A PR Guide to Strategic Silence

In an era of constant communication, most PR agency experts will say that silence is rarely an option in the wake of controversy. In times of trouble, a “no comment” may be seen as a sign of guilt, indecision, or apathy. PR experts sound the alarm about the communication vacuum in such cases, worried that damaging or inaccurate chatter will fill the void and they’ll lose control of the narrative. Often, they’re right. But there are some scenarios where strategic silence is the most sensible path.

When silence makes sense

When third parties are already defending you

It may be unnecessary or even counterproductive to join the fray when brand ambassadors, or regular customers, are already on the case. This is particularly true when the criticism is questionable. In 2015, Starbucks was accused of being part of a “war on Christmas” when it unveiled plain red holiday cups. An activist’s video garnered 13 million views and launched the hashtag #MerryChristmasStarbucks.

Starbucks wisely didn’t engage the activist, nor did it post in its own defense. It had plenty of defenders who fired back on social platforms with #JustaCup, including celebrity influencers like Weird Al Yankovic, Demi Lovato, and Stephen Colbert. Strategic silence was the best course of action here, because any interjection by the brand would have probably amplified the negative attention and fueled greater criticism.

Never wrestle a pig

Another occasion where it doesn’t pay to engage with critics is when they’re minor players, crazy, or both. Any significant social response may serve to elevate or dignify a nutty claim, while silence preserves the brand’s standing by rising above trolls and cranks. This means that a customer service or PR team must recognize the difference between an anonymous troll with a miniscule following and a legitimate customer or influencer. It’s where experience and good judgment come into play.

The troll is too powerful

On the flipside, there are some critics who aren’t worth engaging because they command a bully pulpit. In April, a presidential Twitter tirade against Amazon helped the company’s share price plunge 11% in one week. Though CEO Jeff Bezos has fired back at the president in pre-election social showdowns, he abstained from a public kerfuffle this time. This was a defensible move, in part because Trump’s every tweet will be magnified in the mainstream media. Then, too, the news cycle is rapid, and this president tends to move on quickly to other issues. Silence was a reasonable tactic here.

When you don’t have all the facts

Crisis-management best practice calls for an immediate response where a brand or personal reputation is on the line. But, temporary strategic silence is sometimes necessary for a company to offer an accurate response. For example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg waited five days before giving TV interviews and issuing apology statements about the Cambridge Analytica controversy. That’s far from an ideal scenario, but sometimes rushing in without facts is worse.

Most analysts criticize Zuckerberg’s tardy and inadequate response as a PR misstep. Without question, its image has been tarnished by its own conduct, and the response didn’t help. Yet if a company speaks before it has all the information, it risks inflaming the crisis, or, worse, inviting legal liability. Where silence is unavoidable, a statement that acknowledges the problem and pledges to get to the bottom of it is a logical starting point. This is particularly true when the situation is as legally and technically complicated as the data privacy scandal.

When the SEO isn’t good

Sometimes a company has a well crafted public position on a controversial topic but chooses not to comment on a relevant development for SEO reasons. A beverage alcohol brand may lead a campaign against underage drinking – motivated by the halo that comes with such an effort. That’s laudable. But for the same company to comment on a congressional investigation into marketing to minors might forever link the brand to that inquiry. Even though it’s on the right side of the issue, its brand will turn up when any journalist researches the topic for a story or follow-up. This is where third-party advocates or industry trade associations come in handy, because they can speak for the individual players without having any brand or company be front and center in the public discussion.

While it goes against a basic tenet of good public relations, silence beats a hasty, half-baked response that can be seen as tone-deaf, premature, or insincere. The trick is to use it sparingly, and only as a prelude to responsible engagement.

Analyzing First Responders In Crisis PR

A crisis situation presents abundant challenges for public relations and business leaders, not the least of which are the critical first communications. The tone of the language, the medium of the message, and its timing contribute to public perception of a company’s management of the situation. First statements say a lot about what a brand stands for, and they reflect on the quality of its leadership. As with a first impression, you never get a second chance to issue an initial response.

Five crisis PR first responses

Facebook dodges blame

Facebook’s response to the recent data privacy controversy was immediate – so immediate that it happened the day before the scandal broke. It preempted the bombshell New York Times investigation by releasing a statement on March 16 announcing the suspension of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook crisis response

But timing can only go so far. While the speed was admirable, the content of the message and its tone were less successful, given the complicated nature of the data privacy issues involved. Facebook’s first instinct was to claim it was a victim of Cambridge Analytica’s mistake and to deflect with a series of privacy policy changes.

