Crisis Management Archive

Bad Vibes: You Can’t Turn off Google Buzz…

February 12th, 2010

… because it’s an incredibly cumbersome and confusing series of steps.  If you’re just finding out, Google Buzz is the company’s foray into the social networking wars, but one whose rollout has been, ahem, socially awkward at best.  The problem is that each Gmail user’s messages are immediately exposed to the new network, raising significant privacy concerns.

Just search Google for “how to disable Google buzz” or “how to turn off Google buzz” and look at the dizzying series of results; click through those pages and you see how it only gets worse from there.  Perhaps it’s a fair argument too to say that if it’s this hard to ignore Google Buzz, then you can’t truly turn off the service.

As social networks evolve and wrestle with privacy issues, the new kids on the block must anticipate the negative publicity that will inevitably arise.  One of the most important steps in crisis public relations is looking down the road to understand stakeholder reaction.  Looks like Google passed that step and pushed Buzz way too fast on everyone.

Crisis Corner: Companies Must Prepare Messaging for FCPA Investigation

February 8th, 2010

As the Department of Justice steps up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, chances are that companies with household names will get snared in the coming dragnet.

If a company cares about their corporate identity, they must take active crisis public relations steps before a crisis occurs.  Think of it this way – a small investment in crisis management can prevent more fuel being thrown on the publicity fire.  If you don’t believe preparation matters, tell that to BAE as they start clawing out of the $400 million penalty they’ve incurred from violating the FCPA.  Having your company executives arrested and paraded out during a trade show is about as bad a publicity hit as you’ll ever get.

So, what can companies do?  The basic crisis public relations tactics often focus on simple messaging.  For example, if the executives know the crisis is around the corner, a holding statement can be drafted well in advance that alerts the media to the problem, and explains that more details will be forthcoming.  Forget about hiding the problem – the reporters will find out anyway.  And, this step satiates the media machine and buys time for the publicist to recommend next steps.  By doing so, the company gets out ahead of the story and controls the narrative.

Your company’s bottom-line matters to an ever growing audience, so make sure your messages get to them – especially when people are raising eyebrows and scratching their heads.

Crisis Corner: Kleen Energy Needs Visibility for Connecticut Explosion

February 7th, 2010

The tragedy at the Kleen Energy plant in Connecticut has been a rapid-fire assault of news today.  But, go to the plant’s website and there is no official statement (at least as of this blog posting).

In crisis public relations, the affected entity must be the first — and most visible — point of communication and messaging when it comes to information and assistance.

No information + no media relations + no website information = bad crisis PR.

Crisis Corner: How Toyota May Turn LaHood Into an Ally

February 3rd, 2010

As is his want, today U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, testifying before Congress on the Toyota recall, said that if anyone owned a Toyota, they should “stop driving it.”  Immediately afterward, Toyota’s stock price fell nearly 8%, adding to the almost $30 billion hit the carmaker has taken since the recall on faulty gas pedals began.

Toyota has been under an amazing swarm of bad press and it’ll be a long, hard road back to redemption and better image reputation.  What’s different about today’s mini-crisis public relations drama, though, is that Toyota quickly shored up its position, and in a way that may have pivoted LaHood to be more sensitive when he speaks about the carmaker.

To Toyota’s benefit, LaHood clarified his remarks and said he meant to refer only to recalled models, not the entire Toyota fleet.  Toyota smartly followed up with its own statement that struck the right tone, which thanked LaHood for the clarification.  Instead of being combative and harsh, Toyota took the high road, and by doing so let LaHood save face.  This simple, delicate move by Toyota will keep LaHood from going off-script in his public statements, making it unlikely that the nation’s top transportation official is going to attack the company any time soon.

Crisis Corner: Wells Fargo $350,000 Gamble on Haiti, Image Goes Bust

January 31st, 2010

What’s the point of doing any CSR if you’re willing to toss all goodwill out the window anyway?  That’s the question Wells Fargo executives should be asking themselves, that is if they have competent crisis public relations counsel.  The bank has received considerable criticism for not waiving transaction fees associated with charitable contributions to Haiti earthquake relief.

