Chick-fil-A Protests Result in PR Shellacking

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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

Cruise Ship Flunks Crisis Management 101

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Costa Concordia, the luxury cruise ship that ran aground off the coast of Italy a few days ago, has created first-rate crisis not only for the ship’s owners, but also for the entire industry.

If the ship had a crisis plan to handle such an emergency, it sure didn’t work very well.

The panic and chaos that ensured when Costa Concordia began to turn on its side was exacerbated by a crew that seemed unsure of what to do. News media reports have now surfaced that the ship’s captain—who as of this writing is behind bars—waited more than an hour after the vessel hit a rock to issue an evacuation order.

Frustrated by the captain’s inaction, some crew members began helping terrified passengers get to lifeboats. However, a number of the crew reportedly left before all the passengers were safely evacuated. Even the captain allegedly abandoned ship before hundreds of his passengers escaped.  Survivors have described the incident as “like something out of the Titanic.”

One would naturally assume that the chances of a disaster like this taking place in a modern ship cruising along in good weather near shore are pretty small, but one also would assume that should an accident occur, the captain and crew would be well trained and prepared to handle it and make sure passengers got off safely before fleeing for their own lives. Now, however, confidence in the entire industry is shaken.

Henry Kissinger once observed that “A problem ignored is a crisis invited.”

The problem for Costa Cruises, which owns the Costa Concordia, started long before the ship capsized. A thorough crisis plan and regular disaster drills for the crew would likely have resulted in more decisive action and an orderly evacuation, which may have saved lives and prevented injuries.  A captain who failed to perform his duties due to incompetence, complacency or being incapacitated should have been one of crisis scenarios.

In fairness to Costa Cruises, it may have had a crisis plan and may also have routinely practiced various scenarios with crew members. But clearly the plan was inadequate and flawed because something went terribly wrong.

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.

You don’t have to own a luxury ship to need a crisis plan. Every business and agency, even small ones, should have a what-if plan that is regularly reviewed and updated. For example, if a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or fire wiped out your office building, would you have a back-up plan to minimize disruptions to your employees, clients or customers?

If you don’t have a plan to deal with these and other emergency situations, I recommend you take action rather than sitting back and hoping for the best. Get started on a crisis management plan this month—and when you’re finished, make sure your plan is communicated to employees so that know what to do and how to respond if a disaster strikes.

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

photo credit: pasukaru76 via photopin cc

YouTube Video Creates PR Disaster, Policy Change for Delta Air Lines

In yet another tribute to the stunning power and immediacy of social media, a YouTube video expose of Delta Air Lines charging U.S. soldiers returning home from Afghanistan a whopping $200 per-bag fee for extra luggage has brought about a change of heart and policy.

According to news reports, the video showing soldiers complaining about the charges was viewed nearly 200,000 times. The next day, a Facebook page popped up called Boycott Delta for Soldiers.

Sensing a disaster in the making, Delta apologized, reversed course and revised its baggage fees for troops, now allowing up to four checked bags for free.

Give Delta credit for quickly recognizing and correcting such an egregious policy rather than trying to defend it. But while the company’s actions shortened its crisis, the PR damage from gouging troops fighting to protect our freedom has no doubt tarnished Delta’s image,  at least until memories begin to fade.

Never before have average people had such power to make their voices and complaints heard. The Internet keeps companies—and the advertising and public relations agencies that support them— on their toes, and that’s a good thing for us all.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Foreclosing on Bank Creates PR Nightmare for Bank of America

In my previous post, I discussed one non-profit organization’s spot-on response to a negative news article. This time, I present Exhibit B, which is a model for taking on a mega bank.

In one of those big “whoops” moments, Bank of America tried to foreclose on a house in Florida that had no mortgage; the owners had paid BOA cash for it, but a few months later the bank filed a foreclosure claim against them.

Mistakes happen, but BOA apparently refused to respond to the owners or their attorney, despite their numerous attempts to straighten out this colossal misunderstanding. Big, inflexible banks can be irritating and cause a lot of headaches, but the owners turned the tables by winning a court judgment against BOA for their attorney fees.

When BOA didn’t pay up, the owners foreclosed on the local bank, bringing their attorney and two sheriff’s deputies to take whatever assets they could get their hands on to pay the debt. An hour later the owners magically had a check from BOA.

This was a PR failure from top to bottom for BOA, and it has paid a heavy price through what can only be described as humiliating national media coverage of the fiasco.

In the interests of full disclosure, my wife and I have been banking with BOA for at least 15 years, and we’ve never had a problem. In fact, our local branch has always been very helpful and responsive whenever we’ve had a question or issue arise.

But this BOA branch in Florida obviously was a different story, and its lack of concern about doing what’s right ended up tainting the BOA name system-wide. It may also have caught the attention of the Florida’s attorney general’s economic crime division.