The March 16-17 statements come off as antiseptic and legalistic CYA – maybe not surprising since they were authored by Facebook’s VP and Deputy General Counsel. #DeleteFacebook quickly became a trending topic. Within four days, amid a public and media reaction and a deepening crisis, CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched an apology tour with social posts, a more contrite and complete news statement, and TV interviews. Despite these missteps, Zuckerberg’s well-executed TV apologies and a flow of news about Facebook’s fresh privacy measures have helped it bounce back, at least in valuation. As of this post, it has reclaimed $134B in lost market value.

carnival cruise Lines crisis PR

Carnival Cruise – the unsinkable PR ship

When a passenger’s video of water flooding a Carnival cruise ship hallway went viral on May 3, it spawned thousands of references to Titanic and some sensational news headlines. The company could easily have jumped the gun and responded defensively, given that the ship was in no danger.
Instead, they spoke with action. After doing a phenomenal job of cleanup and caring for passengers, Carnival let its brand ambassadors to do the talking, as many passengers posted positively about the excellent responsiveness of the ship’s staff. A day later on May 4, Carnival’s first news release clearly detailed the event and compensation. The follow-up May 6 release offered some skillful humble-bragging about the strong response and praised its passengers and crew. It does not attempt to shift blame or to run away from embarrassment. Carnival has deep experience responding to emergencies, and it shows. Its deft handling of the mishap kept things in perspective, and it was a public relations win.

Musk shocks nobody with aloofness

On March 23, a driver was killed after colliding with a concrete divider while using the Autopilot feature in a Tesla Model X. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the first Autopilot-related fatality, neither Tesla nor its famously outspoken CEO Musk made any comment on social media about the incident. To be fair, the legal team may have warned against a public expression of sympathy, out of concern it would imply admission of responsibility. However, it would have served Tesla to acknowledge the accident and express regret even if there was no culpability on its part.
Tesla didn’t issue a statement about the accident until four days later, with a blog post titled “What We Know About Last Week’s Accident.” The statement offers a clear recounting of what was then known – and not known – about the accident, between bookended expressions of sympathy. The language fits the Tesla brand: aloof, calculated, and confident.

The final paragraph of a March 30 follow-up blog stands out as a piece of sincere communication. In it, Tesla addresses its own perceived emotional distance, and itcrisis PR seems defensive in doing so. Tesla goes on to lay blame for the accident squarely on the driver. Whether fair or not, the statements come off as consistent with the brand. Since then, Tesla has found itself embroiled in multiple controversies (including a subsequent accident), and its stock has fallen about 70 points since February. In the wake of so many controversies, its communications has been slow and reactive.

Southwest’s emotional intelligence

Southwest Airlines CEOAfter an emergency landing in which a passenger was killed on April 17, Southwest released an initial statement on social media and its press page saying it was gathering information about the situation. Unlike Tesla, Southwest made the simple acknowledgement, showing that the situation had its attention and showing concern for loved ones seeking information. The follow-up news release came four hours later and included a link to a video featuring CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly emphasized that the family of the victim was the primary concern. He spoke from the heart — without regard for the airline’s possible culpability. The initial communication demonstrates emotional intelligence in the wake of a truly terrible accident.  Southwest later showed good taste along with solid PR judgment by suspending its marketing and advertising.

Starbucks’ solution to a venti problem

Starbucks routinely engages with its customers on Twitter and other social platforms, responding to many questions and customer service issues. Yet its first public response to the April 12 arrest of two African American customers who simply hadn’t ordered anything at a Philadelphia location was in a tweet the following day. The update was a simple ‘we are looking into it’ boilerplate, as many posted indignantly about what had happened. There was no mention of the customers’ race, or of why a Starbucks employee had called the police. A day later, however, Starbucks issued formal apologies, both on social platforms and through a CEO video and statement on its news site. {For a PR view into video CEO apologies, see this earlier post.}

starbucks crisis PR

The language was strong, peppered with words like “reprehensible,” and it faced the elephant in the room by condemning racial profiling. Moreover, it outlined steps to address the situation. Here, the response was slow, but true to form, once the company grasped the impact of the incident, it engaged fully. In the weeks since the controversy, Starbucks has not seen a drop in business, even in Philadelphia. It plans to close 8000 stores on May 29 for a half-day of employee education around racial bias.

