Goya And The Art Of The Brand Boycott

The consumer boycott is a time-honored tactic for those who seek to force political or social change. But do boycotts ever work?

Consider the recent backlash dished out to Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue after Unanue participated in a White House roundtable on economic and educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans. As he announced Goya’s involvement, Unanue praised president Trump’s leadership, commenting that the country was “truly blessed […] to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder.” Unanue went on to compare the president to his immigrant grandfather who had founded the company he now runs.

The reaction to Unanue’s words among many Hispanics was predictable and swift. Boldfaced names from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez to Lin-Manual Miranda tweeted in support of a boycott with hashtags #goyaway and #boycottgoya, with accompanying media coverage.

The Hispanic Federation released a statement criticizing Unanue’s comments in light of the president’s track record and rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants. To many boycotters, the company CEO’s words were simply at odds with the values and well being of its core customers.

When a boycott sparks a buycott

Yet, just as quickly, Goya’s proponents pushed back with a grassroots tactic of their own. Many tweeted urging a #buycott of its products, with one notable GoFundMe raising over $300,000 to buy Goya foods for donation to the needy. The president’s daughter famously got into the fray, and just like that, black beans become a political statement.

One irony of the situation was that Unanue was at the White House to announce Goya’s donation of a million cans of chickpeas and another million pounds of goods to food banks – a part of its admirable history of charitable contributions that was lost in the sauce of mutual recrimination.

Goya was clearly unprepared for the fuss, as its handling of a friendly phone interview with The Wall Street Journal showed.

Through all of this, I can sense the PR woman fret, and I hear a scolding administered to Mr. Unanue in the background. The communications team’s risk-aversion becomes even more evident after the interview is over, when Mr. Trump and his daughter Ivanka tweet photos of themselves posing with Goya products. I email Mr. Unanue on Thursday asking for comment on the endorsement, and he responds with an expression of gratitude to the first family.

An hour later I receive an email from a different PR woman: “We’d like to retract and edit that quote immediately. Please see below for the approved quote.” The approved quote makes no mention of Donald or Ivanka Trump. Two more hours go by and I get yet another email from PR, retracting the reworked quote altogether.

Never say those PR reps don’t earn their salaries.

Brand boycotts rarely succeed

So, who’s winning the PR war here? Between the pro-boycott noise and the #buycott clapback, the Goya situation may be something of a draw. The fact is that most boycotts fizzle out. And experts say they don’t usually harm the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted. Barely a quarter of them result in desired change.

Yet the goal of a boycott should be in the media coverage and brand reputation harm (or benefit) it generates. A study by Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King shows that. A successful boycott isn’t about lost sales or financial pressure. It’s about negative media headlines that persist. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King.

A clash with brand values can stick

In my view, the bad PR is effective when it runs counter to a corporation’s character or values. After Stephen Ross, majority owner of Equinox and SoulCycle, hosted a Trump fundraiser last summer, both brands were targets of a celebrity-led boycott. A data analytics company that tracked SoulCycle signups concluded that its business slumped in the weeks following the controversy.

What made the difference? Brand image, for one. As “lifestyle” brands with large LGBT followings, Equinox and SoulCycle count on being status symbols – or at least they did in pre-COVID days. The brands also convey social responsibility commitment in their marketing, sponsoring progressive and LGBT events, so the fundraiser made them seem hypocritical at best.

By that logic, the Goya brand controversy will simmer on, because the food fight isn’t over. The Trump campaign has seized on the boycott as a proxy for the latest culture war, producing Spanish-language broadcast ads that highlight the “shameful smear campaign” against Goya in Florida.

It’s a canny move. If the president and his advocates can link the Goya controversy to cancel culture and intolerance among progressives, they can win. If, on the other hand, Goya’s critics align it with the administration’s anti-immigration policies and racist attitudes to paint the CEO as hypocritical or callous, they will have elevated the boycott to a movement that’s above partisan politics.

As Americus Reed of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School writes, “If the boycott reflects a movement — rather than a moment — it can change the world around it.” Stay tuned.

Why PR And Marketing Matter Now

It used to be that when things got tough, the tough cut marketing and PR budgets. “Below the line” spending was lopped off the spreadsheet faster than you could say “recession.”

But that conventional wisdom was from a time when PR and marketing worked through one-way channels. They were designed to push out businesses messages through traditional media to customers. Today, brand communications is much more of a two-way street. Customer engagement isn’t something you can turn on and off. In a depressed economy, a business that maintains marketing and communications will bounce back more quickly than one that cuts its budgets.

