When The Crisis PR Guy Is The Crisis

There’s not a major corporation today that doesn’t have a small army of PR and reputation experts helping it navigate a tricky media and government relations landscape. But occasionally, the damage comes from a company’s own ranks.

That happened this week when the Campbell Soup Company found itself in hot water after a bizarre tweet from its own head of government affairs — an executive who ironically lists “crisis management” among his skills. It all started when Campbell VP Kelly Johnston tweeted about the so-called “caravan” of immigrants traveling north from Honduras. Mr. Johnston posted a photo of the migrants along with a claim that the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundation is an organizer of the group, including “where they defecate.”

Blech. There’s no evidence that Mr. Soros or his foundation has any connection to the migrant march. The Open Society quickly posted a denial, expressing that it was “surprised to see a Campbell’s Soup executive spreading false stories.” Johnston deleted the tweet and later shut down his Twitter account, but not before sharp-eyed @kenvogel of The New York Times captured it in a screen shot.

Bad timing compounds a mistake

Kelly Johnston has a background in politics; he’s a former Secretary of the U.S. Senate – not an unusual pedigree for a Public Affairs VP. But surely a top government relations officer should know better than to publicly dabble in conspiracies that simmer in the dark corners of the interwebs. And Johnston’s tasteless tweet couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time for Campbell.

First, Mr. Soros is a frequent target of anti-Semites and among several prominent persons targeted in a series of pipe bombs delivered by mail this week. Mr. Johnston’s tweet was posted Monday, and he likely didn’t know about the mail bomb, but the timing is terrible.

What’s more, it comes as the company is under pressure from shareholders. Campbell has been plagued with poor earnings and faces a challenge by activist investor Bill Loeb. A consumer boycott of Campbell’s many brands due to a tweet by a “soup Nazi”(as one critic dubbed Johnston), is a recipe for more than heartburn. And it scalds worse given that Campbell’s soup is an iconic brand long associated with home and hearth.

So, what’s a company to do when the call is coming from inside the house? Campbell did take several proactive steps in this case.

Issue a clear and quick response

Shortly after the backlash to Johnston’s tweet, Campbell posted a tweet of its own distancing the company from Johnston’s comment. “The opinions Mr. Johnston expresses on Twitter are his individual views and do not represent the position of Campbell Soup Company,” it tweeted. The comment itself wasn’t enough, and Vogel doggedly tweeted follow-up questions to Campbell, but it was a start.

Apologize to the offended party

Campbell took pains to contact the Open Society Foundation as the controversy reached a boil. In a letter from interim CEO Keith McLoughlin, the company expressed that Johnston’s comments “are inconsistent with how Campbell approaches public debate.” A bit stilted, and the response falls short of an apology.

Remove the problem if possible

This is the stickiest issue for many companies. Dismissing an executive for speaking out can fix the problem, but it can also create additional negative coverage or precipitate litigation in some cases. But yesterday we learned that Johnston will retire from the company in early November, and that news was also included in the letter to the Open Society Foundation. In response to media inquiries, the retirement was positioned as something that had been planned all along, although that seems unlikely.

Make your values clear

This is the most important part of protecting a corporation from reputation damage that starts inside. Most companies have a written social media policy, but any executive of Johnston’s rank should be empowered to tweet or post on its behalf where news or issues warrant. What’s more powerful is a clear statement of values, backed and lived out by the organization itself.

The PR Perils Of Cultural Appropriation

PR teams have been pressed into crisis duty in a series of corporate missteps that have something in common: marketing or advertising that shows “cultural appropriation” – borrowing a sensitive ethnic or cultural theme for commercial purposes. It’s easy to see why a marketing campaign would be tempted by the currency and news value of a hot-button social or cultural issue, but it can be a perilous move. There are lessons in three recent cases of corporate cultural appropriation – and the PR responses.

Jack in the Box’s #MeToo Misstep

Last month, Jack in the Box was embroiled in a mini-controversy about its TV ad campaign for new teriyaki bowls in which men and women in an office talk about how much they like each other’s “bowls” – punning on the word “balls,” obviously. If you doubted that the spot attempts to parody the current sensitivity about sexual harassment in the workplace, there’s even a company lawyer who butts in and warns that they can’t say “bowls” in that context. Media critics led by Adweek as well as the Twitter-verse accused the fast food chain of insensitivity. The corporate response, in the form of a statement to Adweek, defended the spot without contrition.

