PR For The "New" Technology CEO

For CEOs of technology companies, arrogance is out and humility is in. “Boring is the new black,” proclaims New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in a piece about the latest trend for technology company chiefs. Whereas they once reveled in being colorful, brash, and outspoken, today’s leaders have quieted down a bit. The trend has implications for traditional tech company PR campaigns that focus on the top guy.

I don’t concur with every example Manjoo cites (since when was Bill Gates considered charismatic?), but there’s no doubt things have changed for Silicon Valley. Once held up as the embodiment of American innovation, Big Tech is now seen as partly responsible for many of society’s problems — from income inequality to the erosion of personal privacy. Media attitudes have hardened, too.  Most journalists aren’t fan boys waiting breathlessly for the next gadget launch; they’re just as apt to be tough on company leaders, or to pounce on bad news.

With its changing reputation comes a new caution in CEO conduct. Being outrageous, or even quirky, is risky. And since the #metoo movement, many high-level male executives in the Valley are running scared. They have a good reason. Sixteen months ago, Travis Kalanick was the freewheeling, bad-boy CEO of Uber and Susan Fowler, who spent “one very very strange year” there, was an unknown software engineer who quietly departed after unrelenting sexual harassment and discrimination. Today, Kalanick is out of the company he founded and Fowler has been brought on by the New York Times as opinion editor. My, how things turn.

So how is a technology leader to stand out as the face of a company? Most tech companies, among others, want to steer away from the “cult of personality” approach, understandably. Yet the C-level role is more critical than ever.

The good news is that CEO “thought leadership” is easier to achieve in periods of rapid social and technology change. And during divisive times, people are hungry for real insights. In fact, now may be an opportune time to take a new approach to personal branding for corporate leaders. But the key isn’t really to play it safe or to be boring.

How should a CEO convey leadership?

Leaders talk about ideas

Is there anything more powerful than an exciting idea that hasn’t been realized? I was reminded of this recently when someone tweeted a portion of President John F. Kennedy’s “moon speech” — “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a rallying cry for the entire country and served as a metaphor for American ingenuity, competitiveness, and idealism.

Focus on the future 

Looking forward is the key to staying relevant, and when it comes to technology businesses in particular, all eyes look to the future. Forecasts, preparation, and anticipation of changes to come should be a staple of every technology CEO’s public script. The future is exciting, especially if we’re prepared for it.

Master the message

Sometimes a trend is happening in front of us, but we don’t realize it, or it hasn’t been identified. The leader who captures it can take the credit.  Malcolm Gladwell had some striking observations about how ideas spread, but it was only after he packaged his thoughts under a label borrowed from epidemiology that “the tipping point” was born.

Zig when others zag

Who doesn’t love a contrarian? PR and corporate comms people have known this for years. If a C-level executive has views or ideas that are legitimately against the grain, they will clearly help differentiate his brand and that of the organization.

Be hopeful

We may be in a buoyant economic time now, but in many sectors the environment is divisive and uncertain rather than optimistic. We’re starved for hope, and a business leader who can inspire with solutions and confident expectation will exert far greater influence than the CEO who simply diagnoses our ills.


What could be more obvious, right? But involvement outside of one’s own category is what separates a strong company captain from a great leader. Look at Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for example. Benioff remains a larger-than-life character, but he has made social change and climate action a key goal for Salesforce. He called for the Silicon Valley community to address inequality and homelessness in San Francisco and backed it with millions in donated funds. Along with others, Benioff has committed to helping take on global climate change through the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit.

That’s the kind of inspiring leadership that CEOs don’t need to be quiet about.

5 Insights On Corporate Activism From Top PR Experts

Last week, seven of the public relations industry’s top PR professionals offered unusually candid insights into one of the hottest issues of the day – corporate activism.

Values-Based Decision Making in a Provocative Environment was produced by the Museum of Public Relations, which has grown into an impressive thought leadership organization since its founding by Shelley Spector.

The panelists agreed that most corporations need to build trust by conducting themselves with transparency, honesty, and finesse. What’s more, today’s public increasingly expects corporate leaders to take a stand on social issues. That’s great news for the PR teams who support such organizations, but it does warrant a careful approach. When embarking on an issues campaign, public relations pros should make it relevant to stakeholders, engage their employees, consider their customers’ values, and be prepared for blowback.

