Year-End PR Winners And Losers

Year-end wouldn’t be year-end without the inevitable lists! In PR it’s instructive (and full of just a little schadenfrude) to reflect on those who burnished their PR image and those who bruised and battered it. Here’s our best shot at PR Winners and Losers. See what you think.

PR Winners

Chris Christie
Jersey’s often-mocked Republican governor scored major points at home after Hurricane Sandy. Gov. Christie threw himself into the relief efforts as soon as the storm hit the Garden State. His ability to blur party lines and work with President Obama days before the Presidential election helped him maintain the image of a focused leader during the disaster, which led to a huge spike in his most recent approval rating.

Lydia Callis, Bloomberg’s Sign Language Interpreter
How often does the “hearing” public pay attention to sign language interpreters? The answer was ‘not often’ until Lydia Callis signed for Mayor Bloomberg during his post-Sandy addresses. Her enthusiasm and clear sympathy made her stand out, earning her an inspired skit on SNL and rocketing her to internet stardom. She also put sign language interpreting into the zeitgeist.

Hillary Clinton
Who knew that a photo of Hillary Clinton checking her phone would redefine the Secretary of State? The ‘Texts from Hillary’ Tumblr began as a fun way to portray the former presidential candidate, as ‘Hillary’ and ‘Humor’ aren’t often synonymous. The site launched popular memes, which Clinton chose to embrace, and her farewell video and latest “selfie” taken with Meryl Streep just confirmed her appeal with multiple audiences. Welcome to the world of memes, Hillary! We hope you’re here to stay!

PR Losers

When McDonald’s turned to social media to hear their patrons’ #McDStories, they could have never anticipated the can of worms they were opening. McDonald’s diners used the hashtag to air their grievances about the chain, instead of share their success stories. The twitter campaign promptly ended once it was deemed a #McFail.

Penn State
It’s sad to see an institution like Penn State fall from its pedestal, but that’s what happened when the school was caught in a child molestation scandal. Although assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of the awful crimes, the school was burned when the Freeh report revealed that the late head coach Joe Paterno and the administration covered up the situation. As a result, the school took a major hit to its reputation and football program.

Donald Trump
Of course, no PR list would be complete without “The Donald.” Trump claimed he had a “game-changer” in the Presidential election by challenging Obama to release his private records in exchange for a $5 million charitable donation. Celebrities took to the twittersphere mocking the mogul’s cry for attention and Trump’s offer became a joke. But, we were still talking about Trump, so maybe he belongs on both lists!

Can you think of other great PR moments? Any that should be left in the dust? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

6 Myths of Crisis Management PR

In the past several weeks, brands from Burger King and Penn State to Chick-fil-A and CelebBoutique have grappled with serious reputational threats.  These days, it’s almost routine for communications pros to be managing some kind of potential crisis situation along with proactive PR programs.

Yet true “crisis management” is probably a misnomer.  Though there are principles that apply to many situations, much of the analysis and advice from people like me comes in hindsight.  Armchair reputation managers sometimes forget that the conventional wisdom isn’t always relevant in the heat of the moment.  Here, then, are my favorite crisis management myths and misperceptions.

Myth #1. The Tylenol case is still the industry standard.
With respect to Johnson & Johnson and Burson-Marsteller, this 1982 crisis management “classic” is badly outdated and likely exaggerated.  As a victim of a frightening attack, the company faced a sympathetic press and public. And while it deserves credit for the fast introduction of tamperproof packaging months later (under FDA mandate), and for an extraordinary reintroduction of the brand, the immediate response was a poor prescription for today’s damage-control experts. For example, it took the company eight days to respond to the first signs of crisis, an eternity in today’s compressed media environment.

Myth #2. A business crisis, by definition, is impossible to predict.
Not always. In fact, most crises grow out of foreseeable ills, and many have happened before. Or they may be simmering situations left untreated or concealed, like the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. A study by the Institute for Crisis Management showed that sixty-five percent of business crises from 1990 to 2009 were “smoldering” or slow-burn situations, as opposed to thirty-five percent that were sudden events. A random catastrophe like the Tylenol poisonings is truly rare, accounting for roughly seven to eight percent of crises, as opposed to product defects, lawsuits, mismanagement, and other theoretically foreseeable happenings.

Myth #3. Any crisis is manageable with advance planning and preparation.
There’s not really a handbook for handling a business calamity. We sometimes preach advance planning and preparation as if they can prevent or preempt the damage, but often these measures can only shorten the window of negative scrutiny or moderate the tone of the resulting media coverage and chatter, at best. As basic as it may sound, sometimes the most important measure is the communications protocol. Who will lead? How many are involved in decisions and statement review? Who speaks to the press? These are basic questions that can be decided in advance.

Myth #4You should never stonewall media inquiries.
Professional communicators warn against ignoring journalists in a crisis because they’ll write the story with or without you, and because it can harm media relations for the future. But we’ve all done it. When you don’t have the proper information or cannot legally share it, it’s better not to engage at all. You’ll take the heat, but staying silent can avoid worsening the situation when the facts aren’t yet clear.

Myth #5.  In a crisis, always get the top guy involved.
This is where some inexperienced handlers jump the gun. Many negative situations are better handled by a corporate officer with enough seniority to be authoritative but not enough to jeopardize the CEO office or distract from other critical business. And where relevant, local market managers with community roots are nearly always preferable to home-office execs. CEO involvement is usually best reserved for the most acute situations such as those involving loss of life.