“This ad is a creative and humorous expression around the teriyaki bowl, highlighting how a burger brand such as Jack in the Box has the guts — or ‘bowls’ — to go beyond the usual and serve something other than burgers. This ad is not diminishing any movement, and we stand firmly against any form of harassment and value those who have the guts to combat it.”

PR In proportion

The statement was the one and only corporate response to the criticism. Given that the the story lasted only a day in major media outlets, Jack in the Box’s corporate response seems both proportionate and sufficient. To its credit, the company did not issue an empty “fauxpology.” Instead, it defended its choice while affirming its values. The absence of response would have been a PR mistake, yet an overreaction could have overshadowed the campaign or even ended it.
The interesting question here is about the company’s motives. Could it have intentionally courted controversy by making light of workplace harassment issues? We don’t know, but if so, it was probably a risk that succeeded.

Bodega’s botched branding

In 2017 a pair of ex-Google employees founded a new company to sell goods usually found at convenience or corner stores – in vending-machine-like “pantry boxes” placed in other businesses and residential buildings around town. The pair came under fire when they named their company Bodega and used a cat (like those who live in bodegas) in its branding. A year later, the startup has rebranded as Stockwell. In this case, it was the earned media coverage around the launch that seemed to precipitate the backlash. Fast Company’s feature on the founders went viral – with the headline Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete. More media outlets piled on, and the founders found themselves on the defensive.

Startups should listen to PR advice, too

A less provocative headline might not have elicited so much blowback, but Bodega’s problem went beyond the brand. When asked about cultural insensitivity, cofounder McDonald explained that they had researched the name among Hispanics, with positive results, but he added, “I’m not particularly concerned about it.Better PR advice might have led to a more sensitive answer. Yet in this case, the issue wasn’t just the company name, but its founders’ attitudes and their overall business goals. At the very time when Silicon Valley’s reputation has started to fray, it really did seem to want to put the bodega out of business, while borrowing its own cultural status in the bargain.

You never forget your first apology

After their missteps, the Bodega founders did many things right. Instead of granting a follow up interview to apologize further or commit to changing the name (a decision that couldn’t be made quickly), they posted an apology that acknowledged the problem and admitted their market research fell short. In announcing the company’s rebranding as Stockwell nearly a year later, they take responsibility for making a bad decision and move on to share a new and gentler vision for the company.

Though Fast Company notably did not soften its language in covering the rebrand, it seems that Stockwell is on a better path today than before, at least in a communications sense.

PR remedies for corporate insensitivity

Target misfires in New York

The biggest brand to commit a cultural gaffe was Target. In July, it opened a store in Manhattan’s East Village, a neighborhood known for a gritty, diverse, and artistic sensibility. Target launched its store with a temporary display that depicted the storefront facade of iconic East Village rock club CBGBs. The backlash came in a New York minute. Rather than an homage, the CBGB facade was seen as a tone-deaf display at a time when residents are concerned about ongoing gentrification and corporatization of the area. Author Jeremiah Moss called it “the most deplorable commodification of local neighborhood culture I’ve ever witnessed.” As with the Bodega branding, the reference was perceived as ignorance of, or indifference to, the tastes of major stakeholders – namely, residents.

Two days after the store opening, Target issued a brief statement apologizing “if some eventgoers felt it was not the best way to capture the spirit of the neighborhood” and pledging to take “guest feedback” into account in the future. Given its size and resources, Target’s insensitivity to its new store’s community is surprising, and its response was tepid. When trying to tie their brand or product to an archetype, issue, or idea, businesses can’t afford to disregard cultural and social values of the communities they serve.

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.

NFL PR: Protest Is On The Clock

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’s communication 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 stakes rose after Kaepernick lost his job. The 2017 season began without him, but not without controversy. Players, coaches, celebrities, politicians, and fans all said their piece. Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins famously urged players to speak out in Kaepernick’s defense.

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.

A PR View Of CEO Apologies

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.

7 Ways To Crisis-Proof Your Brand

What’s the cost of a brand crisis? As video of United Airlines passenger Dr. David Dao being violently dragged from his seat went viral last month, the media – and a global audience of prospective customers – were shocked. It may not have hurt the airline’s stock price in the long term, but CEO Oscar Munos’s promotion to Chairman has been shelved, at least for the time being. United’s reputation storm came just days after brand Pepsi weathered a different kind of eruption. It was hit with a barrage of social scorn for its glitzy, but tone-deaf, ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a generic social protest.

