A PR View Of Brands In The Crosshairs

When should a large company take a political stand? Some PR experts would say never. And you can’t blame big companies if they want to avoid public debates about the causes of gun violence, climate change, or other politicized issues. But increasingly, corporate America is being asked to pick a side. It seems there’s more pressure than ever for major corporations to weigh in on seemingly irresolvable problems or to bridge irreconcilable divides.

The latest case in point is that of Delta and the NRA. There are many other companies involved here, but it’s Delta who made it into the NRA’s crosshairs. The story started with the tragic Parkland, Florida shooting that spurred a new wave of activism to prevent gun violence. And the response to Parkland has given fresh hope to gun-safety advocates. Due to the eloquence of the students, but also because of anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and Independents, the movement just feels different from past responses to mass shootings.

Delta was only one of many corporations who announced it would end a discount to NRA members, and its action was initially applauded by many observers. But the GOP in Georgia, where Delta is headquartered and has its hub, didn’t take kindly to the gesture. The state Senate has pledged to revoke a $40 million tax break granted to Delta unless it reverses the NRA position.

What’s a business-minded corporation to do? Any decision it takes will anger a contingent somewhere. But Delta’s dilemma is increasingly common, and it won’t be the last to face such a choice.
I’ve blogged about how companies can embrace social activism in the Trump era, and why CEOs should speak out on key issues as business leaders. But when a public company like Delta faces the loss of a lucrative tax abatement, the stakes rise. After all, it is as beholden to its Board and shareholders as to its employees and customers. And if it caves to state political pressure and reverses its stand, will business really suffer? It’s one thing for a customer to threaten to fly United, but in a highly consolidated category like air travel where routes, convenience, and price are all huge factors, a true boycott is unlikely. That’s probably why FedEx has said it will continue to offer NRA members discounted shipping despite organized protests. There’s just not that much choice in the shipping category.

Yet if I were advising Delta, I’d tell its management to stick to their guns in standing for gun safety, despite the cost. And that’s not just because it’s a principled position. First, flip-flopping only serves to anger everyone. It also shows weakness, which invites further pressure. Also, I feel the response to what seems like the umpteenth mass shooting of late truly is a turning point. With a movement led by high-school students growing and a public march scheduled within the month, anti-NRA sentiment is on the side of gun safety advocates. There will be setbacks, but I believe the NRA is the tobacco industry of the post-Millennial generation.
But more importantly, companies really do need to stand up for their values, not matter what the outcome. These difficult and divisive issues aren’t going away, the pressure on corporate America will only grow. Pick a side, and stick to it.

PR Heroes Of The Hurricanes

Back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma were unprecedented in their impact, destroying lives and homes, wreaking billions in damage, and knocking other news out of the headlines (a minor challenge for the media and public relations professions.) But the storms of September also brought some good news. Experts tell us that the U.S. is improving in how we prepare for and respond to hurricanes, for one thing. An A1 story in The New York Times cites better “weather forecasting, evacuation policies and hurricane-resistant building practices” as factors in the relatively low numbers of deaths and injuries in Houston and Southern Florida.
And like any disaster, the hurricanes created heroes, from first responders to small businesses. Here are some of the reputation “winners” born amid the chaos of the storms.

Mattress Mack cushions the blow

Houston furniture impresario Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale scored early PR points by opening two of his showrooms to shelter people who were displaced by Hurricane Harvey. He seized national attention with a Facebook video inviting all who could safely make it to one of his Gallery Furniture stores to come and even bring their pets. McIngvale has navigated these waters before; he offered shelter to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Clearly he’s a local businessman with a flair for PR and promotion, as well as a deep commitment to community. McIngvale’s bold gesture came in contrast to the response of Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen. Osteen was criticized for not opening his 52,000-seat megachurch to flood victims until Monday, after a weekend of bad press and shifting explanations. He could learn a thing or two from Mattress Mack.

JetBlue caps costs

Airlines are typically victims of a weather disaster, or occasionally, villains who are forced to make things worse by canceling flights. As Irma bore down on southern Florida, United was criticized for fares on flights out of the state that cost as much as $1000. But many carriers made news by capping fares instead. Those were led by JetBlue, who offered seats out of South Florida for a gentle $99 and waived fees for passengers having to change flights because of the storm. JetBlue’s move was followed by a response from Delta, which announced it wouldn’t charge more than $399 for tickets on flights to and from southern Florida and the Caribbean, including first-class seats. Of course, tickets were scarce by the time these announcements were made, but a few airlines did earn some reputation cred for their efforts.