All five of these recent corporate “first responders” behaved in a fashion aligned with the brand involved. You can see Zuckerberg’s fingerprints on Facebook’s response, just as Elon Musk’s personality is evident in Tesla’s. The first statement in crisis response carries great importance, because it sets the tone for what will follow. Despite the fact that every major corporation prepares a crisis communications plan, the urgency of first response demands a certain degree of improvisation. It’s this initial response that often reveals a more authentic, unvarnished brand voice. The public glimpses the voice of the company, and the company gets to show its strength — or weakness.
See this fascinating Wired article for a deeper peek into the inner mechanisms of crisis PR.

NFL PR: Protest Is On The Clock

For almost two years, protests during the national anthem before the game have been a growing PR challenge for the National Football League. With the 2018 NFL draft beginning today in Dallas, speculation has intensified about whether the demonstrations will continue through the 2018 season and how the league will manage them.

Since 2015, NFL ratings have declined 8% in 2016 and almost 10% last season. During the 2017 season, unfavorability among fans fell to 32% — note that these are fans of the sport who watched at least two games. Though many factors can contribute to such a drop, surely the relentless public controversy hasn’t helped the situation.

Reputation and ratings are down, yet profits continue to rise. This poses a question for an organization that raked in about $14 billion in revenue in 2017. How much does the NFL really care about its tarnished image? Is the league too big to worry?

The answer seems to be no. Clearly, the league’s reputation management has moved beyond its annual kids’ “Punt, Pass, & Kick” competition. We took a look at some of commissioner Roger Goodell’s public statements over the past couple of years in response to the protests to analyze how well its communications strategy has worked.

NFL’s initial response was tepid

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, Roger Goodell’s communication was fairly critical of the protest but sought to find a middle ground. He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing,” while offering a morsel of empathy for the social movement. This broad message, “I support our players when they want to see change in society” came off as a bit generic.
Goodell’s statement reinforced the NFL’s alignment with quintessential American values — the flag, freedom, and the military. Given that NFL fan demographics skew middle-aged male, high-income, and white, it’s not surprising that football would play it safe. But at the time of the initial statement, it was still early, and Goodell probably thought the protests would fade.

The stakes rose after Kaepernick lost his job. The 2017 season began without him, but not without controversy. Players, coaches, celebrities, politicians, and fans all said their piece. Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins famously urged players to speak out in Kaepernick’s defense.

The NFL offered more measured responses as the controversy grew. In August, Goodell said, “The national anthem is a special moment to me… But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” It was an accommodation to both sides but like most such statements, it didn’t convince anyone. Things really escalated when the president weighed in a more direct, and far more negative, way. Trump blasted the protesters in a widely reported speech, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

After that, Goodell was forced into a defensive mode, decrying the comments as divisive and warning that they “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” The response unified the fracturing NFL for a hot second.

Goodell takes decisive action

In late 2017, the league sent a letter to NFL owners asking them to require players to stand during the anthem. Goodell wrote, “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.” At the ensuing press conference, the commissioner delivered the clearest messaging yet on the issue. He maintained that players should stand during the anthem. the action was decisive and – the NFL hoped – patriotic.
He then spoke about trying to “deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they are protesting.” These statements communicated greater empathy than in the past, but, more importantly, seemed to take a measure of responsibility in finding solutions to the crisis. The NFL’s position had evolved, and the organization’s next actions showed greater urgency.

The NFL’s answer: a social justice initiative

In January 2018, Goodell trumpeted a landmark seven-year,deal with the Players Coalition, wherein the coalition agreed to end the protests and focus on an unprecedented $89 million social justice initiative. From a corporate citizenship/community relations point of view, the initiative moves well beyond PR expediency. The NFL executives collaborated with the players on the project, helping to mollify any antagonism and sharing responsibility. In accompanying public statements, the league admitted that it failed to understand the depth of the issue for many players, a candid admission of its mistakes. The announcement remains controversial, and there’s no guarantee that some players won’t protest in the future, but it marks a major commitment  as well as the first truly unifying step by the league.

The NFL’s next play

Unquestionably, this corporate crisis has perplexed the league’s executives, and the social justice initiative comes very late in the game. The best outcome would involve concrete results that could be showcased in a serious, non-self-congratulatory manner. The NFL PR team seems to have learned from its mistakes, guiding the organization through these tough times while maintaining its association with traditional American values.
There are still many reputation land mines for the league to fight,  including brain injuries among players, violence against women and other issues. But it is at last making progress in tackling the painful and divisive problem of racial justice with the right kind of constructive action.