And for months prior to the Pepsi and United incidents, another big brand, Uber, sustained a rapid series of reputation dings that left it struggling to get back on track.  In addition to another viral video – this one of founder Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver – the company was hit with ugly charges of sex discrimination in the workplace, detailed in a blog post by a female engineer who quit the company in frustration after only a year. To add to its woes, the New York Times exposed Uber’s stealth use of software to evade regulators in a major breaking story.

All three are large brands with the resources to come back from a negative situation. But each would likely agree that it’s better to prevent the situation in the first place—to be essentially “crisis-proof.” Problem is, it’s easier than ever for something that would once have been a local incident or a minor issue to blow up in a big way. Today, there’s always a smartphone nearby, the outrage machine is ready to get cranking, and the social mob is willing to pile on even before all the facts are known.  When it comes to a brand reputation crisis, digital media is the great leveler. It can take down CEOs, celebrities, and regular citizens. It also threatens brands – their immediate and future sales, as well as long-term value and stock price.

While there’s no way to truly “crisis-proof” a corporation or brand, there are steps that make it less likely to happen and its impact less severe.

How To “Crisis-Proof “A Brand

Crisis-proof your business first

Easier said than done, of course, but according to the Reputation Institute, the majority of crisis situations are “simmering” rather than sudden. They’re more likely to arise from a pattern of misbehavior or echo mistakes that have happened before, but were ignored or covered up. One way an organization can protect itself is by empowering its employees. This is particularly important in companies like retailers and restaurants (and airlines!) with large and decentralized workforces that may experience high turnover. Those types of businesses are vulnerable to a local situation that spirals out of control. Not all can grant customer-facing employees the power to resolve a minor situation quickly, but those that can, should. When we hear about a customer being mistreated, we identify with him. It’s smart to empower those staff to resolve or escalate a complaint or unexpected situation by bending a rule, waiving a penalty, or granting the disgruntled consumer a quick benefit for their trouble. Which airline wouldn’t rather have a passenger tweet about the surprise upgrade (even at the risk of raising expectations) than get clobbered by public complaints?

Know your dealbreakers

There are undesirable incidents that can prompt customer complaints or negative coverage, and then there are crisis situations that can bring down a CEO or even a business.  The two are not the same. A rude employee or even workplace misbehavior isn’t necessarily an existential threat for most companies. United will weather the latest tempest, in part because the traveling public have low expectations of the airline experience. But if you’re a baby food company and there are safety concerns about your product, that’s a potential dealbreaker.  If you’re a beauty brand positioned around diversity and you discriminate in the workplace, that may be a dealbreaker. Those are the scenarios that should be prioritized when planning a crisis response.

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst

Many armchair crisis experts will advise companies to have a crisis plan. That’s more complicated than it seems, because in today’s fast-moving business and media environment, many plans will be outdated by the time a real emergency hits. To crisis-proof your band, it’s best to cycle through one or more worst-case scenarios, based on prior experience and institutional knowledge of where the brand and the category are most vulnerable.  The baby food reference above comes from a brand I once represented that had undergone a near-fatal situation in which bits of glass were found in its products.  The problem was isolated, but once an outraged mom went public with her complaint, a deluge of reports of glass particles in products (most imagined) nearly brought down the company.  Even decades later, when most employees who experienced the incident had retired, a strong crisis-preparedness mentality prevailed, from the C-level to every rank-and-file employee.  It was in the DNA. And it showed in every aspect of the company’s business, from how it handled consumer complaints and managed sourcing, to manufacturing and marketing.  Naturally there was a detailed crisis-proof plan based on the actual incident that included a communications protocol refreshed quarterly with simulations for key executives.

Know how to apologize

It’s astonishing how often a large organization fails the apology test.  Most acknowledge that United made a bad situation worse with not one, but two attempts at a response that didn’t come close to being appropriate.  Among other things, a critical ingredient in an effective public apology is accepting responsibility for the problem.  Many companies stumble at that point because they fear legal repercussions or are warned by in-house counsel against admitting anything that could result in legal exposure.  But the court of public opinion demands a true apology.  Contrast United’s clumsy finger-pointing statements with Pepsi’s clear, swift, and sincere-sounding response to its failed ad. Just this week, comedian Kathy Griffin horrified Twitter – and the media universe – with a fake-gory photo featuring a “beheaded” President Trump. Griffin may not be a company, but, recognizing the damage to her brand, posted a swift and unvarnished mea culpa within hours of the photo. The apology video probably won’t win her any fans, but it will stop the bleeding, so to speak.

