Crisis Management Archive

DC PR Firm Dispatch: The Miners vs. BP

October 15th, 2010

Problem: Let’s say you have a media-related situation, and as a client you want a PR firm’s help. Here are the key factors:

• Natural resources disaster;

• People killed, or near imminent death;

• Worldwide media focused squarely on you;

• 24/7 images and video convey the stark reality;

• Crisis will certainly last weeks before the quickest solution becomes available;

• All your fellow citizens are united in their anger and frustration.

Of course, we’re talking about the Chilean mine rescue… or are we talking about BP? On the surface (forgive the pun), the two crisis situations actually shared many common factors. And, they both have been resolved. Of course, we know the miners thankfully had a happy ending — they were all rescued. And as we further know, BP’s oil spill disaster, though it did significant ecological damage, also thankfully came to an end.

But why is it the world celebrates the miners’ rescue, yet gave BP a global chastising? One word: transparency. Time after time after time, BP’s own words, deeds, and track record either got tangled in miscommunication or shameful double-speak. The Chilean government, on the other hand, kept everyone continuously informed with the truth and built considerable goodwill for their actions. We’d bet that even if the mine rescue hadn’t gone as smoothly as it did, there would be some forgiveness offered for the considerable effort made.

Advice from a DC PR Firm: When the crisis starts, keep your facts straight, the explanation simple, and then you can ask the public to believe.

Bravo Chile!

Crisis PR Corner: foursquare Checks in to Apology Mode the Right Way

October 6th, 2010

The latest social media darling, foursquare, ran into trouble this week when its entire site went down for more than a dozen hours over two days.  All the big social networks have faced outages, so it’s certainly a common problem such sites will inevitably face.  What separates foursquare from the herd, though, is the very savvy way the site handled its crisis public relations.  To understand this, we’ll analyze fourquare’s apology and highlight the key quotes.

“We’re really sorry.” WHAT?  A big media-related company actually apologizing for its actions, instead of blaming its fans and users for its problems?  Yes, believe it with foursquare.  The smartest crisis PR step toward redemption is to apologize for your faults, and to do so in simple and clear terms.

“What happened.” With the toughest part of crisis PR out of the way, foursquare next gives a technical, but digestible, explanation of the database error that caused the site’s malfunction.  Sometimes an organization uses their explanation to hit stakeholders over the head, thinking that getting all high-and-mighty with technical smarts will distract everyone until the fire is extinguished.  That’s almost always a bad move, and smacks of arrogance.  In this case, foursquare takes time and care to give a straight-forward explanation of the error, which humanizes the site’s operators and makes the reader think, “hey, this could happen to anyone.”

“What we’ll be doing differently.” Don’t you love the nice titles in the foursquare apology?  Serves as good guideposts to get the reader through to the most important points.  The apology and explanation are only part of the crisis public relations drill; you also have to explain how things will change going forward.  This reassures skeptical foursquare users and anyone else with a stake in the site’s success.  And, setting up independent feeds and sites to keep users updated on status alerts shows discipline in the re-engineering process.

Because of this very well written apology, foursquare will continue to set the standard compared to other location-based competition.  And, judging from the overwhelming positive foursquare user comments to the blog post apology, the site earned tremendous goodwill and will live to see another day.  Bravo to the foursquare PR team!

Brand Sleight of Hand, Brought to You by Toyota

August 26th, 2010

Another day, another Toyota recall.  In theory, any other brand that might have shouldered the weight of so much negative press would have collapsed.

When your brand faces a torrent of constant criticism like Toyota, the go-to PR tactic is to respond with positive messaging, namely in the form of ads – that’s the platform that gives you supreme control over the message and narrative.

But please – when considering such an approach, you must avoid over-the-top, absurd spin.

You may have seen Toyota’s recent commercials about how they’re spending $1 million an hour on improving their fleet’s safety.  As the New York Times points out, that adds up to nearly $9 billion a year.

Now that seems like quite a bit of loose change to spend exclusively on safety improvements, but as the Times explains, the devil’s in the video details.  The actual script of the ad says that “at Toyota, we care about your safety. That’s why we’re investing one million dollars every hour to improve our technology and your safety.”

That last sentence, if diced carefully, says that the money is being spent on technology improvement alone.  Yet during that specific narration, the words “INVESTING IN YOUR SAFETY” float on the screen (yes, the words are in all-caps in the commercial).

