Archive for the ‘Crisis Communications’ Category
Recently, Saturday Night Live faced criticism that the cast lacks diversity, specifically for its absence of black women. Kenan Thompson, one of the show’s three minority actors, announced he would no longer cross-dress to play characters like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.
There has not been a black female SNL cast member since 2007. To put that in perspective, that means there has not been a permanent cast member on the show during the entire Obama presidency to play Mrs. Obama.
In a sharply critical article last week, The New York Times noticed the dearth of black women on the show:
“Let me state the obvious: That “Saturday Night Live,” once home of the Not Ready for Prime Time players, has hired only three black women for its main cast— in addition to Yvonne Hudson, a featured player in 1980 — in four decades says more about the show than about the talent pool.”
The show answered its critics this past Saturday night, when actress Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the opening skit, Ms. Washington was asked to play several black female characters, looking incredulous as she ran back and forth for quick wardrobe changes.
As she switched characters, an announcer came on, with text on the screen acknowledging the situation in what I thought was a fairly humorous way:
“The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
From a crisis communications perspective, there’s an interesting question here: Was the skit an effective response to the situation?
Maybe. The skit was self-aware, funny, and it answered the critics in a way that was genuine to the show. That Ms. Washington played characters Mr. Thompson once portrayed or that haven’t been possible to portray on the show recently was slyly smart.
However, if SNL does nothing to correct this egregious problem by casting a black woman quickly, the skit will be considered flip and dismissive in hindsight.
Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.
Tags: crisis communications, Kenan Thompson, Kerry Washington, media analysis, race, Saturday Night Live
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
Last month, a woman named Jutta Kulic booked an Air Canada flight from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia. The flight wasn’t for herself—it was for a greyhound named Larry. She had promised a dying friend that she would deliver the pup to a good home, and she was making good on her promise by sending Larry to a Canadian couple.
Despite giving the airline explicit instructions—do not open his crate unless you’re in an enclosed space—an airline worker decided to take Larry for a walk. Larry got away. The airline couldn’t find the dog.
When a Sacramento news station contacted Air Canada, here’s the email spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick sent them:
“I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog. Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the U.S. media spends its time.”
Oops. Mr. Fitzgerald sent an email intended for a colleague directly to the news station. He shouldn’t be surprised that news organizations would cover a missing pet—it’s manna from heaven for today’s sensational media culture—but it’s the next two things that happened that made me decide to write a post about the incident.
First, check out what he told The Toronto Star:
“I guess I’m the poster child now for Be Careful With Email,” Peter Fitzpatrick glumly told the Toronto Star.
Fitzpatrick had grown exasperated with the reporter’s email because the airline didn’t have the answers. “We didn’t ignore them. It wasn’t like we didn’t respond,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’d given them our statement and there really wasn’t more to say.”
Fitzpatrick, a veteran public relations official, told the Star that he regretted this email, but to suggest he was callous or uncaring is “an unfair portrayal.” He said the email was partly meant to be a joke.”
The misdirected email was bad enough. But instead of turning the focus solely onto the missing pet, he made the follow-up story about himself—Unfair portrayal of me! I’m the poster child! It was a joke!
It gets worse. Larry was killed.
Last week, we learned that after Larry escaped from his crate, he was struck by a car and had to be euthanized. According to The Vancouver Sun, the airline released a statement:
“Air Canada’s employees are extremely sad with the news about Larry,” the statement said.
“Many of our employees are pet owners and animal lovers, and our San Francisco team in particular continued to hold out hope that Larry would be found safe.”
The company said it has reminded employees about its policies for transporting animals.
Frankly, I don’t care if the airline is made up of pet lovers or not. And I don’t care that they’re “extremely sad.” Their sadness won’t prevent another pet from getting lost when in their care—action will. Here’s the statement they should have released:
“When passengers entrust us with their pets, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure they arrive at their destinations safely. That didn’t happen in this case, and that is unacceptable to everyone who works for this airline. We must do better, and we will. We are putting into place a new set of policies and procedures and will train every member of our frontline staff on the safe handling of pets during transit. In the meantime, we want to apologize to Ms. Kulic. We’re sorry.”