This is a great example of an issue which, if managed properly, would have quickly gone away. Instead, it became a full-blown crisis, and it will take BOA a long time to live it down. Because of their novelty, “man bites dog” stories always seem to find the light of day.

Ad agencies may not be able to directly influence their clients’ customer service, but they can remind them about the consequences of negative PR and that paying attention to their customers is one way to avoid a costly mess.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Non-profit’s Response to Negative Article Is Model for Ad Agency PR

 “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” – Proverbs 18:17

Let me state up front that I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the facts related to the PR issue I’m about to discuss, so I don’t know which party is right and which is wrong—or whether the truth lies somewhere in between.

What I can say is that Soles4Souls’ response to a negative front-page story about it in The Tennessean newspaper, which was also picked up by USA Today, is a model for how to fight back when you feel you’ve been unfairly portrayed in the news media.

Soles4Souls is a non-profit charitable organization. According to its mission statement, “Soles4Souls collects new shoes to give relief to the victims of abject suffering and collects used shoes to support micro-business efforts to eradicate poverty.”

While the details are too involved to go into here, The Tennessean article makes Soles4Souls appear deceptive in some of its practices. “Millions of pairs of used shoes donated to Soles4Souls…don’t go directly to the impoverished people the charity says it is helping,” the paper states.

Soles4Souls’ statement about the article, which is posted on the non-profit’s Web site, was thorough, factual and measured, with a minimum of emotion or defensiveness attached to it.

Here’s a sample from Soles4Soul’s response:

•       “The gist of the [Tennessean] micro-enterprise article is that Soles4Souls has not talked openly about its micro-enterprise program.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are proud of our micro-enterprise efforts, which have enabled us to increase the number of people we serve and is consistent with social enterprise undertaken by the US government and [the] nation’s leading nonprofits.   In 2009, we discussed the program in an article published by The Tennessean! Although the article no longer appears on The Tennessean’s website, you can read it here on our site where it has been since it was published.”

Hmmm, I wonder why that 2009 article is no longer available on The Tennessean’s Web site, especially in light of the extensive story the paper did questioning this non-profit’s integrity?

There’s a good lesson in all this: When it was caught off guard by accusations about its practices, Soles4Souls didn’t panic, nor did it roll over and play dead. It took the paper’s accusations head-on, set the record straight and raised questions of its own about The Tennessean’s ethics in the way it handled the matter.

The Internet and social media have opened up effective new ways of fighting back and telling the other side if your organization or client is misrepresented.

You owe it to your stakeholders to tell the truth, admit to mistakes on your part (if applicable) and correct reporting errors. Stakeholders can be valuable goodwill ambassadors to help you set the record straight IF they know the facts.

And never, ever be afraid to take on the news media if they get out of line. Accountability, after all, is a two-way street.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Ad Agencies Tips for Dealing with a Crisis

According to the Institute for Crisis Management, the majority of crises are of the “smoldering” type, meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more people.

Less than 25% are events that occur suddenly with little warning, such as natural disasters and accidents.

If something is smoldering at your agency or with one of your clients, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away and may get much worse if neglected.

When a crisis strikes, those charged with managing it 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

Having managed communications in a variety of crisis situations over the years, the following are tips I’ve found that apply to any crisis:

•       Tell what you know and can legally disclose as soon as possible.

•       Tell the truth.

•       Demonstrate concern for those affected.

•       Emphasize the positive, when appropriate. For example, if you’re dealing with layoffs, emphasize how many jobs are being   saved by this action and explain what your company is doing to help those who are losing their jobs.

•       Give updates as soon as new information is available and confirmed.

•       Seek third-party support to add credibility to your position.

How well your team manages a crisis, especially in the early stages, could affect your organization’s credibility and reputation for month or even years.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.


Ad Agencies: Face Reality When Dealing with a Crisis

When I was growing up in Indiana, one of my friends and neighbors was a boy named Billy.  We were both around ten years old at the time.  One day Billy was playing with matches in his bedroom and set the curtains on fire.  He tried putting the fire out, but its 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.

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. 

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.

When I tell that story, people usually are amazed at such irresponsible behavior, and rightfully so.  Yet, I find that many companies 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 valuable time and resources.  Sometimes the organization’s reputation is severely harmed, and out of the ashes investigations suddenly appear.

The pity is that engaging the crisis in its early stages would have made it more manageable and less damaging.

As Henry Kissinger once said, “A problem ignored is a crisis invited.”

One of the most important things an ad agency can do in a crisis situation is help its client see the reality of the situation and what needs to be done.  

The agency also needs to help the client keep the situation in perspective and focus on the long term. 

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.

