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 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.


Are Celebrities Worth The PR Risk?

Tiger Woods’ fall from grace, and his long climb back, was the gift that kept on giving for PR and reputation experts. But it also teed up a round of fresh concern about getting in bed with celebrities.
Since then, there have been other reputation crises (Lance Armstrong) as well as more minor gaffes from boldfaced names like Justin Bieber and Reese Witherspoon. Today’s climate is all the more challenging because social media amplifies the tiniest misstep and the news cycle is relentless in its speed and appetite for scandal.

No one is immune.  Unlike her (relatively unknown) husband, Witherspoon wasn’t guilty of drunk driving; she was caught in a more serious infraction – arrogance while under the influence!

So, are marketers still attracted to celebrities? The answer is yes. But there’s been an impact on contract negotiations, morals clauses, and other legal, marketing and PR issues. Here are some considerations for those looking at a celebrity endorsement campaign.

Brand endorsements will be more limited.  A while back, it was considered strategic to tie your brand to a breakout athlete in a metaphor for high performance, like Accenture did with Tiger Woods. Today, not so much. Look for companies to fall back on the “Taste great, less filling”-style product endorsement. It’s more cost-effective and far less risky.

For celebrities, privacy is over. If you’re pulling down millions in endorsements based on your professional performance and public image, you have traded away your privacy.  Social media is a powerful tool for any kind of brand, from a product to a personality, and it should be subject to limits and restrictions as part of the deal.

Contracts will be shorter and more flexible, with clear exit strategies. A ten-year deal suddenly looks a lot less attractive than a three-year one. Terminations and how they may be communicated will be carefully negotiated to protect the reputations of both parties.

Morals clauses will be tighter, and possibly reciprocal. Sports law expert Michael McCann predicts that savvy personalities will ask for reciprocity here, in the event of reputation damage resulting from something like a massive product recall or personal injury situation.

Celebrity marketing programs must include risk and crisis management plans. Marketers know they must move beyond lip service here. Even something as socially accepted as pregnancy can quash the brand plan, as in the case of Jessica Simpson, who was announced to be with child on the heels of her Weight Watchers deal. A contingency plan is a must.

Armstrong Interview Is A Winner for Oprah

Lance Armstrong’s much-touted one-on-one confessional with Oprah, broadcast last Thursday and Friday on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), was a winning performance. Not for Armstrong; for him, the road ahead seems very rocky.

But for Oprah and her namesake network, the sitdown was a breakout accomplishment. You could practically hear the sound of millions of U.S. television remotes searching the upper tiers for the OWN channel. The network reports that tune-in reached 3.2 million viewers for the first night’s interview, followed by an additional million for the repeated airing immediately afterward. Those ratings were topped only by the network’s interview with Whitney Houston’s family following her death last spring.

At last, OWN seems to be gaining momentum.

Oprah’s coup wasn’t just in the “get,” – though it was huge – or even in the ratings. She was widely credited with a skillful interview that stripped away the nonessentials and exposed the ugly lie of Lance Armstrong’s public image. We viewers simply had to sit back and watch it happen, train-wreck style.

Many within the journalist chattering class had set low expectations for Oprah’s session. Some predicted a soft approach like her empathetic on-air treatment of disgraced sprinter Marion Jones; others thought she couldn’t master the political intricacies of the doping investigation.

But Oprah brought it. She led off with a series of yes-or-no questions that established the scope of Armstrong’s doping with quiet drama. Even better, she kept the pressure on, gently, but with a welcome focus not just on Armstrong’s drug use, but on his repeated denials, and his combative moves to litigate against anyone who spoke the truth. My favorite part was her response to his weak attempt at humor.

When Armstrong shared that, yes, he’d tried to ruin Betsy Andreu, calling her “crazy,” and “a bitch,” but “never called her fat,” Oprah leveled him with a flinty gaze. Silence. The joke fell flat.

It’s hard to know what’s next for Lance Armstrong and his brand, but brand Oprah was definitely juiced by the moment. Here’s hoping it can pick up speed in the months ahead.

The Hellfire And Damnation School Of Journalism

Confession: I am a word nerd. I read incessantly. I love Scrabble, the Times crossword and Words with Friends. When I’m bored, I anagram, just for fun.

Therefore, I’m always on the lookout and (listenout?) for great turns of phrase and colorful language, particularly when there’s evidence of a trend afoot. I noticed just such a microtrend in some interesting news coverage of late. I call it #helltrending. Read on for some proof.

Barely a week ago, Atlantic Monthly published a scathing account of the current state of US banks. In this terrifically well-reported piece, author Frank Partnoy variously refers to banking ills with the following fiery language, like “dry rot”; “toxic legacies”; “inferno”; and “Dante’s descent into Hell.”

Jon Stewart added to the “heated” conversation venting at AIG and HSBC and accusing AIG of bringing the world to the “brink of Armageddon.”

In the same vein, earlier this week CBS’ Scott Pelley interviewed U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head, Travis Tygart regarding reports that disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong tried to make a donation to the agency when it appeared his carefully constructed anti-doping façade was beginning to crumble. In discussing blood test results now coming to light, Tygart labeled them “flaming positive” and said teammates feared that if they told the truth, Armstrong would “incinerate them.”

Ouch! What can we take from the use of all this passionate, burning language? Our recent close encounter with the Mayans? The fact that 2012 was the hottest year on record? You decide!

Armstrong’s Crisis PR Is In Fighting Form

As evidence that he used performance-enhancing substances has gained traction over the years, cyclist Lance Armstrong always managed to stay out in front, avoiding major reputation damage.

Until now. But even now, he may be down, but he’s not out. As he threw in the towel, announcing that he’d no longer contest the US Anti-Doping Agency’s charges, Armstrong attacked. When news of the decision hit, his take on the matter, in the form of a passionate and angry personal statement, was widely shared on social media platforms. If nothing else, team Armstrong’s handling of the situation looks like championship crisis management.

The USADA’s announcement this morning that he will be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and be banned from the sport are a big part of the story, but so is Armstrong’s aggressive defense. “Enough is enough,” is how he explains his decision. Armstrong’s statement admits no guilt; in fact, he continues to defend his reputation and harshly criticizes the agency for what he sees as a witch-hunt.

Not only is the statement well-articulated, but the no-contest move is probably the closest thing to a winning strategy for Armstrong. He and his advisers must know that. If he were to fight the Agency’s charges, the evidence against him would be presented in open court. And by all accounts, that evidence is overwhelming – USADA claims to have incriminating blood samples, and ten eyewitnesses, including former teammates, are prepared to testify against him.

A public hearing would be devastating for Armstrong’s reputation as an elite athlete, cancer beater, and American hero, and it would threaten the anti-cancer mission of his Livestrong Foundation.

A quick glance at public comments  on the social web indicates Armstrong still has plenty of fans and defenders. So, while admitting defeat may not be much of a victory, as a communications strategy and crisis management case, it may be as good as it gets.