The airline has offered a free flight to the couple that was set to adopt Larry. They’ll use it to adopt Larry’s brother, Leo.
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A grateful tip o’ the hat to Heidi Anderson, the Public Relations Manager for SFUSD.
Tags: Air Canada, crisis communications, Jutta Kulic
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
Three young brothers died in a Bronx apartment fire on Friday night. The boys—ages five, two, and four months—were pronounced dead upon arriving at a local hospital.
According to CNN, the horrific fire “was caused by a candle and occurred one day after the power company cut off electricity for unpaid bills.”
In the days since the tragic incident, power company Con Edison has faced a lot of tough questions, including whether they should have cut off power in this case or in any case in which children are at risk.
In my role as a father and someone who trains burn survivors each year, this story absolutely guts me. In my role as a crisis communications professional, I’ve been following this case with great interest. I’ve worked with numerous power companies through the years—and although we’ve never run a drill exactly like this one, we’ve run drills that are eerily similar.
Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury was quoted by numerous outlets over the past few days. He conveyed the same theme repeatedly: Con Ed doesn’t like to turn off power for non-payment, but this family was thousands of dollars past due on their bill.
Here’s what he told CNN:
Con Ed spokesman Allan Drury explained that the apartment’s residents owed “a significant amount … — well into the thousands of dollars.”
“We try to avoid turning service off to customers,” Drury added. “We’ll put them on payment plans to work with them to avoid turnoff, but this account had substantial arrears.”
Mr. Drury added that Con Edison typically tries to avoid turning off power, instead putting customers on payment plans. This particular family, it seemed, fell too far behind.
“There was significant amount of arrears on the account — well into the thousands of dollars,” Mr. Drury said.
The utility said such a move isn’t taken lightly: Five notices are sent that power will be shut off and several attempts are made to contact the customer, a spokesman said.
And customers whose power is shut off can have service restored within 24 hours if they enter into a payment agreement.
“Disconnecting a customer’s service is a measure of last resort,” said Allan Drury, a Con Edison spokesman, adding “unfortunately, when customers are delinquent, that burden is placed on customers who are paying their bills on time.”
This is one of the most challenging crisis communications scenarios imaginable. A spokesperson never wants to be seen as blaming the victims—but in this case, Con Ed had relevant information that explained its decision to cut power. In this difficult situation, Mr. Drury is doing about as well as anyone could.
I don’t believe Con Ed is to blame here. The company has a right to cut off power for non-payment, particularly if they have made a real effort to help past-due customers keep their power on through flexible payment plans. (I’d also hope the state’s energy assistance program helps such families.)
But I wouldn’t stop there. If I was advising Con Ed, I would encourage them to:
- 1. Examine their policies. They should use this incident as a catalyst to look at whether the company can do anything different in similar situations to help families from losing their power—particularly when the customers have vulnerable people (children, the infirm, and the elderly) in the household.
- 2. Increase the fund for low-income energy programs. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “New York’s eight investor-owned utilities, and one municipal power authority, have low-income energy programs totaling about $20 million per year.” That’s not a lot, especially considering that Con Ed’s two top executives collectively earn roughly that amount per year.
- 3. Start a charity fund or make a donation in the name of the three children who were killed. The money could be used to help other families with young children who are facing similar issues of non-payment.
When tragedy strikes, it’s easy to point a finger of blame. In this case, it appears as if one tragic circumstance led to another; simply pointing at Con Ed seems unfair. Still, any company concerned about being a good corporate citizen can step up, even when doing so may not be required. As a Con Ed customer, I’d feel very good about them if they do.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Allan Drury, Con Edison, ConEd, crisis communications
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
The Ford Motor Company introduced a new model with great fanfare in 1958: The Ford Edsel. It was a spectacular failure and was pulled from the market within three years. The dud cost the car manufacturer a whopping $350 million—more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.
Red Sox fans watched in horror in 1986 as their first baseman, Bill Buckner, allowed a ball to dribble through his legs. His error cost Boston the World Series title.
