Ad Agencies: Make Sure Your Clients Are Prepared for the Unexpected

Multiple camerasFrom a political donation scandal involving a top news media personality to a deadly gang   shootout at a restaurant in Waco, Texas, the past few days have been a somber reminder that a crisis can strike at any time.

In what is described as a “nightmare” on the Drudge Report and a “crisis” by the New York Post, ABC News is grappling with revelations that “Good Morning America” and “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos failed to reveal to the network and to viewers large contributions he made in 2013 and 2014 to the Clinton Foundation, raising questions about his objectivity and credibility. He has apologized, but the damage is done.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, whose contract with ABC News reportedly is worth $105 million, previously worked in President Clinton’s administration, but then a lot of news commentators have had previous involvement in campaigns and administrations (which is why their insights are valued).

But once employed by a news agency–especially at two such a high-profile positions—he had an ethical responsibility to go beyond what is a matter of public record when it came to disclosing his donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Mr. Stephanopoulos’ objectivity has been questioned before, and now it will really be under fire.

According to a Post article by Emily Smith, one source put it this way: “George is the centerpiece of their 2016 coverage. By donating to the Clintons, he has blown his credibility in one catastrophic move.”

Far from the East Coast another crisis flared in a seemingly unlikely place: The Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, where a brawl broke out among rival biker gangs, leaving nine dead and 18 injured.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, a Twin Peaks spokesman said the company was “revoking the franchise agreement for the Waco location.”

Jay Patel, the local operating partner of the franchise, apparently was being abandoned by Twin Peaks. What he did to get his franchise agreement revoked is not clear. Most likely he’s in a state of shock, which may explain why he reportedly did not respond to “repeated requests for comment.”

What lessons can be learned from these two unfortunate situations?

First, both incidents should have been anticipated. While it’s true that Twin Peaks wouldn’t necessarily foresee a fight of this magnitude breaking out at one of the restaurants, it is not at all unlikely that fights or other disruptive activities could take place. Rather than stand by the Waco franchise owner, and provide support to him and others at the local level, the spokesman basically threw Mr. Patel under the bus in an apparent effort to disassociate the company from this tragedy as quickly as possible. What message does this send to other franchise owners?

As for ABC News, it would have been prudent to ask Mr. Stephanopoulos to disclose potential conflicts, such as political donations, before renewing his contract last year. Then again, maybe the network did ask him that very question and he assured him there were none, in which case ABC News would seem to have a valid reason to break his contract if it so choses.

Second, an effective crisis plan would have helped ABC News and Twin Peaks better navigate through these very difficult situations. An effective crisis plan contemplates the types of crises that could occur, and it helps companies and individuals deal with the unexpected by providing a roadmap of “if this happens, then we say/do this.”

Specific situations and details will vary, but certain core issues that involve ethics, integrity, safety, etc., can be addressed beforehand through the filter of the core values an organization holds. Those values then form the basis for polities, strategies and key messages that are prepared in advance and which can be tailored to a particular crisis. Maybe one or both companies have crisis management plans, but if so they don’t seem to be very effective.

Third, while I doubt that Mr. Stephanopoulos needs media training, it sure would have come in handy for Mr. Patel. As a franchise owner, it’s certainly not improbable that something could happen at his restaurant that would draw media attention. Ignoring inquiries from reporters is just not a good strategy.

One of the most important things an ad agency can do in a crisis situation is to help its client see the reality of the situation and what needs to be done. It’s easy to panic and develop a siege mentality when an organization in crisis is under intense scrutiny from the outside, but that only makes matters worse.

Properly managing the crisis is vital, because facts alone don’t win in the court of public opinion—perceptions do.

Having said all this, I realize it is very easy to play Monday morning quarterback, and it’s likely there are additional facts that are unknown at this time which may be driving how the companies are handling these situations. I’ve also been on the crisis management side, and it can be frustrating and stressful. Having a solid plan in place can be a game changer.

Being prepared by planning for the worst ahead of time and having a crisis communications strategy in place can make a big difference in how a company or client comes across in a crisis—especially in the early stages. And that in turn can affect the organization’s credibility and reputation for month or even years.

photo credit: 01610210 via photopin (license)

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