Nice subliminal trick Toyota, but when mainstream outlets devote their time to parsing the meaning behind your ads – and potential duplicity – all your company does is fuel the lingering mistrust on your brand’s safety record.  Not the wisest PR tactic we’ve seen.

Even BP Knows When Some News Is too Good to Be True

August 23rd, 2010

Any practitioner of crisis communications knows that some of their best work will never be seen or heard.  In the world of PR, disproportionate credit is given for the big media hit or the well-executed television appearance.  It’s harder to quantify the bad news cycle that never was or the controversy that seemingly disappeared over a few days – and often, that’s the harder media tactic to execute.

Take for instance the poster child for bad corporate and PR behavior – BP.  We’re all aware of BP’s string of PR missteps since the Gulf oil spill happened.  Yet despite these blunders, BP actually was way ahead of the curve on the latest (and unfortunate) news from the Gulf.

BP is to be credited for not exploiting what could only be described as a golden egg by the US government, when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a startling report that got everyone’s attention.  NOAA and EPA Administrator Carol Browner claimed that roughly 75% of the spilt oil had “disappeared.”  Browner even took to Good Morning America to crow about “Mother Nature” taking care of the oil and said it was open season for fishermen.

Imagine the heated discussions within BP crisis response headquarters.  There must have been fierce debate over how to exploit this stunning news.  An aggressive PR plan would have been to build the report into full-page ads in major US newspapers as well as the round-the-clock commercials BP is running on its response.

But that did not happen.  In fact, it looks like the sum total of BP’s hyping of that report is three Tweets on its official Twitter feed:

• NOAA Administrator states, there is no evidence of #oil on the Gulf seafloor 11:00 PM Aug 5th via HootSuite

• 50% of oil released is completely gone from the system. -Lubchenco #oilspill August 4, 2010 1:33:26 PM EDT via web

• Vast majority of the oil has evaporated, burned, skimmed, or dispersed. -Lubchenco 2:28 PM Aug 4th via web

Why is this important?  Because the NOAA report’s findings were so dramatic that they drew immediate scrutiny.  Now, almost three weeks later, scientists not involved with the report claim the exact opposite is true – that about 75-80% of the oil still exists, much of it in massive underwater plumes.  By not exploiting NOAA’s too-good-to-be-true report and staying out of the fray, BP let the feds take the ensuing heat.

This is just one example of how BP’s crisis communications plan is becoming effective.  Evidence?  A recent AP poll showed 33% of Americans approve of BP’s handling of the cleanup (up from 15% a few weeks ago).

Sometimes the best decisions are ones that keep you out of the news cycle and above the fray.

Demand Media’s Troubles Show Why Content Will Always Be King

August 16th, 2010

As journalism stalwarts continue to reel, Demand Media has been hailed as the possible heir to creating key media content.  With cheaply bought articles that populate numerous “how to” sites, the company certainly has tapped into a money stream and thrown the media industry a serious curveball… or has it?

Let’s look at the bumpy ride Demand Media is on currently – and what this means to the world of public relations.

First, Demand Media’s vaunted claim of 80 million visitors a month (wow!) has got some serious holes in it.  As the company is on the heels of an impending IPO, the perception – and reality – of its actual traffic is certainly questionable.  And if there’s an innocent explanation about this matter, the company’s silence on the issue certainly doesn’t help things.

Second, the common understanding is that Demand Media is successful because its business model is crushing the competition.  As with site traffic, the numbers on that are somewhat misleading.

Third, and most importantly, the question remains: is Demand Media’s content worth its weight?  Is the information the company generates that good in the first place?  Some of the content that hits sites like ehow (“How to eat a hot dog” – really?) is very suspect in value.  If Demand Media is effectively a race to the bottom, can we ever expect it to be a thriving media enterprise?

We believe the lesson here is that no matter the new media platform, site, social media tool, widget, whatever – smart content will always, always be king.

Hey JetBlue, What’s the ETA on Smart Social Media Strategy?

August 10th, 2010

Ah, JetBlue… Love your TVs and blue chips, but your social media strategy needs a serious overhaul.

As the new meme-to-be, the entire Steven Slater ordeal has had many twists and turns in its initial 24 hours, with only more anticipated to come.  So let’s examine the basics of the media narrative, as it currently stands: verbally abusive JetBlue passenger, disgruntled employee, terrible economy, people stickin’ it to the man, beer, jumping out of planes, and jail.