Here are highlights from the corporate activism panel discussion, which included executives from Weber Shandwick, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric.

PR’s Deep Impact: The CCO

Event panelists worked through some of the most well-known episodes in PR history, including the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis (Johnson & Johnson). Some had come of age in the days before digital and social media, then lived through the extraordinary communications revolution that transformed the nature of information. They bring a valuable perspective to the state of today’s communications.

museum of public relations social activism
(L to R) Roger Fine, Craig Rothenberg, Roger Bolton, Joyce Hergenhan, Shelley Spector, Jack Leslie, Bill Nielsen, Erica Taylor Sutherland, Michael Sneed

Not so long ago, public communication was a one-way process; organizations sent press releases and news statements to media for public consumption. Today, PR is a two-way conversation, and the sheer volume of news has exploded. The role of the Chief Communications Officer has therefore grown in importance. The CCOs working today have the opportunity to make a great impact on society. But it’s easier said than done.

PR’s currency has never been greater

As pointed out by several panelists, emerging generations place a particular premium on truth. Bill Nielsen, retired Chief Public Relations & Communications Officer for Johnson & Johnson, believes that the PR and journalism industries share a common currency: dedication to facts. A healthy journalism sector and corporate communications driven by honesty and authenticity will elevate the public dialogue and strengthen our institutions. As we have seen, flawed journalism and phony corporate speech will only weaken public confidence and degrade the national conversation. It’s a downward spiral.

As Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed pointed out, in today’s communications arena, companies have a social contract with society and must earn the license to do business. But, some corporations fall victim to short-term thinking, or they don’t know how to engage in a more challenging social environment. Several panelists offered observations and advice to communicators who want to gain (or regain) public trust, particularly among rising generations.

Doing the right thing is hard

Your company just needs to do good things and get on the right side of whatever issue arises. Simple, right?

No. And it’s important to recognize that fact. “People mistake ethical decision-making for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Most ethical crises are (difficult) moral dilemmas,” said Roger

Fine, the retired J&J General Counsel. Before you broadcast your position to the world, you must consider how various stakeholders will react. Expect pushback, because it will probably come.
Today’s PR teams are working in uncertain, acrimonious times, but that can’t be an excuse to hold back. In fact, it’s a reason to engage. As Dr. Erica Taylor Southerland of Howard University points out, “There’s an entire generation of workers who don’t recognize this atmosphere as provocative. To them, it is the normal everyday.” This is a crucial factor for many communicators who came of age before the digital age. Today’s consumers have different experiences and expectations.

If your company speaks out, will most be pleased and embrace your message? Will new customers be attracted to the brand? Will you alienate certain customers, influencers, or investors? When J&J joined other companies in pulling advertising from Laura Ingraham’s show to protest her criticism of Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg, there was pushback. Many Fox viewers responded, launching counter-boycotts using the hashtags #boycottJ&J and #boycottjohnson&Johnson.

Walk the PR talk

Were J&J’s actions worth the blowback? It’s arguable, but as a global health organization with a stellar brand reputation, it’s reasonable to weigh in on a public health matter. That’s not always the case. When Dodge aired a Super Bowl ad using a Martin Luther King Jr. voice-over to sell its Ram trucks, it faced a storm of criticism. If a company has no substantial or authentic connection to a cause or issue, it can descend into a quagmire of public skepticism.

As explained by Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick, “It’s not just about doing good things. It’s about identifying a social need. And what skill sets do we have that can help that? And still make money.” A company must be able to explain and support an advocacy position. The position should be expressed in an authentic way. Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard is known to be utterly frank in his messaging, including his recent offensive against the Trump administration. It makes sense that an outdoor apparel retailer like Patagonia would take a public stand against the opening of national park lands for commercial use.

But when companies trumpet sustainability programs but don’t back them up with behavior, it’s likely to be seen as greenwashing. When they do back it up with behavior, it’s called stewardship.

Speed kills, but so does hesitation

Companies must weigh many factors when jumping into a divisive social dialogue – and they must do it fast. They want to drive the conversation, yet in today’s fragmented and fast-moving mediascape, controlling the narrative is impossible. “It’s almost lethal to try and be first (in speaking out),” said Johnson & Johnson CCO Michael Sneed. PR teams must take time to evaluate the implications and consequences of corporate speech.