Appoint a crisis response leader

An effective crisis response plan usually involves an executive task force, which is a good thing. But when the stuff hits the fan, it’s crucial to move quickly.  Too often, precious minutes and hours tick away while a company’s management team or Board struggles with how to respond to a business-threatening emergency. A single decision-maker, usually the CEO or a chief communications officer, should take a leadership role in these cases. In a true crisis, there may not be a 100% “right” or “wrong” decision; the reality is more like shades of gray.  It’s more important to be swift and decisive than to be perfect. The enemy of the best crisis-proof response isn’t always a bad decision, but a late decision because paralysis has taken hold.

Have a top-notch media spokesperson at the ready

The crisis media spokesperson is usually not the same person as the crisis response leader. Any organization vulnerable to a high-stakes reputation threat should also have a trained media spokesperson so that if a situation does blow up, they’re prepared to respond quickly to media inquiries or explain a potentially complicated situation.  In my experience, advance preparation and formal media training are helpful, and periodic refreshers are a great idea, but there are simply some individuals who are born for this work.  There’s a skill to handling incoming questions under stress and within severe time constraints that I’m convinced is innate, not acquired.  Pro-tip: your best media spokesperson may not be your CEO.

Plan for a comeback

Sometimes crisis lemons make PR lemonade. A smart response to a negative situation can evoke public sympathy and even give a brand currency.  The celebrated example is another airline debacle―the JetBlue “Valentine’s Day massacre” of a decade ago.  JetBlue misjudged a weather emergency and was ultimately forced to ground scores of flights during an epic snowstorm. The debacle affected over 100,000 passengers and socked the airline with a blizzard of negative press. Part of its response to the meltdown was its famous Customer Bill of Rights—a coda that was covered nearly as widely as the original flight fiasco.

The Bill of Rights called for passenger compensation for a variety of departure and ground delays and – in a prescient move – also outlined reimbursement procedures for bumped passengers.  JetBlue’s response is now a Harvard Business School case study, and, according to HBS associate professor Robert Huckman, it probably came out of the crisis better off than it was before, in terms of public perception. Explains Huckman, “There are many ways for a growing company to improve; going through a crisis is not necessarily the easiest path to take, but it does force an organization to evaluate its operating processes rapidly and decide where it needs to create greater formalization or structure.”
An earlier version of this post appeared in the AMA Executive Circle blog.

The Top Threats To Your Company’s Reputation

In today’s volatile media and social environment, good PR comes at a premium and brand reputation is fragile. Look at Trump’s dressing down of many businesses, or the controversy Uber has run into when founder Travis Kalanick acts out. (More on that later.)

Some argue that any type of buzz is good for business, even when it’s negative. But most types of reputation crises are decidedly unwelcome. For a startup or small business, a sudden wave of negative coverage can be fatal. According to the World Economic Forum, more than twenty-five percent of a company’s market value is directly attributable to its brand reputation.

So how should brands prepare for an unknown, uncontrollable event that could impugn its reputation? A sudden crisis can be an externally driven event that is entirely unpredictable, like the death of a chief executive or an accident by a business partner. Such was the case in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon, under contract to BP, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Many crises strike closer to home; they can take the form of a rogue employee action, or a regional lapse that affects an entire brand, like the Chipotle E. coli contamination of 2015.

More often than not, a threat to a company’s reputation originates inside the organization. In some cases it’s a creeping cultural problem that turns malignant over time, like the pressure that drove Wells Fargo employees to open a few million fake accounts to earn commissions without the knowledge of their customers.

How To Spot The Worst Reputation Threats

Most crisis events are a long time in the making. Here are the most common reputation threats and how to anticipate them.

The Data Hack

A hack or security breach can have a huge PR ripple effect, undermining relations with customers and tarnishing a brand image for years. The notorious 2013 hack of Target cardholders ultimately cost the company $242 million.  Believe it nor not, that figure is relatively low as a percentage of total sales, but the loss of customer trust and public confidence is a great deal harder to measure. Even the hijacking of a brand’s social media account can be damaging. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP was impersonated on Twitter, adding to its image problems. And look no further than the hack of Sony Pictures emails in 2014 or the Democratic National Committee leaks of 2016 to appreciate the consequences of private information becoming public.

