Crisis Corner: Les Bleus Get the Blues

June 24th, 2010

Qu’est-ce qu’on dit “international pr crisis” en francais?

In July 1998 the Champs-Élysées was packed with millions of raucous French, and “Le Marseillaies” was being sung in every quarter of the country.  In one long week, the French were celebrating both Bastille Day and winning the World Cup, putting them on top of the world.  National pride swelled and French football was France’s premiere brand.

Contrast that with this week’s front pages of Le Monde and Le Parisien, chronicling the daily cataclysmic soap opera that passed for France’s appearance at this year’s World Cup.  It’s bad enough that Les Bleus, the French team, didn’t repeat an appearance at this year’s tournament finals. That failure alone wouldn’t generate this much venom.

Rather, it’s the French Football Federation, which has been tone deaf to the steady diet of scandal and controversy involving Les Bleus.  Things have gotten so bad that French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched his sports minister (what a cool job!) to dress down the French team, and is meeting with star player Thierry Henry to get to the bottom of things.

The French team was already on thin ice after squeaking through the World Cup qualifiers only by beating Ireland with a blatant handball.  At that point, France needed PR counsel on how best to re-engage the public, and also a crisis communications plan to deal with future incidents – on and off the field.  And that’s just the beginning.

Several players, including national icon Franck Ribery, were implicated in a prostitution sting with an underage girl.  Then, right before Les Bleus’ World Cup exit, star striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against the team coach.  In protest, the entire team boycotted practice before its next match.  Captain Patrice Evra got into an altercation with his fitness coach – who promptly quit and stormed off the field on camera.  After that, coach Raymond Domenech bizarrely read a letter publicly by the French team attempting to justify their boycott.

This is a classic case of an organization not understanding the need for sound crisis management.  Many of these incidents could have happened behind closed doors.  The public theatrics and lack of a coherent response drove this debacle.  In crisis public relations, the key imperative is transparency with your stakeholders so they understand what’s happening – ensuring you, and no one else, directs and controls the media narrative.  Still, when tensions run high, it behooves an organization’s leaders to behave well in public, lest they add more fuel to the fire of public contempt.

Of course, there’s always a way out – even a total implosion allows for an organization to start over fresh.  For France’s sake, this requires an open, honest team apology to the nation, and a promise to go forward with honor, candor, and controlling their fits.  No doubt this phase of the PR crisis is over, but we’ll go out on a limb and predict there’s more to come…

Diageo Puts on Ice the Cliché that All Publicity Is Good Publicity

June 22nd, 2010

Last week, Diageo, the parent company of the spirit brand Smirnoff, apparently killed the website   Diageo executives, one assumes, are not entirely thrilled with the growing online meme of people “icing” people – when someone surreptitiously presents another with a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, and the receiver (victim/ice-ee?) drops to one knee and drinks the bottle rapidly.

No doubt, other brands and products have experienced unusual public relations phenomena beyond their control.  “Spam” describes both the food product and junk email.  “Xerox” describes both the document management company and the act of making copies.  “Google” is both the search engine and a verb to describe innocent stalking.  Usually when a brand name is appropriated into lexicon or metaphor, the brand owner reaps significant public relations value.

But, there are exceptions.  It’s one thing if mention of your brand causes a playful eyeroll or knowing wink, but it’s another if that brand risks permanent association with a potentially negative and intractable trend.  Diageo obviously reached this conclusion because it had lost total control over its Smirnoff Ice brand.

Simply put, having a site that promotes unsuspecting people rapidly chugging alcohol is not good PR for any alcoholic brand.  Liquor and beer ads push the idea that booze is sexy, but these commercials also balance that appeal with the continuous refrain to “drink responsibly.”  In the age of growing interest in corporate citizenship and CSR, alcohol brand managers certainly frown on images and video of their products being used irresponsibly.  Imagine the nightmare PR scenario of kids icing kids at a party, and then one of them overdosing, with everything caught on video that is bounced around online.  That’s enough to keep any sensible CEO up at night.