That’s easier said than done. But there are good reasons why brands should stick with PR and marketing as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, even if in a modified way.

To be sure, the pandemic has changed everything, including how businesses market and promote their brands. In most cases, scheduled campaigns went out the window. So-called traditional marketing gave way to empathetic customer messaging around the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.

A pause in ordinary, pre-COVID marketing has frozen many brands in place. There’s little new product news outside of entertainment, no innovation to announce, and no launches planned unless they’re for antibody tests or the like. Paradoxically, this has made smart PR more important than ever for brands. Here’s why.

Customer communication has never been more important

In an uncertain situation, communication matters. We’re struggling to reopen, with the virus spiking in new areas just as it settles down in others. Businesses must communicate proactively to employees, customers, and stakeholders about practical matters like business changes, measures to protect health, and the eventual return to business. It’s even more important to connect with customers about intangibles – what a business values and prioritizes as employers and corporate citizens.

Now is the time to ramp up customer-centric measures like community service and thought leadership – which classic PR programs deliver very well.

A business pause means opportunity for smaller brands

As many states contemplate reopening, smaller businesses have an opportunity to be creative. Some have already mastered new business models involving apps, customer deliveries, or new products adapted to home consumption. Some cafes and restaurants are using parking lots and sidewalks to build outdoor service opportunities. Salons have adjusted hours and redesigned to accommodate pent-up demand from clients.

Empathy is also a two-way street. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in that no one was spared, and no business is seen as responsible for what happened. The crisis threatens the survival of many smaller businesses, so everyone is rooting for recovery. Most people aren’t worried about whether P&G’s brands will survive the pandemic, but they’re concerned about the corner restaurant, or even the tech startup they read about last month. Some of the largest brands in the world have paused ordinary communications, which offers opportunities for smaller brands to stand up and differentiate themselves through strategic PR and marketing.

Leaders are more visible, for better or worse

In times of crisis, change, or transition, leadership is critically important. For most organizations, that means C-level communications is under scrutiny. Even in pre-COVID times the CEO had become a public spokesperson about critical matters, whether for a private or public company. Now, the spotlight shines even hotter for business leaders. A well-crafted executive PR campaign can help convey a business’s core values and future intentions through its leadership.

This is apparent in the many large-company CEOs who have pledged not to cut jobs during the COVID-19 downturn, as well as several who have taken voluntary salary reductions, like Yum Brands’ CEO David Gibbs and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson. The good will generated will pay reputation dividends for their brands long after the COVID-19 crisis has eased.

PR and content offer long-term value

Finally, many businesses, like most Americans, face an uncertain future. The go-go economy of the past decade has sharply retrenched, and it’s time to prioritize. PR, content marketing, and social media marketing offer a relatively budget-friendly and measurable way to define a brand through its own actions as well as leadership communications. This is particularly true in the high-value sectors of healthcare and crisis management, but it can hold for nearly any kind of proactive PR.

Experienced communicators know that businesses can’t turn PR and marketing on and off in a crisis. Tomorrow’s leaders should use this time to offer empathy, resilience, and leadership in their industries and communities.

At Crenshaw Communications, We Stand For Racial Justice

The past week has been painful, disturbing, and enlightening. It’s time to speak up. With protests happening across the country, we need to make our position clear, as individuals, as a citizen of the New York City business community, and a member of the PR industry.

We at Crenshaw Communications stand for social justice and join our fellow citizens in demanding accountability for any action that disrespects the dignity and value of a black life. Whether in the streets or in the workplace, we support diversity, equity and inclusion and strive to conduct our business and our lives accordingly.

It’s a small gesture, but to demonstrate support, we will donate $5000 to the groups below. They are all highly rated by Charity Navigator and you can find more information about each and other worthy organizations here. 

Center for Constitutional Rights


Equal Justice Initiative

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Minority Corporate Counsel Association

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund


Public Justice Center

Southern Poverty Law Center

We also pledge to learn more about issues affecting the African-American community in our country and encourage our employees, like-minded friends, and our community to do the same. Our goal is not just to espouse support for DEI, but to become an ally.

Some recommended reading for those interested:

Black Americans still are victims of hate crimes more than any other group (Public Integrity)

How You Can Be Ally to the Black Lives Matter Movement (Great Big Story)

Black People Need Stronger White Allies — Here’s How You Can Be One (Refinery29)

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor and How To Be An Antiracist

It’s painfully obvious that the public relations industry is lacking in diversity. There are many reasons for it, but this, too, should and can change. It’s a stubborn and multifaceted issue and a real problem that I have blogged about in the past. The good news is that client companies have led the way and the agency community has made a commitment to reversing our lack of diversity. We can accelerate that change.

