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)

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.

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.

P.R. Agency Finds Itself in Paper’s Crosshairs

It’s always interesting to see how PR principals handle criticism of their firm. Usually, it’s their clients that are under fire, but on occasion the news media will turn a critical eye toward the PR firm itself. Such was the case Sunday when The Tennessean ran a front-page story on the main section titled “How a P.R. firm to (sic) powerful tarnished its image.”

It’s hard to know how much of this negative story was due to Editor Mark Silverman still smarting from prior suggestions that the firm coaxed favorable coverage about the civic center from The Tennessean, or whether the paper really thought this story deserved such prominent coverage. Maybe it was a combination of both.

The firm, McNeely Pigott & Fox, is the largest PR firm in Tennessee, and it has represented some prominent Democratic leaders, including Karl Dean, Nashville’s current mayor. The major point of contention was the amount the agency billed the city to promote a proposed downtown convention center. The firm ended up resigning the account.

“…the firm hired to help temper criticism wound up fueling it with an open-ended contract that sent a whopping $458,000 bill to the city in just over a year,” The Tennessean reported. “It was a stunning fall that has raised questions about the entire convention center project, Mayor Karl Dean’s oversight of it, and his close association with the P.R. firm that helped get him elected….”

Well, I have to agree that sounds like a lot of money, and I’d be happy to promote the convention center for a lot less. In fairness to McNeely Pigott & Fox, it’s not clear the extent of work the agency did for those fees and how much time its staff spent on the project. But, whenever you get into large amounts of money going out of government to a firm with significant connections to many of the key players, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows.

Dealing with the perception of having taken advantage of the city through cozy connections is, in my view, the biggest challenge McNeely Pigott & Fox faces.

How effectively it will counter this criticism and weather the storm remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that The Tennessean article disclosed the firm worked with the paper in 2007. No word on what McNeely Pigott & Fox charged the paper for its services, and whether The Tennessean was happy with its work.

I can’t help but wonder if the firm had a crisis management plan in case something like this happened (the article said, “They never saw this crisis coming…”), and if so how well it’s working for them now?

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

Crisis Management: 8 Characteristics of a Crisis Ad Agencies Need to Know

 Burson-Marsteller identifies 8 characteristics of a crisis:

  1. Surprise
  2. Insufficient information
  3. Escalating flow of events
  4. Loss of control
  5. Intense scrutiny from the outside
  6. Siege mentality
  7. Panic
  8. Short-term focus

 (Source: Burson-Marsteller)

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

 

Crisis Management: Ad Agency Objectives When a Crisis Hits

When a crisis strikes your agency or one of your clients, 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

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