As a brand manager, you may not be able to swat away a bunch of YouTube videos, but you can certainly cease-and-desist the most notorious sites out of existence – the key is understanding the difference between what’s innocent promotion of you brand, and what is potentially lethal in the world of public relations.

Joe Barton’s Verbal Spill

June 17th, 2010

The common (and certainly sensible) refrain in the BP oil spill saga is the notion that it’s more important to cap the leak first, and then move on to figuring out who’s to blame and how it happened.  We’ve seen the reaction when prominent critics don’t heed this premise.  So the question for today is, what was Congressman Joe Barton thinking?

At today’s Congressional hearing investigating BP, Barton emphatically repeated his view that BP’s $20 billion escrow account was effectively a White House “shakedown” of the embattled corporation.  The predictable push-back came from his political opponents, but perhaps more interesting is the stern response from Barton’s own Republican leaders.  According to the Washington Post, House Republican leadership told Barton that if he did not apologize immediately, he would be removed as Ranking Member to the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Shortly thereafter, Barton apologized.

From the public relations perspective, it’s easy to see how Barton’s apology came to fruition.  Simply put, if the dominant media narrative for any BP oil spill stakeholder is to push for an end to the crisis, any statement inconsistent with that narrative will stand out, for better or worse.  This is exactly what happened with Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul.  By claiming that criticism of BP is “un-American,” Paul flew wildly off script and became a lightning rod for political attacks.

The point is, regardless of whether BP’s escrow plan is an appropriate step toward proper compensation, savvy politicians and media professionals know there’s a time and a place for such criticism.  As the BP oil spill continues to outdo itself as America’s worst environmental disaster ever, the best PR tactic is to focus on the spill itself, as that’s the fire that still needs to be extinguished.

How Litigation Actually Helps Your Company Improve Its PR Capabilities

June 16th, 2010

Surprise – your widget-making mom-and-pop/mid-sized business/global corporate behemoth has been sued!  Apparently Timmy Goodkid Thompson tried to eat a decidedly non-edible product your business sells, and hurt himself quite amazingly in that effort.  Did we mention it’s your flagship widget, the one that drives 99% of your revenue?

The Thompson family – farmer father, teacher mother, rambunctious and adorable Timmy – have hired a media-friendly law firm, one that has perfected the art of PR stagecraft.  The firm has called a press conference to publicize the lawsuit.  All the 24/7 networks will be there, not to mention local reporters your neighbors know and trust.  Since the scrum will be streamed live, product safety bloggers are all over this one, riding a high-wave of backlash against corporate malfeasance.  Someone (the law firm?) has launched a fake Twitter account in your company’s name, a parody that sarcastically communicates abject, tone-deaf insensitivity with tweets like “next time blend the widget, it’ll digest more easily.”

Your company isn’t sweating, though, because you’re confident your product was not the cause of injury, and that your customers likely will understand this.  More importantly, long ago you hired a smart crisis management PR firm to draw up a crisis response playbook… right?  You did an inventory of interested media, have a holding statement in place, along with a grid that anticipates an escalating public relations meltdown… right?

Ok, enough about the PR nightmare, let’s shift to reality.  Litigation PR makes any company nervous.  No matter how small a lawsuit, the potential for media attention is limitless.  Yet in a way, that’s the beauty of litigation PR – in anticipating lawsuit scenarios, business leaders must identify every stakeholder, and that includes everyone in your company hierarchy.  Imagine the human resources involved in the widget lawsuit:

• Are the front office staff prepared to answer initial phone inquiries, do they have talking points?

• Have the interns been told to stay quiet and report inquiries to supervisors?

• Has the communications office reviewed and updated crisis PR procedures to ensure relevancy? (Note: Big Oil – walruses in the Gulf of Mexicoseriously?)

