Archive for the ‘Crisis Communications’ Category
I try to be objective on this blog, but this story makes my blood boil.
Britt McHenry, an ESPN reporter based in Washington, DC, was caught on tape recently berating, belittling, and dehumanizing the cashier at a tow lot. Her vicious, bullying, and entitled rant would make her the perfect cast member for the next installment of the “Mean Girls” film series.
Watch this one for yourself.
Among other gems in her disgusting rant, McHenry said:
“Yep, that’s all you care about is just taking people’s money. With no education, no skill set, just wanted to clarify that.”
“Do you feel good about your job?
“So I can be a college dropout and do the same thing?”
“Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me, huh?”
“Lose some weight, baby girl.”
Making this incident even worse, McHenry had been warned by the clerk that she was on video. If this was the version of McHenry that knew she was being taped, I can’t imagine what she would do if she didn’t. (Editor’s note: This video may have been edited, so it’s possible that warning came after she had already said those things, not before.)
After this video went viral, McHenry took to Twitter to offer a lame and woefully insufficient apology.
Sorry, but reacting in such a vulgar way to an ordinary, everyday “intense and stressful moment” doesn’t even come close to being a credible explanation for her actions.
I suspect that, like me, many people will view this video and conclude that McHenry is a person with a vicious streak who is simply sorry because she got caught. And I also suspect that most people will conclude that she’s engaged in similar behavior in the past.
ESPN suspended Ms. McHenry for a week for her actions. One week. As this columnist with USA Today says, ESPN got its weak disciplinary action very, very wrong.
What should Ms. McHenry do now?
Although I’d like to continue my rant about Ms. McHenry, I’ll call to my higher angels and offer her some actionable advice instead.
Her reputation will be damaged by this for a long time, and justifiably so, but in order to begin rehabilitating her image, Ms. McHenry has to be much more honest about her flaws. The type of glib de rigueur apology she offered only magnifies her reputation crisis.
I’d suggest something closer to the following as a way of acknowledging the incident in a more honest, forthright, and credible manner:
“There is no excuse for my dehumanizing behavior. I used my privileged position to belittle someone else. I understand that many people who watched this video were horrified by my behavior, and they should be.
I am very sorry to the woman I spoke to in this way. She didn’t deserve it. No one does. But I also understand that apologies alone are insufficient at convincing anybody that I’m not the type of person who thinks this type of behavior is okay. All I can say is that I’m more aware of my inner demons than ever before, will work to fix them, and hope that the way I comport myself in the future will eventually convince people that I’m worthy of their trust.”
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons
Tags: Britt McHenry, crisis communications, ESPN
Posted in Crisis Communications | 12 Comments »
Editor’s Note: A student at North Carolina’s App State recently wrote and asked me a series of questions about Bill Cosby for a case study he’s working on. It’s been almost five months since the Cosby scandal broke, so this feels like a good time to revisit the case with some distance. Here is our Q&A.
1) What do you think of the actions the media has taken against him and the actions he has taken in response to them and the questions regarding the assaults?
The media’s coverage of this case has been predictable. Any star of Cosby’s caliber should expect this level of scrutiny when more than 20 women accuse him of sexual assault and/or rape. For better or worse, people tend to look at the reaction of the person publicly accused to help determine whether or not they believe he is guilty. Cosby’s defensive and bizarre responses have done little to bolster his parsed claims of innocence.
How bizarre has Cosby’s PR approach been? One of his first public statements was to release this video, in which he appeared to be wearing silk pajamas (not the best look for an accused sexual predator) and speaking from an 80s-era telephone.
2) Do you think his strategy so far has been effective?
If we’re defining “effective” as “not in prison,” then yes. If we’re defining it as “career salvaging,” then not even close. You have to remember that we’re talking about a man who was one of the most beloved celebrities of our time. During its peak in the mid-1980s, The Cosby Show was seen by an average of 30 million Americans every week. And although his celebrity has dimmed in recent years, he was on the cusp of a comeback with a new NBC sitcom and a nationally televised stand-up special. Today, he’s playing to half-empty concert venues and trying to manage the hecklers who interrupt his performances.
3) You said in your article that you’ve rarely seen a celebrity fall like this. Does it remind you of any other instances? If so, can he or we learn from that case or is Cosby’s situation unprecedented?
