Neutralize a Simmering PR Issue Before It Becomes a Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust Is the Core Issue in Instagram PR Controversy

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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

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.