Movie executives probably thought a Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy was a sure winner. But 1987’s “Ishtar” became one of film’s most notorious flops, barely grossing $14 million against a $55 million budget.
Today, all three of those words—”Edsel,” “Buckner,” and “Ishtar”—stand as single-word reminders of spectacular failures. The question now facing the Obama administration is whether the term “Obamacare” will join their ranks, not in reference to the policy itself, but rather to its botched rollout.
President Obama, aware of the poor rollout’s seriousness and the resulting threat to his namesake legislation, addressed the nation this morning from the White House Rose Garden.
He directly addressed the problems with Healthcare.gov, the website on which people were supposed to have been able to purchase their health insurance at the beginning of this month but which has been plagued with major technological problems. As a result, many people—some estimates suggest hundreds of thousands—have been unable to complete their applications.
From a crisis management perspective, he succeeded only partially. His upbeat message, which sought to put the website’s failure into a larger perspective, will provide some balance to the news coverage he receives.
But the event itself played more like a political rally, complete with “real people” standing behind Mr. Obama as he spoke. Instead of focusing primarily on the website’s dismal performance and his administration’s plan to fix it, he spent the majority of the event touting the Affordable Care Act’s virtues. Those virtues are an important part of the story, yes, but must be paired with credible information about what health insurance shoppers can reasonably expect, and when.
Even after the presidential speech, we still don’t know: How many people have successfully gotten health insurance through the online exchanges? How many have tried and failed? Will the exchanges have enough people in the insurance pool to make them work? When will insurance companies get accurate information about enrollees? And critically, when will the new system be up and running?
By failing to address those basic questions, viewers were left with an unmistakable impression that the numbers are bad—and that the administration doesn’t have a good idea when the website will be at full speed.
Given that, here’s the question: Based on its poor rollout, will the term “Obamacare” eventually become another term to symbolize failure, alongside the Edsel, Buckner, and Ishtar? Perhaps a more fitting analogy will prove to be Broadway’s Spiderman, which was plagued by poor reviews, cast injuries, and set problems—which led to the longest preview period in Broadway history—but is now heading toward profitability and commercial success.
Note: This analysis extends solely to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and does not comment on the merits of the policy itself.
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Tags: crisis communications, Health Care, Obamacare, president obama
Posted in Crisis Communications | 5 Comments »
When a crisis strikes, many attorneys have the same instinct: to clamp down on corporate communications and make the fewest number of public statements possible (if any at all). That’s because an attorney’s primary job is to minimize future financial payouts and, in cases of criminal wrongdoing, to reduce your culpability.
But that’s a narrow prism through which to view a crisis, and it may not be sufficient to keep your business afloat. Too often, attorneys fail to take your long-term reputation into account. They also neglect to consider the impact of a crisis on employee recruitment, retention, productivity, and morale, as well as customer, shareholder, and donor loyalty.
In some crises, the amount of damage to your reputation can exceed the legal payout. Sure, your lawyer’s legal strategy may result in a courthouse victory three years from now, but it may come at the steep cost of years of unflattering headlines.
Crises require you to make tough choices, occasionally ones that pit sound legal advice against sound communications advice.
For example, I once asked a top executive in crisis whether her top goal was to keep her job (which would be accompanied by a drawn-out legal case and severe damage to her reputation) or to maintain her reputation in the long term, which would require her to leave her job (but allow her to ditch the legal case). Based on dozens of case studies and the predictable stages most crises follow, I counseled her that she would have to make a difficult choice: her job or her reputation.
She insisted she could keep both and failed to act. Within weeks, she lost her job—and her reputation.
When faced with such a choice, ask yourself the following three questions:
- 1. What’s the right thing to do?
- 2. Have I received input from legal and communications professionals and given both perspectives consideration?
- 3. Can I develop a strategy that marries the best legal and PR advice? Better yet, can I find an attorney who excels in communications and fully supports the PR function?
Like attorneys, insurance companies typically have the sole goal of reducing their payouts. Worse, many insurance policies actually prohibit you from doing the right thing. For example, my company’s insurance policy reads:
“You must not admit liability for or settle or make or promise any payment in respect of any claim, loss or damage which may be covered under this Policy.”
