Archive for the ‘Crisis Communications’ Category
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
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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
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This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
I take no comfort in the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea stemming from the hack attack on Sony Pictures, which resulted in the unauthorized release of sensitive information, reams of personal emails, and movie scripts. This crime has been described as one of the worst cases of cyber-hacking against an American company ever.
But at least now the story appears to be refocusing on the central issue of cybercrime.
Since late November, much of the media and public chose to focus on a different issue—illegally obtained leaked information—and demonized a Sony executive and a Hollywood bigwig who dished on celebrities and engaged in inappropriate racially-tinged banter. Both eventually issued apologies as people called for their heads.
Why is Sony the bad guy here? Why did so much of the public choose to attack a company which itself was a victim of a crime?
Call it schadenfreude, a “fat cat backlash,” hating the one percenters; there’s no snazzy title. But it’s clear society often shows a warped sense of morality when large organizations face crises. This misplaced outrage makes it hard for issues managers to gain control of the story and preserve corporate reputation.
Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Video from a hotel elevator showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious with a single punch. People quibbled over his then-two-game suspension while demanding the commissioner of the National Football League be fired for mishandling the situation. There appeared to be fewer appeals for Rice to lose his job than the Commissioner, although eventually the Ravens did let him go. Clearly, to the sporting public, lax leadership is a sin greater than domestic abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. Both the NFL and Sony deserve harsh criticism for their actions (or inactions). Some level of the outrage is warranted when companies allow bad situations to fester. But the issue is balance. Let’s be outraged by criminal acts while we wring our hands over failed leadership or executive arrogance.
More important, let’s use these incidents to spur crucial social change. The Rice incident made the important subject of domestic violence part of a national conversation, but sadly, only for a few days.
Public relations practitioners need to preserve corporate reputations. But we can and must shape important societal conversations where possible. So how can we guard against the fat cat backlash and maintain balance in emerging issues? A few thoughts:
- 1. Be prepared for the inevitable. Technology experts say corporations should expect they will be victimized by cyberthieves. All entities that collect and store the personal information of customers or employees need to do a better job of protecting this information and planning for disasters.
- 2. Take responsibility. The NFL rewards men for tough, physical play. This aggression should cease the moment the whistle blows, yet until recently, the league has been reluctant to admit that some men may have trouble differentiating between the locker room and the bedroom. Players do receive some domestic assault education, but many women say it’s not enough. The league should show leadership and really help families.
- 3. Form thoughtful, pro-active and all-embracing partnerships. The NFL is proud to help women fight breast cancer by partnering with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The league recently launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign. That’s a positive move, but considering that pro sports leagues are largely built on the selfless contributions of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives, surely, these multi-billion dollar businesses can do more to truly honor all women.
- 4. Conduct company audits and address gaps. Rice’s two-game suspension rankled another player who received a stiffer punishment for off-season marijuana use. Imagine the goodwill generated had the NFL spotted this injustice and quietly worked to rectify it before the Rice incident.
- 5. Empower employees. Build a respectful corporate culture. Colleagues who admonish others for poisonous workplace behavior and blue chatter should be praised.
- 6. Generate goodwill. Thank supporters and engage with detractors. Return reporters’ calls and help them report stories, even if they are negative.
Taken together, these actions can help a company embroiled in full on crisis, but I fear in an age of uberoutrage their help is marginal. I turn this over to you, faithful readers of the Mr. Media Training blog. Have you experienced the fat cat backlash? How have you regained narrative balance during a corporate storm?
Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Tags: crisis communications, crisis management, guest posts, hacking, nfl, PR, Public Relations, Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, Sony, Ted Flitton
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William Davis, a writer for the American Nuclear Society and a friend of this blog, recently sent me an article he had written about the huge difference one word can make.
His article focuses on an unremarkable incident that occurred at a nuclear plant in Ukraine late last month. He writes that the event was little more than a “fault in electrical transmission equipment,” which is common “in the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source.”
The real problem occurred when Ukraine’s Premier dubbed this minor incident an “accident.”
The term ‘nuclear accident,’ so still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event. An event that compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment.
In the case of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached.”
The Premier’s use of the wrong word, “accident,” led to terrifying but untrue international headlines and even affected Ukraine’s bond market. William’s post is a perfect example of how an ill-chosen word can magnify—or even create—a crisis.
A Similar Example From A Recent Training
We recently conducted a crisis communications drill related to foodborne illness. The scenario began with a report that six employees, all of whom had attended the same catered event, reported to the facility’s health center with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
We ran this scenario with different groups of trainees several times, and we saw the same mistake during the practice press conferences each time: Every spokesperson referred to this as an “outbreak.”
“Outbreak” is a scary word, especially when it is applied to a foodborne illness that might be the result of an intentional act. Simply saying that word during a press conference would give the media an easy hook—”An outbreak of unknown origin!” —and the facts up to that point didn’t justify such heightened language.
Other trainees in this drill used the word “situation,” which also suggested a degree of seriousness (perhaps even foul play) that was unjustified by the scenario. Those words—”situation,” “outbreak,” “event,” even “incident”—would only serve to make the established facts sound more severe.
