Five Cases Of Top PR Crisis Management In 2014

It’s hard to find terrific examples of crisis management PR, presumably because we don’t hear about the crises that never happened. When a true reputation emergency hits, communications experts like to criticize it and offer retroactive advice.  Armchair pundits urge businesses to “get ahead of the story,” – good counsel, in theory. It’s not so easy when you’re the one in the PR hotseat.

In the real world, things are more complicated, even chaotic. Smartphones are blowing up, social media feeds are flooded, and conflicting advice abounds. Sometimes key advisers aren’t even reachable within the first hour.

Yet there are times when potentially fatal situations are brilliantly managed. Here are a few examples of this year’s most skillful crisis management.

Virgin Galactic’s Tragic Test.  CEO Richard Branson showed why he’s a master of communications in the wake of the fatal crash of the Virgin Galactic test flight in October. First, he rushed to the crash site to show that he was completely engaged by the tragedy and that an investigation was top priority. Branson then issued a statement that mixed compassion with determination, pledging to get to the bottom of the accident, yet reinforcing his commitment to commercial space travel.

Renee Zellweger Faces Critics. It may seem silly to include a case of apparent cosmetic surgery on this list, but when Zellweger appeared at a screening with a dramatically altered look, the media coverage was relentless and the social media reaction fierce. For an actor whose most important creative instrument is her face, that’s a career-threatening situation. But Zellweger kept her cool, offering a polite response to the uproar but largely letting friends and advocates fight on her behalf. As crisis expert and author Eric Dezenhall advises, sometimes less is more.

Under Armour Skates Around Trouble. Just before the 2014 winter Olympics, new speedskating suits from Under Armour were promoted as offering a high-tech performance edge to the U.S. speed skating team. It was terrific exposure for the brand – at least, until the U.S. team stumbled in early races. Some thought a flaw in the suit design was to blame. Under Armour was caught between arguing with the players it sponsored, or admitting that the suits may have been at fault. Instead, it publicly supported the team’s decision to revert to older suits (also made by Under Armour), while reminding us that the same skaters had turned in stellar times in pre-race heats while wearing the newer apparel. Sadly, the U.S. performance never improved. But Under Armour raced past the controversy and looked like a team player when it announced it would continue its sponsorship for eight more years. Well played.

Silver Ousts Sterling. After L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded making racist comments, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver slammed Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and banned him from basketball. Sterling’s response was a PR power play; he acted swiftly and decisively, while articulating NBA values. The language in particular was a winner; Silver conveyed anger and distress and apologized on behalf of the association, showing personal commitment as well as professional leadership. Contrast Sterling’s strategy with that of NFL president Roger Goodell after Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee on video. Goodell ultimately acknowledged that the initial two-game suspension of Rice was inadequate, but his weak response, and the fact that he claimed not to have seen the full video (which was available for the asking) hurt his credibility, to say the least.

“Boo Boo” Goes “Bye-Bye.” TLC made a quick decision to cancel “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after news broke that “Mama June” had taken up with an ex-boyfriend who is a convicted sex offender. I give the network high marks for acting decisively and making its position clear. Less than twenty-four hours after TMZ broke the story, TLC pulled the plug on its hit show for the sake of “the health and welfare of these remarkable children.” Contrast the move to A&E’s response when Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson made anti-gay remarks in a magazine interview. Robertson was suspended, but the network stalled on announcing a decision about the show. It then reinstated the patriarch, but the damage was done.

Best and Worst in PR Crisis Management 2014

The year is only half over, and already there have been all manner of PR “crisis” situations for professional communicators to dissect. But some recent shenanigans, and the accompanying reputational consequences, have been so varied and so fascinating that I’ve decided to bestow informal “awards” for crisis PR.

Most entertaining: Hands down, the Donald Sterling fiasco, a PR blogger gift that has kept on giving since tapes of the not-yet-former Clippers owner’s racist remarks were leaked in April. The best game plan here was the one followed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who wasted no time in showing us what kind of leader he is. In slapping Sterling with a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban from the sport, Silver pretty much followed the classic reputation rule book; he was swift, strong, and clear.

The real question is whether Sterling’s reputation can be redeemed. Most say no, although some bold ideas have been floated. Are you listening, Olivia Pope?

Most inevitable: Another sports figure felt the heat as fans turned towards the World Cup (and host country Brazil fought off challenges to its own reputation.) Charges of corruption and bid-rigging connected with Qatar’s winning tender for the 2022 World Cup were aimed at longtime FIFA chief Sepp Blatter and many of his cohorts. Blatter’s response to the evidence of bribery broken by  The Sunday Times showed both weakness and arrogance, however. As giant corporate sponsors like BP, Budweiser, and Coca-Cola pressed for an investigation and cleanup, Blatter blamed the accusations on “racism and discrimination.” Not very credible.

Most well handled: When U.S. speed skaters turned in a dismal performance at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, some blamed the heavily hyped high-tech uniforms provided by Under Armour. But what could have been an agony of defeat for the company was averted by deft handling of the situation.

Rather than take issue with its own athletes, or admit that its technology could be the problem, the company reminded the public of the new suits’ stellar marks in pre-race heats, but then supported the team’s decision to swap them for older suits (also made by Under Armour.) The team’s performance never improved, and Under Armour quickly skated past the problem to focus on the future by announcing it would re-up its sponsorship for eight more years. Well played, Under Armour, well played.

Least surprising: Ousted American Apparel founder Dov Charney‘s antics might have been less eyebrow-raising than Donald Sterling’s, but they were no less colorful. This is a company with a founder that thrives on shock PR. It cheerfully newsjacked the Hurricane Sandy tragedy to sell clothing, labeled a South Asian model “Made In Bangladesh” in a controversial ad, and featured store mannequins with pubic hair.

Just last week, as the Charney situation was cooling, AA ran a July 4th ad that featured an image of the doomed Challenger shuttle explosion instead of fireworks. (The mistake was supposedly inadvertent, but it did nothing to help matters.) The AA Board did the right thing in firing Charney, but they may be in for a messy legal battle, as he’s unlikely to go quietly.

Most thorny: Facebook‘s now-infamous “emotion study” raised cries that it had crossed ethical (and possibly legal) lines by manipulating users’ emotions without their consent or knowledge. Yet there are those who think it’s been unfairly singled out given the “opt-in” nature of so many social networking sites and communities.

In any event, Facebook’s response to the controversy has been to “circle the wagons,” as one privacy expert put it. CEO Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged that the study was “poorly communicated” and assured users that “we didn’t mean to upset you.” But for Facebook, which is now in the crosshairs of the FTC following a complaint filed by a privacy group, the lack of transparency and halfhearted apology probably raise more questions than they answer.