From an online reputation management standpoint, so many things are wrong with this picture, but here’s a list to help keep them handy:

• Wells Fargo has pledged $350,000 to relief efforts – though you wouldn’t know this from their website, which only has some of this information visible, and even then it’s buried deep.

• In response to criticism, Wells Fargo insists it would take $35 million in transactions to generate the amount equal to their charitable contributions.  Um… ok, so what?  This metric has absolutely nothing to do with the underlying issue, which is waiving the transaction fee when donors want their money to go to earthquake victims.

• Wells Fargo had record-level revenue in Q4 2009 at $22.7 billion.  At that amount, their charitable contribution is so miniscule that it’s almost not worth bragging about – particularly when weaker competitors are pledging much more and also waiving transaction fees.  (Seriously, do the math on a calculator and you’ll laugh at the result.)

• Where is Wells Fargo’s rebuttal to the criticism?  Why isn’t there anything on their blog page?  Real shoddy corporate communications work here.

Wells Fargo needs to breathe some life into their PR apparatus and focus more on online image management.  With big bank reputation at low levels, it’s the least the institution can do.

Crisis Corner: O’Keefe’s Third (and Worst) Way in Crisis Public Relations Strategy

January 28th, 2010

News of the arrest of James O’Keefe, celebrated conservative activist and scourge of ACORN, spread very quickly, even by today’s mega-hyper media standard.  The fallout has been accompanied by extreme helpings of gloating by many opponents, including ACORN itself.  Quite a bit has been said about the stupid incident, but not so much about how the accused (or his lawyer) should respond to the allegations.

In crisis public relations, the publicist usually counsels the client to get ahead of the story and communicate early and quickly, so as to take control of the narrative before others do.  This primary strategy, when executed well, pays great dividends in reputation management.

The second strategy sometimes employed is to say nothing as the crisis unfolds.  This tactic consistently flops, as outrage often becomes the theme and cements itself over the relevant time period.  (O’Keefe, however, may have a pass here as there may be a gag order in place, prohibiting public comment on the incident.)

Yet, there is a third way, or tactic, that sometimes appears, by far the worst of the lot – let’s call it the verbal tap dance.  Instead of addressing the allegations truthfully or staying silent, the client or spokesperson’s response bends the spine of logic by parsing words to the point of sheer absurdity.

The problem is that it doesn’t take much to see through such statements and everyone passes even harsher judgment on the scrutinized individual.  In this case, the relevant FBI affidavit states that O’Keefe admitted coordinating with two others in an operation to tamper with federal government phone lines.  So why does his lawyer say that there was no “interfering with the phone system”?  And what good does it do O’Keefe to brag on Twitter that “Govt official concedes no attempt to wiretap”?  (And that’s assuming that this observation is true!  Right now O’Keefe isn’t exactly the best messenger for such forceful rebuttals.)

If you are dealing with crisis management, and the public collectively rolls their eyes when you speak, your playbook and strategy need to be revised.

Crisis PR Corner: Andre Bauer’s Common Sense Gone Astray

January 26th, 2010

During a recent town hall meeting, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer compared government assistance to feeding “stray animals.”  Ugh… sometimes you can’t make this stuff up.  Here’s the money quote:

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals.  You know why?  Because they breed!  You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply.  They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that.”

So, according to Bauer, the conclusion to draw about the poor is that they are mostly stupid and just want to have sex and eat, assuming they are capable such auto-functionality.  Other demographic populations are also stereotyped by this behavior, but I digress…

The insult cuts wide and deep.  South Carolina’s poverty rate in 2008 was almost 16% (which puts it a few points above the national average).  Comparing over 700,000 of your state’s population to animals in one fell swoop is not only disgusting and inexcusable, it’s also really stupid politics.

To really understand the impact of such dumb words, consider what appears in a simple Google News search for “Andre Bauer”:

In these situations a public relations specialist plays the role of a counselor and recommends crisis management strategies.  Bauer would have been smart to recant his words, but instead he amazingly refused to apologize when interviewed for a follow-up story, offering a ridiculous verbal tap dance to justify his ranting.  (Which brings up another good point in crisis PR: the more you have to explain, the worse the situation usually gets.)

Bauer finally wised up and apologized, but only after 5 days and mounting, bipartisan criticism.  Waiting nearly a week to explain your actions is an eternity in crisis PR, and as indicated in the picture above, the damage has been done.