JetBlue, this is quite a news mess on your hands.  So… why is your social media strategy on the skids?  It’s quite telling that this is the most recent post on the JetBlue Facebook page:

Here’s a better social media strategy (one that some firms would gladly charge you tens of thousands of dollars for): ditch the typical lame Facebook content, and use social media to control the media narrative.

People are speaking about your company, so instead of talking about hot dogs in Chicago, address the Steven Slater issue head on and make it positive.  How about asking your 300,000+ FB fans what are their tips for unwinding and reducing stress during the hectic travel season?  Pick one tip to showcase each week, and award that person with a free round trip ticket.  Everyone loves contests!  Plus this re-engages the online community and helps it grow like never before.

The social media lesson here: The best PR agencies are vigilant – they always look for opportunities to grow and expand your brand, even when everyone thinks it’s a disaster.

PR Basics for E-Commerce Sites

August 3rd, 2010

From time to time, the Blog Aesthetic spotlights different industries and offers discussion and insight on relevant public relations trends and strategies.  In this posting, we examine the next phase of e-commerce, an industry that faces exciting possibilities as the U.S. economy continues its positive (if slow) rate of recovery.

To that end, what PR factors should e-commerce sites pay attention to?  Here are a few:

• Leaks, leaks, leaksData breach continues to be the most high-profile media narrative associated with e-commerce sites.  As much as news outlets may report on the success of an ecommerce platform, a significant data breach will always be a media lightning rod.  Has your site prepared a thorough crisis management plan that addresses all stakeholders?  If not, your new road to riches will surely hit a dead-end.

• Distinction.  Quick – in 30 seconds, explain the difference between Authorize.Net, PayPal, and Fiserv… Once you’ve hit the wall, you will probably see the problem.  All provide consumer payment processing for individual and business transactions, but what benefit does each offer that’s different than the other?  In other words, where’s the brand distinction?  Your e-commerce PR efforts must always work to show why your site or platform is the better alternative.

• Streamline customer interaction.  With social networking significantly reducing the cost of customer interaction, an e-commerce site should leverage different social media sites for particular avenues of customer engagement.  For example, a few tweets can offer quick bites of news updates, but a Facebook page may be better for carefully addressing consumer or merchant complaints.

• The next big thingE-commerce sites will, undoubtedly, significantly evolve as new technologies and online platforms emerge.  Change always catches people off-guard, so e-commerce sites must make sure stakeholders are fully engaged and informed before incorporating the “next big thing” into their business practices.  Smart PR can help an e-commerce site develop a thought leadership campaign on relevant industry issues, position the site favorably with business and consumers, and then capture market share as the standard business model evolves.

From the UN to Junior League: Good Membership Communications Are Vital

July 26th, 2010

Few things cause more damage to a carefully built brand than a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind.  A stream of allegations emanating from an insider – true or not – will be given credence because they come from close to the source.  This is the case whether the insider leaves on their own will, or is unfairly pushed out after being deceived with false promises as to the organization’s intentions.

This phenomenon was on full display last week when Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a retiring United Nations undersecretary, decided to inflict as much pain as possible on her boss, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  Even worse for the UN, Ahlenius was in charge of combating corruption at the UN.  So it was catastrophic when she wrote the following in a 50-page memo to Moon, leaked to the international media:

“Your actions are not only deplorable but seriously reprehensible …. Rather than supporting the internal oversight, which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it, which is to undermine its position.”

Ahlenius goes on to accuse Ban of setting up sham investigations instead of seeking serious findings.  She sums up the entire UN under Ban’s leadership as “in the process of decay and … drifting into irrelevance.”

“Irrelevant” is the worst thing you can be considered as a professional association or membership organization, and that includes the UN.  An institution that depends on membership to survive must make communicating to its members the top priority.  Strategic communications can help associations and groups demonstrate their value to members – even if those members are nations.  A public relations agency can help messages reach your internal audiences and members to reinforce your worth as an institution.  So even if you have a UN-style incident, the goodwill and support you have cultivated in your members will overcome it.  Of course, you will also need a crisis communications/management plan to mitigate the damage and chart the way forward.

In addition, basic internal communication and management dictates you set up a grievance mechanism for employees, one that respects their concerns.  Even anonymous whistleblower functions allow employees to feel they have somewhere to go (Note: The UN has a confidential hotline but, at the undersecretary level, Ahlenius likely felt it beneath her).

Now of course, at 72 years old, the UN was likely Ahlenius’s last career stop – emboldening her to “tell all” since she isn’t worried about another job.  The UN spends a tremendous amount on communications and marketing worldwide, only to have it all drowned out by one employee.  The UN could react smartly and name a well-respected person to fill Ahlenius’s position and blunt the basis of her accusations.  Instead, it appears the UN has settled on an “as-yet unnamed Canadian woman” for the role.