I can’t think of another case that’s analogous. Other people come to mind—Woody Allen, Roman Polanski—but their cases were different, at least in terms of the scale of the accusations. Plus, Cosby’s public identity was built on being a Cliff Huxtable-like figure. The perceived hypocrisy of the actual person versus the person he presented to the public only made this crisis more severe.
4) He’s faced some issues with reporters bringing up the allegations in interviews. Does he have to start turning down interviews or changing his strategy with choosing them? What would be the best way to do that?
Cosby’s representatives can try to make a deal with media outlets—an interview in return for not asking him about the allegations—but it’s hard to see what self-respecting journalist would consent to such an agreement. After watching Cosby’s interviews, like the one he did with Associated Press last November (below), I’d be reluctant to put him in front of the press. He has been unpredictable and has caused himself more harm than good through his public utterances.
5) You mentioned in your article about how you think, if he’s innocent, he should have declared he was innocent instead of choosing the middle ground, “no comment,” area. Do you believe his strategy will change as things go on or has been saying “no comment” for so long, he’s got to continue doing so?
At this point, most members of the public have already made up their minds regarding Cosby’s innocence or guilt. If he is innocent—which seems difficult to believe, if not impossible—saying so at this point is unlikely to change many minds. Public opinion sets fast, which is why it’s critical to address false allegations quickly.
6) If statute of limitations limits any criminal charges/investigation on him, his main opposition is public perception. Do you think he’ll ever escape this or will it continue to be an underlying tone to his career moving forward?
The severity of the charges against Cosby would make it difficult for almost anyone to successfully come back from them. The one factor that can work for scandalized public figures is time. Cosby is 77 years old—and he just doesn’t have enough time left on Earth to benefit from any sort of public rehabilitation.
That may sound harsh, but it also points to one possible, posthumous path to rehabilitation. Cosby’s work—much of which was excellent—will be reevaluated years after his death. His scandal may recede in public consciousness over time, allowing a new generation to enjoy his work without the ugly baggage that surrounds it now.
Tags: Bill Cosby, crisis communications
Posted in Crisis Communications | Please Comment »
Imagine you’re the communications director for Hartown Manufacturing, a midsize company based in California. You’re responsible for all communications in the western United States.
One morning, you arrive at work and log in to your Twitter account. You’re scrolling through the rather dull tweets when you suddenly see one that takes your breath away: “Breaking News: Major Explosion at Salt Lake City Hartown Plant.”
Within minutes, dozens of people are tweeting about it, spreading rumors along the way. Some eyewitnesses claim they’ve seen ambulances pulling away with dozens of victims. One claims a plant supervisor has been killed. You call a colleague who works at the plant who tells you that no one knows whether anybody was badly hurt—and that no ambulances have arrived yet.
You immediately post that accurate information to Hartown’s social media pages. Journalists who follow your feeds see your posts and decide against reporting any of the rumors they’ve read about possible injuries or deaths until you confirm them.
That type of scenario is commonplace in the age of social media, and it underscores three important truths:
- 1. The public and the press may learn of a crisis affecting your company through their social media networks before you even know there’s a problem.
- 2. People will begin discussing (and speculating about) your crisis before you’ve had time to obtain the facts.
- 3. You need to use your social media channels to immediately correct misinformation and establish yourself as a primary source of accurate information.
Most reporters now use social media as an essential tool of crisis reporting. As Jane Jordan-Meier reported in The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, “Two journalists I spoke with saw Twitter as the new police scanner.” You can no longer afford to relegate social media to being of secondary importance.
Communicate through your social media networks as quickly as possible, ideally within half an hour of learning about an incident. You can include links to lengthier statements and additional resources in your posts.
There’s one additional way to help manage a crisis using social media: be engaged with your social networks before a crisis strikes. You’ll need fans to defend your integrity when something goes wrong, and few people are more credible than the unaffiliated third parties who voluntarily vouch for you.
Case Study: Domino’s Pizza and a Disgusting Video
In 2009, an employee of a North Carolina Domino’s franchise filmed a coworker sticking cheese up his nose before appearing to send the food out for delivery. The two workers uploaded the video to YouTube, where it quickly racked up a million views. Television anchors showed the disgusting clip on their newscasts and customers stopped ordering pizza.