• Has building security been consulted regarding protestors who may show up at the front door?

• Has a point-of-contact been designated to oversee the entire crisis PR response?

• Has legal counsel examined your supply chain to identify each choke point of liability, and in turn relayed that information to your communications staff so they have statements and talking points ready to address each vulnerability?

• Are the IT staff ready to update the company website immediately with relevant messaging?  Do you have a dark site in waiting for this special occasion?

• Has everyone signed a NDA regarding trade secrets and the relevant aspects of litigation?

Such thorough preparation is essential in litigation PR.  As the company head, you can only achieve this level of care by engaging every tier of staff within your business operations.  That’s why an effective crisis playbook fundamentally requires looking inward, and in doing so your company encourages discipline amongst the ranks and knowledge of the situation.

Nothing looks worse than an erratic or empty media response to a lawsuit, so embrace the possibility of litigation and run the traps to get all employees on the same page.

What to Watch for in Obama’s Speech to the Nation on BP

June 14th, 2010

Tomorrow night President Obama will address the nation regarding the BP oil spill.  Combating criticism that his administration was slow to respond properly, Obama is anticipated to make the case for more aggressive government action toward BP.

Aside from the political consequences pre and post-spill, what are some public relations considerations to keep in mind?

Location, location, location.  This is the first national speech that Obama will deliver from the Oval Office.  The symbolism certainly isn’t lost in the moment, as White House advisors rightly recognize that the nation’s greatest environmental disaster ever ranks up there among the worst crises in American history.  Obama is using the Oval Office imprimatur to convey the strength and seriousness of his response to date, and his plans going forward.

Tell us what’s up.  There are so many moving parts now – BP, possible receivership, fines, Halliburton, Transocean, MMS mismanagement, leak estimates, hurricanes – that it’s easy to get lost past the simple narrative of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Obama must explain clearly and concisely what his administration has learned, and in a way that helps Americans make sense of who may be responsible for the oil spill.

Leverage into other issues.  Don’t forget that Obama’s plan, no matter what form it takes, is still essentially politics.  Just as the Bush Administration based a significant political agenda on the aftermath of September 11, expect Obama to lay out future political principles.  Strong bet that the need to lessen national dependence on oil will be top of mind, as will regulation of exploration and other relevant energy and environmental issues.

Deadlines.  To shift the focus away from the number of days into the crisis, Obama will likely give hard deadlines for relevant stakeholders to meet, whether that concerns clean up or regulatory action.  To save his political fortunes, Obama must shift the PR narrative away from mismanagement and toward total control.

And that’s just tomorrow night.  These types of efforts require weeks of follow up to sustain any positive traction, so keep an eye on administration officials as they’re dispatched to keep the message momentum going.

Crisis Corner: If the End is Near for BP, What Does That Mean for Your Company?

June 9th, 2010

When the New York Times runs an article implying the end is near for BP, then you know the end is indeed possibly near.  Interesting that one event like an oil spill can do a global behemoth in, even one like BP with a miserable track record on safety (or lack thereof).

Normally, crisis public relations aim to see a client through to resolution of the problem in front of them.  A smart crisis management plan usually incorporates a grid of escalating threats and their consequences.  For example, a negative op-ed about the client might be considered a low-level threat, and the PR response would be proportionate, such as a rebuttal op-ed.  Or, a product recall may be a high-level threat, with the appropriate response being customer engagement and recall information presented on several online platforms.

But, if like BP your company faces a death knell, how should you plan your public relations response?  The scenario is real, and mega companies do implode – think Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers.  What usually follows is a string of scorched earth litigation and restructuring, much like political sausage making that no one likes to see.

If the end is near for your company, that doesn’t mean you can shirk on stakeholder communication.  Here are some reasons why:

• Everyone loves a comeback, so your crisis PR plan should include steps on making yourself accessible post-fallout.