The lesson here is that smart membership communications are vital, if only to avert your need for crisis management in the long run.

An Open Letter to Diaspora, the Potential Facebook Killer

July 21st, 2010

Dear Diaspora,

Congratulations on your nascent social network’s progress so far!  Building a new media brand is extremely difficult, but with a catchy name, clean aesthetic, and riding the privacy bandwagon, you’re off to a good start.

Disclaimer: At the Blog Aesthetic, we are agnostic with regard to the marketplace.  In other words, we simply call out good PR strategy when we see it.  Nothing wrong with being (legally) ruthless in your business approach, and that includes your public relations.

With that said, here are PR considerations of value:

Know your competition.  The big ones are still Facebook and MySpace, but apparently size doesn’t correlate to smart PR.  For some reason MySpace doesn’t believe in leveraging golden PR opportunities when they present themselves.  That’s a shame, particularly given the news that Facebook’s customer satisfaction index score puts it in the bottom 5% of private sector companies.  Then again, MySpace’s reluctance to engage in counter-Facebook PR probably explains why MySpace performed worse than Facebook in the same customer satisfaction survey!  Diaspora, the chance to get a huge jump start over the competition rarely appears, so start planning your PR steps now.

You’re gonna get attacked.  The screenshots of Diaspora’s user interface look a lot like Facebook profile pages.  Some will give your site the benefit of the doubt and wait until its official launch before passing judgment.  Others won’t.  We anticipate Facebook won’t pull any punches and will blast your site for stealing their idea(s).  The irony of such charges, of course, is that the new Facebook tell-all film “The Social Network” portrays the origins of Facebook as rooted in theft.  Still, it’s worth preparing for crisis management on this, data leaks, critical reception, and anything and everything else that can — and will — go wrong when you launch.

Thought leadership for the social masses.  Privacy, privacy, privacy.  Facebook can never seem to get it right and strike the right balance for its users.  This dilemma offers Diaspora both a chance to distinguish its product from Facebook, and also to spearhead thought leadership on social network privacy issues.  If you guys can get this one right at the start, then you’re guaranteed to get a chunk of the half a billion Facebook users out there.

After Diaspora launches, we’ll revisit this blog post and see if our ideas and recommendations held true.  We love competition!



The Science of Media Training Explains Climategate

July 16th, 2010

In today’s media and public relations landscape, it is important to remember that facts and truth rarely are enough to settle the discussion.  This is an acute problem for the scientific and research community – especially when they attempt to publicize new findings. Fundamentally, scientists and researchers need media training to guide them through media and political minefields.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the poster child for this problem.  Since Charles Darwin penned The Origin of Species, there hasn’t been a scientific theory more attacked, ridiculed, even hated than that of climate change.  In this case, a group of thousands of the world’s most respected scientists and experts issue recommendations to the world to try and mitigate climate change.  While that may seem benign, the IPCC has been under a withering assault from a well-funded opposition.

You may have heard of “climategate” (note: after nearly 40 years, perhaps we can find another way to refer to scandals, alleged or real, than -gate suffixes?).  Some internal IPCC emails were leaked to climate skeptics.  The emails contained standard scientific equivocation; taken out of context and plugged into an anti-climate change campaign, some seemed to indicate that the science was inaccurate.

All hell broke loose.  The IPCC was called in for review, climate skeptics scored a major PR victory, and climate science was “in question” again.  Snake-bitten by climategate, the IPCC made matters exponentially worse by issuing a letter to its scientists warning them about engaging the media.  Of course, the letter was leaked.

While climategate continues as a worldwide narrative, the recent story of the IPCC’s total exoneration was much less publicized.  This is a standard media conundrum.  The initial “scandal,” true or not, always saturates the media.  The resulting vindication does not.  That means right at the outset you must be ready to defend everything and be well armed with compelling talking points to support your cause.  If you let the discussion get framed without you, then you are playing defense rather than publicizing your findings.

Scientists, NGOs, and think tanks would do well to receive media training and seek the counsel of an experienced PR firm to help with the launch of a new initiative or report.  This is especially true if your research is on a controversial topic.  You may think your research will speak for itself.  It won’t.  It can be twisted, taken out of context, and publicly thrown back at you.  Without a decisive and coherent response, the public backlash can be brutal and your research will be of little value.