What should the spokespersons have done? They should have simply stuck to the facts:
“What we know is that 1,000 people attended an event and that six of them have checked into a local hospital with symptoms of nausea and gastrointestinal distress. They are being cared for and are expected to make a full recovery. We do not know whether a food item might have been the source of this illness, but we are asking anyone else who attended the event and feels similar symptoms to call us at 312-555-5555.”
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Tags: crisis communications
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“For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking.” So begins a recent New York Times article that profiles several officers who had planned on remaining with the Army for their entire careers but are being pushed out years earlier than expected due to budget cuts.
According to the Times, close to 1,200 captains and 550 majors will soon be out of work, with additional layoffs scheduled next year. And the choices about which officers will remain with the Army—and which will not—are raising some eyebrows:
“Many are being pushed out despite having good records. When the Army announced the impending officer cuts a year ago, officials said they would target officers with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.
But an internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website in September showed the majority of captains being forced out had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.”
The officers’ stories are full of hardship. Some are receiving dramatically smaller pensions than they expected, others are flirting with bankruptcy, and many are feeling a sense of loss and betrayal. In response, the Army issued a statement that failed to match or acknowledge the emotion of these stories. Worse, it appeared to slight the officers who had been let go:
“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”
Ouch. I’m sure the men and women who served were thrilled to see their work dismissed in such cold terms.
This statement suffers from the same problem as the one I highlighted last week regarding the medical center that treated Joan Rivers: It’s bereft of humanity.
In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Lt. Col. Garrett’s full statement contained more human language, but was cut from the story by the reporter. Even if that’s the case, this quote highlights the need to only send a reporter a short quote that can’t be easily edited down. As an example, this quote would have avoided the problem of sounding unnecessarily harsh:
“Dismissing an officer for budgetary reasons is always an excruciating decision. Although we made selections for separation based on a soldier’s manner of performance, many well-qualified and decorated officers are not being retained. We honor their service and are fully committed to easing their transitions to post-military life.”
Since this is the second time I’ve written about this topic in as many weeks, I’ll propose a new rule: When drafting a crisis statement, always remember that you’re just a person, talking to another person.
A grateful h/t to presentation coach Gary Genard, who tweets at @GaryGenard.
I often tweet about stories that don’t appear on the blog. Join me! I’m at @MrMediaTraining.
Tags: crisis communications, layoffs, U.S. Army
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Brenda Tracy says she was raped 16 years ago by four men, two of whom were Oregon State University (OSU) football players. There was a lot of evidence to substantiate her claim—the men “implicated each other during interviews with police,” and Ms. Tracy “had a thorough rape examination”—but because she chose not to press charges, the four men never faced criminal prosecution.
For the first time since her assault in 1998, Ms. Tracy identified herself publicly last week. In a gripping article written by John Canzano in The Oregonian, she describes being brutally gang raped by the four men over a seven-hour period.
The OSU football coach in 1998, at the time of the incident, was Mike Riley. Back then, he “suspended two of the players for one game and was quoted as saying his players had made, ‘a bad choice.’” Ms. Tracy says that three-word phrase still “burns” her.
Here’s the twist in this case: Mike Riley is still the coach of Oregon State’s football team. But there’s at least some good news in this story. In contrast to other recent high-profile rape (or alleged rape) cases, Coach Riley and OSU’s president responded to the Oregonian report in exactly the right way.
Before proceeding with the rest of this post, let me make clear that the scope of this post includes only the response to last week’s Oregonian article—not Coach Riley’s or OSU’s handling of the case in 1998, which may well have been insufficient.
But Coach Riley was pitch perfect in his response on Friday, leaving the following comment in the Oregonian’s comment section:
And OSU president Edward J. Ray offered a lengthy statement worth reading in its entirety:
“I am sure that many of you have read the article just published on OregonLive and being published in three segments this week in The Oregonian regarding the horrific assault suffered by Brenda Tracy in 1998 at the hands of several men.
I learned the details regarding this assault on Friday. Apparently, statements were taken from Ms. Tracy and the suspects, two of whom were on the Oregon State University football team at the time.
We are told that law enforcement officials in 1998 were not able to bring criminal charges because Ms. Tracy did not wish to participate in a prosecution.
OSU cannot control the criminal justice system, but I have asked university staff to obtain the police reports for the case and to determine if there are any actions we can take now under OSU’s code of student conduct. There may be no formal course of action available to us but we must try. While legal minds could no doubt explain how it makes sense to have a statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes, I find that appalling. Hopefully, justice delayed is not justice entirely denied in this case. We are currently trying to get the facts regarding OSU’s handling of this matter in 1998, including what efforts were made then to reach out to Ms. Tracy to help her deal with the terrible physical and emotional harm she suffered. If a case of this nature was reported to the university today, OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion would work to stop the sexual misconduct, assist the survivor and prevent a recurrence.
Ms. Tracy’s journey has been simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring because of her own capacity to reclaim her sense of self-worth and pursue her education so that she can help others through her work as a nurse.
