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.

photo credit: Ricymar Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!!) via photopin cc

Norwegian Cruise Line Sinks Image in PR Fiasco

Image of lego ship

I’m not sure why this is the case, but it seems like cruise lines run aground more often than most industries when it comes to PR fiascos.

As I noted in a 2012 post titled Cruise Ship Flunks Crisis Management 101, the luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia (owned by Carnival), didn’t appear to have much of a crisis plan when it got stuck off the coast of Italy. In 2013, a Carnival ship was stuck at sea for nearly a week. (This and other Carnival incidents are described in Business Insider.)

The latest PR challenge is Norwegian Cruise Line’s refusal to reschedule a family’s vacation after Nicolas, the 5-year-old son, was diagnosed with cancer. Because of surgery and chemo treatment, the family was unable to go on the trip as scheduled.

Norwegian, which partnered with Nickelodeon for this family-orientated cruise, would not re-book the cruise because the family cancelled the trip within 14 days or less of the departure date. And, because the family hadn’t purchased travel insurance, it was out $4,000 – a lot of money for most people – while also suffering through the trauma of battling their son’s cancer.

“It’s just unbelievable that a multimillion dollar company wouldn’t be more compassionate,” the mother told a Long Island TV station.

This is one of those common sense things that is really hard to process. Who at Norwegian made this decision, and what were they thinking?

If Norwegian’s management team was so cold and heartless that they didn’t care about this family’s extraordinary circumstances, were they also completely blind to the PR disaster that was sure to follow?

Predictably, social media began to spread the word. A Facebook page was set up imploring Norwegian Cruise Line to “Please Help Little Nicolas.”

Yesterday, feeling the heat of public outrage (and probably sensing a multi-million dollar problem unfolding before their eyes), Norwegian posted a Facebook message saying that the company had “offered to work with the family when Nicolas was ready to travel to ensure that they took their vacation and we provided a personal contact at Norwegian for the family. . . .”

Does that mean Norwegian will comp the trip or will the family have to come up with another $4,000? Or maybe they’ll discount the trip? It’s not clear what the company is offering.

The Facebook message went on to say, “We contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that we work closely with to grant the wishes of hundreds of children each year who want to take a cruise. If the family chooses to participate in the Make-A-Wish program, we will make sure that they receive the cruise they were looking forward to.”

So now the family has to go through Make-A-Wish to get their trip. Hmmm.

I don’t know which advertising and/or PR agency Norwegian uses (or if all that work is done in-house), but surely some outside adviser must have said, “Hey wait, refusing to re-book this family’s trip due to your inflexible cancellation policy is not a good idea. Even if you don’t really care about them, you need to act like you care or you’ll face a huge PR backlash.”

Unfortunately, advertising and public relations agencies can only advise their clients; they can’t make them do anything, and there are times when management makes decisions that prove to be very costly to a company’s image in the long run for short-term gain.

In this case, sticking to a rigid cancellation policy and pocketing $4,000 from the family will likely cost Norwegian exponentially more in the months and years to come.

There is a happy ending to the story, though, at least for this family. After hearing about the family’s plight on “Fox & Friends,” the CEO of another cruise line contacted them and offered a free cruise.

Even more impressive, the CEO reportedly requested to remain anonymous.

photo credit: pasukaru76 via photopin cc

Trust Is the Core Issue in Instagram PR Controversy

Trust Us, We're Experts Image medium_35555985

This week’s Instagram flap once again shows how quickly a crisis can escalate when a company is perceived to have crossed a social mores line.

After reports circulated around news sites and the Internet that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) essentially considered your photos its photos—and therefore could use or even sell them without your permission—scores of indignant users reportedly dropped the service.

Here’s what got people so riled in the new privacy policy update:

“[y]ou agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

That wording seemed to indicate that Instagram had the right to sell photos to third parties at will, and then pocket the money.

The reaction was swift and angry. Instagram quickly went into crisis mode and issued a clarification. Turns out it was all a big misunderstanding due to poor communication and Instagram does not plan to sell your photos after all. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said the company is working on revised language to make it more clear what will happen with users’ photos.

According to a Chicago Tribune story, Mr. Systrom also stated, “language that indicated your photos could be used in advertisements will be removed from the terms completely.”

Instagram was smart to jump on this quickly, issue a clarification and also say it is listening to feedback, will fix mistakes and clear up the confusion. So, gold star for taking this seriously and saying the right things in a timely manner.