How PR Measures Corporate Reputation

Most public relations professionals know that a company’s reputation can be big factor in its long-term success. A positive public perception helps inspire employees, recruit new talent, protect a brand from negative PR, and differentiate its offering from that of the competition. When it comes to government relations and regulatory issues, a stellar reputation can complement an organization’s lobbying effort. It can even help a product or service command a higher price.

However, a PR pro trying to explain the inherent value of reputation to shareholders, bosses, clients, or investors cannot simply rely on her charisma. The idea of placing a dollar value on abstract drivers like brand attachment, image, trust, and admiration may seem improbable upon first glance. So we took a close look at the four major annual reputation reports to see how it’s done.

Measuring Corporate Reputation: Perception or Performance?

Both the Harris Poll Reputation Quotient (RQ) and the Reputation Institute’s Reptrak survey the general public, while the U.S. Reputation Dividend Report and Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies list survey corporate executives and financial analysts. Perhaps not coincidentally, those that survey the public weigh brand perception over financial performance. A pivotal part of Harris Poll and Reptrak’s research centers on measuring the “pulse” or “emotional appeal” of a given brand.
Both the Harris Poll RQ and the latest Reptrak placed Walt Disney Corporation at #5.  But they diverge on Apple and Google. Harris Poll ranks Google at #29 and Apple at #28, while Reptrak has Google at #3 and Apple at only #58! The only real difference in the two reports’ dimensions of reputation are that Reptrak considers “governance” as a driver of reputation while Harris Poll prioritizes “emotional appeal.”
measures corporate reputation
Meanwhile, the U.S. Reputation Dividend Report and Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies measure corporate reputation by surveying executives and directors from large companies as well as securities analysts.

Since both rely on a formula that takes financial performance into account, we see very different brands hovering near the top. Both reports rank Walt Disney, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Starbucks in their top ten. But what do these rankings mean for a company’s balance sheet? Reputation Dividend’s formula links reputation to market value.

“Understanding how changing investor interests play out at the company-specific level provides the critical framework necessary to make decisions about communications strategy.” 2017 US Reputation Dividend Report

The $$ Value of Reputation

The 2017 U.S. Reputation Dividend Report offers perhaps the clearest link between reputation and value to shareholders. The Report uses data from financial variables plus its nine drivers of reputation. It states that in 2017, $1 out every $5 of market capitalization in the S&P 500 comes from “confidence underpinned by company’s reputation.” And there’s another tidbit that offers insight into its value. While 20% of a company’s value comes from its reputation, on average, the highest-ranked corporations derive more than 40% of their market capitalization from reputation. The Walt Disney Corporation finished in the top spot here, earning an estimated 52.5% of its value from its widely recognized reputation, or the equivalent of over $90 billion.

So what does it all mean for reputation stewards at other, smaller organizations? While startups may not derive half their revenue based on corporate reputation, they should proactively build a culture-based reputation that grows along with the business. Early-stage companies may not be able to adopt this type of in-depth research, but the reputation drivers used are relevant to almost any business. They can be used to help inform brand values and external messaging, supported by specific “proof points” for each.

Whether the value of reputation is measured by charting perception, performance, or both, a brand of any size or sector can benefit by treating it as a critical business asset.

The Business Case For Corporate Reputation PR

PR  and corporate communications professionals often advocate for proactive corporate reputation management. We talk up the benefits of having a good reputation, but can you put a value on it?

A bad reputation can be ruinous, of course.  Just look at the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.  Its shares tumbled and its chief executive resigned after the corporation’s cheating came to light. Between penalties, repairs, litigation, and lost sales, it could take VW years to steer its business into the right lane.

Bad news makes good headlines, and the punishing cost of a public mistake is one reason why companies view a strong reputation as money in the “trust” bank.  They know that ongoing management of the corporate or brand image can protect it in the event of a crisis, so they invest in risk management. They make sure that preparations are made for any and every harmful scenario, and they wisely review the crisis plan regularly.

But the best reason to invest in proactive reputation management shouldn’t be the fear of a corporate scandal.

Reputation is more than a defensive tool. A strong reputation is a significant corporate asset, not just a good thing to have in a crisis. In fact, it turns out there is actually a quantifiable reward or reputation dividend for companies who invest in their own reputation management.