We will continue to use this space for updates on our progress on this front and we’re open to constructive suggestions. We have witnessed tragic and terrifying events, but they represent a turning point in our history as a country and a business community. We hope to be among the many who are determined in ways large and small to make this crisis work for constructive change.

Post-COVID, Brands Start To Open Up

The past two months have been extraordinarily challenging for brand communications and PR people. In the initial weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, brands struggled to find the right response. Early efforts were tentative, pretentious, or shallow. As the pandemic progressed and the news grew worse, many stepped up with substantive offers of help, workforce tributes, or public service messages. No one wants to be perceived as insufficiently serious, compassionate or concerned about the terrible toll of the virus. Yet when COVID-19 messages are so indistinguishable from one another and widely parodied, you know they aren’t connecting.

The marketing hasn’t been bad, but most of the marketing messages have been numbingly similar. A somber soundtrack, a voiceover or chiron alluding to these “uncertain times” and a brand pledge that it will be there for customers until “we can be together.” Sometimes there’s a PSA in the middle about social distancing. The tone is typically ponderous and the ads are pretty forgettable.

Many brands see an opening

It’s enough already, say consumers. According to a Pew report, 71% of Americans are tuning out of the news because they don’t want to hear anymore about the pandemic. A widely reported survey of 7000 consumers by Mitto suggests that a hefty chunk of the public is ready for brands to change the channel. And there’s bad news for PR people, too — a recent study by the Clyde Group found that 59 percent of consumers believe that companies’ pandemic responses are “mainly PR efforts.”

So what’s a brand to do? As the U.S. moves in fits and starts toward a reopening of sorts, some companies are cautiously venturing back into the pre-pandemic waters. Consider this gorgeous post-lockdown TV ad from a French grocery chain. The best thing about it is the utter lack of PR sell for the brand.

Yet it’s still a very tricky time to be in external communications for any organization. Here’s what the research shows about the steps to a successful “reopening” strategy.

Consider the audience

Obviously, the shutdown has affected different segments of the population in different ways. Magid did a study of consumer reactions to COVID-19 marketing by generation. Gen Z respondents, for example, are not moved by the sobering “new normal” messaging of many brand ads. Half of younger consumers said they feel bored, in contrast to only 30% of adults 25 or older, as reported by Marketing Dive. 

Nothing stays still

Though for many, our sense of time has been distorted by the pandemic, there’s been a real evolution during the shutdown, not to mention wide regional differences in the impact of the virus. The smartest marketers have remained nimble, adjusting brand messaging, social platforms, and PR tactics as things change. It’s a great time to test and tweak digital storytelling.

Above all, context matters

Given the hazards of overreliance on programmatic advertising where brands can unwittingly find themselves next to inappropriate or unappealing content, marketers have rediscovered contextual advertising, and not a minute too soon. A MediaScience in-home audience survey of viewers who watched ads from Ford, Amazon and Domino’s found that coronavirus-themed spots performed better when part of news programming, as opposed to comedy entertainment. It stands to reason that a “stay apart to stay together” message works better for Rachel Maddow viewers than it does popping up during an escapist binge on Schitt’s Creek.

The door is opening; now all we have to do is walk through it – carefully.

Unpacking The Away PR Disaster

DTC luggage company Away replaced Steph Korey as CEO just days after a PR trainwreck of an article by The Verge exposed its punitive work culture. Korey will be kicked upstairs to take an Executive Chairman post and former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden will step into her old position.

To be clear, Haselden’s hire must have been planned before the “toxic PR” generated by the Verge story. But it’s a perfect time for fresh leadership, and a good way for Korey to be sent packing as a public face of the brand. It didn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot to sort out here. Yet my first take on the Away reputation mess wasn’t just that workplace culture impacts brand reputation, although that’s true. It’s not only that muzzling workplace dissent is a terrible idea and often backfires, though it does. Or that Korey’s apology was inadequate. Or even that warp-speed growth goals and cult branding pervert work culture — though they often do.

The entire episode tells us something else, too. It’s about one of the key departments Korey oversaw – customer service – and its seemingly impossible standards.

PR, CX and ever-higher expectations

These days, customer relations is public relations, especially for high-growth DTC brands. You can tell a lot about a company by how it handles customer complaints. Businesses spend millions on brand reputation and community service. They hire high-powered PR agencies. But a reputation can unravel quickly when a public-facing employee mistreats a customer, and the customer takes the case to the social mob. In many ways PR and customer relations are two sides of the same coin.