The American Red Cross is there

The hurricanes were both an enormous test and a branding opportunity for the ARC, which has weathered some PR challenges due to questions about what percentage of donations flows to helping disaster victims. Bolstered by third parties – from former president Barack Obama to Beyoncé, the organization met both the logistical trial and the PR challenge head-on with transparency about how donations are used in major media interviews by CEO Gail McGovern. For an excellent take on the importance of local disaster communications, check out this column by Houston PR professional Jennifer Evans.

Everyday people step up

Most poignant and powerful of all might have been the stories of everyday heroes like the human chain of Houston apartment residents who helped a woman in labor make it through rising flood waters to be driven to a hospital. There were countless stories about regular people who went out of their way or even placed themselves at risk to help a neighbor.

Should Brands Talk Back On Social Media?

As all PR and social media pros know, a brand’s digital presence is both very powerful and very fragile. In the attention economy, we want to break though and engage customers, and a good way to do that is by showing personality. A flippant attitude or a risky tweet can take a brand even further. Social platforms are made for snark, right? Just look at Wendy’s. The fast-food brand is famous for its sassy social media voice, and what’s more, its strategy has won it praise and coverage in mainstream media.

But research shows that consumers don’t always welcome social snark from brands. Social media company Sprout Social surveyed 1,003 consumers on what they really want from brands on social media. It found that “snarkiness” was the least desired trait, with 67 percent of respondents saying it’s undesirable. According to Sprout Content Director Lizz Kannenberg, “Consumers follow brands on social for entertainment, answers to their questions and for contests and promotions.” Not a cheeky retort.

But from a public relations perspective, brands that master the art of social wisecracks can reap a PR bonanza. So, when should a brand talk back? It turns out there’s enormous variability in how far a little irreverence can go, and much depends on the individual situation. Here’s what we can learn from the most successful social brands.

Know your audience 

An irreverent social media persona is like wading into controversy; you can do it if you understand your base. There’s a good reason why a company like Patagonia can criticize the president without fear of social retribution. Its leadership knows that their loyal customers are vehemently opposed to Trump on climate issues. Conversely, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A was candid about his opposition to marriage equality when asked about the issue. The stance sparked boycotts, but it probably didn’t harm the business, because brand loyalists rallied to its support. A social media voice is an extension of a brand’s persona, and knowing your customers is an unerring guide. No such brand decision or position should be made purely for publicity purposes.

Be reliable

Look at Thrillist, the men’s digital lifestyle newsletter. Its Facebook page is a celebration of bro culture, with silly and occasionally juvenile humor. The master in this arena just might be Taco Bell. For years, it has earned a spot on the list of the sauciest and most entertaining brands on the social web. The core customer is a young male, making it a good bet to post occasionallly risky content, and the brand delivers. From the taco emoji to its Tacobot Slack integration (that’s right, taco ordering from a snappy Slack friend is now in beta) the brand is not only cheeky, but reliably innovative.

Punch above your weight

T-Mobile CEO John Legere is a great example of shrewd strategy here. His “bad-boy schtick” on social media is well suited to his flamboyant and iconoclastic personality, of course. And when Legere tweaks the big-brand competition, it’s a fairly low-risk move.  T-Mobile, whose subscriber base is roughly half the size of its two largest competitors, has very little to lose by courting controversy. Picking a fight with a Goliath competitor is a time-tested strategy with a large upside – it generates plenty of attention – and very little risk. It’s a smart play.

Use humor

This goes without saying, but it works particularly well when it’s unexpected. We expect humor from Charmin, but who could have predicted that the venerable Merriam Webster would gain social fame in 2017 for its sly subtweets?

Back it up

Wendy’s reputation for social attitude has earned plaudits, but the brand has done more than just show personality. It creates social initiatives with “meat” that pack more momentum than simple posts.

Remember Carter Wilkerson, the teenager who tweeted a request for free chicken nuggets in May? Wendy’s could have tweeted a tart response, or simply accommodated Wilkerson with coupons to earn some Twitter love. Instead, it challenged the 16-year-old to earn 18,000 retweets of his request, setting off a user-driven social media campaign that drew over 3 million RTs, surpassing the record set by the 2014 Oscar selfie. The story naturally whetted the appetite of many “mainstream” media, who ate up the quirky challenge. Even though Wilkerson fell short of the goal, Wendy’s gave him a year’s worth of free nuggets, and to add substance to the contest, it pledged $100,000 to the Dave Thomas Foundation in the bargain. Well done.