For example, Sneed sees his own company’s decision on the Ingraham show as too hasty, driven by the relentless news cycle. “We call it trigger process: something (an action) that could affect the whole organization… We took it from all sides,” was his observation. It seems that the best way to proceed is for corporate communicators to have a firm grasp of their organization’s values and those of its customers, so it can swiftly map public responses to the corporation’s value system.

People have good reasons not to trust corporations, but “communications is the currency of change,” observes Jack Leslie of Weber Shandwick. With the veracity of journalists being questioned, the public relations industry may be in a unique position to step forward and be a force for truth. PR pros can help counsel corporations to speak out against wrongs, do good works, be authentic in words and actions, and do it all fast. This kind of strategic corporate activism can help to earn back the good faith of the American public.

7 PR Tips For Digital Reputation Management

One foundation of a good public relations campaign is reputation management. Whether for a brand or an individual, most good PR people spend their time helping internal or external clients create a positive perception among key audiences or building a specific kind of reputation in the marketplace.

The growth of social and digital media, of course, presents both challenges and opportunities for reputation management. Digital content like customer reviews, blog posts, or social updates can help tell a story about professional expertise or insights. Conversely, the absence of a digital footprint can raise questions about career achievements or professional standing. It pays to stand out — but in a positive way.

The good news is there are tenets of reputation management that apply both professional and personal branding. Here’s how any professional can borrow PR expertise to build the reputation they want to convey to prospects, peers, and employers.

Maximize your digital footprint

You can’t manage everything on the web, but there’s plenty that is under your own control, and the first step is to optimize all the pages you own. Create personal and business sites that you manage where possible – on all search and social platforms. Make sure you own the domains for your name, and keep your information updated. Be present on key social media platforms, and post proactively. If it’s too overwhelming to make an impact on every platform, select the three most relevant ones and commit an hour a day to posting and responding to professional commentary. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are likely to be the most useful for digital reputation-building, and all are well optimized by Google.

Understand SEO basics

You don’t need to hire an SEO agency or be a search expert to take advantage of SEO principles, but it helps to grasp the basics. For most professionals, it comes down to an optimized web presence, regular production of fresh, relevant, high-quality content, and judicious use of relevant keywords. The first step is the creation of a website or page including the very terms and keywords that people searching for your expertise will use. It’s helpful to think like someone looking for your particular expertise; for example, our website emphasizes phrases like “top New York PR agency” and “best technology PR” instead of less searchable copy like “our clients love us.”  The most challenging piece for most professionals is content production, because it’s time-consuming, and it may not make a difference for several months. But Google rewards fresh, relevant content, so it pays to invest time in blogging, social updates, and comments on professional community sites. 

Don’t post or email anything you wouldn’t want made public

This includes social media, where an impulsive post or joke gone wrong can have real consequences…. just ask Justine Sacco. New college grads and others entering the labor market have started to understand this, but unfortunate mistakes happen. It may be a tougher lesson for more established professionals, possibly because they have a false sense of security about presumably private communications like email. The point is, almost no digital communication is really private.

Cultivate advocates

Networking, both on and offline, is key to building a resilient reputation for professionalism or for a specific type of expertise. Become a member of professional online communities; be known for your insights, collegiality, or responsiveness. Be generous with your time, ideas, and feedback. Participation in a professional community will offer a payback in search ranking support, reputation enhancement, and new relationships.

Be a thought leader

My grandmother used to say, small people talk about other people, big people talk about ideas. Okay, the advice is a little shopworn, and not everyone can or wants to be an industry thought leader. But aligning your name and/or company to a central idea, mission, or unique aspect of your identity is a simple and authentic way to build your reputation both on and offline. It should appear in your LinkedIn profile, on your website, your Twitter bio, and be frequently mentioned in the content you create.

Tell your story

The best way to do this is by blogging. Yes, it’s a serious commitment of time and ideas and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, because an out-of-date blog sends a bad message. But weekly posts about the problems, issues, and insights relevant to clients, customers, prospective employers, and potential employees is the single most powerful way to build a reputation in sync with professional goals. If a regular blog is too much, consider becoming a contributor of guest posts to the most well-read blogs or publications in your industry.