Company president Patrick Doyle waited two days before finally responding. He issued a two-minute YouTube apology, in which he appeared genuinely pained by the incident. He was deservedly given credit by many crisis management professionals for releasing the heartfelt video— but most suggested that he waited too long and incurred unnecessary financial and reputational damage by waiting 48 hours.
Mr. Doyle’s response was noteworthy for one additional reason: it was the first time a major company president used YouTube as the primary method of responding to a crisis.
Tags: crisis communications
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NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced yesterday that he would take a voluntary leave of absence from his broadcast. It’s a smart—and necessary—move that preserves the most options for both the anchor and his network.
In this post, I’ll offer NBC News and Brian Williams a few ideas about how to handle this controversy most effectively.
Advice For NBC News
By pulling himself off the air, Brian Williams has given you some breathing room. Take it. You don’t have to make any immediate decisions, and can use the next several days (probably weeks) to conduct a full investigation into Mr. Williams’s previous claims.
It’s good that you’ve named Richard Esposito, the head of the NBC investigative unit, to look into his previous reporting. But that’s an insufficient step. I know nothing about Mr. Esposito and don’t doubt that he’s an honest reporter who will work doggedly to uncover the facts. But the very fact that he’s paid by NBC News will, fairly or not, call his final results into question, particularly if they validate Mr. Williams’s previous reporting.
Therefore, in addition to your internal investigation (which has merit and should proceed), you should immediately name someone of prominence and widespread respect to run a simultaneous external investigation. A well-known reporter, media critic, academic, executive, or government expert (a former Inspector General, for example) could work.
Finally, you should release the results of both investigations publicly. There’s risk attached to that, of course, but I don’t believe it’s an inappropriately high-risk step. With outside reporters and bloggers continuing to dig up dirt, they’ll probably find many of the same things your investigators will anyway—but you will bolster your news department’s credibility by finding and revealing any shortcomings first.
Considering that the rumor mill is growing—and that Mr. Williams’s reporting from Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti are all coming under fire (including an inconsistent story he’s told about saving a dog from a fire)—these steps are necessary to either partially restore Mr. Williams’s credibility before returning to air or demonstrating why he can’t.
Advice For Brian Williams
First, cancel your appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, scheduled for this Thursday. Letterman can be a tough interviewer, and you’re a charming guest—so, in the perfect circumstance, I could see how an appearance would benefit you.
But your first post-crisis interview shouldn’t be held with a tough comedian—it should be held with a tough reporter who knows the details of your story inside and out and can ask the pointed questions that require direct answers. CNN’s Brian Stelter, who has done an admirable job of covering this story, might be a good choice. But you shouldn’t do the interview until the shock of the past few days has receded a bit; you, probably more than most, understand how public figures in the middle of crisis too often respond with a defensive tone that serves them badly.
And since you’ve been accused of spending too much of your time building your entertainment brand by hosting Saturday Night Live and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon (among many other appearances), this would send a message that your critics are right.
(Update: Shortly after this post went live, I learned that Williams canceled his Letterman appearance late this afternoon.)
Second, you’ll need to think about exactly what you would say. That you “conflated” your experiences and misremembered the events on an Iraqi helicopter was met with widespread derision. Even if you accidentally misremembered, it calls your ability to serve as an anchor into question—why should viewers trust someone whose memory of first person events is unreliable? You’ll need to dig deeper. Did you feel the need to exaggerate stories to bolster your credibility, popularity, or news bona fides? If so, you’ll need to cop to that in direct and unsparing terms—and announce specific steps you’d take to avoid that in the future.
Third, slow down. Your statement said that you would “take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days,” but also presumed that you would make an inevitable and probably rapid return. That’s a mistake. If you’re innocent of pervasive résumé-inflation (beyond the Iraq RPG story), time is on your side. Allow the results of an internal and external investigation to come in, vindicating your integrity, and come back to the newscast strengthened—at least in relation to your current position.