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

An effective crisis plan:

  • Contemplates the types of crises that could occur
  • Sets forth policies to deal with them
  •  Identifies audiences
  • Has a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establishes ways to communicate accurate information quickly and effectively

If your agency or your clients don’t have a written crisis plan, now is a great time to create one.  If you have plan, be sure it is updated regularly.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Has Agency Crisis PR Lost Its Way?

Crisis PR is in crisis. Or so says Matthew DeBord, writing in The Big Money.

He believes the 24/7 news-and-comment cycle and social media have permanently altered the landscape to the point where “the new crisis paradigm is spinning hopelessly in the dark.”

Leading with BP’s troubles and the inability of its crisis communications team to work magic, Mr. DeBord writes “the dark art is in meltdown.”

While Mr. DeBord’s article raises some interested points, his statement “The BP oil spill, Apple’s (AAPL) Antennagate, the fall of Goldman Sachs (GS), Toyota’s Great Recall, the sexual travails of Tiger Woods, the trysts of Al Gore, the loose lips of Stanley McChrystal—all these combustions would have been fixed, in the good old days of 2007, with a call to Burston-Marstellar or Sitrick & Co.,” is frankly absurd.

Exxon hardly waltzed through the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which took place before the Internet was used on a large scale. Or how about Bridgestone’s tire disaster a decade ago? Bridgestone had a top PR firm working on the crisis, but would anybody say it was handled well?

While there’s no doubt that social media have changed the speed at which companies communicate and the way in which they interact with the public, the fundamentals of crisis communications haven’t changed.

I can’t recall ever seeing a crisis “fixed” just by throwing money at PR. There has to be a good-faith effort to fix the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

If a company is deceptive and tries to hide the truth, no amount of crisis spin is likely to do it much good.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Toyota’s Crisis Management Has Lessons for Ad Agencies

Someday, how Toyota has handled its vehicle acceleration crisis will make an interesting case study. 

As I suspect is the case with a lot of people, I haven’t paid close attention the company’s recalls.  Mainly, I’ve heard bits and pieces.  And therein lies a big part of the company’s image problem:  Regardless of what Toyota is doing now, what people remember most are news stories about occupants who died or were injured while their cars careened out of control. 

One reported incident is particularly memorable to me:  A frantic 911 call from a police officer saying the brakes on his Lexus didn’t work.  While still talking with the operator, he and his passengers went over an embankment and their vehicle burst into flames.  The call ended with the passengers telling each other to pray. 

Whatever exculpatory facts may exist in Toyota’s favor, and no matter how many ads the company runs demonstrating concern, the mental image of people dying in cars they couldn’t stop is impossible to overcome. 

Adding to the company’s woes, the Associated Press today reported that for years Toyota has blocked access to data stored in the vehicles themselves.  This data, which is stored in devices similar to the “black boxes” used on airplanes, could provide useful information about crashes that were blamed on sudden unintended accelerations. 

When there is an appearance of a cover up by a company involved in a crisis, especially when lives have been lost, the negative perceptions can be devastating. 

Toyota has long had a reputation for quality, and my reliable old Corolla was one of the best vehicles I’ve ever owned.  But as things stand now, I would never buy a Toyota product again. 

Ad agencies advising clients embroiled in a crisis need to remember that the best ads and PR efforts to communicate what the company is doing to fix the problem and make amends will ring hollow if it doesn’t back up words with deeds. 

 Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.

Tiger Woods Fiasco Has Important Lessons for Ad Agencies

Until now, I’ve resisted weighing in on Tiger Woods’ marital woes. Like a lot of people, I already know more about his escapades than I wish I did. Still, there are some important lessons ad agencies can glean from this fiasco.

I can’t recall ever seeing a person’s reputation fall so quickly and dramatically, followed closely by sponsors dropping this hot potato left and right.

I found it interesting that earlier this month Ad Age ran a story saying some people in the sports-marketing industry were speculating that Tiger’s newfound notoriety “might actually redound to the benefit of the brands he endorses.”

One PR expert suggested Tiger could rebound if he and his wife stay together and he keeps winning. Apparently, winning covers a multitude of sins, at least according to this line of reasoning.

Well, it hasn’t quite turned out that way for Tiger, and now there are question as to whether he will ever play golf again professionally.

One of the most obvious lessons to be learned is that in a crisis, stonewalling doesn’t work very well. Especially when you’re someone famous, the media will dig out the truth and put you in a reactive mode.

A second lesson is the risk companies take in sponsoring an individual. When Tiger’s favorability ranting in 2000 was the highest in poll history at 88%, having a close corporate tie no doubt seemed like a good idea. In the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, his favorability dropped to 33% — a 55-point swing from his peak.

Perhaps the most important lesson, though, is that in an age when tolerance reins supreme, there still are some things most people won’t tolerate from celebrities, and repeatedly cheating on one’s spouse with multiple partners is one of them.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.