Be real

We were startled when Delta punched back at conservative pundit Ann Coulter, but it was an unusual situation that probably did call for a tart rejoinder. As the world knows, Coulter was infuriated when her assigned seat on a flight from Laguardia to Palm Beach was given to someone else. She raged at the airline to her 1.6 million Twitter followers for two days after the flight, even tweeting a picture of the blameless passengers who were given the seat she had reserved. Given the rough PR weather that airlines handle, you might have thought Delta would apologize and lie low. It did offer Coulter a refund of the $30 she paid for the better seat. But when the nasty tweet barrage continued, Delta returned fire, calling Coulter’s comments “unnecessary and unacceptable.” As one headline blared, “Ann Coulter Is So Awful, She Makes Delta Airlines Look Good.”

The Top Ten PR Blunders of 2011

When a serious setback or crisis occurs, not even the most talented PR pro can make it go away. Yet, a poor response invites reputation damage, while proper handling can help mitigate or limit it. Here’s my “Top 10” list, from a communications perspective, of the most badly handled public situations of the year.

10.  Governor Sam Brownback.  Something tells me the governor’s not in Kansas anymore – at least as far as his reputation goes. Brownback looked like a bully and created an unlikely teen hero with his handling of a nasty tweet about him posted by high school senior Emma Sullivan. Brownback’s staff, who tracked down the teen, put pressure on the school principal to extract an apology from Sullivan. When she ultimately refused, it was Brownback who did the apologizing. Meanwhile, the student’s Twitter following soared from 65 to over 14,000. Who’s sorry now?

9.  Delta. The airline hit rough PR weather when U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan were charged onerous fees for extra baggage, with one squadron spending nearly $3,000 out of personal funds. The disgruntled troops took the story of their rude welcome home to YouTube. Delta reacted about a day late to the video, which swiftly went viral, triggering hundreds of complaints on its blog.  It did end up changing its baggage fee policy for members of the armed services but not without reputation damage.

8.  Groupon.  Groupon’s reputation issues come in contrast to its previous image as a media darling. It started 2011 with that ill-conceived Super Bowl ad, followed by a halfhearted apology after it went wrong. It then ran into more PR hot water later as the company prepared for a much anticipated IPO. Founder Andrew Mason made impolitic remarks in an internal memo that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, raising questions about “quiet period” violations. The Groupon IPO was a success, but its toughest reputation challenge will be to prove its business model actually works.

7.  Burson-Marsteller.  It’s notable when the world’s largest PR firm handles a crisis this poorly. In May, mega-agency Burson-Marsteller was busted by The Daily Beast‘s Dan Lyons after a clumsily executed “whisper campaign” against Google. The campaign was carried out on behalf of a mystery client who turned out to be Facebook. Not only was Burson guilty of a major ethical breach, but its response seemed to blame the client, which made it look both weak and defensive.

6.  AOL and CrunchFund.  TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington’s plan to start an investment fund immediately raised conflict of interest questions. More troubling was the response from corporate owner AOL. CEO Tim Armstrong excused the move by referring to TechCrunch’s “different standards” of journalism. He was immediately contradicted by Arianna Huffington, who announced Arrington’s departure from AOL, which was then “clarified” by a subsequent announcement that he remained with AOL Ventures. While AOL struggled to get its stories straight, the incident undermined the credibility of senior management and its content standards.

5.  Netflix. The famous Netflix mea culpa is a good example of a public apology that backfired in a rather spectacular way. Instead of letting its admission of “poor communication” regarding a price increase stand, Netflix used the occasion to announce its split into two units – doubling the cost, and the hassle, for customers. It made the classic mistake of focusing on its business rationale rather than the customer interest and was forced to backpedal.  In the end it was Netflix that paid the price in lost business and a depressed stock value.

4.  The U.S. Congress.  One way to read the summer’s debt ceiling gridlock is a case of too great an emphasis on PR – to the detriment of real issues or progress. Both sides of the debate were so focused on their public posture — Tea Partiers hewing to the no-tax-increase line and progressives preoccupied with blaming the GOP — that everyone looked bad and absolutely nothing was done.

3.  Bank of America.  Its move to institute a $5 monthly debit card fee was not only poor judgment but terrible timing. B of A made the announcement just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was gaining steam. The new fee wasn’t tested, pre-announced, or even particularly well explained to customers, who responded with predictable outrage. Although the bank tried to justify the fee by tying it to new regulations, its argument was ineffectual. It ended up retreating a month later in the face of harsh criticism by consumers, bloggers, and even government officials.