We know that “low-trust” companies experience a negativity bias, meaning that a negative story or message will have a greater impact than a positive one—roughly four times more in one study.  But the flip side also applies. “High-trust” companies are affected by a negative message only half as severely as they are by a positive one.

Some studies have actually tried to quantify the value of a good reputation. According to Reputation Dividend, the corporate reputations of S&P 500 companies make up close to $3.7 trillion in value, or 21 percent of total market capitalization.  The analysis suggests that a 5% improvement in the strength of an S&P 500 company’s reputation would yield a market capitalization growth of 1.5%. That translates to a value of roughly $550 million for an average company on the S&P list.

This chart from Andrea Bonime-Blanc summarizes the positive case for a well-managed corporate reputation, as distinct from the negative one.
Corporate Reputation Management Impact
The reputation “bonus” is about more than just the strength of a corporate reputation.  Today it involves the promotion of particular attributes informed by a company, its category, competitive set, economic environment, and culture.  Reputation management is moving from nurturing the perception of general attributes like product quality and customer service to more pinpointed ones  like commitment to innovation, talent development, work ethic, or creativity.

It’s clear that the right reputation is more than a defensive tool.  There’s a strong business case to be made that the intangible asset of a corporate reputation translates into outcomes and earnings that are very tangible indeed.

This post was written and originally published for MENGonline.

Top PR Firms Engage In Their Own Reputation Management

Does PR have a conscience? The news this week that Ketchum has resigned as agency for the Kremlin raises the question of whether large PR firms are engaging in some reputation management of their own. Ketchum’s work for Putin’s Russia had attracted negative coverage even before the latest Ukraine crisis and the recent murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Earlier this year, Edelman, the top independent PR firm, announced it would no longer work for the American Petroleum Institute. The move came after the agency struggled to deflect public pressure for mega-firms to cut ties with clients who deny climate science. Edelman’s decision to spin off the ad unit that handles API work was seen as progress by some environmental groups and hailed as a “gutsy business move” by one blogger, who – in a stunning display of hyperbole – compared it to CVS’s decision to discontinue sales of cigarettes.

The response in each case may amount to an effort to protect the reputations of those involved. It’s PR for PR, so to speak. But, make no mistake, the agencies are also protecting the bottom line. If you look closely at each decision, the motives seem more practical than altruistic.

Edelman’s move, for example, simply divests the ad unit handling work for the API. And although API billings had been reported at over $300 million between 2008 and 2012, most of that was for paid media, meaning the value to the agency was probably far less. The Holmes Report notes that the client-agency relationship had “scaled back” over the past year. Edelman is surely aware that major companies like Walmart vet prospective agency partners not only for their hiring practices and other criteria, but to ensure compliance with their strict sustainability policies, so the decision may actually be a shrewd play to attract bigger fish.

Scratch the surface of Ketchum’s decision and you’ll uncover similar motives. Public documents indicate that the agency’s work for the Russian Federation had declined at the end of last year. With its economy teetering and Putin’s very regime threatened by political and fiscal pressure, Russia may be a bad risk in more ways than one. So, the time is right for a principled decision.

Public relations agencies have to stay profitable and grow just like any other business. It’s easy to be cynical about the timing here, and to criticize from a distance. Enlightened self-interest is not a crime. But, as we often counsel our clients, sometimes the right thing to do is also good for business, and not only when it’s convenient. I hope that next time I read about a top PR firm parting company with a client whose ethics or practices run counter to the public interest, it will be more about the enlightened bit and less about the agency’s own reputation.

How To Protect Your Digital Reputation


A while back, I was startled to see myself criticized harshly on an online IT forum. One poster called me “clearly incompetent” and demanded that I be fired. It was a chilling feeling, especially since I didn’t know any of my antagonists.

Of course, it wasn’t about me. I share a name with a former public information officer for a Midwest school system. From what I pieced together, an IT security breach of some kind triggered some fallout for which my namesake was blamed. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her fault.)

Given our different geographies and occupations, my reputation risk from the nasty comments was minimal.  But, it was an unpleasant and creepy taste of what it must be like to experience an online attack or mistaken identity. (For an account of a much harsher lesson, pick up James Lasdun’s memoir of being a victim of a horrifying Internet vendetta, Give Me Everything You Have.)