In other words, if a crisis hits my firm and I determine that an admission of wrongdoing is the best way to minimize the crisis and keep my company out of the headlines, I can’t offer one. Doing so might result in a voided claim and a canceled policy.
Still, this isn’t always the case. Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, advises clients to find a company more enlightened in its approach to crisis communications. Speak to your carrier—some errors and omissions insurance contracts have a crisis-management component. If worst comes to worst, you could always cancel your policy and go it alone so long as the potential payout is low and the risk of inaction is high. That’s a risky strategy, so consult a lawyer and insurance professional before going “bare.”
Tags: crisis communications
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
Several years ago, I consulted with a major organization regarding a brewing crisis.
My contact—the head of communications—asked me to review the situation and give her my best communications advice. When she called the next day to ask what I had come up with, I uttered two lines that made her gasp: “You don’t have a communications problem. You have a policy problem.” Until her organization’s policy was changed, I said, communications couldn’t solve her problem.
I thought of that story when I saw several members of Congress fumbling a question they should have seen coming from a mile away: “Since federal workers aren’t getting paid, will you give up your paycheck?”
As an example, take a look at this interview from CNN with Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA):
Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) told the Omaha World Herald: “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), according to The Huffington Post, said: “I think every American should get paid for his or her labor…That includes members of Congress. I didn’t create the shutdown.”
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told WTVD-TV: “I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line.”
According to The Washington Post, at least 137 members of Congress have agreed to donate or refuse their salaries. But that leaves roughly 400 members who are pocketing their paychecks as 800,000 federal workers—and countless other people affected by the shutdown—are unable to pocket theirs.
(On Saturday, the House voted to pay federal workers retroactively when the shutdown ends; that does little to help anxious workers living paycheck to paycheck in the short term.)
This isn’t a communications problem. It’s a policy problem.
There’s no way a communications professional can message this problem successfully. When the people widely perceived as causing the problem are continuing to live their own financial lives unaffected by the shutdown, no amount of spin can help them out of the corner they placed themselves in.
There was an easy way around this.
My personal view is that no member of Congress should be allowed to receive a paycheck during a government shutdown by statute. In lieu of that, they should suspend their own pay or donate it, in full, to charity.
All of that aside, here’s what’s mind-boggling: If this shutdown lasts for two weeks, that represents just under four percent of their pay. If they normally donate four percent or more of their salaries to charity every year anyway, their decision should have been a no-brainer: donate the money they would normally give to charity out of the money they lost during the period of the shutdown.
Doing so would have allowed them to avoid the negative publicity without costing them an extra penny. But the thing is, they weren’t even smart enough to do that. Instead, they publicly insisted on living under their own privileged set of rules and keeping every bit of the taxpayers’ money they felt entitled to.
No wonder Congress has a 10 percent approval rating.
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Tags: Dana Rohrabacher, G.K. Butterfield, Lee Terry, Marsha Blackburn, political analysis, politics, Renee Ellmers
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
Imagine a professional sports team called the “Newark Negroes.” If the year was 1913, that name might make historical sense. But if they were still playing in 2013? It’s actually unfathomable—it couldn’t happen, and it wouldn’t be tolerated by American society.
And yet, each week, fans gather at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland to cheer on their hometown Washington Redskins—a name that many consider just as offensive.
If you’re not familiar with the historical baggage carried by the term “Redskins,” here’s how Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News summarized it:
“In 1755, when the United States was just 13 colonies, Spencer Phips, lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called for British settlers to kill Native Americans who resisted.
Instead of bringing the bodies of the Penobscot Indian Nation — who lived in what is now Maine — as proof of the slaying, settlers could return instead with scalps of the men, women and children they attacked, and those “red skins” earned them as much as 50 pounds.”
A poll of Washington, D.C.-area residents conducted by The Washington Post in July (margin of error 4.5 percent) found that only 28 percent of respondents thought the team should change its name. But interestingly, 56 percent of people acknowledged that the term was offensive to Native Americans, and 88 percent of people said a name change would have no impact—or a positive impact—on their support for the team.