Even more, the Away fiasco shows how brutally hard it is to maintain the CX standard that most of us have come to expect. It’s a standard largely set by Amazon. Lydia Polgreen said it well when she tweeted that “the CX expectations set by behemoths like Amazon are impossible to meet in a humane way and yet set the standard for any DTC business.”

It probably hit me then because I was in the midst of a 9-day effort to cancel, then return, an incorrect Black Friday order from National Grid Marketplace. (National Grid is a company that may be great at getting your gas turned back on after a storm but is comically inept at to e-commerce.) My experience involved seven real-time chats with different customer service reps, 14 emails, three phone calls and 29 minutes of phone waiting time. To top it off, each interaction triggered an automatic email customer service survey, but no one addressed the actual problem.

That CX experience was objectively terrible, but most companies are not terrible. Most are even pretty good. Yet given customer expectations, they’re hard pressed to meet an Amazon-like level of customer service.

Remember the New York Times piece that peeled back the wrapper on Amazon’s own cutthroat, exploitive work culture?

(Employees) are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Sounds like the Verge article. This is not to excuse Korey’s creepy, abusive cult-leader-like tone or her use of “empowerment” language and “brand values” to manipulate employees into working around the clock. Yet we assume that businesses, especially retailers, will strive for an Amazon-like level of customer service because it’s the only way to compete today. That comes at a cost, even for well-funded DTC companies like Away. Especially for those companies, because they’re slavishly following the model. For high-growth businesses who need to hit their goals, the customer service bar is forever rising and the only way to balance it with growth demands is to push workers harder and harder. There is a model, and the model is Amazon. Give them part of the credit, and some of the blame, too.

The PR Winners Of 2019

For most experts in public relations, it’s easy to identify episodes where companies or individuals made mistakes, often making a bad situation worse.

But what about the successes? Those are harder to assess. They may be about the brand that punches above its weight, one that makes a comeback against the odds, or even the crisis that didn’t happen. Here are my nominations for the PR Winners of 2019.

Gillette Gets Woke

This one’s a controversial entry for the winners’ column because reaction to the brand’s 2019 ad campaign was sharply divided. The commercial Gillette debuted in January was a different type of ad for the men’s razor category.

Instead of touting the product’s advantages, it tackled “toxic masculinity” just in time for the Super Bowl. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the two-minute spot depicts boorish or sexist behavior by men, then cuts to a celebration of “woke” men and a challenge to do better. It ends with a twist on the brand tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get.”

Did the campaign boost sales? It’s hard to say. Some men were angered by it and vowed to toss out their Gillette products in protest. In its July earnings report P&G took an $8 billion writedown on the Gillette division. Yet the charge was due to currency fluctuations and a shrinking U.S. market for men’s shaving products — beards remain popular, and the competition from upstart DTC brands is still keen. All in all, I’d say that if the campaign’s goal was to drive conversation and engagement, it was a clear win.

Popeyes Scores In Sandwich Wars

The great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 probably boosted sales for several fast food chains, but Popeyes came out on top both in PR and product quality. (Yes, we did our own taste test in the office.) What’s more, the brand took advantage of a summer news lull and punched above its weight in the social media arena. The feathers started flying when Popeyes launched its first nationwide chicken sandwich, directly targeting Chick-fil-A, but pulling in Wendy’s and even Boston Market and KFC into a Twitter food fight. Celebrities and news anchors weighed in as the sandwiches sold out and customers rushed to find it. Someone even tried to sell one for $7000 on eBay.

When Popeyes ran out of product six weeks early, it hatched a clever plan to invite customers to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bun) and come for its still-plentiful chicken tenders. And according to the Apex Marketing Group, it served up an estimated $65 million in equivalent media value for Popeyes. More importantly, the brand scratched its way to one of the most significant improvements in YouGov’s Ad Awareness metric among consumers throughout September. And the fight lives on today.

Capital One Deals With A Data Breach

In general, companies do a poor job reporting on security breaches. When a hacker accessed personal data from the Capital One account of more than 106 million people, however, it fared better than many before it. The breach was potentially very serious, involving the Social Security numbers and Canadian Social Insurance numbers as well as bank account numbers of Capital One customers. Yet in many ways the company was lucky; the hacker was arrested after she bragged about her exploits on Twitter and on an open slack channel, and she didn’t seem interested in selling or otherwise profiting from the data. And Capital One got credit for addressing the breach less than two weeks after it was discovered.