But I have to wonder about a couple of things that still bother me.

First, how could language like “you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos…” get out in the first place? There should have been red flags everywhere. Wasn’t there at least one person in authority at Instagram who saw that wording and thought, “Gee, I wonder if this might create a bit of controversy?”

Maybe there was someone who raised the issue, but senior management chose to ignore it. We may never know.

Which leads me to my second point: Instagram surely must know that most people don’t take the time to read all the details of policy updates. And that make me wonder if what was really happening here was that management was trying to slip this through and got caught.

Whether or not the wording was intentional, trust has been broken with many thousands of Instagramers, and it will take more than a policy clarification to restore it.

The best way to avoid problems like this is to identify and handle them before they ever get out of the barn.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.

photo credit: phauly via photopin cc

Chick-fil-A Protests Result in PR Shellacking

Cows Image Chick fil A large_8437991933

For years, cows across America have been spotted on billboards, print ads and television commercials urging us to “Eat Mor Chikin.” The chickens, apparently fed up with the campaign, decided to strike back by enlisting an assortment of perpetually outraged groups and individuals to portray Chick-fil-A as a corporate villain.

By now the story is well known: In an interview with Baptist Press, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who is a Christian, expressed personal support for traditional marriage, unleashing charges of being “anti-gay” and a torrent of vitriol toward a company that by every measure has been a model corporate citizen.

Among those with ruffled feathers were mayors in three cities who threatened to block the openings of Chick-fil-A restaurants simply because they don’t agree with his personal views. Others made extraordinarily hateful comments and threatened to boycott the restaurant chain or take other action.

Yesterday we saw the results: A classic PR backfire that scorched the opposition and generated a whole lot of moo-la for Chick-fil-A.

While the controversy is far from over, there are at least four PR lessons to be learned from the events of the past few days.

First, be very careful with boycotts because they can do more harm than good, especially in terms of perceptions. The millions and millions of people who saw pictures on the evening news and Internet of long lines streaming into Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country will long remember those images, as will the protestors who took a PR shellacking by this massive rebuke. There are companies whose policies I don’t like, but rather than calling them names and trying to organize boycotts against them, I simply shop elsewhere. People who don’t agree with Mr. Cathy’s values ought to consider just eating elsewhere.

Second, this episode is instructive in reinforcing how quickly a crisis can strike. The president of a company that has rarely if ever seen much in the way of controversy made remarks some found offensive and wham—the entire restaurant chain is suddenly in the crosshairs of a national firestorm.

Third, the value of having third-party influencers come to your organization’s defense when it’s attacked cannot be overstated. Gov. Mike Huckabee, Billy Graham and Rick Warren are among scores of leaders who defended the embattled chain. Ted Cruz, who just won the Republican nomination in the Texas Senate run-off race, served Chick-fil-A at his victory party. A major Wendy’s franchise owner put “We stand with Chick-fil-A” on his restaurants’ signs. Chick-fil-A didn’t have to lift a finger to defend itself; instead, a panoply of supporters did that for the chain.

Fourth, the incredible speed at which social media can spread the word is a game-changer. Gov. Huckabee conceived the idea of an Appreciation Day, and word zipped across the Internet through a special Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Facebook page, Twitter and other channels. This was the grapevine in action exponentially.

Regardless of what one believes about how marriage should be defined, the attacks struck a nerve among fair-minded, freedom-loving people who turned out in droves to participate in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.

Here was a positive, tangible way for them to express their support for a company they admire while at the same time defend values to which they also adhere.

For those who agreed with the protestors but not with their methods, eating at Chick-fil-A was a way for them to take a stand for freedom of speech and religious expression. And for untold thousands, showing up and buying a meal during Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a way to register their protests against what they saw as hypocrisy on the part of many of the same people who routinely lecturing others about the need for tolerance and diversity.

The majority spoke peacefully yet decisively. They clearly demonstrated that they are tired of being bullied by elements in our politically correct society that seek to control what they say, think and do. The majority voted with their pocketbooks, and the result was a record-setting day for Chick-fil-A.

If the protests continue, I suspect the pushback will be even stronger. It reminds me of the old cartoon in which Wiley Coyote was always getting outmaneuvered by the Roadrunner, only this time it will be the cows outmaneuvering the chickens all the way to the bank.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to advertising agencies and businesses.

photo credit: David Blackwell. via photopin cc