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.


SCOTUS And What It Means When The Media Get It Wrong

Media mistakes happen all the time. Publicists joke about mangled names and massacred quotes, and even The New York Times – especially The New York Times – is regularly skewered over its errors and omissions.

But occasionally media get it wrong in a big way, – an unforgivable, historically indelible, “Dewey Beats Truman” way. That’s what happened when the Supreme Court announced its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Healthcare Act. Both CNN and Fox News reported the decision inaccurately, and not just for a second, and not only in the details. CNN’s banner blared “Supreme Ct. Kills Individual Mandate” as wire reports from Bloomberg, the AP, and other networks carried a different headline. Within seconds, the story that Obamacare was dead was shared, tweeted, posted, hashtagged and live-blogged. CNN didn’t correct the story until 12 long minutes after its initial inaccurate report.

For a fascinating play-by-play on how this happened, see Tom Goldstein’s account in SCOTUSblog.  Goldstein explains that technology was a contributing factor to the confusion;  the Court declined to email the decision to reporters, confident that its servers would hold up against the onslaught of those with a stake in the outcome. Of course the servers crashed, and the only people in possession of the decision for a full half hour were those holding the paper version in the press room in the courthouse. Incredibly, even POTUS was in the dark.

So, a small group of experienced journalists were in a race to be first to take it all in and report on the fly. If you didn’t read beyond the decision’s first page – where the Government loses the Commerce argument – you might conclude that the mandate was overturned. The next page had the language upholding its constitutionality as a tax. But at least two respected journalists didn’t get there before the wrong story lit up the web.

The lapse may be unforgivable, but it’s certainly understandable. Yet, what’s more interesting is how CNN and Fox handled their respective gaffes. Fox, led by Megyn Kelly, was quick to spot the error, and Fox’s less integrated digital machine didn’t run with the story as swiftly. And Fox had a different, almost casual attitude about the reporting of the story on their air. This is breaking news, breaking news is dramatic, confusing, breathless, and this is the way the story comes out. No embarrassment, no apology, just real-time reporting. (Kind of a Republican attitude, some would say.)

NN, on the other hand, felt more married to its reporting given the tight integration of its digital content and what seemed like a fear of having to flip-flop right back again if they were wrong in their correction.

So the on-air talent simply vamped, hedged, and filled time, promising more information as it happened, pointing out “conflicting reports” and using words like “may have been struck down” only to correct its report at last. The reaction internally was said to be “apoplectic.” (Isn’t that just like Democrats, always beating themselves up?)

The whole thing was more exciting than an episode of “The Newsroom” and will be parsed and debated for years. It tells us a lot about ourselves and the news business today, – the highly questionable premium placed on being first (if only by seconds) to break news, our distaste for complexity, for waiting, or even, it seems, for reading.

We were also biased. Not for the outcome we wanted, but for the one we were sure we’d already figured out. Just about everybody, from the talking heads to the insiders, both progressives and conservatives, actually believed the mandate would be ruled unconstitutional, based on earlier arguments and weeks of aggressive punditry. It was overkill.

I was embarrassed for CNN and Fox. Jon Stewart’s sendup of the gaffe is particularly painful, and particularly hilarious. But then I read why this would never have happened in Canada, according to The Edmonton Journal.

The Canadian Supreme Court holds lock-ups for journalists, where they can read through the decision and write their stories at a non-frantic pace. All the cell phones go into little Ziploc bags for the duration and the reporters all file at the same time.

File at the same time? How un-American! Where’s the fun in that? Despite the sturm and drang over the errors, I prefer the mess and the drama, the incoherency and the backpedaling – and, yes, the recriminations and self-analysis. Lessons have been learned, and they’ll need to be learned again. To paraphrase Comedy Central, let’s not make a federal case out of it.