Capital One’s handling wasn’t perfect, and it initially offered incomplete information about the hack. But when it comes to this kind of disclosure, speed trumps specificity, and it moved quickly. Within two weeks of learning of the hack, CEO Richard Fairbanks released a statement about it, apologizing and assuring customers that it was fixed. The company’s website directed customers to updates on the breach as they became available, detailing what happened and promising to make free credit monitoring and identity protection available to all affected. Months later, reports surfaced that the hacker, a former Amazon Web Services employee, may have obtained sensitive data on other companies, so there may be more challenges to come, but for Capital One, the worst seems to be over.

Barilla Pasta Comes Full Circle

The reputation journey of Barilla Pasta has taken years, and that’s precisely why its recovery deserves recognition. The brand stepped in the sauce in 2013 when company chairman Guido Barilla made anti-gay comments on Italy’s best known radio talk show, publicly praising “traditional families” and criticizing gay adoption. His remarks quickly reverberated across the Atlantic, where LGBT activists called for a boycott and celebrities tweeted in protest. Competitor Buitoni took advantage with a Facebook ad proclaiming “Pasta for All” with images of tortellini pairs featuring gender symbols of opposite and same-sex couples. An Italian-American mother of a gay son started an online petition to ask Stop & Shop to pull Barilla from its shelves.

CEO Claudio Colzani told Bloomberg that he planned the brand’s comeback in three chapters: apology, investigation, and promotion. It started with several video mea culpas from Guido Barilla. But the brand also put action behind Barilla’s words. It appointed a chief diversity officer and set up a diversity and inclusion board of outside experts and well recognized advocates. (Barilla’s attempts to win the trust of LGBT activist and author David Mixner is a great story all by itself.)

It then launched a D&I training program for employees and joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies for LGBT-friendly policies. Five years later, Barilla has nearly pulled itself out of the reputation hole. In fact, it launched a special limited edition of spaghetti in a package featuring two women holding hands and a pasta strand in their mouths, Lady and the Tramp-style. Colzani summed it up this way: “We were simply trying to be a good citizen. Now, we’re trying to be a role model.”

Felicity Huffman Does Her Time

Of the 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, as the college admissions bribery investigation was known, Felicity Huffman may have faced it best. Her handling of the situation was right from the crisis management playbook. First, she issued a well-crafted mea culpa for her actions. Huffman took full responsibility for the bribery and cheating that she enabled, making it clear that she alone was to blame. Looking wan and decidedly unglamorous for her court appearance, she apologized to her family and children (whom she asserted were unaware of the scheme), but that’s not all. She also expressed contrition directly to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” That’s the part of the bribery scandal that so infuriated regular people.

Huffman then proceeded smartly and swiftly with a guilty plea and served a 14-day prison sentence, admittedly a very light punishment. Since her release she has been involved in court-mandated community service and has wisely given no media interviews. I predict a Martha Stewart-style comeback by 2022.

Which organizations fared worst in 2019? Check out my nominations for the PR Losers of 2019 and let me know if you agree.

6 Reasons Your Tech Company Needs PR

A high-impact PR program can be a technology company’s greatest asset – provided it’s well conceived and skillfully executed. In today’s frothy tech market, where the venture dollars are flowing and 32 new unicorns were created last year, PR can be a strategic weapon. Good will and strong community relations are also in demand as Silicon Valley is blamed for a host of problems, from data privacy threats to income inequality.

Still, the decision to hire a PR agency can be a controversial one for a cash-strapped startup. Mark Cuban famously advised against it for most early-stage companies, and for some it’s simply premature. Yet even if the PR program is executed internally, public relations and influencer marketing can help put a tech company on the map. For a more mature technology business, they can help build a competitive advantage. Here’s how any tech company can benefit from the right PR campaign.

PR educates customers and prospects

The typical B2B technology customer is an educated buyer who may research his purchase for weeks or months. Business software, for example, usually has a lengthy selling cycle and comes at a significant cost. If you make the wrong choice, there’s pain in switching. The earned media that results from targeted journalist relations and professional reviews can help attract educated customers and deepen their knowledge. Good content can overcome the tech “language barrier” that confuses prospects or clouds the relevant issues. Most valuable of all, inclusion in an analyst report can build brand consideration for months or years.

Earned media drives brand differentiation

Today’s tech categories are hotly competitive. Most buyers and business partners are selective about their relationships – and any purchase truly is a commitment. Visibility from earned media coverage and social sharing can differentiate a brand by aligning it with exciting ideas or communicating corporate values. This is particularly important for early-stage businesses that don’t have lengthy track records.For products, the implied third-party endorsement can work hard to elevate a solution within a sea of sameness.

News creates a market presence

The right PR plan means a new brand can grow a reputation as a major player – or an up-and-comer  — in a given category. That kind of visibility offers credibility and relevance to complement other marketing functions, as well as a solid foundation for growth. Most importantly, high-profile business coverage can help validate an emerging market and reinforce the stature of the startups who are leading change. Remember, even huge names in once-new categories like Uber and Lyft relied on good PR about their growth plans for recognition.

Expert content builds brand authority

Customers trust reviews and profiles from third parties, and such content often influences brand preference and product choice. Savvy business customers rely on earned media visibility and in-depth research from analyst reports, for example, before making a purchase decision. B2C customers also rely on articles and reviews, particularly the word-of-mouth experience that is shared on social platforms like LinkedIn or Instagram. Influencer marketing, another element of most B2B PR campaigns, can confer authority by association or endorsement. Even simple bylined articles and thought pieces can go a long way to inform customers and are typically more credible than other forms of marketing content.

PR supports demand generation

A great PR program can also drive demand and user acquisition – with some caveats. The kind of customer interest that comes from earned media and contributed or shared content isn’t as reliable as email marketing or sales promotion as a generator of website traffic. Yet a glowing profile or positive review is fully capable of moving a customer through the funnel.

Credibility is like money in the bank for brand reputation

I often tell clients that when it comes to earned media aspect of public relations, we trade a certain amount of control for credibility. Great PR, contributed content, and expert recommendations work to validate and build a reputation over time. When a problem occurs or a crisis situation hits, a stellar reputation and solid relationships are like money in the bank.

Crisis PR Lessons From The Iowa Caucus

As every politics fan knows, the Iowa caucuses mark the official start of voting in a given election year. Because of its first-in-the-nation status and a quaint, complicated caucus system (or maybe in spite of it), Iowa has an outsize impact on news and social media coverage.

Newspapers camp out there, journalists embed with campaigns, and the cable news shows bring on more pundits and plan hours of airtime in anticipation of a newsworthy outcome.

This year’s outcome for the Democratic caucus was newsworthy, all right, but not in the way Iowans hoped. Results were expected Monday evening, but two days after caucus night, we don’t have complete results. After months of buildup and millions spent on ads, appearances, canvassing and other politicking in the state, caucus day ended with no clear winner and many questions. As political scandals go, it’s not salacious. It may not even be particularly damaging to any candidate, although that’s arguable. But it’s definitely a mess. And poor communications by the Iowa Democratic party made it worse than it needed to be. It’s a classic case of what not to do in a crisis situation.

What went wrong?

Plenty. For the first time, the party chose to produce three sets of results: the totals for the first-round picks by caucusgoers; totals after a second round or “alignment” where supporters non-viable candidates go to a second choice; and the total number of delegates earned (technically “State Delegate Equivalents”) for each candidate. It was an ambitious undertaking for what was already a complicated process. Apparently precinct captains planned to use an app to communicate their totals to headquarters quickly and efficiently, but it wasn’t fully tested and wasn’t working properly. There didn’t seem to be a good backup plan, phones were jammed, and the things went downhill from there.

The primary failure was clearly operational. Even the most brilliant crisis response wouldn’t have solved the problem, yet it could have ameliorated some of the resulting coverage and reputation damage. Here’s where Iowa officials ran afoul of the crisis PR playbook.

Get in front of the story

When things go wrong, it helps to get in front of the story. Ideally, you offer concrete information about an unfolding situation. But when that’s not possible, it’s better to tell media and stakeholders when to expect the information rather than leaving them hanging. As time dragged on Monday evening, cable news stations were left with hours of airtime to fill and virtually no updates. Nature hates a vacuum, and so does the media. There was speculation about what was causing the delay, some of it irresponsible. When the party eventually told the press that full results would not be coming that evening, no one was happy, but at least media outlets could shift gears and plan accordingly.

Be careful and sensitive with language

The Iowa Democratic party initially communicated about the situation as delays became apparent Monday evening. The language was vague and not particularly reassuring. The first statement blamed the delay on “quality control checks” – strange, sanitized words that suggest a factory assembly line or bureaucratic doublespeak. They did not inspire confidence. A later comment specified “inconsistencies” in vote totals, which raised more questions than it answered and to some overwrought political junkies, implied shenanigans. Finally the party communications director released a statement that explained the problem with greater clarity and described the failure of the app.

“This is simply a reporting issue. The app did not go down, and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

The statement was better than earlier comments, but it came very late and was short on specifics. It focused a bit too much on what the problem wasn’t, rather than what was  happening and when the information would be available.