Fourth, adding more humility to your tone would go a long way. Your on-air apology on Wednesday—deemed insufficient by many—bordered on glib. And I wasn’t crazy about the statement you released on Saturday:
“In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
Your statement used vague, distancing language: “Due to my actions” didn’t admit to anything specific, nor was there any apology attached to it. Second, calling it “my broadcast” seemed unnecessarily possessive and heavy handed. I’m sure NBC views Nightly News as its broadcast—and the journalists who work for you probably think of the broadcast as a collective effort. Finally, as discussed above, “upon my return” is not fait accompli. If an investigation finds other instances of inaccurate reporting, you’re probably gone.
Finally, I’d recommend that you hire an experienced crisis management firm, stat. Your career is at risk, and it’s normal to feel defensive, angry, and disoriented. So don’t rely solely on your own instincts. Professionals who understand today’s media climate, the evolution of crisis, and who have helped public figures facing severe reputational risk can help you navigate this crisis with better precision. Perhaps you’re already working with such counsel; if so, that’s good.
READERS: What have I missed? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, NBC News
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
I wrote last night about the career-threatening controversy enveloping NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (read that post here), who repeatedly told a false story about being under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a good timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.
What’s unclear to me is whether he purposefully lied (according to the sentiment I’ve seen on Twitter, that seems to be the overwhelming judgment) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at that latter option if you wish, but the science is rather clear on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.
Even if that more charitable option is the operational one here, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.
From a crisis management standpoint, what should Williams do now?
I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:
I’m not sure a longer explanation without a meaningful punishment is sufficient. Other people think a suspension is warranted but suggest Williams could survive this incident.
In my judgment, NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They must suspend Williams (or place him on a “leave of absence”) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident.
That suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story. Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Although that will resurrect the story and lead to more negative headlines, the second telling of the story won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s original revelation. And either way, it’s a necessary step.
Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, journalism, media analysis, NBC News
Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »
I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.
For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes:
“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”
This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:
“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”
He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:
Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.
According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:
“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”
Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.
Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.
This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.
UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm
A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,” this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.
NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?“
Tags: Brian Williams, crisis communications, media analysis
Posted in Crisis Communications | 10 Comments »
Late last week, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady (below) tried to take the air out of accusations that they had intentionally deflated game balls during their AFC Championship Game win.
Unfortunately, it looked as if the Patriots’ PR staff didn’t consider the background those two spokespersons would be standing in front of while denying the charge. As both men spoke, an advertisement for Gillette’s “Flexball” razor served as their backdrop, an unfortunate coincidence noted by thousands of people on social media.
(There are two other possible explanations—one, the Patriots were under a legal obligation to use that background, and two, Gillette willingly took the risk to be associated with this controversy in return for the additional exposure.)
The Patriots are far from alone in using an ill-considered background. In 2010, for example, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced his network’s new branding strategy in a self-produced video—while CNN played in the background.
Last year, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, gave an interview to the BBC with what looked to be a sloppy dorm room behind him. I dubbed this “the worst webcam background I’ve ever seen.”
And in one of my all-time favorite clips that readers of this blog have seen before, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey—while turkeys were being slaughtered behind her.
I gave some advice about choosing the right background in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview:
“Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.
Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.”
It’s easy to understand how these things happen: We become so fixated on the messages we want to deliver that we too often forget about the optics. So before your next interview, take a quick glance around you to make sure nothing in the background could conflict with your message.
Tags: Bill Belichick, Deflategate, media training tips, press conference, sports, Tom Brady
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Melissa Agnes is one of my favorite crisis communications professionals in the business, so I was thrilled to be invited as her guest on her excellent podcast.
Our conversation lasted for an hour—but she kept it fast moving, full of useful information and fun. Among other topics, we discussed the following (as summarized on Melissa’s site):
- What makes a good spokesperson for crisis communication
- The real-time news cycle and how it impacts in a crisis
- Tips for making communications “social media friendly”
- Biggest mistakes spokespeople make in crisis – and how you can avoid them
- How to save a client or brand who has already stuck their foot in their mouth
If you’re unable to sit and listen for the full hour, you might consider downloading the podcast and listening to it during your commute. You’ll find a particularly energetic “lightning round” at the end. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Melissa’s podcast—she’s really good, and you’ll learn a lot.
Tags: crisis communications, Crisis communications podcast, Melissa Agnes
Posted in Crisis Communications | 1 Comment »