. Bad move, particularly within the journalism community. It intensified questions about how the piece was vetted.

Responsibility. Instead of taking questions seriously or tackling the doubts head-on, Rolling Stone issued a statement in response. It was artfully worded, praising Jackie as “entirely credible and courageous” but taking little responsibility for proving the veracity of her account. Worse, it tried to shift the dialogue to the broader point of the story, the problem of campus rape.

Apology.  Once Jackie’s story was proven shaky, Rolling Stone publicly backpedaled from its earlier “credible and courageous” stance, as it had to do. But in doing so, it threw Jackie under the bus, explaining that due to “new information,” the magazine’s trust in her was “misplaced.” The second statement only further undermined the publication’s credibility and reputation. Why blame the source? Why not admit the failures that resulted in such a thinly sourced account making its way into the story in the first place?

Finally, the statement’s last line reads, “We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.” This is almost comical in its understatement, given the story’s impact, and it’s a weak, ineffectual non-apology.

There will be more ramifications as the reactions to the statement come in, but Rolling Stone is in a tough place. It will need to work much harder to publicly admit its mistakes, take responsibility, and figure out how to make sure this kind of journalistic lapse will never happen again under its banner.

12/7 Update: Rolling Stone has amended its apology, removing the reference to “misplaced” trust and taking responsibility for errors in editorial judgment.

PR Advice on Responding To Negative Coverage

It can rise from a long-simmering situation or come out of nowhere. You, or your company, is being attacked or criticized in public.

The way you handle a negative story can make all the difference. Here’s how to respond without fanning the flames of a negative situation.

Do respond.  Don’t hide. In many cases, a lack of response will be seen as a validation of the criticisms, or at best, an information vacuum. The sooner the response, the easier it will be to control the situation. Yet, a speedy reaction is often difficult. In a high-stakes situation where the facts are unclear, say so, but refute any untruths, and pledge to get out the supporting information as quickly as possible.

But don’t dignify baseless rumors. One exception to the above is the case of an unsubstantiated rumor, where you risk calling more attention to it by responding. The same is true of an Internet troll. In that case, let the community handle blatant misbehavior, foul language, or abusive comments.

Let your advocates defend you. In that vein, if you have trusted clients or customers willing to comment in your defense, by all means, let them. The essence of reputation is what others say about you in public, so third parties, even those who are not 100% objective, are your allies.

Don’t overreact. It’s natural to feel emotional or even use defensive language when attacked, particularly if things get personal.  When accused of copying a competitor’s intellectual property, a client drafted a lengthy defense on his website that referred to “slander” and “lies.” We ultimately convinced him that the post might raise more questions than it answered, particularly for site visitors with no knowledge of the situation. If you can’t be objective (and it’s hard when it’s your business), seek objective advice.

Ask for equal time. Most legitimate websites or news sources will give you the opportunity to refute a questionable story. Where facts or details are wrong, your smartest approach will be to calmly insist on your right to set the record straight. Don’t threaten or bully; appeal to the journalist’s desire for accuracy. No one wants to get it wrong.

Use objective facts and figures. A convincing response is usually one that uses statistics or objective facts and cites sources. Where possible, quote third parties. Corporate recognition, ratings, and recommendations can be useful in making your case.

If at fault, apologize. If your company has made a mistake, admit it and offer a prompt and sincere apology. Avoid weaselly or legalistic language like, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” Take responsibility. Then, take steps to fix the situation or make amends.

Look for the opportunities. Public criticism can be a gift in disguise. Think about whether it could be an opportunity to remedy a problem or improve your business offering. If appropriate, thank your critics and take advantage of the opening to tout the fix.

What PR Pros Can Learn From Justine Sacco

Friday morning, IAC PR executive Justine Sacco had about 300 Twitter followers and was known mostly to her family, friends and colleagues. But after a racially themed tweet and 12 hours of silence as Twitter raged, she became a PR crisis case and an example of a personal reputation meltdown in real time. How did it happen, and can we learn anything from it?

It started with a tweet. Not an ordinary one. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white,” is pretty startling, particularly coming from a senior PR professional at a well known media company. There’s quite a bit to unpack there. First, it seems to make light of the AIDS scourge in Africa. Then it brings in race. Nothing amusing in either case.

Unfortunately for Sacco, Valleywag caught the update and posted a brief but snarky item about it, “A Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s PR Boss.”

At that, Twitter took notice. To some, it was pure ignorance and racism. Others thought it was an attempt at edgy humor, which was my take. Some speculated about a hack. The tweet was RT’d thousands of times, and Sacco’s Twitter account ballooned to over 6000 followers. Before the close of the business day, IAC had posted an apology for the “outrageous” and “offensive” tweet and implied she would be dismissed as soon as she could be reached. Sacco’s name was scrubbed from the IAC website that very day.

As Twitter waited for a response, it became obvious Sacco was on a flight without Internet access. In the meantime, the community went into overdrive and the story went mainstream, picked up by Business Insider, Huffington Post, and even The New York Times, among others. A faux Twitter account appeared, and Buzzfeed wasted no time in creating a listicle of Sacco’s most dubious tweets. All this in the course of a single day.