Learn how to apologize

Someone criticizes you on social media, or a negative review of your business is posted. Don’t overreact, but do respond – with professionalism. If there’s a legitimate gripe, accept responsibility, apologize, and take steps to correct the situation. It’s amazing how humanizing a humble response to criticism can be for a business brand.

After The Russia Scandal, Is Facebook Growing Up?

Is the Russia scandal an ultimate comeuppance for Facebook? Will its reputation suffer real harm as a result, or will it rise to the occasion and grow up?

When it revealed it had sold about $100,000 in targeted ads to a shady Kremlin-funded organization bent on reaching U.S. voters, I was initially skeptical about any real impact on Facebook’s reputation or its business.

Facebook has weathered many storms in its 13-year history. Today it is unrivaled as a digital advertising platform. In fact, by the end of this year Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent) will account for half of all ad revenue worldwide, and more than 60% in the U.S.

Yet the original social network’s early challenges over platform changes, competitive practices, and even user privacy policies seem almost quaint compared to today’s knotty issues. Live-streamed violence on the platform, ubiquitous low-quality clickbait, and the scale of the “fake news” problem have emerged as real business threats.

Technology platform or media company?

Most important, perhaps, is Facebook’s identity crisis — or, rather, identity denial. As it has grown in size and influence, Facebook stubbornly maintained that it’s a technology company, not a media business. Insisting that it’s an agnostic tech platform, of course, makes it seem less accountable for unintended consequences around content abuses or the sway of fake news. And Facebook seemed determined to have it both ways, wanting all the growth and influence with little of the responsibility beyond basic moderation. Facebook resisted the media company label even as it dove deeper into content paying media companies to create content and planning to develop its own TV-style shows.

That positioning began to change after the fake news scandal hit. Facebook watchers talked about a “maturing” at the company. Zuckerberg even launched a kind of national listening tour, which led to speculation he will run for higher office. (For what it’s worth, I think the true presidential contender at Facebook is Sheryl Sandberg, not her boss.)

But the real tipping point came with the revelations of Russia-sponsored ads. No one – least of all the media who covered the story and dogged Mark Zuckerberg about a paid Russia connection – has forgotten his response. He famously called it “kind of a crazy idea” that Russians might have used the platform to influence voters.

Today that idea isn’t so crazy. And Facebook looks clueless, or, worse, deceptive, for its denials. (Some of the ads were paid for in rubles, for heaven’s sake. How hard could it have been to spot them?) Instead of “bringing the world closer together,” as outlined in its mission statement, it seems Facebook has been used to divide us here at home.

Moreover, the public has grown exasperated over the situation. A recent poll conducted by the Factual Democracy project shows that most Americans hold Facebook responsible for inaccurate stories.  Seventy-three percent of voters said they think “Facebook should hold itself to the same standard as other media companies to only publish accurate stories about candidates during election season.”

Perception is reality, of course. Facebook is the world’s largest media company, and it must own up to that status. To his credit, Zuckerberg issued an apology for his “dismissive” attitude. He followed the familiar pattern of Facebook-in-crisis-response mode, including a soberly scripted video that addressed the situation on Facebook Live. Most importantly from a reputation management perspective, he has pledged tangible measures to prevent such weaponization of the network in the future. The company is naturally cooperating with the Congressional investigations and it recently detailed measures to root out fake stories and shutter imposter accounts.

Most observers think the recent revelations are the tip of a larger iceberg. If so, what Facebook does in the coming months is crucial to the future of its brand and even its business. According to Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, Zuckerberg’s true skill is not that of a visionary, but “in looking back and fixing where Facebook has failed.” Manjoo sees hope in the example of Facebook’s failure to fully anticipate the rapid shift from desktop PCs to mobile devices, and the initial mobile strategy that Zuckerberg “tore up” and rebuilt from scratch when he realized it was inadequate.

Quoting someone close to Zuckerberg who claims the Facebook founder has an uncanny ability to learn from his own mistakes, Manjoo writes, “He was late to appreciate how the world’s most-used social service might be used for ill. Now that he finally seems to understand the problem, there may be hope that he can do something about it.”

