Neutralize a Simmering PR Issue Before It Becomes a Crisis

It’s not unusual for an organizational crisis to grow and become consuming, especially when there’s not an effective crisis plan in place to deal with the situation. Not only can a crisis severely damage a firm’s image, but it also can impede its ability to function because so many valuable resources get diverted to deal with the problem.

In a post earlier this year, I discussed the importance of engaging a crisis in its early stages, where it usually is more manageable and less damaging. Properly managing a crisis is vital, because facts alone don’t win in the court of public opinion—perceptions do.

It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by panic as events spiral out of the organization’s control, along with growing concern about what might happen next. This can easily lead to a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse.

One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help senior managers maintain a long-term perspective so that they don’t say or do things they’ll later regret.

Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.

But what if you could identify and deal with a “smoldering” crisis—meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals—before it ignites into a full-blown crisis situation? Actually, more times than not, it is possible to do so.

That’s because most crises start out as issues simmering on the backburner that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages.

Issues management proactively addresses a problem before it gets out of hand and wreaks havoc. Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

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Such PR “saves” don’t show up in the “stats sheet,” but they can save a client or employer millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.

A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.

Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.

By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.

Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”

If something is smoldering at your company, deal with it now. You’ll not only help keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn a potentially negative issue into something positive.

photo credit: Patricia Pierce Up In Smoke via photopin (license)

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Crisis Management: Don’t Close the Door on Your Organization’s Fire

One of my friends when I was growing up in the countryside of Indiana was a boy named Billy, who lived a few houses down the street. Billy was a nice kid but not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to common sense.

We were both around ten years old when “the incident” occurred: While playing with matches in his bedroom, Billy set the window curtains on fire. He tried putting the fire out, but the flames quickly spread. Billy was so overwhelmed by the situation that he walked out of his room, closed the door and started watching TV in the living room. Really, that’s exactly what he did.

For a few minutes, he didn’t have to deal with the awful reality of what he had done, and he was able to go about life as usual. 

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However, it wasn’t long before the entire house was engulfed in flames. Fortunately he and his family escaped, but the house burned to the ground. I still remember hearing the sirens and watching flames shoot out of their house as firemen tried in vain to save it.

Now I understand why my mother encouraged me to make some new friends.

Billy never talked much about “the incident,” so I can’t say for sure what was going through his mind. But I suspect when the fire started in his bedroom, he was afraid he’d get in trouble for playing with matches and thought he could handle it. After all, it was just a little flame at the end of a match—at least, at first. That was MISTAKE #1.

When he realized he couldn’t put the fire out, Billy apparently became so overwhelmed with what he’d done that he convinced himself he could just close the door on the fire and it would magically go away. That was MISTAKE #2.

When I tell this story in my crisis communications seminar, people are amazed at such irresponsible behavior, and rightfully so. Billy should have known better—a raging fire doesn’t extinguish itself by shutting the door on it.

Yet, many organizations with intelligent, well-educated leaders often take the same approach to dealing with a crisis in their organization.

Rather than face reality, they try to ignore the crisis or put a lid on it.

More often than not, the crisis grows and becomes consuming, and in the process devours time and resources. Sometimes the organization’s reputation is severely harmed, and out of the ashes investigations suddenly appear.

It’s not unusual for negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside, which often occur during a crisis, to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control of the situation and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the fire it has set. If the organization is caught off guard, it may be forced to divert valuable resources to fight the fire.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus among senior management, which only makes the situation worse.

Facing reality and engaging the crisis in its early stages will make the situation more manageable and less damaging.

When a crisis strikes, those charged with managing communications should have three primary objectives:

  1. Maintain control of the message
  2. Minimize damage
  3. Achieve accurate and balanced coverage through the news media and Internet

One of the best ways to help maintain control and minimize damage when a crisis strikes is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.