Everyone in the PR or reputation business knows that online reputation damage – deserved or not – is the underbelly of the anonymous web – both for critics and their targets. Google isn’t just a search engine, it’s a reputation engine, and anyone who’s checked out a prospective blind date will agree. What’s more, according to at least one source, 78% of recruiters do reputation searches for job candidates, and 63% check social media sites.

Of course, e-reputation concerns have spawned an entire industry, and the major social media sites have stepped up privacy and verification procedures under pressure, but people can be sloppy, rushed, and ignorant when it comes to social media usage. They’re also careless about anonymous handles, and as we all know, anonymity brings out the worst in just about everyone.

Yet having no digital footprint is also risky, at least in many relevant professions and business circles. So, how do you manage your e-reputation in a proactive way?

Monitor. Yes, we all monitor for online mentions of our name, but remember to watch the social media accounts of your closest contacts, including friends and family. They’re the ones most likely to be posting silly photos or worse.

Protect your online identity. Reputation starts with your  name. Find out who has the same or highly similar name to yours; consider adopting an initial or using your full name if there’s a risk of confusion.

Sign up for every social network. You don’t need to be active on all sites or communities; in fact you can point everything to your Facebook page if that’s your identity hub, but claiming your name will deter squatters or namealikes.

Deal with any problems quickly. The sooner you ask your brother-in-law to delete the New Year’s party pictures or the blogger to correct the inaccurate quote, the better.

Secure your accounts. Obvious, but easy to forget or overlook at privacy settings and policies change. Switch off tagging, opt out of lists, and share your privacy preferences or concerns with close contacts who have access to information and images. A good way to do that is by asking about and respecting their wishes when it comes to sharing personal photos and content.

Don’t reveal personal information. Identity thieves can use key dates, children’s names or ages, or mutual friends to hijack your page.

Create content. Obviously this is the best way to build a positive digital identity and the first advice reputation professionals often give to clients. If a blog is too much, become an active commenter on other blogs or online communities.

Even a casual social media user has to exercise common sense, and a little vigilance, to protect their good name.

8 Ways To Manage Negative PR

It’s hard to predict, and even harder to handle appropriately. It may come in the form of a Google Alert, a phone call inviting comment, or an email from a customer or colleague. You, or your company, is being criticized in public.

Some say there’s no such thing as negative publicity, but most businesses who’ve been on the receiving end of harsh coverage or public criticism would disagree. Yet the way you handle a negative story can make all the difference. Here’s how to respond without fanning the flames of a negative situation.

First, weigh your response. Don’t hide. In most cases, a failure to react will only validate the criticisms, so an appropriate response is usually advisable. Yet there are exceptions. If the accusation isn’t credible (a rumor or Internet troll), there’s no need to dignify it. In a high-stakes situation where the facts aren’t yet clear, respond by saying so, and pledge to get to the truth as quickly as possible.

Don’t overreact. It’s easy to be emotional and use inflammatory or defensive language when attacked, especially if things get personal.  Recently a client drafted a lengthy post on his business site refuting “slanderous accusations” resulting from an intellectual property dispute. We convinced him that the post might raise more questions than it answered, particularly for customers with no knowledge of the situation. It pays to seek objective advice.

Ask for equal time. Most legitimate websites or news sources will let you have your say in response to a negative story. Where facts or details are wrong, insist on your right to set the record straight. Don’t threaten or bully; appeal instead to the journalist or blogger’s sense of accuracy. No one wants to get it wrong.

Use facts and figures and cite third-party sources. A convincing response is usually one that invokes objective facts or statistics. Where possible, quote third parties. Past recognition, company ratings and recommendations, or even satisfied customers will help you state your case.

Let your advocates defend you. If you have trusted customers or partners who are willing to be quoted or post comments in your defense, by all means, let them. The essence of reputation is what others say about you in public.

If appropriate, apologize. If your company has made an error, offer a prompt and sincere apology. Avoid weasel words like, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended.” Take responsibility, and more importantly, take steps to fix the situation or make amends.

Generate positive content where possible. Once the storm passes, help “push down” negative or unflattering stories or comments with fresh, positive, and highly searchable content. Step up your blogging; offer to guest post on an industry site; get quoted in a trade publication or site.

Ask yourself, is this an opportunity? Sometimes public criticism is actually a gift in disguise. It can be a chance to correct a problem or improve a product or service offering. If appropriate, thank your critic and take advantage of the opening to tout the fix.

This post was originally published on October 31, 2012 by MENGBlend.

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.