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.


The PR Verdict On Paula Deen’s Apology (Again)

From the frying pan to….yesterday Paula Deen, the queen of comfort cooking, faced Matt Lauer, and the outcome was not so comfortable for either one.

Some have criticized Lauer for his brusque grilling of Deen. My view is that he took a no-nonsense approach, cutting to the business issues and her motive for finally living up to her original commitment to a live interview.

The real story here is Paula’s apology, if you can call it that. It was all over the place. Things started out okay, with Deen describing herself as “overwhelmed” – an honest, but not loaded, word. Then she thanked the partners who have stood by her and declined to blame The Food Network for dropping her. All good.

Then things really got overwhelming. First, she insisted she had used the n-word only once, after being robbed at gunpoint by a black person “a world ago.” This contradicted her deposition and her original excuse that she grew up in the days of Jim Crow. Her demeanor became indulgently sorrowful. The drama peaked when she tearfully challenged anyone watching who has never said something they regret to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” Whoa, Paula. It was both a not-so-coded biblical reference and an overemotional response.

As the interview wrapped, defiant Paula emerged, proclaiming “I is what I is,” and referring darkly to “someone evil out there” who sabotaged her out of envy, presumably the former restaurant manager who filed the suit that set up the media feast. Lauer, rather than following up on her reference to enemies and “horrible lies”, ended the interview. For Deen, this was probably a good thing.

Is Paula cooked? It does look that way. Her handling of the interview lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology and her inconsistent and overemotional responses stirred things up instead of calming them down. It’s best to take responsibility, express sincere remorse, then make amends if possible. Deen would have done well to admit the truth, talk about what she has learned, ask for forgiveness, and pledge her time and/or money to a cause or program that promotes tolerance.

Also, an effective mea culpa doesn’t focus on the one apologizing. It should be about those offended or harmed by the situation, – in this case, sponsors, staff, viewers, and fans. It would have been impossible to deflect all the questions about her business and her brand, but she didn’t even try to take herself out of it. Ironically, her apology video, though stilted and inadequate, did a better job on that score.

Deen’s fumbles may also be tied to a lack of good PR counsel. Her original publicist, a 36-year veteran of the biz, resigned after Deen disclosed her diabetic condition and announced a partnership with Novo Nordisk. I’ve no idea who’s been advising her now, but she should consider a change. There’s a rumor that she’s hired Judy Smith, the D.C.-based crisis guru known as the model for Kerry Washington’s character on “Scandal.” I hope it’s true, because Paula needs professional help.

Paula Deen’s PR Crisis: Is She Done?

It pains me to be dishing up another post about Paula Deen’s PR crisis. Deen’s rags-to-riches story and Southern-fried charm has won her many fans, including members of my own family. But her most recent controversy makes me wonder if Paula can recover.

It was bad enough that she hid her diabetes diagnosis for a full three years before cashing in with a Novo Nordisk endorsement. But this week, choice bits of  Paula’s deposition in a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former manager of the restaurant owned by Deen and her brother were the topic of a media feeding frenzy. When deposed by the plaintiff’s counsel and asked if she’d ever used the “n-word”, Paula’s response was, “Yes, of course.”

“Yes, of course?” Really? Yet, Forbes contributor Jonathan Baskin calls this a non-event. He writes, “The idea that anybody would be surprised by this is hard to fathom.”

I beg to differ. Yes, I’m younger than Paula. And I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is far larger and more cosmopolitan than Albany, Georgia, Paula’s hometown. But the first time I heard the “n-word” used in casual conversation was when I visited a college friend from Connecticut at the age of 19, and her brother told an offensive joke. I was speechless.

Today, it’s hard to blame your upbringing for casual racism. But my personal perspective isn’t as relevant as Deen’s response to her reputation melting like a stick of butter. The real question is whether she can recover from the grilling, however deserved. So far, despite well-publicized objections by hardcore fans, it’s not looking good.

A bland and weak apology

After days of silence, Paula canceled her interview with Matt Lauer at the last minute and instead served up a weak apology PR response on YouTube. After an initial video that apparently didn’t pass muster (it was deleted) she posted a second video apology that was stilted and inadequate. Shortly afterward, The Food Network announced that it would not renew her contract.

If I were Paula Deen’s PR counsel, I’d urge her to dig more deeply. Though not perfectly analogous, actor Jason Alexander’s apology after he made gay jokes about cricket are an excellent model.