• Reporters, historians, academia and others will continue to write and report about your company – so make sure that your side of the story gets a word in edge-wise.  Explain the domino effect from your own view, so people don’t put words in your mouth.

• If you are ever able to breathe life into the company again, you will need to generate a positive narrative from where you left off, and this requires keeping communications fluid.  Staying engaged with your stakeholders after the company dissolves will allow a better transition.

• As silly as it sounds, closure is just as important in the business world as it is in our personal lives.  Make sure the last word is yours and yours alone. This is the first and perhaps most important step to moving on in the wake.

As of now, BP is playing defense for its short-term response, and has given some hint as to paying claims in the future.  But if there’s no afterlife for BP, then it should start planning for the real worst case scenario, a total corporate meltdown.

Four Steps to Getting the Media Story You Want

June 3rd, 2010

Waiting, in most instances, is excruciating – for kids during the night before Christmas, for patients in a doctor’s office, for anything and everything at the DMV.

Publicists and their clients sometimes get a similar sense of dread after a reporter completes a news interview.  The client’s been media trained, the reporter is all smiles, the Q&A goes well, and yet the next day’s headline crushes your client’s image and reputation.  Complaining about “gotcha” journalism and unfair questions is a useless exercise, because once the story is published or run, you can’t take it back.

A reporter’s job is to be tough and demanding, and let’s face it – a bunch of softball questions only leads to weak, fluffy content suitable for predictable feel-good stories.  That’s why most reporters rightfully work hard and push the boundaries, because they are good journalists and are inspired to deliver thoughtful content.

Still, as an interview subject, how can you handle the occasional unscrupulous reporter so your responses aren’t twisted responses out of context?  By understanding a simple principle – the intent of the interview is to build a story, and a story is assembled part by part.  As the interviewee, apply the following “quality control” steps, and you’ll be in pretty good shape.

• Script out how your ideal story will read.  Think about how a news anchor introduces a story with a lead-in: “Coming up next, in the words of [interview subject], it was an ‘amazing experience, blah blah blah….’”  That’s why it’s important to give a strong answer at the outset that helps guide the rest of the narrative.  Such an answer frames the story on your own terms, and that momentum will carry through all the way to publication or broadcast.

• Make sure you rebut critics.  You already know what your critics are saying.  Accusations about your business, political or personal activities are out in the open. When that’s the case, a news story about you will likely include comment from critics, so don’t forget to address — and rebut — their points preemptively. Otherwise you leave a big gap of story content that can be used against you.

Be positive.  Resist the urge to bad-mouth anyone.  Not only is it bad manners, but anything negative you say can easily eclipse all the positive points you make, and serves for ready-made headline material.

Stay on message. Don’t get off-track — if the interview is about your company’s new product, don’t discuss your carpool schedule, church picnic or the latest celebrity gossip. Just as your time is precious, so is the reporter’s, so don’t waste it! Plus, by staying on point, you reduce the risk of foot-in-mouth syndrome.

Now go get that headline!

How Not to Handle Pushy Reporters

June 1st, 2010

Yikes… so here is a confrontation, caught on tape, of local ABC news investigative reporter Dan Noyes in California arguing (and nearly getting into a boxing match) with communications director Marc Slavin of Laguna Honda Hospital.  Noyes wanted to question hospital officials on alleged improper use of funds meant to help patients.  Slavin kept touching Noyes in an attempt to shut him down, and from there the confrontation got testy.  Suffice it to say, this is a case study in how not to handle aggressive reporters.

When serving as in-house PR staff, you must anticipate that your company or business may be subject to activist campaigns, protests, investigative reporters and other, ahem, touchy situations.  The attempt, rightly or wrongly, is to make the people on-site uncomfortable and, ahem #2, box them in a corner.  What are some PR tactics to deal with confrontational visitors in a way that doesn’t embarrass your business?