Of course, there’s not much for marketing and communications teams to do to foil threats beyond insisting that their employers or clients harden their security infrastructure. But they can prepare for the risk, given that a data security breach is at the very top of common reputation threats. It’s not only possible, but likely to happen in today’s environment.

It’s the way a breach is handled that makes all the difference.  To minimize the reputation impact, every business should have a cross-functional plan for timely response in the event of a data hack or other breach. A typical task force should include the CTO, CMO, CCO, and involve a designated media spokesperson who is well qualified and prepared to update stakeholders, including press and social media.  Prompt notification and transparent communications to all affected audiences are critical elements here.

The Viral Customer Complaint

Ever since Dave Carroll made a music video complaining that United Airlines had broken his guitar, viral customer complaints have been powerful. But Carroll’s funny song or even something like a FedEx worker caught on camera tossing a fragile package over a fence, seem almost quaint today. As public relations and customer relations increasingly overlap, the goals of each should be aligned, and employees empowered to take quick action in case of a problem. Customer service reps should be incentivized not by the volume of complaints they handle, getting customers off the phone quickly and efficiently, but by the number of complaints they actually resolve to the satisfaction of consumers. For truly sophisticated companies, customer relations managers are authorized to resolve ordinary complaints by waiving a minor charge, for example, and even equipped with talking points that help build a relationship and strengthen the brand reputation rather than letting a bad situation grow worse.

The good news is that “viral” customer service works both ways. Of course, millions of complaints are positively resolved every day, with no credit to the brand, but occasionally a smart move turns PR lemons into lemonade. The story about a young boy’s stuffed giraffe left behind at a Ritz-Carlton hotel still makes the rounds. Any parent can understand the trauma that results when a favorite toy is lost on a trip. In this case the Ritz-Carlton notified the family to say they’d found the giraffe. Not only did they send it back to the family, but they took photos of “Joshie” lounging by the pool to reassure his young owner that giraffe was safe and enjoying his break.

A Toxic Organizational Culture

It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up, as the saying goes.  A transparent culture can minimize almost any brand threat, and inevitably, a repressive culture will make it worse. Experts call it “risk connectivity,” which is a fancy way of saying one threat will expose and compound others.

A culture that rewarded “sandbagging” of customers to make profit numbers was at work in the Wells Fargo mess, and CEO John Stumpf’s perceived failure to take responsibility for it cost him his job. Stumpf claimed he set a tone that rewarded integrity at the top, but he either didn’t recognize or didn’t address the “tone from the middle” that truly shapes organizational behavior.

More recently, there’s the letter posted by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler about the unrelenting sexual harassment and apparent retaliation she experienced during a year at Uber. Now, Uber is no stranger to criticism, with its so-called “bro” culture and accusations of sexism. (What can you say about a CEO who told the L.A. Times he calls the company “boober” because of “the salutary effect his company’s success has had on his sex life.”) Ugh.

But while Uber has in the past treated criticism casually or with defensiveness, in this case Kalanick is taking Fowler’s letter very seriously. He called the treatment she endured “abhorrent” and launched an “urgent investigation” headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Kalanick’s tweets and his internal memo were followed by comments from Uber investor Chris Sacca and Board member Arianna Huffington, who promised to assist the investigation. No one has questioned Fowler’s integrity and all have expressed outrage on her behalf. Most importantly, Uber seems committed to transparency regarding its problem and the outcome of the investigation, and that’s why it will survive the scandal.

Many companies never learn the virtues of transparency in tackling a deeply rooted cultural problem, particularly one like sexual harassment that can hide in plain sight. Look at Fox News; it took a clever legal strategy by anchor Gretchen Carlson’s representatives to bring down then-CEO Roger Ailes. (Carlson circumvented a binding arbitration agreement by bringing suit against Ailes personally rather than Fox itself.) But once the suit was filed, the dominoes began to fall. So many women came forward with claims similar to Carlson’s that Fox was forced to investigate and confront its systemic failures, and Roger Ailes was out.

In fact, how an organization treats an employee who reports malfeasance―or how it treats any complaint that can threaten corporate brand reputation―is at the heart of its culture and the best predictor of its PR survival.  A company that has institutionalized ethical behavior and openness will be better equipped than most to identify major reputation threats before they escalate.  A culture that rewards transparency and openness, on the other hand, enables resiliency for organizations when things do go wrong.