The plan should:

  • Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
  • Set forth policies to deal with them
  • Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
  • Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively

The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it.

photo credit: nrg_crisis Aglow via photopin (license)

Crisis Management, NFL Style

Everywhere you look these days the NFL is dominating conversations, but not for the usual reasons. The sight of players kneeling during the national anthem has become the focal point of games, rather than the games themselves. A few teams have tried to avoid the controversy altogether by remaining in their locker rooms until after the anthem.
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At first, only a handful of players chose to kneel rather than stand for our flag and anthem. As of last week, however, the number of kneeling players exceeded 200, representing nearly a quarter of the league. In London, the same players who took a knee for the anthem stood when “God Save the Queen” was played.

Since then, scores of fans have expressed outrage, professional football ratings have dropped, one sponsor has pulled ads and DirecTV has started allowing some refunds for viewers upset with the anthem protests.

Ironically the flag and national anthem—which traditionally have united us as Americans—are now dividing us, thanks to political correctness running amok at the NFL.

Whether its leadership realizes it or not, the NFL is in a crisis mode, and so far its response has been less than stellar. In fact, the league is exhibiting symptoms of a seize mentality, which can be downright toxic in a crisis.

A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe players should stand and be respectful during the anthem, yet the NFL continues to defy its fans. They also are ignoring their own games operations manual, which states: “The National Anthem must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem. During the National Anthem, players on the field and bench area should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand, and refrain from talking.”NFL Photo 3 Flag 6343256929_547261ae8b.jpgIgnoring the wishes of people who finance your business is not a winning strategy, nor is selectively enforcing rules and basically telling your customers that you don’t care what they think or how much they are offended them by your actions.

With the way things are going, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be until those of us who stand for the national anthem are accused of being racists and opposing social justice.

The NFL is big, really big – but not as big as Americans’ love of country and respect for our flag, military and police. The NFL cannot win by putting fans in the place whey must choose between loyalty to country or to professional football.

Taya Kyle said it well in an open letter to the NFL: “Your desire to focus on division and anger has shattered what many people loved most about the sport. Football was really a metaphor for our ideal world — different backgrounds, talents, political beliefs and histories as one big team with one big goal — to do well, to win, TOGETHER. You are asking us to abandon what we loved about togetherness and make choices of division.”

Some of the players and pundits now claim the protests are misunderstood and not intended to show disrespect to America. So why are they kneeling? The reasons range from protesting President Trump to social injustice to racism to police brutality.

Which raises an interesting question: Are the NFL players, coaches and owners in agreement about what they are protesting?

Colin Kaepernick, who started all this, has been very clear about his reasons for kneeling during the anthem: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Contrary to what Mr. Kaepernick seems to think, most Americans are not racists. Our justice system is not perfect—nor will it ever be—but we are not a national of oppressors. If that were the case, why would so many people from all over the world want to come here?

The NFL owes us an explanation about what, exactly, has to change to make these protestors want to stand up for their country again. What is the end game? We really don’t know because all we are getting is mixed messages from teams and players, with an NFL unity ad airing in the midst of some of the most divisive actions imaginable.

What we do know is that allowing players to disrespect our country sets a very poor example for young people, and basically communicates to them that it’s okay to trash our flag and anthem, as well as the military and police who protect us.

For me, and I suspect millions of others, the NFL will never again have the same appeal. I started my boycott of NFL games last week because, as one season ticket fan put it, “I’m just sick of the whole thing.” A lot of us can relate to that sentiment.

The problems of social injustice and racism are not going to be solved by players kneeling during the national anthem. While we should always strive to improve in those areas, as a Christian I believe that only Jesus can change hearts in a way that causes prejudiced people to act justly and love others unconditionally.

Eric Reid, a teammate of Colin Kaepernick, said his faith “moved me to take action,” and that he and Mr. Kaepernick decided to kneel to “make a more powerful and positive impact on the social justice movement.” He went on the lament in a New York Times article, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel.”

Mr. Reid, if you really want to do something positive that won’t be misconstrued, I have a suggestion for you and the other NFL players, coaches and owners of faith: After the anthem is played, gather together to join hands, drop to both knees and say a brief prayer for God to unify our nation. That could be the start of something very powerful indeed.

photo credit: furanda Football via photopin (license)

photo credit: NYCMarines New York Jets Military Appreciation Ceremony, 2011 via photopin (license)

 

 

 

 

Alligator Attack has Forever Changed Disney’s Image

This one is hard to believe. Disney, one of the savviest PR enterprises in the world, has alligators roaming in the lagoons on its property in the vicinity of guests. Yesterday, the worst happened when a toddler was snatched by an alligator while he was playing at the edge of the Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. This afternoon, the toddler’s body was recovered by searchers, but so far not the killer alligator.

