Reputation Management Archive

How and Why Scandals Follow Companies – and What to Do about It

May 19th, 2011

Today’s sex scandal news is not about DSK, but rather Munich Re, a German insurance conglomerate that’s got quite a bit on its hands… or wrists?  Turns out that company executives in 2007 hosted an orgy at a Budapest bath house where prostitutes wore color-coded bracelets indicating their availability for sex favors.

The company’s statement, four years later, rightly takes a stern tone and emphasizes that the party was “a serious violation” of company rules and “would not happen again” – definitely a smart crisis PR move.  But one of the more amazing aspects of this event is that it was documented in a company newsletter … in 2007!  So what does this mean in the crisis management context?

Bad news will almost always leak.  Accounting no-no’s, insider trading, sweetheart deals, civil rights violations – no matter how old or in the past these events may seem in a company’s history, if they haven’t come to light they will.  The question is whether the company is prepared to handle the fallout.

It’s all about the present momentMunich Re’s statement cited above also explains that the executives who organized the event are no longer with the company.  That’s definitely a good point to emphasize, but the problem is that with big faceless corporations, the public perceives the brand as the key actor and not individual executives.  Even though a few bad actors are gone, the stink of the scandal will often remain.

Have your holding statement ready.  We’ve written extensively about the need for prior crisis management planning, and how holding statements are a critical factor.  If the event was chronicled in 2007, then Munich Re leadership presumably knew about it and thus had ample time to plan for negative media attention.

The best crisis management is often about prior planning, at least when your company has the luxury of time, so map the steps out before the spotlight’s on you.

Is Vogue Taking Crisis PR Lessons From Asad Regime?

May 11th, 2011

In a recent post we offered Vogue Magazine a four-step crisis management plan to dig the publication out of its ongoing PR crisis.  As many media watchers know, Vogue published a spectacularly ill-timed, fawning profile of Syrian First Lady Asma Asad, whose husband’s regime continues to lead a violent and murderous campaign to crush popular dissent in his country.  To date, the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria estimates that nearly 800 people have been killed in the crackdown, and 9,000 are in detention.

Vogue’s leadership apparently has taken a very patient wait-and-see approach to managing the PR fallout from glamorously featuring a family with the blood of thousands of citizens on its hands.  That was until yesterday, when Vogue executed the mother of all careless crisis public relations tactics.

Vogue deleted the Asma story from its website.

Yes, Vogue Magazine “disappeared” the article, much like Syria’s government “disappears” citizens who protest the Asad regime.  Instead of smart crisis management, Vogue’s literal “nothing to see here” approach feeds precariously into an all-too-easy-to-script media narrative.

The elementary failure of Vogue’s PR strategy is that the Syria story simply will not go away, and not for a long time.  As long as the Arab Spring continues, as long as Syrian forces use violence to counter protests, as long as Syrian secret police get caught on camera beating and torturing citizens in full public view, Vogue will not escape this crisis PR nightmare of its own making.

Crises, Crises Everywhere, and Not a Plan to Use

May 9th, 2011

Finally!  DC is getting its spring, and leaving winter weather behind – we’ll take it even as late as May if we have to, but… one thing that never goes out of season is smart crisis PR planning.

It’s amazing how all sorts of businesses and organizations, big and small, never consider crisis management as a necessity to plan for, as if they’re magically immune from reality.  So here’s a nice laundry list of how real it can (and often does) get:

Hospital: what if one of your patients leaps out a 3rd floor window?

Car dealership: what if a test driver runs over people in the parking lot?

Downtown bakery: what if the store catches fire and destroys the adjoining building?

Labor union: what if the treasury is embezzled?

Online password storage site: what if your database gets hacked?  (Still can’t believe this one really happened – they’re supposed to protect passwords!)

Tourism bureau: what if your CEO is caught making a racist rant?

Unintended comedy aside, these hypotheticals are meant to illustrate the incredible range of incidents than can destroy a business or organization’s reputation very quickly.  That’s why prior crisis public relations planning is so vital – and, it’s always much better and easier to plan in advance than to scramble when things are in disarray.

Once the media, regulators, naysayers, critics, cynics, or other interested audience gets whiff of the negative incident, you won’t have time to generate a holding statement, talking points, anticipated Q&A, media train spokespeople, get a team in place, and execute other crucial tactics.  Plan in advance to buy time — and ultimately, goodwill.

How Vogue Magazine Can Apologize for the Syria Issue

April 27th, 2011

As the time this post goes online, Syria’s brutal crackdown on citizen protestors continues.  President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have massacred an estimated 350 people since Syrians began popular uprisings several weeks ago.  Sadly, Assad’s reign of terror follows in his father’s footsteps, who ruled Syria with an iron grip and himself committed genocide against his own people, killing 10,000 of them in one episode.