In a clever, or, some would say, questionable, bit of newsjacking, Gogo, the inflight Internet service, jumped on the controversy to promote its in-flight wifi. Then Twitter briefly cheered when the domain justinesacco.com was acquired and redirected to an African aid donations site. All were glued to Sacco’s account, waiting for the moment when she would realize the ferocity of the twitstorm, punctuated with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. Many actually likened the spectacle to O.J. Simpson’s low-speed Bronco chase of 1994…a pretty tasteless comparison if you ask me.

At some point, Sacco did land and obviously learned about the uproar. Her Twitter account was deleted and she went into hiding. And who could blame her? The story isn’t over, but it does point out some things of import to communicators. Already, in PR-land, Sacco’s meltdown is a lesson in social media’s power and to some, she’s a poster child for self-indulgent, oversharing millennials.

Personal is professional. If your employer is named on your social media account, everything you post can be linked to the company. Any PR professional should know that. And the standard disclaimer that “opinions are my own” is a waste of character space. Does anyone think it would have made a difference in this case?

Edgy humor is hard to pull off. Even if you’re a professional comic, you’re taking a risk with any humor that crosses lines involving issues of race, sexuality, mortality, or violence.  Even if it’s satire. Ask Daniel ToshBill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried, to name just a few. These are guys who do it for a living. Risky humor should be left to professionals.

Response time is critical. The amount of digital rage that built against Sacco because she was unable to delete or apologize for her tweet was astonishing. If we have ever doubted that the media/web/community will fill the void, it’s now a certainty. And the window of opportunity for responding and trying to make things right is breathtakingly small.

Consider a backup plan if out of touch. Some PR pros on Twitter tonight had practical tips. One suggested giving password and login access to work colleagues if unplugged for a day or more. Media trainer Brad Phillips (@MrMediaTraining) advises against setting auto-tweets if you expect to be out of touch for a long while –  as we’ve seen when tragic news hits and brands are caught tweeting trivia, or worse. Of course, a better idea is not to post questionable tweets in the first place, regardless of web access.

So, what should Sacco do now? PR pros will debate it, but she should start with a real apology. Not a mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry to those I offended,” but a true expression of contrition. The 12-hour silence couldn’t be helped, but deleting her entire Twitter account and retreating forever isn’t the right move, assuming that she’s not actually a bigot but merely insensitive. Jason Alexander’s heartfelt apology after a “gay” skit he performed on a late-night show is a good model.

The social mob is ruthless, to be sure. But social media can also be a powerful tool for communicating regret and asking for redemption. It may be quixotic, but I hope it can also help turn the schadenfreude the PR community feels about an entertaining, but basically horrible, reputation disaster into something a little bit instructive for all of us.

Seven Scary Cases of Crisis Management PR

It’s every communicator’s nightmare: a negative situation escalates and becomes a big story, or a business is victimized by an accident or malicious prank.

Negative headlines are just the tip of the iceberg, since it’s hard to gauge a brand’s crisis response based on media coverage or social sharing. But the following get our votes for the scariest crisis situations so far this year.

Lance Armstrong’s wild ride. January 2013 was an agony of defeat for the formerly iconic athlete, as he was exposed as a liar and a banned substance user. The most skillful crisis management expert probably couldn’t have steered Armstrong’s reputation back onto the right track, given his years of denials and the scorched-earth tactics he wielded against anyone who contradicted him.

For public confessions like his, a single, in-depth session with a thoughtfully selected journalist is often a strategic choice. But Armstrong squandered whatever benefits his sit-down with Oprah may have offered with a cold, withholding interview performance that was long on rationalization and short on remorse.

The Carnival Triumph’s fail. With the Costa Concordia tragedy still on the public’s mind, the cruise line suffered another reputation hit in February when an engine room fire left the Carnival Triumph dead in the water in the Gulf of Mexico. Passengers documented primitive conditions on the vessel as it was slowly towed to Mobile, Alabama. Instead of a dream vacation aboard the fun ships, the episode was a #cruisefromhell.

Unlike some other PR observers, I think Carnival did a lot of things right in the wake of the Triumph accident. The company won praise from passengers for the professionalism of its onboard crew, and it was relatively transparent, using social media channels and CEO Ron Cahill to personally apologize and offer makegoods to passengers. Most importantly, its rescue was accomplished with no injuries, and it followed the incident with an announcement of a companywide safety review and $300 million upgrade to its fleet.

Bloomberg as “Big Brother.”  Bloomberg News executives leaped into action in May after it came out that the financial markets division shared information about Bloomberg terminal use with its reporters. The response, spearheaded by editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, was swift and effective. Yet, contradictory company statements cast doubt on how long the data about terminal usage had been accessible to the news division, and how widespread its use has been. The handling of the incident raised nearly as many questions as it solved, and many Wall Street types were spooked.

Rutgers drops the ball. Today’s media environment is unforgiving, and secrets usually come out. That’s one of the lessons of Rutgers University’s fumbled handling of a reputation crisis in June. Rutgers knew it had a problem with basketball coach Mike Rice, who was videotaped in 2012 yelling abuse, including homophobic epithets, and roughing up players during practice. To its credit, Rutgers disciplined Rice, but it then renewed his lucrative contract a few months later. When the Rice video inevitably surfaced on the web, there was hell to pay.