This is a tragedy beyond words, and one that should never have happened. A Disney spokesperson said there were “no swimming” signs posted in the area, but the toddler wasn’t swimming. Apparently there were no “beware of alligators” signs, so a natural question is what was being done to protect guests from an attack like this?

At least five alligators were caught and euthanized in an effort to find the alligator that killed the little boy, so this was not a case of a single rogue alligator that somehow made its way onto the grounds.

A few weeks prior to this incident, another family reportedly encountered an alligator at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which is in the same vicinity, and informed a security officer.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Nick Wiley with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said that Disney has worked “diligently” to keep visitors from being “unduly exposed,” but he added that preventing alligators from coming on to Disney property is futile.

Really? There’s no barrier or other control method to keep alligators off Disney resort property? Then how about some signs specifically warning about the presence of alligators so that visitors aren’t unduly caught off guard? And how about some extra security in the tourist areas where alligators have been spotted? These would seem like prudent measures—unless Disney was concerned that warning guests in “the happiest place on earth” would scared some of them off.

I suspect that Disney will take some additional protective actions, including adding warning signs, but it’s too late for this family. My prayers are with them.

Beyond this personal tragedy, the Disney brand has been severely tarnished. If Disney really can’t protect its guests from alligator attacks, and the company failed to warn them of the potential danger, guests will inevitably wonder what else may not be safe there and what else they’re not being warned about.

Broken trust is hard to overcome, and the horrific nature of this incident is not something that people are going to forget.

Walt Disney World will continue to provide a world-class entertainment experience for families, but this fatal alligator attack has forever altered the company’s image.

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.

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Crisis Management: It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help leadership keep a long-term perspective.

It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the various fires it has set. Typically, the organization is caught off guard and forced to divert resources to fight these fires.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse (and plays into the hands of the opposition).

But, as cosmetics giant Mary Kay, Inc. emphasizes to its millions of independent beauty consultants worldwide, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.

Here’s an example of how ad agency PR can make a big difference in helping clients successfully overcome short-term pain and enjoy long-term gain.

The agency where I worked prior to staring my own firm had a health care client that owned a medical center in the western part of the U.S. Out of the blue one day, the local paper ran a very damaging and misleading front-page story titled “Worried hospital employees seek help from union.”

The local Teamster’s Union had been attempting to organize the medical center’s employees through a series of meetings, so an “issue” had already raised its head. In spite of this red flag, no one in leadership at the medical center was expecting an article like this, which raised serious charges about patient safety, employee morale and overall quality of care.

Photo of Teamster's Union rep

The medical center’s marketing director contacted me the day the article appeared, asking for strategic counsel and help in formulating a response to the numerous accusations that had been made in the paper.

Our objectives were threefold:

  • Persuade employees to reject unionization
  • Motivate employees to lead the charge against the inaccurate reporting
  • Restore the community’s confidence in the medical center

Based on information obtained through some quick research, our agency developed a letter for medical center employees, a list of erroneous statements with corrective facts and a guest column bylined by the medical center’s CEO. We also recommended an in-person meeting between the center’s CEO and marketing director, and the paper’s editor and the reporter who wrote the story.

The list of erroneous statements, with corrective facts, was used in that meeting to make sure all salient points were covered and that the meeting stayed on track.

The meeting was a success and resulted in a front-page story titled “Staff defends hospital; refutes claims of compromised care.” In addition, a guest column by the CEO titled “Hospital takes health care seriously” also ran in the editorial section.

Supervisors gave the informational letter to employees, and then were available to answer questions they may have. With the facts in hand, employees were more effective in responding to questions they were getting from friends and neighbors. Corrective information also was provided to the community’s lone talk radio station.