Letterman vs. Tiger: Why the Apology Is Necessary in Crisis PR

January 10th, 2010

Some may view crisis management as an art, but analyzing negative publicity is also part science.  Accordingly, in crisis PR, the most important step is an apology that (1) is delivered immediately, (2) is sincere and (3) appreciates the consequences of the relevant actions.  The mea culpa is a tough but mandatory pill to swallow for almost all crisis clients, and the best publicists help clients understand the immense value of taking the medicine.

If you doubt the power of the apology, you need look no further than two recent incidents.  In comparing the sex scandals of David Letterman and Tiger Woods, we can tell quickly which celebrity handled their incident(s) best.

Letterman gave his apology on his program before his scandal was even publicized.  Two months later, the amount of press devoted to the scandal fell to less than half of the publicity he received prior to the scandal.  For Woods, by contrast, nearly two months into his fall from grace he hasn’t even appeared publicly to face the cameras or the public.  And, consequently, his ordeal remains high profile with no signs of abating.

By delivering his apology, Letterman threw a big bucket of water on his fire, and the smoldering embers gradually faded away.  Notwithstanding questions of his motivation in doing so, this is an excellent example of crisis management 101.  If only Woods’ handlers would tell him to do the same…

Crisis PR: Building a Slower Celebrity Train Wreck

January 8th, 2010

High-profile celebrities are, by nature, aggressively ambitious.  Sometimes that ambition leans toward greater artistic achievement, philanthropy or over-the-top antics.  And, sadly, sometimes that ambition aims simply for the bottom-line – more money.

So the question, from the public relations perspective, is: how much money is enough?  Case in point: reports of the New Year’s Eve concert Beyoncé Knowles performed for the Gathafi family, with the morally questionable Hannibal Gathafi as the evening’s host.

Hannibal’s exploits are infamous, for all the wrong reasons.  Actions may speak louder than words, but in the world of crisis PR, perception screams at full volume.  So, when Beyoncé chose to perform for the Gathafi family, she (or her handlers, if they are good at what they do) had to know the concert would attract significant international criticism.  That’s not good when your celebrity persona is followed closely by millions globally.  More importantly, was the performance worth the reported $2 million fee when you’ve already earned $87 million in the past few months alone?

Now, to her credit, Beyoncé has taken an affirmative step to clear the air, with a prominent statement on her Web site that claims she did not perform for Hannibal but rather for his brother.  Good crisis management in action.  But is this enough?  To distance herself more forcefully, she could hold a press conference, post a YouTube video, or even connect with the families of victims of Lockerbie Pan Am Flight 103 to issue a joint statement that she is aware of the sensitive nature of associating with the Gathafi family, particularly when it comes to personal gain.

Always remember: in crisis management, it’s all about perception, perception, perception.  Do the right thing to atone for your error and you’re already halfway there.

iPhone, Shmi-Phone: AT&T Loses Reception on Crisis Management

December 28th, 2009

Oh brother… according to an alleged transcript between a consumer advocate and an AT&T customer representative, AT&T no longer sells iPhones in New York City because the metro area doesn’t “have enough towers to handle the phone.”  Crisis management, where are you?

Laments about AT&T’s ability to handle iPhone traffic are legendary.  But really, are we to believe that a cosmopolitan metropolis is being shunned by a national phone company?

AT&T’s corporate response on the issue is incredibly anemic, refusing to confirm or deny if the sales ban is due to network congestion, fraud purchasing or other defined issue.  That is miserable crisis PR in action.  Despite the likely never-ending lust for the iPhone as a consumer product, AT&T is in dire PR straits if it continues its obstructionist sales policy without offering a coherent explanation, and here’s why.

Consumer demand for technology services often outpaces industry stalwarts and hits particular companies with black market pressures, whether it’s music, movies or other content.  Regardless of any real or imagined network overload, Apple isn’t likely to sell the iPhone exclusively through AT&T in the future.  So, if and when U.S. customers can get the iPhone through another wireless provider, chances are that many buyers will remember that AT&T gave the cold shoulder to the biggest city in America.  Think New Yorkers will want to sign up with AT&T at that time?  If you have to ask…