Deen was also the object of unexpected support from Bill Maher, who publicly wondered “if everyone who makes a mistake has to go away.” Maher was shouted down by his guest panel, but the point is that Deen could serve as a role model for others.  If she can convey in a heartfelt and authentic way that she’s come to understand why her earlier attitudes and language are not only tasteless, but toxic, it just might be worth her public sauteeing.

Deen stands to lose millions in TV and endorsement fees, and it may be a case of just desserts. But every mistake is a lesson. Before her deposition, she was controversial because of her high-fat cooking, and she became a symbol of just-plain-folks, down-home indulgence vs elitist bicoastal attitudes about food and health. Now, she has a chance to tackle something more important.

Celebrity is powerful, and I’d like to think that Paula Deen’s crisis can somehow be a recipe not just for her recovery, but for a larger-than-life personality to use her notoriety to educate others. Paula should face the media, make an honest apology, and commit herself to changing not just her own attitude, but those of her contemporaries and their elected representatives. There’s still plenty of work to be done. What she offers over the next weeks and months will be more significant, and potentially healthier, than anything cooked up in her Food Network career. We’ll be watching.

Paula Deen’s Diabetes Disclosure: A Recipe for Poor PR?

As the queen of “comfort cuisine,” Paula Deen has been a favorite among many members of my family, all of whom live in Georgia or the Carolinas. I’ve admired Paula for her unapologetic taste for indulgence, and for her Southern fried authenticity and down home charm. I’ve never even watched her show, yet I feel I’ve known her for years. I even took her side in her food fight with Anthony Bourdain, though Bourdain was largely in the right.

But Paula’s recent revelation that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes has left a bad taste. And from a PR perspective, I’m not convinced that it’s been well handled. When I caught her “Today” show interview, I felt a little queasy, and since then I’ve been trying to sort out why. Here’s what it boils down to:

Timing – Paula admits that she was diagnosed three years ago. She says waited until now to reveal her illness, which has been rumored since 2010, because she wanted to “bring something to the table.” I want to believe her, but three years is an awfully long time. For someone who’s hallmark is authenticity, it’s hard to swallow. It doesn’t take a business genius to conclude that Paula and her management were worried about the impact of her illness on her show and brand.

Commerce – Paula also announced that she has signed a spokesperson contract with Novo Nordisk, a producer of the diabetes drug she now takes. There’s nothing wrong with being a paid endorser, but it leaves her open to charges of opportunism. Was she waiting for a fat opportunity to monetize her condition?

Paula and her sons, who are also Novo Nordisk spokespersons, followed Monday’s disclosure with a hasty and vaguely worded announcement that they would donate an unspecified portion of their earnings to the American Diabetes Association. When contacted for comment, the association had no knowledge of the plan. The whole thing looked like an afterthought, because it was. More poor strategy and lack of planning. A donation as a centerpiece of her education program would have softened the blatant commercialsim of her deal and sweetened the message.

Clarity – But, what is the message? That medication lets you ignore diet and exercise guidelines? That you can cut back and still enjoy life? Beyond her headline talking point, “Diabetes is not a death sentence,” there’s no call-to-action. With respect, it seems half-baked.

Commitment – Paula’s been opaque about any personal diet and lifestyle changes since the diagnosis. Perhaps she doesn’t want to offend food industry advertisers, but her reticence is confusing. I don’t think she can be a credible role model if she doesn’t talk about adapting to her illness beyond “moderation.” She’s a tremendous brand with the power to inspire millions, but that equity may be at risk, or at least underleveraged.

Brand identity – Brand experts have weighed in on any conversion to lighter fare, calling it risky. I think the risk can be managed, especially since any change is driven by an authentic, real-life event, – her health condition. There’s plenty of opportunity to adapt. (How about a side-by-side comparison, full-fat vs. substitutions?) The plan is to anoint son Bobby as the healthy-eating advocate of the family, but it remains to be seen if he can ride Mama’s apron strings to success.

Paula says her show’s focus won’t change, and beyond giving up sweet tea, she’s vague about personal lifestyle changes. Problem is, she isn’t serving up enough to be as credible and convincing as she needs to be. She seems to want to have her cake, and eat it, too. But as we’ve seen, that can only go on for so long without consequences.