Always remain calm.  In the video, Slavin was holding his ground as a PR staffer quite nicely until he started slapping Noyes’ camera away.  Big mistake.  Not only has he taken the reporter’s bait, but he may have committed assault and/or battery under California law.  Good media training can always coach you through what to do/not to do.

The mike is hot.  If someone tells you that the camera and microphone pointed in your face aren’t recording, don’t believe them.  Even if that camera and mike are pointed down, assume another lens is pointed at you from somewhere else.

Inventory first, respond later.  The agitator’s intent usually is to provoke a response.  But, until you fully understand the crisis and what’s fueling it, it’s best not to respond at length. Calmly explain that you handle the PR and media, ask the nature of the inquiry, get all relevant questions and facts, and tell them someone will respond at an appropriate time. AND live up to that promise – this step is only good if you follow through on it, and failing to get back to the inquirer only fuels their attacks even more, not to mention hurting your credibility.

If all else fails… No matter what, at some point boundaries may get crossed.  If the person is trespassing, ask them to leave.  If they won’t then call the police – but always go back to rule #1 – always remain calm.

PR Holding Statements: Walk Before You Run … Into the Crisis!

May 24th, 2010

If you’re reading this, and happen to own or operate a small business or large corporation, we’re willing to bet you’re curious about media holding statement 101.

No business is immune to the need for smart public relations crisis management.  If you sell food, assume your customers might get sick.  If you sell cars, assume the brakes will fail.  If you house sensitive financial information, assume it will be compromised.  If you sell medicine, assume it may have unanticipated side-effects.

The permutations are endless, but the sure-fire way to escalate your business’s crisis situation is to be caught flat-footed — or, in a PR crisis, with both feet in your mouth.

In other words, no matter how many weeks you’ve spent analyzing the weak points in your supply chain, setting up a war room to monitor media fallout, preparing for reporters through media training, or anticipating how critics and competitors will leverage a crisis against you, all your efforts are wasted without a proper holding statement ready for release.

Each holding statement is unique for a particular business, but the basic principles are the same.  The holding statement must address the crisis head on and without any doublespeak, acknowledge that something wrong is going on, offer immediate information, and resolve to address the media and public again once all the facts have been collected.   And, most importantly, you must show sincerity, genuine concern and appreciation for the crisis situation.

Apply this general approach when your business needs to speak, and you will buy the precious time necessary for a more coordinated, concentrated response to any problem factors that may arise.

MySpace Misses Huge PR Opportunity During the Facebook Privacy Disaster

May 21st, 2010

In the wake of Facebook’s current privacy debacle, many online commentators have been urging MySpace to make a bid to attract disaffected Facebook users.  Don’t hold your breath.  The stigma of the MySpace brand – due to its convoluted, screeching user profiles – is such that to grab any market share, the site would need a major jaw-dropping marketing and  PR campaign.  Instead, the site posted a simple, single statement on the issue.

Talk about missed opportunity!  This blog has previously echoed the famous military strategy of Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” But that excellent advice has nothing to with seizing the goldmine of business waiting in front of you – indeed, business that you once had!

The PR tactical considerations are almost endless, and it leaves one to wonder:

Why hasn’t MySpace … done a massive social media blitz to lampoon the privacy problems Facebook has had since its inception?

Why hasn’t MySpace … produced a video showing the ease of its privacy options compared to Facebook, and then push that video to go viral?

Why hasn’t MySpace … engaged tech reporters and key influencers in the privacy debate to educate them about the site’s simple and user-friendly privacy policy?

Why hasn’t MySpace … partnered with critics, academics and business leaders to establish thought leadership and lead a much-needed global discussion on evolving online privacy standards?

Why hasn’t MySpace … mined its existing database of dormant accountholder emails and sent them a nice, friendly note asking them to revisit a “new and improved” site?

Customers don’t just leave one business for another without understanding why the alternative is more attractive.  MySpace apparently is assuming that Facebook users automatically know about the latest version of its offerings.  Big error.