An earlier version of this post appeared February 9 on the AMA Executive Circle blog.

A PR Holiday Wish List

At this time of year, the typical NYC PR team begins dreaming of industry “gifts” they might like to receive. Of course, we all love tangibles like a great bottle of wine or sweets, but in a more abstract sense, we’re talking about gifts that benefit our profession. Here are a few standouts for Holiday 2016.

Companies who take crisis prep seriously.  Given the (often well-deserved) drubbing many corporations have taken this year due to a crisis –  VW, Subway, Chipotle, we’re talking about you here – we can only wish for clients who work with their PR teams to conduct audits, take potential threats seriously, and craft a thoughtful plan way before anything happens.

Media who provide helpful feedback. We work with multiple journalists covering everything from B2B tech to beer and the best relationships are the ones where real dialogue occurs. We often say the next best response after, “Love this story, send me more” is, “Can’t use this because…” followed by some helpful, thoughtful rationale. This feedback helps us to be better media partners and create better stories.

Companies who respect the PR proposal process.  Ah, the wish that never seems to come true. Every year there are a number of “bad actors” who put PR teams through rigorous RFPs with unrealistic deadlines and huge asks, but who never follow up and don’t respond to inquiries after the proposal is delivered. This remains a source of frustration for the people who put blood, sweat and late hours into PR proposals only to see them vanish like cast members from “The Leftovers.”

Better writing. Since we live in a world where everyone’s a publisher — compounded by near-constant texting and posting as primary forms of communication — grammar, spelling and punctuation take a beating. And, despite our wishes, they may never recover, based on some findings from the Pew Research Center. The conclusion? New platforms encourage more writing, which is a plus, but teachers feel digital tools and platforms may diminish grammatical skills and vocabulary, due largely to today’s more informal writing.

Fewer emails. Alas, the scourge of every PR team is also the most necessary evil. Sure there have been attempts to eliminate, or tools to help better manage, including Crenshaw client ToutApp and others, but the fact is, it remains the primary way to deliver information to business audiences quickly and accurately. Based on this interesting conversation about the retro joys of the typewriter, I guess we could go back to “snail mail” and more phone conversations, but those come with their own issues!
Happy Holidays! What’s on your wish list?

Does Everyone Deserve PR Agency Representation?

Would you serve as PR agency for a sexual predator? What about a celebrity with a reputation crisis?

The sexual abuse scandal surrounding CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi raises questions for PR agency professionals. The storm may be smaller than some recent mega-agency controversies like Ketchum’s work on behalf of Putin’s Russia, or Edelman’s involvement with ALEC. And Ghomeshi is less known here than in his native Canada, although his show, Q, is a cultural touchstone among millions of public radio fans. Still, his fall from grace brings up old questions about ethical guidelines and choices in our industry.

The reputation meltdown actually started with what seemed like a brilliant communications offensive after Ghomeshi was fired by CBC. As rumors of his violent behavior toward women threatened to become public, Ghomeshi moved to head off disaster with a bold stroke. In an emotional and painfully honest (so it seemed) Facebook post, he explained his predilection for “rough sex” as a choice of consenting adults, and the ugly charges as the actions of a spurned ex-lover. He pledged to sue CBC, which was cast as a reactionary for trying to legislate the private behavior of a star employee.

The offensive strategy could have worked – if, as Ghomeshi claimed, the behavior was consensual. Problem was, it quickly became clear that the incident wasn’t isolated…and it likely didn’t involve consent. More women came forward with strikingly similar narratives of sudden, unprovoked and disturbing acts of choking, slapping, and other violence. In short order, Ghomeshi was dropped by both his ongoing PR firm and the newer crisis agency retained to represent him, presumably for not telling the truth about the many women he’d allegedly abused.

After being fired by two PR firms and excoriated in the press, does Ghomeshi have a right to representation? How does working for a suspected sexual abuser square with the public relations industry’s code of ethics? What self-respecting reputation expert would take him on? Given rising concern about violence against women – from professional athletes to campus rape – and the tendency for much of it to go unreported or be covered up, it’s a third-rail issue for any PR agency who takes on his case. And unlike the law, where even murderers have a right to representation, our business is not as simple as serving as a media mouthpiece for a boldfaced name. At least it shouldn’t be. This is a situation that should scare off Olivia Pope.

