PR Lessons From 2014 Commencement Speakers

Commencement is not only a rich season for advice to those entering the “real world”; it also offers learnings for professional communicators, as well as opportunities for the boldface names who do the speaking. Here’s my list of lessons from those people and institutions who’ve set examples – both for good and ill – for PR professionals.

Embrace failure. Recently deposed New York Times editor Jill Abramson no doubt had a different speech in mind for her gig at Wake Forest. But instead of cancelling or trying to gloss over her abrupt exit, Abramson wove it into her address. She compared her situation to that of the new graduates – a shaky analogy, given her far greater wealth and accomplishment – but closed by urging the new graduates to “stick to their knitting… Sometimes the work will be good. Sometimes it will fail. But making sure you always have something to do, and something to work towards, is the best possible cure for melancholy and discouragement.” A graceful response to a very difficult and unexpected situation.

Acknowledge other points of view. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen put it well in her speech at NYU: “Listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth.” As professional communicators, our own ideas and messages have greater strength if they acknowledge the thoughts of other parties.

Stick to your principles. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a strong point about tolerance and diversity in his speech at alma mater Harvard, which to me boils down to remembering why you’re there in the first place. Referring to the commencement situations where potential speakers or degree recipients were uninvited after being deemed controversial, Bloomberg argued that caving in to possible dissension defeats the very purpose of higher education, which includes tolerance and freedom.

Be externally focused. He didn’t actually deliver a commencement address, but Marc Andreessen did offer his own advice to new graduates on Twitter. Instead of swallowing the “follow your passion” bromides which he feels are dangerous and simplistic, Andreessen offered that “Better career advice may be ‘Do what contributes’ — focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one’s own ego.”

Inspire.  This is the point of all graduation speakers, but many fall short. One who didn’t was Admiral

William McRaven, who spoke at University of Texas at Austin. Falling back on his training as a Navy SEAL, the Admiral urged the new graduates to change the world, then gave them very specific advice on how to do it.



In a different way, Rutgers University stumbled into the inspired, and inspiring, choice for its speaker after being criticized for seeming to rescind an offer to have Eric LeGrand make the commencement address. LeGrand was left paralyzed from the neck down after an accident he suffered playing in a Rutgers football game in 2010. His physical presence alone, symbolizing the perseverance that enabled him to graduate after his devastating injuries, probably spoke as loudly as his words, “Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something!”

Sometimes, the most important thing is being there.

eGrand was paralyzed from the neck down four years ago while playing in a game for the Rutgers football team, and after years of determination and patience, he received his diploma from the university this spring.Read more at:


Seven Scary Cases of Crisis Management PR

It’s every communicator’s nightmare: a negative situation escalates and becomes a big story, or a business is victimized by an accident or malicious prank.

Negative headlines are just the tip of the iceberg, since it’s hard to gauge a brand’s crisis response based on media coverage or social sharing. But the following get our votes for the scariest crisis situations so far this year.

Lance Armstrong’s wild ride. January 2013 was an agony of defeat for the formerly iconic athlete, as he was exposed as a liar and a banned substance user. The most skillful crisis management expert probably couldn’t have steered Armstrong’s reputation back onto the right track, given his years of denials and the scorched-earth tactics he wielded against anyone who contradicted him.

For public confessions like his, a single, in-depth session with a thoughtfully selected journalist is often a strategic choice. But Armstrong squandered whatever benefits his sit-down with Oprah may have offered with a cold, withholding interview performance that was long on rationalization and short on remorse.

The Carnival Triumph’s fail. With the Costa Concordia tragedy still on the public’s mind, the cruise line suffered another reputation hit in February when an engine room fire left the Carnival Triumph dead in the water in the Gulf of Mexico. Passengers documented primitive conditions on the vessel as it was slowly towed to Mobile, Alabama. Instead of a dream vacation aboard the fun ships, the episode was a #cruisefromhell.

Unlike some other PR observers, I think Carnival did a lot of things right in the wake of the Triumph accident. The company won praise from passengers for the professionalism of its onboard crew, and it was relatively transparent, using social media channels and CEO Ron Cahill to personally apologize and offer makegoods to passengers. Most importantly, its rescue was accomplished with no injuries, and it followed the incident with an announcement of a companywide safety review and $300 million upgrade to its fleet.

Bloomberg as “Big Brother.”  Bloomberg News executives leaped into action in May after it came out that the financial markets division shared information about Bloomberg terminal use with its reporters. The response, spearheaded by editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, was swift and effective. Yet, contradictory company statements cast doubt on how long the data about terminal usage had been accessible to the news division, and how widespread its use has been. The handling of the incident raised nearly as many questions as it solved, and many Wall Street types were spooked.

Rutgers drops the ball. Today’s media environment is unforgiving, and secrets usually come out. That’s one of the lessons of Rutgers University’s fumbled handling of a reputation crisis in June. Rutgers knew it had a problem with basketball coach Mike Rice, who was videotaped in 2012 yelling abuse, including homophobic epithets, and roughing up players during practice. To its credit, Rutgers disciplined Rice, but it then renewed his lucrative contract a few months later. When the Rice video inevitably surfaced on the web, there was hell to pay.

Rutgers’ bad streak continued when it inexplicably replaced the athletic director who reported Rice’s misbehavior with a former University of Tennessee AD who, as it turned out, had been sued for discrimination against a pregnant coaching staffer and accused of abuse by 15 players. Rutgers clearly backed the wrong horse(s) here, and it dragged out the damage by trying to cover up its mistakes.