2.  Herman Cain.  Political scandals were rife in 2011, but Cain’s meltdown stood out because he showed real mastery of public communication at the outset (remember “9-9-9”?). Yet when the candidate was hit with allegations of sexual harassment, the campaign’s response was amateurish. Politico sat on the initial story for ten days – an eternity in crisis response time – but Cain’s reactions ranged from denial, defensiveness, and hostility to humor and a plea for privacy. Consistency, credibility, and message control deserted the Cain campaign, and the result is history.

1.  Penn State. No shock here. Penn State will end 2011 taking the trophy for most egregiously bad handling of a crisis. Granted, the allegations against Jerry Sandusky would have been damaging no matter what, but it’s even worse when you consider that the Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. The university had plenty of time to prepare its public communication strategy. But when Sandusky was arrested in November, the statement by ex-President Graham Spanier, in which he called the charges “troubling,” was a study in what not to say.  Its focus on closing ranks and defending those in the know helped turn a shocking scandal into a serious breach of responsibility by the top players.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

How To Turn Bad Publicity Into Good PR

There are those who think any PR is good PR, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just plain bad.

Faced with withering reviews for its plan to separate its DVD and streaming businesses into two distinct units, Netflix has canceled Qwikster. This latest plot twist is a bit reminiscent of Gap’s unveiling of that infamous new logo. The negative buzz forced it to backpedal and eventually restore the original, iconic identity. Though at first it seemed like a miss for Gap, many brand-watchers think it made the brand more relevant than it had been in a long while.

Netflix doesn’t suffer from lack of currency, and it’s a bit early to tell if it can woo back irate customers. (If Reed Hastings’ recent New York Times magazine interview is any indication, I’d say they still have some work to do.) But bad publicity can, paradoxically, wake up a brand’s loyalists. And there are ways to turn a PR failure into a net gain. Here are a few techniques that helped companies turn around embarrassing mistakes.

Apologize. If offense has been given or customer safety or satisfaction threatened, a prompt apology is necessary. And it shouldn’t be drafted by lawyers. To have teeth, a mea culpa should be swift and sincere, and it should take responsibility. One of my favorite public apologies is the widely viewed video of Domino’s Pizza President Patrick Doyle after the employee stunt that made us all lose our appetites in 2009. Doyle, and the Domino’s brand, had an advantage as the victim of a disgusting hoax. But as brand crises go, the stakes were pretty high, and the company delivered in a way that helped feed our natural sympathy.

The mistake Netflix made, by contrast, was in wrapping a half-hearted mea culpa with additional news that was bound to anger customers. Not good.

Fix the problem. Better yet, be part of a larger solution. The classic lemons-to-lemonade strategy after a misstep is to be part of the fix for everyone. Mattel set a new standard when it announced enhanced product inspection and supplier audits following massive product recalls of toys made in China. JetBlue also raised the airline industry bar with its “Passenger Bill of  Rights,” a kind of flight plan to prevent incidents like the one that buffeted its reputation on Valentine’s Day 2008.

Share your learnings. Office Depot, a client of my former firm, took advantage of its own experience weathering successive hurricanes at its Delray Beach, Florida headquarters over a period of years. It turned adversity to advantage with a PR campaign that focused on disaster preparation and management for small businesses, – a key customer segment.

Stay the course. Sometimes, despite a public rush to judgment, a brand is right. Royal Caribbean opted to keep on going, even in the face of annihalating coverage, after its luxury cruise liner resumed calls at Labadee, Haiti shortly after the earthquake. It was undoubtedly a tough call, but most experts and passengers agree that supporting survivors with both supplies and commerce was the right move.

Fight back. That’s what Taco Bell did when it was slapped with a lawsuit by a customer who had a beef with the meat content of its tacos. It jumped into the food fight, threatening a countersuit, and launching a response through executive videos, a statement on its website, and a major market ad campaign about ingredient quality. The customer suit was quietly dropped.

Make good. Sometimes it’s better to pay – financial penalties, customer retribution, or legal settlement – to protect a brand’s reputation. For many companies, this also comes down to empowering retail or ground-level employees to spot and nip problems in the bud. If a Delta attendant had been able to waive excess luggage fees for returning U.S. veterans, the airline could have saved itself loads of bad reputation baggage after the servicemen took their complaints to YouTube.