Make a trusted spokesperson accessible

Even when concrete information is lacking, access to an organization representative can engender trust with media and stakeholders. This is why crisis experts counsel clients that the designated crisis manager and the media spokesperson should never be one and the same. When the stuff hits the fan, phones are blowing up and rumors are flying, the crisis team is firefighting and cannot give updates. It helps to have a dedicated person with inside access offer regular bulletins, even if those updates are just about future updates.

There’s also education to be done. At a time when election security is paramount, the Iowa officials missed a chance to inform less sophisticated audiences about how truly hack-proof the caucus process is. It’s not like a primary, and it doesn’t happen through technology. It happens out in the open, precinct captains record everything on paper, and the votes are verifiable. I didn’t fully realize that until I happened to hear a third-party pundit explain the process on a radio show. The technical glitch was maddening, sure, but it wasn’t a security threat. Yet I don’t think anyone we heard that from the party itself.


Another classic step to clarify and improve a crisis situation is to accept or assign responsibility for the problem and apologize. In the Iowa case, some responsibility rests with the app developers, but ultimately it’s with the caucus organizers in the state party. A Tuesday afternoon statement from Iowa Democratic party head Troy Price did offer an on-air apology, calling the delay “unacceptable.” Price hit a few defensive notes, but I give him points for the sincerity of his delivery and his messaging around process’s importance and the preservation of data security and accuracy.

“My number one priority has been on ensuring the accuracy and the integrity of the results and we have been working all night to be in the best position to report results. The bottom line is we hit a stumbling block on the back end of the reporting of the data but . . . we know this data is accurate.”

Describe the fix

Typically a crisis situation begins to resolve when the responsible entities announce how they will remedy the issue. A faulty product is recalled and redesigned, an executive is fired, or damages paid. In this instance, the state party chairman promised a thorough investigation into the matter, which is the appropriate first step. We may also see his resignation once the dust settles. That would show that someone is taking responsibility and enable the party and the process to move on, at least theoretically. But the true fix may well be a change in the Democratic primary calendar. Of course, no one from the party is saying it out loud, but Iowa’s first-place status is in jeopardy, and there’s probably nothing the state can do about that.

Corporate Reputation And The Whistleblower Culture

As a PR person, I’ve always been fascinated by the complicated psychology of whistleblowing. Lately it seems particularly relevant. Tom Mueller, who interviewed over 200 corporate whistleblowers for his book Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, proclaims this “the age of the whistleblower.”

Look at Theranos – the health tech unicorn that crashed and burned just two years ago. Its implosion was in large part due to first-rate reporting by The Wall Street Journal‘s John Carreyrou, yet Carreyrou was originally tipped off to irregularities by a company insider. Just two months ago, luggage company Away grappled with reputation stumbles after employees shared internal messages that unpacked a punitive workplace culture.

But the most far-reaching recent example is that of Susan Fowler. Her new memoir, Whistleblower, recounts the events that drove her to document the harassment and toxicity she experienced in the now-legendary blog post about her “very, very strange year at Uber.”

So, what’s behind the whistleblowing trend, and what does it mean?

A mixed legacy

The best outcome from Fowler’s experience, and those who endured similar treatment, would be what Stephen Levy of Wired calls “the end of the high-performer defense.” In many companies, especially high-growth technology businesses, there have been different standards of behavior for certain employees. When Fowler originally complained to Uber’s HR department about inappropriate overtures from her manager, her experience was dismissed because the manager was, you guessed it, a “high performer.” Since the Fowler memo, Big Tech players like Uber and Google will think twice about excusing inexcusable behavior or implicitly rewarding it with rich exit packages even when the bad actors are let go.

Yet Fowler’s experience is a cautionary tale. Sure, she landed on the cover of Time and she’s now an opinion editor at The New York Times. Her memoir will be made into a movie. Things have worked out fine for her; in fact, a cynic might say she’s better off after what happened. But as she tells it, the consequences of her disclosure were scarier than anything most of us could imagine. She has been threatened, smeared, investigated, and shunned by people who know better. For an even uglier example, just look at the rancor toward the (officially) unnamed individual whose report ultimately triggered the impeachment of the president. There is no guarantee of protection for any whistleblower.

When culture is a barrier

Blowing the whistle sends a chill through an organization. What’s more, a strong corporate culture, rightly prized by high-growth organizations, can inhibit healthy disclosure of wrongdoing. Exposure of unethical activities can have bad repercussions for lots of employees, not just those directly involved. Rarely does a whistleblower story involve just one individual. There are those who actively participated as well as those who knew or should have known. Often there are employees who received complaints directly or who heard about them. Where does accountability begin and end? Then there are those responsible for risk-management processes that failed. Finally, there are negative consequences for employees who weren’t involved at all – from cocktail-party shame to staff layoffs.