Syria’s regime is notorious for torture, plotting assassinations, consorting with terrorist regimes… seriously, one gets breathless taking inventory of the Assad family’s legacy of murder and tyranny that has spanned decades.

So, as this blog comments routinely on media aesthetic, we (along with countless others) were perplexed and repulsed to see Vogue Magazine give a fawning profile of Asma al-Assad, Syria’s first lady, in its March issue.  Enough has been said about this insulting and disgusting feature in Vogue, so this post isn’t about heaping more (richly deserved) scorn on the magazine’s editors.  Rather, we’re here, in the interest of professionalism, to offer advice to Vogue on how it can right this epic wrong.

Stop defending the story.  Chris Knutsen, the story’s editor, stood by the story even though it ignored the Assad family’s atrocities.  The first step in crisis PR is for the client to acknowledge publicly that something bad or questionable has happened.  That Vogue insists on standing by its tragically timed profile flies in the face of this basic tenet of crisis management.

Stop being absurd.  Seriously, Mr. Knutsen?  The editor even went so far as to not rule out doing a similar profile of North Korea’s dictator!  (Thankfully, as The Atlantic points out, Kim Jong-Il is not believed to be married.)

Apologize immediately.  Smart crisis PR counsels the client’s leadership to get out in front of the issue (no pun intended) to avoid further damage.  In this case, notoriously frigid Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour can film a brief but sincerely apologetic statement on the matter and post that online; it’s only a small gesture but shows that the Vogue brand realizes how hurtful this issue was.

Profile the heroes, not the murderers.  If fashion is about new trends, what bigger trend dominates the news – and culture, society, global interaction – at the moment than the Arab SpringVogue could do itself a huge favor, and celebrate democracy, by profiling the brave and courageous leaders of the Middle East’s freedom movement.

Just like that, four simple tips that any fashion authority can – and should – embrace.

The Publishing Industry’s Lame Crisis Management Playbook

April 20th, 2011

Greg Mortenson – author of now-in-question memoir “Three Cups of Tea” – is giving the public a real-time crisis PR train wreck situation to watch.  This past week, both 60 Minutes and venerable adventure author Jon Krakauer questioned the veracity of Mortenson’s best-selling account of building schools in Pakistan.  It ain’t pretty – Krakauer’s blistering critique is titled “Three Cups of Deceit.”

Many angry voices are joining this debate about the latest high-profile memoir scandal; after all, the media narrative has strong legs given the tremendous fallout from James Frey’s fabricated (and also best-selling) memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” Mortenson’s attempt at damage control is riddled with double-speak and thinly veiled “oops” which do no favors for his cause.

But we’re not here to talk about the fabricated content; rather, as crisis management observers, we’re interested in how Mortenson’s publisher, Penguin/Viking Press, responds to the public outcry.  Anyone can rightfully heap scorn on Viking for having first made a ton of cash and now examining Mortenson’s book for inaccuracy(s).  So, Viking’s claim that it will “carefully review the materials” is extremely flat-footed on the crisis PR front.

How about a stronger condemnation, discussing next steps specifically and improvements in the internal review process, and communicating grave concern about the damage this does to future memoirists?  Why isn’t this Viking’s standard crisis management plan?

Ideally big publishers will be careful with checking the accuracy of future memoirs, that is if they want to preserve any sort of credibility with this medium.  But even if they do review manuscripts for truth vs. fiction beforehand, what is the crisis PR plan they have in place when – not if – the next great memoir is revealed as a total flight of fancy?

Praecere President Babak Zafarnia Interviewed on CNN’s Situation Room

April 14th, 2011

Watch Babak Zafarnia‘s interview on CNN’s Situation Room, where he discusses crisis public relations per GE’s getting hit by a fake press release.

The Power of Handwritten Notes

April 12th, 2011

So your business is doing well with PR techniques.  Your PR director, in no particular order, has:

• Followed tweets carefully and responded to inquiries.

• Cultivated and engaged Facebook users to raise brand awareness.

• Built good, trusted relationships with key reporters and bloggers covering your industry.

• Found publicity opportunities outside your industry, broadening your business profile.

• Created a witty newsletter format, distributed on a regular schedule to keep your core business base updated on latest news.

• Used other cool online tactics to keep precious positive buzz going.

Now ask yourself, what do these actions have in common?  They all involve digital communications, either via tweets, status updates, emails, phone calls (digital these days), and apps.  Definitely the right way to go, but here’s a revolutionary idea missing from the mix:

The handwritten note.

Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to go analog in PR, and actually take pen to paper to achieve your goals.  As nice as it is for a client or customer to receive informative and interesting electronic updates, the time your business spends in writing a personal note will also go a long way in generating positive PR.  Word-of-mouth is still an essential tactic in the PR playbook, regardless of what new digital platform happens to be the next bit thing.

Don’t believe us?  Ask yourself this: if you ever received a handwritten “thank you for your business, Jill/John,” you probably remembered it for a long time afterward, and remarked positively about it to friends and relatives.  Publicists toil hard for that kind of client and customer support, so never doubt the power of handwritten notes in your grand digital/global/influencer/stakeholder/let’s-conquer-the-world PR strategy.

Corporate and Litigation PR Must Sing in Tune

April 8th, 2011

Anyone who doubts high-stakes lawsuits require smart litigation PR should ready our post today, where we (continue to) deconstruct the awful media narrative of the music industry self-immolating on its tried and true, counter-productive PR strategy.

Mashable has a great post today about the music industry’s looming trial against LimeWire, the file distribution service they accuse of illegally distributing digital music.  When you have a lawsuit with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, it’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when” the proceedings will get heavy media attention.

We’ve written here and here about how tone deaf the music industry’s PR strategy is.  Not only do the heavy-handed statements alienate consumers, they also show incredible contempt for technological advancement, a trend the music industry has famously ignored at its own collective peril.

But, even if the music industry understood the power of positive and persuasive PR, can we assume that their publicists are coordinating messaging with their legal teams?  Probably not, as the Mashable article shows.  The plaintiffs’ prime argument basically amounts to “technology is evil.”  The best comment to the article so far is this:

Corporate titans and captains of industry, know this – if your media team and legal team aren’t coordinating, and litigation PR doesn’t have a special place in your set of business priorities, you’re only hurting your bottom-line.

The Fractal Theory of Crisis Management and Public Relations

March 25th, 2011

Besides being fun for hippies to stare at, fractals offer enormous intuitive and guidance value.  Definitely one of the cooler mathematical models, fractals predict patterns in nature.  Fractal theory has enormously advanced many fields, including ecology, medicine, even special effects.

Of course, one might hope fractals can predict patterns in media coverage.  Wishful thinking… right?  Maybe not.

• Four years ago, Oprah Winfrey fielded allegations that the school she funded in South Africa was physically abusing students.  Oprah apologized and promised reforms.

• One year ago, Wyclef Jean fielded allegations that his Haiti charity had questionable accounting practices.  Wyclef (sort of) apologized and promised reforms.

• And the latest – Madonna is fielding allegations that the school she funded in Malawi is now defunct due to unethical management and cost overruns.  Madonna (you guessed it) quasi-apologized and (sort of) promised reforms.

If you’re a celebrity and wish to start your own overseas charity, how do you break this miserable crisis PR failure pattern?  Certainly not an easy thing to do, but one thing is clear: before you get started, have a respected third party – who’s a trusted authority on legal and ethical charity practices – validate and support your charity before you launch your operation.  Now that’s a PR tactic worth repeating.  Just sayin’…

The Art – and Ugliness – of the Twitter Apology

March 17th, 2011

We’ve recently analyzed the fallout that leads to a Twitter apology, a format that’s growing in popularity.  Presumably we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, who wouldn’t love to escape the principal’s office after ‘fessing up in 140 characters?

The point is that while a 140-character-or-less apology may seem superficial, it’s quickly growing as today’s mea culpa standard.  But, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated with the same care and attention one would normally employ when apologizing.

For example, a grown adult wouldn’t shout or sing an apology, right?  After all, yelling “I’M SO SORRY” really comes across as shrill.  That’s why proper tone is essential to crafting a Twitter apology.

Unfortunately for WNBA player Cappie Poindexter, shouting an apology was the best she could muster after she exclaimed on Twitter that the unbelievably tragic Japan earthquake and tsunami were signs that “God was tired of the way [the Japanese] treated their own people in there [sic] own country.”  (Here’s an excellent summary of this PR disaster.)

After the resulting outcry, Poindexter offered her Twitter apology:

Unfortunately, her decision to take to Twitter in such a rambling, incoherent, grammar-nightmare rant – AND IN ALL CAPS – actually makes her come across as insincere and mouthing words because she got caught, not because she feels remorse.

Apologies, an integral part of crisis management, are all about showing true contrition.  If you can’t show real regret in 140 characters, then Twitter’s not the place to repent.