Rutgers’ bad streak continued when it inexplicably replaced the athletic director who reported Rice’s misbehavior with a former University of Tennessee AD who, as it turned out, had been sued for discrimination against a pregnant coaching staffer and accused of abuse by 15 players. Rutgers clearly backed the wrong horse(s) here, and it dragged out the damage by trying to cover up its mistakes.

Paula Deen’s public grilling. Deen’s stop-and-start handling of charges of racism that broke this summer lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology, and her emotional reaction stirred things up instead of calming them down. Deen would have done well to admit the truth by sticking to one story, share lessons learned, apologize, and perhaps donate her time and/or money to a program that promotes tolerance. A more authentic recipe for remorse was actor Jason Alexander’s apology after he poked fun at cricket as a “gay” sport.

Obamacare’s shaky launch. When healthcare.gov launched October 1, its glitches were partially obscured by the start of the 16-day government shutdown, itself a PR disaster for the GOP and just about everyone else in Washington. But, the website’s ills were so numerous, and its progress in capturing new sign-ups so apparently slow, that even the shutdown failed to quell the protests. HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius was an inexpert media spokesperson for the rollout, and the administration struggled to distinguish between the flaws of the launch website and the substance of the plan itself. When the (typically) progressive Jon Stewart calls you out for incompetence, you know your communications needs intensive care.

The Amy’s Baking Company meltdown. Yes, it’s a side dish compared to the other situations flagged here, but the social media feeding frenzy around the Arizona restaurateurs who couldn’t stomach reality-show scrutiny is very illustrative of what NOT to do when the heat is on. Among many other crisis management sins, the couple reacted emotionally and personally to criticism, publicly insulted customers, and used profanity, moving from the media frying pan to the fire in the process. But Amy’s may have the last word; the couple will be featured in a “Kitchen Nightmares” special later this year as well as – surprise – their own very reality show. The very thought gives us indigestion, but maybe it was all a PR ploy, after all.


Paula Deen’s PR Crisis: Is She Done?

It pains me to be dishing up another post about Paula Deen’s PR crisis. Deen’s rags-to-riches story and Southern-fried charm has won her many fans, including members of my own family. But her most recent controversy makes me wonder if Paula can recover.

It was bad enough that she hid her diabetes diagnosis for a full three years before cashing in with a Novo Nordisk endorsement. But this week, choice bits of  Paula’s deposition in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former manager of the restaurant owned by Deen and her brother were the topic of a media feeding frenzy. When deposed by the plaintiff’s counsel and asked if she’d ever used the “n-word”, Paula’s response was, “Yes, of course.”

“Yes, of course?” Really? Yet, Forbes contributor Jonathan Baskin calls this a non-event. He writes, “The idea that anybody would be surprised by this is hard to fathom.”

I beg to differ. Yes, I’m younger than Paula. And I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is far larger and more cosmopolitan than Albany, Georgia, Paula’s hometown. But the first time I heard the “n-word” used in casual conversation was when I visited a college friend from Connecticut at the age of 19, and her brother told an offensive joke. I was speechless.

Today, it’s hard to blame your upbringing for casual racism. But my personal perspective isn’t as relevant as Deen’s response to her reputation melting like a stick of butter. The real question is whether she can recover from the grilling, however deserved. So far, despite well-publicized objections by hardcore fans, it’s not looking good.

A bland and weak apology

After days of silence, Paula canceled her interview with Matt Lauer at the last minute and instead served up a weak apology PR response on YouTube. After an initial video that apparently didn’t pass muster (it was deleted) she posted a second video apology that was stilted and inadequate. Shortly afterward, The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract.

If I were Paula Deen’s PR counsel, I’d urge her to dig more deeply. Though not perfectly analogous, actor Jason Alexander’s apology after he made gay jokes about cricket are an excellent model.

Deen was also the object of unexpected support from Bill Maher, who publicly wondered “if everyone who makes a mistake has to go away.” Maher was shouted down by his guest panel, but the point is that Deen could serve as a role model for others.  If she can convey in a heartfelt and authentic way that she’s come to understand why her earlier attitudes and language are not only tasteless, but toxic, it just might be worth her public sauteeing.

Deen stands to lose millions in TV and endorsement fees, and it may be a case of just desserts. But every mistake is a lesson. Before her deposition, she was controversial because of her high-fat cooking, and she became a symbol of just-plain-folks, down-home indulgence vs elitist bicoastal attitudes about food and health. Now, she has a chance to tackle something more important.

Celebrity is powerful, and I’d like to think that Paula Deen’s crisis can somehow be a recipe not just for her recovery, but for a larger-than-life personality to use her notoriety to educate others. Paula should face the media, make an honest apology, and commit herself to changing not just her own attitude, but those of her contemporaries and their elected representatives. There’s still plenty of work to be done. What she offers over the next weeks and months will be more significant, and potentially healthier, than anything cooked up in her Food Network career. We’ll be watching.