The key, of course, is for senior managers to model ethical behavior, and to cultivate an environment of full transparency. That’s easier said than done.

A red flag about institutions

In an essay about the most famous whistleblower of all time, Edward Snowden, Jill Lepore reminds us that the prevalence of whistleblowing today isn’t a good sign. It’s a red flag. It means that systems are failing. It’s an “indictment of an entire system of accountability.” Lepore writes, “Businesses have regulations, compliance departments, and inspections. Whistle-blowing is necessary when these safeguards fail.”

So what can businesses do to protect themselves, and what can we do as a culture?

A striking commonality among whistleblowers is their persistence. According to the experts, most report problems or abuses to those in charge, and often repeatedly. They don’t usually turn to the press before exhausting other avenues.

Many companies launch investigations and, where warranted, negotiate compensation in exchange for an NDA signed by the injured party. But NDAs don’t solve the cultural problem, and lately, they don’t even ensure confidentiality. Stories about NDAs often leak, even when the details stay private. It’s not a good look – just ask WeWork or Bloomberg LP. Employers should be focused on proactive action to prevent unethical behavior in the workplace rather than taking a reactive approach that can backfire.

Like any other risk management tool, a whistleblower policy is only as good as its practice. It must send a message to stakeholders that the organization is committed to rooting out illegal or unethical behavior, and that retaliation will not be tolerated. In some cases, outsourcing is part of the answer. Anonymity helps, of course. If complainants can make reports anonymously to an outside firm, it allows for more objective reporting and the chance to correct wrongdoing without public exposure. The only cure for the epidemic of whistleblowing may be more of it.

Any crisis manager knows that it’s easier to prevent a reputation crisis than to clean it up after the fact. The same is true for a whistleblower policy. A business should encourage whistleblowing within its walls, because the consequences of not doing so will be far worse. The internal and external mantra needs to be: If you see something, say something.

Starting A New Job, But On Zoom!

It’s safe to say that things have changed dramatically for most people in just three weeks. For me, they’ve changed even more.

It was only 12 days ago that I began my first week at Crenshaw Communications, a technology PR agency in Manhattan. I was really looking forward to starting my new job, getting to know everyone, and joining the company’s Thursday happy hours.

For three glorious days I commuted to the office. Around the third day I noticed my fellow commuters were taking precautions — wearing masks, gloves, and using hand sanitizer more often than usual. In the office, various client and tech industry events were being canceled; in fact, there was a cancellation nearly every day. Wednesday night, after Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the virus and the NBA cancelled the rest of their season, I wondered if I should ask to work from home.

I felt a little uncomfortable about the idea, even though the company has a very generous work-from-home policy. But I needn’t have worried; by the next day, nearly everyone was working remotely. With our IT provider’s help, the agency upgraded our remote desktop application setup, and it was quickly decided that we would do so indefinitely.

A crash course in working remotely 

Despite the liberal WFH policy in the pre-pandemic days, I had planned on coming into the office for a while to become acclimated and have a full grasp on what was needed when I later chose to work from home. I’ve never worked remotely before and I had only spent three days in the office. I was worried about not being able to access necessary items, afraid of potentially doing something incorrectly, and wondering how productive I would be. Communication was a concern— what if I got stuck on something and it was more difficult to explain the problem remotely versus in-person?

To my surprise, I fell into the swing of things rather quickly. Luckily, we use Google Documents for everything, so I’m able to access my Outlook account via my home computer and mobile, and Slack has been helpful in allowing me to chat with coworkers throughout the day to ask questions. I always know what’s going on in real time on our different channels. Our daily check-ins on Zoom are also helping me remember everyone’s name and to put a face to the voices I hear on daily calls. I’ve read countless articles on how to successfully work from home and I’ve followed most of the suggestions — like, having a routine and creating a to-do list for tasks. Some also recommend dressing as though you’re heading to the office and going outside, but due to recent events, I’ve opted out of that one!

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been working more from the desk in my living room than the one in my new office and I’ve seen my coworkers through a screen more than in person. Although my start at Crenshaw didn’t go as planned, I feel lucky that I’m able to have a job with the ability to work remotely — I just didn’t foresee the possibility of having to do it indefinitely. I guess those Thursday happy hours will have to be over Zoom for the time being. Cheers!