Myth # 6.  Media and message training can save the day.
In my experience media training is helpful but often overrated, and, more importantly, it’s not often possible when a crisis is fresh. No PR professional or crisis manager will negate the importance of a blueprint for damage control and response. Yet, John Weber of Dezenhall Resources summed up the intangible and chaotic aspects of crisis PR when he said, “Given the choice between a good plan and a good leader, I’d take a good leader every time.”

This post was originally published on MENGBlend.

Can Penn State’s Reputation Be Saved?

Among the casualties of the Penn State sexual abuse coverup were the personal reputations of university officials, including the late football coach and sports icon Joe Paterno. Paterno, Spanier, Curley, Schultz and others will be forever linked to the efforts to minimize and conceal shocking crimes against children. (Who can forget the email in which Spanier calls the decision not to inform police a “humane” approach?)

But what about Penn State, the institution? Can it be redeemed? I was surprised to read many online comments, even in the wake of the Freeh report, that shrugged off the scandal and its impact on the school’s enrollment, alumni giving, and academic standing.

I’m not so sure. You can’t blame an entire university for what happened, but where Penn State lost the PR game, in my view, wasn’t just when its leadership failed to report and prevent crimes against children. That was a moral failing.

Where the university erred in PR terms was when news of the Grand Jury charges broke. It had an opportunity to get ahead of the story and at least be a part of the investigation, rather than the unwilling subject of it. The legal crisis had been in the making for three years, an eternity in issues management terms. Yet it wasn’t until the damage was done that the school tried to get control of the situation, and by then it was far too late.

So, what should the university do now? Here are some useful steps to consider:

New leadership. The school has a new president who seems committed to moving forward in a transparent way. But its housecleaning should go further, to the coaching staff and most importantly, the Board of Directors.

Open communications. The Freeh report was funded and commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Directors, which is a strong first step to communicating openly and letting the chips fall where they may. But the very fact of its funding wasn’t sufficiently communicated, in my view. PSU needs to redouble its efforts to show its commitment to getting at the truth.

Athletic program reform. Whether PSU football will be suspended is up to the NCAA, but it’s a fair question and one that should be seriously considered. I tend to agree with those who think a suspension would only serve to punish the innocent, but the program needs to be restructured, possibly by folding the athletic department into the university at large, along the lines of the Vanderbilt example.

Reparations. A “sudden death” suspension would have a real impact on the school and would show it’s serious about consequences, yet it doesn’t make amends. There will be civil damages paid to victims, but that’s reactive. The school needs to establish a formal program to compensate victims. Only a serious, long-term reparations program, along the lines of the BP fund or even the 9/11 victims’ fund, will demonstrate that PSU, as an institution and a community, is committed to never letting such a thing happen again.

Third parties. Penn State should bring on an independent third party to oversee claims resolution and, most importantly, to undertake a long-term education program like those run by The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children or Prevent Child Abuse America. Independence and moral authority are critical in any partner organization.

Money and sports. Arthur Caplan decries the “pernicious and corrupting influence of big time college sports” due to the huge sums of money they bring in, and he’s not alone.

The business of football and men’s basketball at many of our most visible universities is so huge — from the sale of sports paraphernalia, to TV and media rights, to gambling to stadiums filled with luxury boxes and corporate sponsors — that it is laughable to think that administration, legal staff or faculty would not think their primary duty is to protect those programs at any price.

Caplan makes a compelling case, but it’s not realistic to think that college sports – and the big dollars they generate – will go away any time soon. Better for Penn State to take smaller, but steady steps, towards reputation rehabilitation.

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.

UnHappy Valley: Penn State’s Massive PR Fumble

“… I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee.  Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion.”

There are so many disturbing aspects of the Penn State sex abuse scandal that it’s painful to try to analyze them. (If  you want to be sick, take a look at the Grand Jury indictment.) But, from a public relations perspective, Penn State President Graham Spanier’s statement is a classic example of what not to do. From the beginning, it was a signal that, rather than taking the investigation and charges of a 13-year coverup seriously, its response would be tone-deaf, defensive, and insular.

The scandal has already claimed head coach and college football legend Joe Paterno’s job, and before the week is out, I predict it will take Spanier’s as well. And well it should.

Beyond a parenthetical reference to “protecting children” Spanier’s statement ignores the alleged underage victims of the abuse. It calls the charges “troubling” (a ludicrous understatement) but fails to express any concern for the children, their families, or the community. It’s almost completely focused on closing ranks and defending the reputations and records of the staffers accused of keeping silent about crimes against children, and of lying to a Grand Jury about their own actions.
The statement sends several messages, all terrible. It suggests that the university need not conduct itself by “ordinary” rules or procedures. It should not be investigated or challenged, possibly because it operates by a different standard, within its own walls.

Is it any wonder that the leadership within those walls are accused of covering up illegal and disgusting behavior for over a decade? Sure, it’s just a statement, but, remember, this “troubling” crisis didn’t exactly sneak up on them. The Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. Spanier had to have known. There was plenty of time for the university to align itself with the forces of good…or, better yet, to go public, admit its failures, and clean house.

So, the statement is just the tip of a large, ugly iceberg. But it signals the first, fumbled play in a losing reputation communications strategy of insensitivity, myopia, and incompetence.