I hope for the brand’s sake, and for our own, that he is right.

United Flies Into A PR Storm

The public relations team at United had probably just started to breathe easy after the “leggings” mini-crisis when a second PR disaster hit. And this one’s a doozy.

Late Sunday, a United passenger who refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight was forcibly removed from the plane by police, to the horror of other passengers. Many captured the scene on their smartphones, and the video was more shocking than the headline; the man is screaming as he is wrenched from his window seat and dragged down the aisle, his face bleeding after apparently hitting an armrest. It’s the kind of treatment you can only imagine if he were a physical threat or a terror suspect, not an ordinary passenger.

The video, which went viral by Monday morning after being posted on Facebook by another passenger, is very disturbing. But for public relations and crisis experts, United’s immediate response was also troubling. As of midday Monday, the airline had issued the following statement.

“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

A poor response compounded by a second

You don’t need to be a PR professional to think this is a pretty poor response. There’s no apology for the passenger’s humiliation, inconvenience, and injury. There’s no explanation for the use of force, and in fact the statement omits the bit about dragging a screaming, bleeding man from his seat. United uses the word “voluntarily” in an interesting way (if you don’t want to volunteer, we’ll make you!) and then passes the buck to unnamed “authorities” who were clearly acting at its behest.

The first rule of a case like this is to take responsibility. The initial response amounts to an utter abdication of that. And it clearly could have been handled more skillfully. According to other passengers on the flight, the airline said it needed four seats to fly its own employees to Louisville. It offered as much as $800 and a hotel stay to anyone who would volunteer to take a later flight, but it had no takers. Technically, United was within its rights to remove passengers; nearly every ticket we buy contains small print about the risk of being bumped. But airlines typically negotiate for volunteers before the flight is boarded, not after they’re seated on the plane. More importantly, there would seem to be better ways of persuading a reluctant “volunteer” than by force.

A second statement released by United CEO Oscar Munoz on Monday wasn’t much of an improvement on the first.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

“Re-accommodate”? Really? The statement here is vaguely worded; United seems to be apologizing to its own crew, or possibly to passengers who witnessed the incident. Its use of “re-accommodate” is positively Orwellian. It still doesn’t take any responsibility for the decision to use force or the chaos and injury that ensued. What’s more, comments by United spokesperson Charles Hobart in a New York Times interview seem to blame the passenger for refusing to leave after being asked repeatedly and – as Hobart takes pains to emphasize – politely. “We explained the scenario to the customer,” Mr. Hobart said. “That customer chose not to get out of his seat.”  United is blameless, he seems to say.

If you’re responsible, say so

Blaming others – even when it reflects the reality of a situation – is nearly always a losing proposition in a public apology. Again, the airline is technically within its rights, but it’s shocking to me that, as the video continues to be shared by social and traditional media, United has not admitted that it badly mistreated a paying passenger and mishandled a common enough situation that could have been defused with far less effort and expense. Nor has it announced that it will try to limit overbooking, or pledge to handle it differently in the future. The non-apology apologies are only fueling anger and ridicule on social media.

The airline offered up to $800 for anyone willing to give up his seat and fly later. What if it had offered more – $1000 or even $5000? If that seems expensive, look at the video, think about the outrage, and consider the reputation damage involved. And what if the airline had taken a page from Pepsi, which suffered through a different, but embarrassing and expensive mistake last week, yet handled it deftly and gracefully?

It’s hard to put a price tag on reputation. But this latest incident should make the airline and its peers straighten up and fly right, at least on the communications front. Because the harm to the United brand will far outweigh the cost of doing the right thing.

Note: After posting I read this excellent article about the power of the airline industry post-consolidation, which states that an airline can only legally compensate bumped passengers up to $1350. Even so, United should and could have handled this very differently.

Brand Ambassador And Reputation Risk: A Guide For PR

Subway’s recent PR crisis demonstrates how fragile a public image can be. It also shows the risks of using an advertising or PR brand spokesperson, even one as seemingly innocuous as Jared Fogle. It all happened when the home of the longtime Subway brand ambassador was searched by authorities investigating child pornography charges against a man who had directed Fogle’s charitable foundation. In the wake of heavy coverage and some over-the-top speculation on social media, Subway suspended its relationship with Fogle “by mutual agreement.”

The public relations benefits of a living, breathing spokesperson can be enormous. A known personality can attract media and public attention and add a human dimension to the brand narrative. When that person is actually a super-user like Fogle, there’s often a degree of credibility that is far more powerful than with a rented celebrity.

Yet unlike a cartoon character or a role played by an actor, a real-life human being can betray a brand – even if unintentionally.

Jared may be an innocent bystander here. He hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime, and it’s certainly possible that he simply made a terrible hire. But rather then helping Subway, that fact probably complicates its PR dilemma. For every customer who is horrified by the brand’s indirect link to an accused pedophile, there’s someone who slams Subway for not standing by its spokesperson.

So how to manage the risk? No strategy is foolproof, but there are some steps that can help prevent a reputation meltdown.

Have an actionable crisis plan. Crisis prep is something that many companies give lip service to, but it should be more than a document that’s drafted and forgotten. A true crisis plan should address the most likely adverse scenarios based on past experience and include concrete steps for severing a spokesperson relationship and managing fallout in the wake of misbehavior or worse. For textbook examples, look no further than Lance Armstrong, Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, or Oscar Pistorius. Even Donald Trump’s licensees got more than they bargained for when Trump tossed his hat into the presidential ring and his opinions on hot-button issues were suddenly news.

Hedge your bets. Many legal experts suggest spokesperson contracts of relatively short duration, like two years. When Tiger Woods’ reputation hit the rough, consulting giant Accenture was particularly vulnerable because it had built its longtime marketing campaign around Woods. The longer a brand spokesperson is used, the thinking goes, the greater the risk of damage if something goes awry. Similarly, a brand should have a Plan B. An entire marketing or reputation campaign built around a single individual – whether that person is a celebrity or the CEO – is too risky for most companies.

Act decisively. In this instance, Subway was right to quickly distance itself from Fogle. But what’s surprising is that the company must have known about the potential for negative PR at least since April, when the Jared Foundation employee was arrested. It may have done better to have acted even sooner than it did, despite not knowing if Fogle himself was culpable. It’s not necessarily fair to cut ties at the first sign of trouble, but it’s often the wiser course for brand reputation.

Consider risk insurance. The damage from a truly disastrous public brand meltdown may be incalculable, and cash alone can’t compensate. But for large global companies, a so-called public disgrace policy is a viable step. Insurers have developed products designed to offer financial protection in the event of a reputation crisis, covering expenses like replacing or removing a brand spokesperson, costs to redo ads and marketing materials, or coverage for events like product recalls. Ironically AIG – fresh off its own reputation troubles – began a few years ago to offer something called Reputation Guard, which will pay for consultation with a top crisis PR agency in the event of a reputation disaster. I guess they should know.

For smaller companies, the lesson seems to be caution when a third-party ambassador of any type is used for brand marketing or PR, and for serious limits on the marriage of a brand and a flesh-and-blood brand spokesperson.

PR Lessons From The Internet Shame Machine

Building a reputation can take years, but you can lose it in a PR minute. Britt McHenry is a recent example of the internet shame machine. The previously obscure ESPN journalist was videotaped hurling harsh insults at an employee of a company that towed her car. Her one-week suspension touched off a debate involving entitlement, classism, privacy, and the power of the web to make or break a reputation. The humiliation may have been deserved, but its speed and cruelty was notable.

Yet the shame game isn’t only for quasi-celebrities. Just ask Justine Sacco, the PR executive who lost her job after a controversial tweet in 2013. Sacco tweeted just before boarding a long plan flight without the internet access. Her inability to respond to criticism of her tweet exacerbated her punishment by the social media mob.

As Jon Ronson recounts in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it can happen to anyone who makes an online misstep. He recaps the experience of Lindsey Stone, the special-ed teacher whose reputation was ruined after she posted a photo that she meant as a joke, but others considered disrespectful to the military. Then there’s Adria Richards and the two male developers whose picture she tweeted after they made puerile comments about dongles at a technology conference. Not only was one of the offenders fired, but Richards also lost her job over the mess. As one journalist puts it, “the internet is unforgiving of stupid mistakes.”

What Are The Takeaways for PR Professionals?

Here’s some commonsense PR lessons for anyone caught in the brutal teeth of the internet shame machine.


And mean it. Britt McHenry’s initial apology was focused on herself, which is never good. A better strategy would have been to apologize directly – and more sincerely – to the towing company employee. For outstanding examples of celebrity mea culpas after a public shamestorm, see Jason Alexander or Jonah Hill.

Don’t lie or deny

If the bad behavior is real, admit it. In these digital times, it’s nearly impossible to hide anything, even the most private of private behavior.  There are many instances where the attempts to cover up are more damaging than the actual sin. Digital behavior in particular leaves fingerprints. A claim that your Twitter account was hacked or that a certain email was never sent isn’t likely to hold up, and it brands you as a liar to boot.

Take a break

Some victims of the shame machine try too hard to take on their antagonists directly through social media.  It’s hard to be objective, and often it’s adding fuel to the fire.  Remember, retreat doesn’t mean defeat.

Let allies defend you

If you must go on the offensive, let surrogates carry the water. Third parties can be tapped to post comments, tweet, or be interviewed on your behalf in a truly viral reputation crisis.  The advantage here is intense media interest, which can often be parlayed into exclusive access to new information or insight.

Mend fences

If you have no allies, it may be time to launch a charm offensive to cultivate or woo back those you have alienated.  Depending on the nature of the infraction, it may take months or years to win back a reputation.

Shame the shamer

If the criticism is out of line or below the belt, turn things around by taking the high road.  Look at how Pink responded on Twitter when trolls tried to shame her as overweight.  Or Kelly Clarkson, who was criticized by an anti-obesity activist as a poor role model. Each rose above the criticism and made the attackers look small (but not in a good way.)

Use your shame for good

In the case of a truly sensational shaming, redemption can be a long time coming.  Look at Monica Lewinsky, who refers to herself as “patient zero” of internet ignominy.  Now, 18 years after she was originally “outed” for private behavior with a very public man, Lewinsky has made lemons into reputation lemonade.

She did it by embracing and owning her own victimhood in becoming an anti-bullying activist. Today the buzz around Lewinsky is about her being a champion of those targeted for the very digital humiliation that she endured. Lewinsky’s TED talk has been viewed millions of times and she’s received apologies from many of the comics and columnists for whom she was a punch line and a punching bag.

This post was originally published in a slightly different version on MENGBlend.

PR, Pizza, And Crisis Management In Indiana

One of the tougher PR and reputation management aspects of the furor around Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act is the struggle faced by local businesses who want to separate their own views and polices from the interpretation of Governor Pence’s original legislation as homophobic.

Although the state quickly passed a “clarified” bill under pressure last Thursday, the economic impact, amplified by loud social media action from prominent businesses, celebrities, and influentials urging an Indiana boycott, has been swift and harsh. Tourism officials are in full crisis mode, with millions in conference spending threatened. If anyone doubts the potential impact, look no further than Arizona.

Many small and midsize businesses who embrace customers of any and all persuasions are caught in the in the middle, tarred with the brush of bigotry and powerless to do much of anything about it. But some local businesses are showing PR and reputation savvy. Their actions may not be enough to stave off a prolonged boycott (“gaycott?”), but the actions are instructive. They fall roughly into three categories.

Be part of the solution. Nine major Indiana companies sent a letter to the Governor urging the revision that assures the legislation won’t be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Others, like Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, have criticized the revised bill as inadequate.
Even better, locally headquartered businesses like Cummins and Eli Lilly are pushing for a statewide antidiscrimination statute. It’s an astute way of trying to avoid the problem by championing the broader issue of equal rights. It may not avoid continued criticism, but it will likely burnish the reputations of those involved and keep them from being targeted by activists.

Get creative. The above moves won’t do much to help the little guy. Some have resorted to hanging signs like “We Serve Everyone.” Convention and visitors association Tourism Indy launched a clever social media comeback by building five-foot concrete letters NDY and inviting residents to complete the word in selfies by becoming a human “I.” The point is summed up by hashtag #IndyWelcomesAll. Nice.