A group of employees, through their own initiative, met separately with the paper, while others called or sent letters to the editor. Employees felt their competence had been attacked by the union, and they were a major factor in successfully delivering the message to the community that such attacks were untrue and totally unjustified.

According the medical center’s marketing director:

The union’s attempt to get the paper involved backfired due to the outpouring  of support the hospital received from our employees and the community.”

The most significant result, however, was the fact that union activity ceased after the medical center’s public response. Patient levels, which dropped dramatically after the first hit-piece article was published, quickly returned to normal.

The center’s rapid response also helped contain the story to the community, and more than a year after the incident there had been no further attempts to unionize the center by the Teamsters or any other union.

Not every crisis has this quick a turnaround—or as successful an ending—but the principle remains the same: Keep the long-term in view because the storm will eventually pass.

photo credit: Jagz Mario via photopin cc

Ad Agency PR Is Never More in Demand than During a Crisis

Palm tree in Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, a car crashed into the church I attend. That’s right, a car. And it did some major damage to the area it hit. (The car didn’t come out of this all that well either.)

It happened late at night when the driver, who apparently was traveling at a high rate of speed, missed the curve in front of our church and plowed into the building. He fled on foot, but it didn’t take long for the police to track him down.

I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of a car hitting our church—but it did. The incident was a stark reminder that a crisis can strike at any time, without warning.

Ad agency PR is never  more in demand—and needed—than in a crisis. A case in point is another incident that took place—also at night—that not only was unexpected, but potentially devastating to a mental health center owed by an agency client.

Somewhere around 3:30 a.m., on a Friday, I got a call from one of the agency’s partners where I worked at the time saying that the client’s mental health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just experienced a fire that damaged a unit of the facility.

Two patients were dead, and reporters were onsite covering the story.

Rumors were flying, I was told, and I needed to get on a plane in the morning to go handle the matter. My weekend was going to a little different than I planned.

When I arrived in San Juan and entered the hotel lobby, my eyes were drawn to a newspaper with a front-page story and photo about a prison riot where 26 people were injured and several guards had been taken hostage. The news media left the mental health center to cover the prison riot, which bought us some time to get organized.

I quickly discovered that the number of newspapers in San Juan numbers in the teens, making it feel more like a regional than local story given the number of print outlets we had to deal with (not to mention radio and TV).

After being transported from my hotel to the mental health center, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing director and chief medical officer (who served as our spokesman) were top-notch pros, and they were going to make my job much easier.

Plus, the center had established good relationships in the community, so it had plenty of goodwill to draw upon, and there was no shortage of people who were willing to help us.

After a quick briefing to ascertain the facts, determine what had been communicated by the media (including rumors that the facility had burned to the ground) and making a list of all our audiences, we developed a game plan, followed by a crash media training session in which I helped our spokesman and marketing director prepare for interviews.

Here’s what happened next:

  • We established a link with the police and fire department spokespersons to get advance notice of what they would say to the media so that we had time to prepare our responses.
  • I worked with the staff to put together a brief statement for employees, patient family members and the news media, updating them on the latest information. The statement expressed concern for the victims’ families and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staff who tried to save everyone, and managed to do so except, unfortunately, for the two patients who perished. (I later learned these patients were suspected of having set the fire in the first place).
  • The statement included a clear but low-key message that the hospital was functioning, and that only one unit of it was affected by the fire.
  • We also developed a fact sheet explaining what happened to combat rampant rumors and made it available to reporters and other interested parties.
  • Media coverage of our statement was light because of the Columbus Day holiday (which I learned is a big deal in Puerto Rico), so we took out full-page ads reprinting it in leading newspapers.
  • We also sent a letter from our spokesperson, who was highly respected in the local medical community, to key referral sources to ensure they understood that the center was functioning.
  • Finally, we encouraged health care professionals in the community to speak out on behalf of the center within their areas of influence.

All this took place over the weekend, and in less than 48 hours I was able to return home.

In the days that followed, the mental health center reported very positive responses from the community, while the news media was on to its next story.

My main takeaway from this experience: We were able to manage this crisis so effectively in large part because of competent staff and positive relationships in the community.

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