That suggests that most people know it’s an offensive name but are reluctant to change it due to their own, positive associations with the team. I can understand that. I grew up in Maryland and rooted for my hometown ‘Skins for many years. Changing the name would feel, in part, like it would partially erase my fond memories of Sundays in the stands at the old RFK Stadium.
Nonetheless, it’s still the right thing to do.
This issue is quickly becoming a big crisis for the team. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King said:
“I’ve decided to stop using the Washington team nickname. It’s a name you won’t see me use anymore. The simple reason is that for the last two or three years, I’ve been uneasy when I sat down to write about the team and had to use the nickname…Some people, and some Native American organizations…think the nickname is a slur…I can do my job without using it, and I will.”
Mr. King isn’t alone. According to the BBC, at least five news organizations refuse to use the word “Redskins” in their reporting: The Washington City Paper, the Kansas City Star, Slate, New Republic, and Mother Jones. And certain reporters at USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News, Buffalo News, and The Washington Post also refuse to use it.
For his part, Redskins Washington NFL franchise owner Daniel Snyder says he will never change the team’s name. Never.
In fairness to Snyder, changing the team’s name could cost the team many millions of dollars. The “Redskins” brand name took decades to build, and changing it could compromise some of its brand equity. But the question is at what point that business loss becomes the less expensive of the two options. If reporters increasingly refuse to use the team’s name, the name “Redskins” would surely lose some of its brand equity anyway. And if the name becomes more stigmatized, you might find fewer fans buying Redskins memorabilia for themselves and their kids.
There’s a good precedent here, and it also comes from Washington, D.C. sports. In 1995, the owner of the Washington Bullets basketball team, Abe Pollin, decided to change the team’s violent-sounding name—a name change he thought appropriate since Washington, D.C. had such a high crime rate.
Pollin ran a contest and allowed fans to decide the new name; fans renamed the team the “Washington Wizards.” If public sentiment continues moving swiftly against Dan Snyder’s Redskins, he might consider using a similarly fan-based approach to rename his team.
Please leave any additional thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons
Tags: Daniel Snyder, nfl, Public Relations, race, sports, Washington Redskins
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
“My father taught me many things here. He taught me in this room. He taught me ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’”
– Michael Coreleone (Al Pacino), The Godfather Part Two
I heard a story many years ago about a disgruntled ex-employee who became a thorn in the side of his former company’s board of directors. So many years have passed since I heard the story that I no longer know the source, or even whether the story was true or apocryphal. Nonetheless, the story’s moral is something we can all learn from.
After every board meeting, the story goes, the ex-employee would write about the board’s proceedings. The board members were confused about how he got the information—the meeting was closed—and surmised that someone must have been leaking to him. Trouble was, no one could determine who the leaker was, and meeting after meeting, the ex-employee kept posting sensitive details to the Internet.
His postings were somewhat accurate, though not entirely, and he would add his own negative commentary to each of the board’s actions. The company’s current employees eagerly awaited each of his updates, and word of his latest articles spread through the company’s ranks by the next morning’s coffee break.
The standard crisis communications playbook might have sought to discredit the ex-employee, or to post a response that detailed his inaccuracies, or to file some legal action against him, or to take additional security precautions for board meetings.
But this board chose to do something counterintuitive. They decided to invite the ex-employee to their board meetings. They calculated that if the man got to know them, he would realize that their motives weren’t as nefarious as he suspected. And they surmised that even if the man continued to print confidential information, at least he would get his facts straight if he heard them first hand.
As the board suspected, the tone of the ex-employee’s posts softened after they accorded him with respect and brought him into the fold. The board wasn’t always happy with his posts, but the articles were less unfavorable than they had been in the past. The board considered its decision a success.
Am I suggesting that you should allow your harshest critics to attend your most sensitive meetings? No. But like so many of the tactics I describe on this blog, I hope you’ll consider this tactic as another tool available to you, another arrow in your PR quiver. I suspect most of you will never need, nor want, to deploy it. But this story has stuck with me for years, probably because its underlying truth teaches all of us a lesson that may one day come in handy.
What do you think? Please leave your reaction and thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: crisis communications, PR, Public Relations
Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »