Chris Christie’s Bridge To Richard Nixon

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 8, 2014 – 8:10 pm

During the height of the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s, Republican Senator Howard Baker asked a defining two-part question about Richard Nixon’s role: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Those two questions may determine whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie survives the scandal currently engulfing his administration.

Earlier today, we learned that two top Christie officials purposely closed two of three local lanes on the George Washington Bridge—the nation’s busiest—as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of the bridge’s New Jersey home, Fort Lee.

GW Bridge

According to The Huffington Post:

Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” [Christie] Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in an email on Aug. 13.

“Got it,” replied David Wildstein, who was then one of Christie’s top officials at the Port Authority.

Their nefarious traffic jam plan was implemented on September 9th, the first day of school, and the delays were as bad as they had hoped. Two days later, this disgusting text exchange occurred between Kelly and Wildstein, as reported by The New York Times:

“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Mr. Wildstein texted Ms. Kelly.

“No,” she texted back.

“I feel badly about the kids,” he texted.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” she said, referring to Mr. Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono.

ChrisChristie

Not only were thousands of students late to school, workers late to work, and truckers late for deliveries, but emergency vehicles were delayed, reportedly resulting in a death.

Governor Christie denied that the traffic delays were politically motivated for months—until earlier today, when email evidence contradicted his claim. In a statement released late today, he expressed “outrage” over the incident and claimed he was misled by his staff. 

Mr. Christie may be telling the truth. But if he is, his crisis management thus far has been staggeringly ineffective. As NBC’s Chuck Todd pointed out this evening, Mr. Christie rarely ducks from cameras. But tonight—and only after many hours had passed following the release of the emails—he finally issued a written statement. He canceled an event at which cameras would have been present.

The Governor would be well-advised to get in front of cameras immediately, make a strong statement that anyone involved in this incident should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and pledge to cooperate fully with any investigations into the matter. His failure to do that, fairly or not, will send a message that he has something to hide.

And even the perfect media statement may not be sufficient, as many will still view him as damaged goods, a feckless manager who couldn’t control his staff.

Still, calls for Christie’s resignation are premature. No evidence ties him directly to the lane closures yet, and politicians have survived scandals in which subordinates acted without consent. But Christie’s 2016 political fortunes—if not his tenure as governor—may well rest on the answers to those two Nixonian questions: what did he know and when did he know it?

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Lululemon Founder To Women: Your Thighs Are Too Fat

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 12, 2013 – 6:02 am

Back in March, clothing retailer Lululemon recalled almost 20 percent of its women’s yoga pants after customer complaints that they were see-through. In a statement at the time, the company responded the right way—by taking responsibility for the flaws in its product and pledging to fix them:

“Our stores and ecommerce site received some black luon women’s bottoms that didn’t meet our high standards. The materials used in construction were the same but the coverage was not, resulting in increased sheerness. We want you to Down Dog and Crow with confidence and we felt these pants didn’t measure up.”

“We keenly listen to your feedback and it is paramount to us that you know we’re listening….We are working with our supplier to replace this fabric…We are committed to making things right so if you purchased product from our store or on our website and you think it is too sheer, we welcome you to return it for a full refund or exchange.”

lululemon Wrunning layout

That statement was tone perfect, the kind of corporate response that should have just been repeated verbatim during any subsequent media interview. But company founder Chip Wilson disagreed—and late last week, he found a way to obliterate any of the goodwill his company’s recall and apology had earned.

Lululemon Founder Chip Wilson: “Women will wear a seatbelt that won’t work, or a purse that doesn’t work, or quite frankly, some women’s bodies just don’t work for it.” 
Reporter Trish Regan: “They don’t work for the pants?”
Wilson: “They don’t work for certain women’s bodies.”
Regan: “So the pants might be see-through on some women’s bodies, but not on others?”
Chip: “No, no. Because even our small sizes would fit an extra large. It’s more about the rubbing through the thighs.”

Before addressing Wilson’s fat-shaming, it’s worth mentioning his more general condescension toward women. I’ve known a lot of women through the years, and I’ve never known them to wear seatbelts or use purses that “won’t work.” He must run with an interesting pack of women.

But the worst part of this statement is the implication that his product’s flaws are due to fat women who keep squeezing their chubby thighs into otherwise well-manufactured pants.

All Wilson had to do was repeat his company’s March statement: “We are committed to making things right so if you purchased product from our store or on our website and you think it is too sheer, we welcome you to return it for a full refund or exchange.”

Instead, he took the opportunity to attack women for selecting the wrong size or using his pants incorrectly. Even assuming for a moment that he’s at least partially right on the facts, any smart communicator knows it’s a bad idea to alienate your customer base by shifting the blame onto them.

And that’s especially true when the product they’re selling is intended to help customers find inner peace.

UPDATE

Chip Wilson released a video apology. Oddly, it appears to have been directed to Lululemon employees instead of the company’s customers. Employees are an important constituency that deserve to be addressed – but not to the exclusion of other critical stakeholders (like the customers who keep the company in business).

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Seven Reasons Rob Ford’s Crack Admission Failed

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 5, 2013 – 2:25 pm

Back in May, The Toronto Star and the U.S.-based website Gawker published the sensational allegation that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was the star of an unreleased video in which he purportedly smoked crack.

Mayor Ford vociferously denied the allegations, attacking his accusers and defiantly pledging to run for a second term.

Here’s the video of his initial denial, just days after those reports emerged:  

As I noted at the time, Ford left himself some wiggle room with his carefully parsed statement:

“Notice specifically what he said at the beginning of this statement: “I do not use crack cocaine. Nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” He used the present tense (“I do not use…) rather than the past tense (“I have never used…”), a Clintonesque and lawyerly verbal construction that guilty people frequently hide behind.”

Given that his guilt seemed rather obvious at the time, it didn’t come as a huge surprise to me that Ford finally admitted his guilt today. But the manner in which he did so won’t help him score many sympathy points.

Ford obviously should have come clean sooner. But let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that he hadn’t. What should he have done today instead of giving the defiant and disorganized press conference above?

First, he should have given an interview to one reporter—someone fair but tough—to whom he could have come completely clean. Doing so would have avoided the deer-in-headlights look of a man in the middle of a media scrum who, it should be noted, was whisked away after being asked whether he was high right now.

Second, he needed to convey humility and contrition, not defiance. (Yes, I know that’s not in keeping with his character. But if ever there was a time to debut the trait…)

Third, he shouldn’t have attacked the media. An admission of responsibility must be self-focused, not externally focused. Instead, he incredulously claimed “I wasn’t lying. You didn’t ask the correct questions.”

Fourth, he shouldn’t have re-litigated the wording of the exact question about his crack use from five months ago. The spirit of the original question was clear to any reasonable viewer. Doing so made him look as ridiculous as Anthony Weiner, who claimed he couldn’t say “with certitude” whether pictures of an erect penis in a pair of briefs were of him. 

Fifth, if he was going to do a media scrum, he should have made his statement without asking the reporter to first re-ask the question he had asked in May. Doing so made it look like Ford was playing a “gotcha” game in which he was trying to catch a reporter using slightly imprecise language.

Sixth, he should have articulated a plan for getting himself the help he needs immediately.

Seventh, he should have pledged to work with police and spare the people of Toronto additional and unnecessary investigatory expense.

Even with as much baggage as Ford was carrying, today’s admission still offered him one final chance to come clean the right way. Had he done so, I suspect that many people would have felt at least a shred of empathy for a man with understandably human failings. But a politician only gets so many last chances, and Ford blew his. 

And if you think that Ford’s “last chance” passed by months ago, think again. A poll released today—TODAY!—found that Rob Ford still has a 43 percent approval rating. According to Gallup, that’s two points higher than President Obama’s approval rating, which stands at 41 percent.

UPDATE: November 5, 2013, 4:55 P.M.

Mayor Ford just issued another statement on camera. The tone of this one was much different. Whereas he appeared arrogant and dismissive earlier this afternoon, he appeared shaky and chastened this time around. He also apologized to the people of Toronto, his staff, and his brother for misleading them.

Apologies aside, he also made clear that he isn’t going anywhere.

Mr. Ford would have been better served by issuing this more humble statement first. As a result of blowing the first admission earlier today, he’s likely to gain less public sympathy than he otherwise might have. Plus, media stories will now focus on the odd contrast of Ford’s demeanor earlier today vs. later today.

In my view, an admission of this sort without a specific pledge to seek immediate help is pointless. Mr. Ford has repeatedly exhibited the behavior of an addict — and unless he receives the type of serious treatment that addicts can benefit from, his verbal pledge to “never” let this happen again is nothing more than a well-intentioned but empty promise.

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Was Saturday Night Live’s Apology Skit Enough?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on November 4, 2013 – 9:03 pm

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.

 

Actress Kerry Washington plays Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live, November 2, 2013

 

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.

What Do You Think? Did Saturday Night Live Handle The Criticism Well?

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Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.


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A Missing Dog, A Misdirected Email, And A Careless Airline

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 3, 2013 – 6:02 am

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.”

Jutta Kulic

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!

Larry The Dog

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.


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Power Company Kills Electricity. Three Kids Die The Next Day.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 29, 2013 – 6:02 am

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.

Con Ed 3

Con Ed 1

Con Ed 2

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.”

The New York Times:

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 Wall Street Journal:

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.”

Bronx Fire

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. 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. 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. 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.

 


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Edsel. Buckner. Ishtar. And Obamacare?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 21, 2013 – 3:01 pm

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.

 

The 1958 Ford Edsel

 

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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Three Questions To Ask In Every Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 17, 2013 – 6:02 am

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. 1. What’s the right thing to do?
  2. 2. Have I received input from legal and communications professionals and given both perspectives consideration?
  3. 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?

Insurance Companies

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.”

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

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