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)

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)

 

 

 

 

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

Norwegian Cruise Line Sinks Image in PR Fiasco

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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

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.