In a post titled “Whitewashing Despots” Thomas Eppes, PRSA’s Ethics Chair, offers guidance. It reminds us that ethical communications in our industry isn’t about which clients we represent; it’s about the way we go about it. In other words, if the client tells the truth, places the public interest first, and “supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information,” it may well be an ethical choice to represent him.

That’s probably a tall order, but Eppes’ post made me think of a politically progressive colleague who went to work for a company with conservative views and policies. His lefty friends were horrified; some speculated he did it for money, while others thought it was ego. He said he wanted to effect change, and wouldn’t you know, the company’s policies really did undergo a slow transformation. Whether that was due to his influence or outside pressure, I was never sure.

But PR is about persuasion in the end. For any PR professional who fears being dismissed as a spinmeister, actual influence over a client’s ethical choices is the ultimate prize. It may be quixotic, but if a communications professional can persuade a client to embrace truth and transparency, the move to represent him is not only an ethical decision, but a wise one. I can’t know the truth about the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi, but he’s in a terrible corner, and it seems largely of his own making. For his sake, I hope he finds a PR professional who can represent him and do it both well and ethically.

Next post: Six Reasons An Agency Should Drop A Client.

The NFL’s Black Eye Offers Lesson In Crisis PR

For the NFL, the (reputation) hits just keep on coming.  Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press briefing following the release of the notorious Ray Rice videotape in which he knocks then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious is a lesson in crisis PR, but mostly about what not to do. Here are some of the more instructive learnings from the NFL’s efforts to manage its battered reputation. In this case, the errors outnumber the wins, starting with these “Don’ts”:

In the event of a crisis, do NOT:

Hope that you can run out the clock. Goodell waited ten days to fully address the situation, which was about 9 days too many, given its seriousness and the credibility stakes. Although it’s not always realistic to face the press right away because facts must be gathered, the delay allowed the situation to fester, and it made the League look like it’s hiding something.

Go for deniability. The League handed down that initial two-game suspension for Rice based on the part of the videotape that shows him dragging an unconscious Palmer out of a hotel elevator. It later claimed to lack full knowledge of what had happened a few seconds earlier. But even if Goodell never actually saw the full videotape, his story doesn’t stand up. Anyone who wanted it could have obtained it. It’s clear that Goodell either didn’t want to know, or wasn’t willing to accept responsibility once he did know.

Ignore the victims. Goodell’s statement on Friday was targeted more to the team owners than the NFL’s fans or the many victims of domestic violence at the hands of players over the years.  And though it’s unclear if the League pressed Palmer to express regret about “her role in the situation,” her public apology – issued well before Goodell opted to speak to the press – was embarrassing and sad, and it reinforced the NFL’s lack of accountability.

Ignore stakeholders. It’s impossible to know if the NFL tried to tap major sponsors to unveil its proposed changes, or if it previewed the information with them, but it’s a good idea. When Goodell was asked about sponsors, he expressed hope that they would stick with the League, only to have P&G drop its breast cancer awareness tie-in shortly thereafter.

Avoid objective scrutiny. The investigation led by former FBI head Robert Mueller, whose firm has ties to the NFL, made the League look like it was retreating into a protective huddle. It should have been more sensitive to the optics here at the very least.

Don’t get emotional. Showing anger or regret in a public situation can be tricky, but a little passion can go a long way in showing you care. Goodell’s robotic delivery didn’t do much to convince observers that he’s truly invested in tackling the problem or its cost in pain and suffering.

Here are some things that Goodell did right:

Admit mistakes. “I got it wrong,” were the Commissioner’s words. It may be too little, too late, but admitting to the wrong call is the first step in limiting reputation damage.

Outline the fix.  Goodell followed the classic crisis PR playbook by outlining changes to the League’s personal conduct policy, educational programs, and relationships with two major domestic violence organizations. He also gave a timetable for the plans, which is vital to restoring credibility.

Despite his efforts, it looks like the NFL will only move past this latest reputation crisis when Goodell steps down or is sacked. TMZ’s easy acquisition of the “rest” of the videotape has badly damaged the League’s credibility. What’s more, the Commissioner’s actions just weren’t enough to satisfy the chorus of media and advocates determined to hold the NFL accountable for the Rice scandal, as well as its history of lenience in the wake of a years-long disgrace.