There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency. I understand that Mike Riley, who was our football coach at the time, has offered to meet with Ms. Tracy and would like to have her speak with the football team if she wishes to do so. The immediate response from us to Ms. Tracy is to ask how we can help her address the effects of this violence. It is our hope that any role she is willing and interested in pursuing to help educate our community on the horrors of sexual assault by sharing her story could bring some healing.
This would be of great interest to us, but only if it is helpful to Ms. Tracy in continuing to deal with all that she has suffered.
We cannot undo this nightmare. I personally apologize to Ms. Tracy for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.”
Wow. Those statements are serious, infused with compassion, and completely victim focused. One wishes that all institutions involved in these types of cases would respond similarly. (That said, it’s worth noting that Mr. Ray’s statement doesn’t mention Coach Riley’s original handling of the case; he may have to address that part of the story if other reporters ask him about it, as I suspect they will.)
Of course, a good crisis communications statement or two doesn’t make up for Ms. Tracy’s 16 years of suffering in near-suicidal silence. But even now, doing the right thing still matters to Ms. Tracy:
“When I told Tracy about OSU’s reaction and Riley’s wish to think about having her speak to his team someday, she broke down. Of course, she’d love to be part of an educational program, not just for the football team but for any group interested in hearing her story.
‘Maybe that’s where this was supposed to go all along,’ she said.
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Tags: Brenda Tracy, Edward Ray, John Canzano, Mike Riley, Oregon State University, The Oregonian
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Several women have accused Bill Cosby of rape and sexual misconduct over the past decade. But the accusations, which have received only sporadic media coverage in the past, came roaring back to the headlines this week after a fellow standup comedian called Cosby a rapist on stage.
To make matters worse for Cosby, a Twitter campaign he supported this week that intended to make him a “meme” backfired badly.
Although Cosby reportedly reached a financial settlement with at least one of his accusers, he has never been prosecuted. According to Mark Whitaker, a journalist who wrote Cosby’s biography, there have been “no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses.”
Nonetheless, the allegations are suddenly having a legacy-threatening impact on Cosby’s career. His scheduled appearances on The Queen Latifah Show and Late Night With David Letterman are off, and many media writers are wondering whether his forthcoming NBC sitcom will still make it to air. (Editor’s note: His NBC sitcom has now been canceled, his Netflix special has been called off, and reruns of “The Cosby Show” have been pulled from TV Land.)
Cosby appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning to discuss an unrelated topic. When host Scott Simon asked him to comment on the allegations, Cosby said….nothing. (Simon had to tell the audience that Cosby was shaking his head). When Simon tried a second time, there was complete silence once again. When Simon tried a third time, still nothing.
Cosby’s silence doesn’t equal guilt. I always keep in mind former California Congressman Gary Condit who, in 2001, remained publicly silent for weeks about his role in the disappearance and murder of intern Chandra Levy. While the public took his quiet public stance as a sign of his guilt, he was later found to have no role in her disappearance.
But whether it’s fair or not (and to be clear, I believe it’s entirely possible that his numerous accusers are telling the truth), Cosby’s radio silence will likely be seen by many—I’d guess most—as a sign of his guilt. And although Cosby has maintained his innocence either directly or through his representatives in the past, he’s had nothing to say on this latest—and most threatening—wave of negative publicity.
Cosby’s strange silence on NPR guaranteed more publicity for the allegations against him than a banal response would have (e.g. “I’ve answered questions about this topic in the past, and I’m not going to help keep this story alive by commenting further.”)
All of this raises a question: If he was unprepared or unwilling to answer a question on a topic that would so obviously come up, why did he proceed with the interview? Why not stay out of the public eye until either the media coverage died down or he had something more substantive to say? Although I usually think that remaining silent during a swirling controversy is a bad idea, remaining silent during a national media interview is an even worse idea.
I was a teenager during The Cosby Show’s run. I loved the program. Now that I have a toddler son, I’ve often thought about buying the series when he’s a bit older and enjoying classic Cosby moments together: Dr. Huxtable taking Monopoly money from Theo; Rudy lip syncing to a Ray Charles classic; the high fives that follow the discovery that Theo is dyslexic.
But these allegations throw into question for me whether Cosby is the moral force I want to share with my son. My guess is that I’m not alone in those concerns. For that reason, and others that are far more important, my sense is that Cosby will need to address these allegations more directly soon—or risk losing further bookings, his forthcoming show, and his reputation.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2014, 10:00 AM:
Bill Cosby just tweeted a statement from his attorney that reads:
“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.
- John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby”
His refusal to speak will not quell this controversy. If anything, it will achieve the opposite, since it will leave an open, undefended playing field for his accusers to have their stories heard. If he’s guilty of these allegations, his silence might be better for his long-term reputation than an overt confession or unconvincing media interview. But if he’s innocent, his refusal to speak will cement for many, unfortunately, that the allegations are true.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2014
I appeared on Washington’s WTOP radio to discuss this case. You can hear the audio here.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Bill Cosby, crisis communications
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