Paula Deen’s public grilling. Deen’s stop-and-start handling of charges of racism that broke this summer lacked the key ingredients for an effective public apology, and her emotional reaction stirred things up instead of calming them down. Deen would have done well to admit the truth by sticking to one story, share lessons learned, apologize, and perhaps donate her time and/or money to a program that promotes tolerance. A more authentic recipe for remorse was actor Jason Alexander’s apology after he poked fun at cricket as a “gay” sport.

Obamacare’s shaky launch. When launched October 1, its glitches were partially obscured by the start of the 16-day government shutdown, itself a PR disaster for the GOP and just about everyone else in Washington. But, the website’s ills were so numerous, and its progress in capturing new sign-ups so apparently slow, that even the shutdown failed to quell the protests. HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius was an inexpert media spokesperson for the rollout, and the administration struggled to distinguish between the flaws of the launch website and the substance of the plan itself. When the (typically) progressive Jon Stewart calls you out for incompetence, you know your communications needs intensive care.

The Amy’s Baking Company meltdown. Yes, it’s a side dish compared to the other situations flagged here, but the social media feeding frenzy around the Arizona restaurateurs who couldn’t stomach reality-show scrutiny is very illustrative of what NOT to do when the heat is on. Among many other crisis management sins, the couple reacted emotionally and personally to criticism, publicly insulted customers, and used profanity, moving from the media frying pan to the fire in the process. But Amy’s may have the last word; the couple will be featured in a “Kitchen Nightmares” special later this year as well as – surprise – their own very reality show. The very thought gives us indigestion, but maybe it was all a PR ploy, after all.


PR Crisis Management Lessons From Behind The Headlines

Hindsight – ahem – is always 20/20, particularly when it comes to reputation management. Yet, textbook crisis successes (and failures) aren’t always what they seem. Here’s my take on some recent examples of crisis handling by top brands.

The Lululemon Yoga Pants Recall. For sheer, on-the-spot crisis management skill, Lululemon wins, hands down. PR experts saw the voluntary recall of its (unintentionally) see-through yoga pants as a “lemons to lemonade” case. And it’s true that the brand’s agile moves gave new meaning to the word “transparency.”

Yes, Lululemon did seem to bend over backwards to be proactive and minimize the inconvenience to customers. It communicated the recall, its rationale, and the timeline of events proactively to press, analysts, and its customer base. It promised refunds or exchanges for defective pants bought after March 1 and pledged to improve quality by dedicating employees to work with vendors, tightening production specs, and posting its own staff at partner factories.

But a closer look shows the seams. Lululemon’s key supplier publicly denied that anyone from the company had even been in touch.  (Were supply chain communications aligned?) Worse, product loyalists saw CEO Christine Day‘s explanation of the fabric issue as…well, a stretch.  Hardcore lulu-lovers have complained of quality problems for months. Negative comments on fan sites are packed in tighter than a Sunday bikram class, signaling deeper problems for a brand whose health depends on its cult-like community of users.

“Pants-gate” was costly for Lululemon’s stock price and for its former product chief, who resigned as a result. The verdict? Sound strategy and good journalist relations are one thing, but Lululemon has more work to do to get back in shape.

Carnival Cruise Lines.  “Is Carnival haunted?” asks one PR community commenter.  It’s a fair question.

First there was the Costa Concordia disaster. Thirty-two passengers perished, the captain abandoned ship against orders, and the company’s reputation—and stock price—hit choppy waters. And there’s been a flood of incidents since.  In February, a fire disabled the Triumph, stranding travelers amidst food shortages and overflowing toilets for five long days. That’s years in crisis management time. The company’s billionaire owner, Mickey Arison, was photographed courtside at a Miami Heat game as #cruisefromhell was trending on Twitter.

Bad optics for sure. But Carnival did act quickly to steer its reputation back to normal. It was proactive with communications, issuing consistent updates on the shipboard situation through a specially created web page and its social media channels. It promptly made amends to passengers, issuing full credits and offering $500 towards a future voyage.

What many didn’t realize is that a sea evacuation of passengers would have been impractical and dangerous—something Carnival did manage to communicate in the press. And though I question the decision to drop-ship the CEO onboard (because it didn’t calm passengers and only exposed him to their ire), it was a bold move.

Some would say its reputation is sunk, but for me, that ship hasn’t sailed. Carnival is a huge family of brands and it has learned from the past. But it needs to do all it can to ensure a steady course for the coming high season.

Rutgers University. The Rutgers basketball crisis is only just beginning, but, so far, the university’s handling has been a losing proposition. Yet as the scandal widens into an FBI investigation, one relevant issue for communicators goes back to Rutgers’ own internal review into the behavior of former basketball coach Mike Rice and the decisions made as a result.

Allegations by a whistle-blower that Rice kicked, shoved, and verbally abused players triggered an inquiry conducted by key legal players late last year. But the investigation focused almost wholly on whether Rice’s conduct constituted a “hostile work environment.”  The conclusion?  It did not.  So, Rutgers followed its lawyers’ counsel and dealt with Rice’s behavior with suspension and anger management classes. Apparently it didn’t consult with PR or reputation specialists. Rutgers Athletic Director and its HR head completely missed the ramifications beyond the basketball court and the legal courtroom.

Five months later, all hell broke loose when the video rebounded into the court of public opinion. From here it looks like a rookie reputation management error and a very costly failure to anticipate two things:  the inevitability of the video’s release, and its powerful influence in today’s digital environment.

A version of this post originally appeared on MENGBlend.