Use humor. When things get ugly, a light touch can be a way of deflecting outrage like the activist anger that threatens to dampen the Indiana economic comeback and depress tourism and economic development for the year or longer. When a local pizza shop became a symbol of the culture war by saying it would refuse to cater a fictional gay wedding, the battle lines were drawn as sharply as pepperoni slices. In response, former “Scrubs” stars (and the original straight “bromance” couple) Zach Braff and Donald Faison recently pledged to make pizza for anyone’s gay wedding.

My feeling is that Indiana will suffer economic consequences unless the bill is modified more dramatically or repealed altogether. In the meantime, PR-smart local businesses might want to jump on the gay pizza bandwagon. Rainbow pie, anyone?

Rolling Stone’s Weak ‘Apology PR’ Won’t Heal Its Reputation

Rolling Stone’s explosive story about sexual assault on college campuses was horrifying, but from a PR and reputation point of view, it seemed like a journalistic milestone.  “A Rape on Campus” was the type of piece that produces headlines and drives traffic, but also sparks real change. The outrage it triggered echoed some of its most influential journalism, like Matt Taibbi’s takedown of Goldman Sachs, or the late Michael Hastings’ profile of General Stanley McChrystal.

Except for one thing. The central narrative, a stomach-turning first-person account of a brutal gang rape, was not accurate. It may not have even been true at all. Richard Bradley, the first journalist to weigh in on the story’s weaknesses, detailed the ways in which it failed to meet basic journalism standards on his blog just before Thanksgiving. His post is a must-read for anyone following the saga, or for those curious about media bias.

Bradley was followed by many others who questioned the story. As the discussion intensified, the issue became politicized, and ugly accusations flew back and forth. In the eyes of some, questioning the victim’s account was equivalent to being an apologist for “rape culture.”

When it all fell apart only 9 days later, Rolling Stone was left with a battered reputation. Worse, the mess has probably set back years of work to bring attention to campus rape and support its victims.

It shouldn’t have been this way. The entire situation was avoidable. The primary error was the one of running with a highly sensationalized story that wasn’t thoroughly vetted and fact-checked, of course. Those mistakes have been covered by journalism experts. But Rolling Stone compounded its errors in the way it communicated (or didn’t) with those who questioned and reported on the story. Here are some key points where it could have better handled the PR behind the rape story meltdown.

Preparedness. “Jackie”‘s account of her assault is so horrifying that the editors had to know it would make waves. Yet they appeared unprepared to respond to inevitable questions about the central anecdote. When writer Sabrina Erdely was asked by Slate about her efforts to seek comments from the alleged assailants, her answers were vague and even inconsistent. When the questions grew, editors tried to shut down the discussion.

Transparency.  Stonewalling rarely defuses controversy. In fact, it often makes the media more determined to get to the bottom of things. After Erdely’s uncomfortable podcast on Slate and a similar Washington Post interview, Rolling Stone refused to answer more questions and directed queries to its PR director. Bad move, particularly within the journalism community. It intensified questions about how the piece was vetted.

Responsibility. Instead of taking questions seriously or tackling the doubts head-on, Rolling Stone issued a statement in response. It was artfully worded, praising Jackie as “entirely credible and courageous” but taking little responsibility for proving the veracity of her account. Worse, it tried to shift the dialogue to the broader point of the story, the problem of campus rape.

Apology.  Once Jackie’s story was proven shaky, Rolling Stone publicly backpedaled from its earlier “credible and courageous” stance, as it had to do. But in doing so, it threw Jackie under the bus, explaining that due to “new information,” the magazine’s trust in her was “misplaced.” The second statement only further undermined the publication’s credibility and reputation. Why blame the source? Why not admit the failures that resulted in such a thinly sourced account making its way into the story in the first place?

Finally, the statement’s last line reads, “We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.” This is almost comical in its understatement, given the story’s impact, and it’s a weak, ineffectual non-apology.

There will be more ramifications as the reactions to the statement come in, but Rolling Stone is in a tough place. It will need to work much harder to publicly admit its mistakes, take responsibility, and figure out how to make sure this kind of journalistic lapse will never happen again under its banner.

12/7 Update: Rolling Stone has amended its apology, removing the reference to “misplaced” trust and taking responsibility for errors in editorial judgment.