Posts Tagged ‘crisis communications’
In his classic public speaking book, You Are The Message, Roger Ailes defines five ways to respond to a crisis: attack, defend, counterattack, sell, or ignore. That’s the most succinctly articulated crisis communications playbook I’ve ever seen, and it’s a good one.
To complete his list, I’d add two other strategies: deflect and apologize.
In this post, I’ll offer examples of each of the seven responses you might consider offering when a crisis befalls your organization.
1. Attack: “I want to make clear that we have always complied with the law and that these charges are a result of having an overzealous prosecutor who desperately wants to become mayor.”
2. Defend: “We knew this decision would be controversial with some people, but we made it because we felt—and still feel—that it was the right thing to do. In order to serve our customers better for the long-term, we had to make a difficult decision in the short-term.”
3. Counterattack: “Of course our competitor is saying negative things about our new product. They haven’t had a successful product launch in five years, so they’re trying to make people forget about their own dismal track record.”
4. Sell: “I knew this decision would be controversial with some voters, but I made it because I know that voters expect me to make the tough choices. So here’s what I’d ask voters: Even if you disagree with me on this issue, consider whether you want someone in office who is willing to make tough decisions on your behalf instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done. I hope you do, and if so, I’m your man.”
5. Ignore: “[silence]”
6. Deflect: “This is an issue for the Justice Department. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the White House to comment on this matter.”
7. Apologize: “We got this wrong. I want to personally apologize to all of the people who were affected by this issue, and I want them to know that we are taking immediate steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Like this post? Learn more about crisis communications in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Tags: advanced media training technique, crisis communications, Roger Ailes, You Are The Message
Posted in Crisis Communications | 3 Comments »
Today’s post looks at three recent media events that are worthy of mention.
1. Congressional Candidate Mark Sanford Plays Deaf
Remember Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina Governor who had to resign as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, after admitting he was having an affair with an Argentinian woman? You may recall that he infamously went missing from his gubernatorial post—even his aides had no clue where he was—and that he claimed he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” a unique metaphor for “sleeping with your mistress.”
Well, he’s trying to become a congressman from South Carolina, and his opponent asked him about his indiscretions during a recent debate. Here’s the exchange:
Sanford declined to respond to the charge, and continued his answer as if he really didn’t hear his opponent. By pretending he didn’t hear the question, Sanford only served to create more headlines that reminded people of his misdeeds. He should have offered a nonheadline-worthy answer instead, such as: “I’ve already discussed that matter in detail, and I think the people of this district are much more interested in hearing about how my leadership would be better for their lives…”
2. President Obama on Syria
Last August, President Obama declared during a news conference that, “Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons [in Syria] would cross a ‘red line’ and ‘change my calculus,’” according to The New York Times.
The phrase “red line” appears to have been improvised, according to aides who had attended strategy meetings about Syria. The phase was used “…to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the ‘red line’ came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.”
“’What the president said in August was unscripted,’” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the ‘nuance got completely dropped.’”
It appears as if the President uttered a seven-second stray, one of those phrases that can define an administration—or at least its foreign policy. Mr. Obama should have known better than to use such loaded language in a press conference, which reminds me of President Bush’s dangerous “Bring ‘em on” quip.
The two words “red line” may haunt him. As The Times said in its lead paragraph, Mr. Obama “now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
3. American Kennel Club In The Doghouse
A couple of readers sent me this recent clip from The Today Show about the American Kennel Club (AKC). The group’s inspection program has come under fire recently, with accusations that several AKC-registered operations are mistreating, malnourishing, and abusing dogs.
Those are the kinds of accusations that can destroy an organization’s reputation—so you’d think that the AKC would have been ready to respond. But watch the AKC’s Communications Director, Lisa Peterson, in action:
She lacked answers to basic questions and looked defensive, likely reassuring few viewers. When asked how many inspectors the AKC has, she said nine. When asked whether that was enough, she avoided the question by unhelpfully saying, “That’s the number that we have.”
She failed to set an adequate frame. She should have repeatedly said something such as: “All of us here are passionate about dogs, and we’re disgusted by these reports. Most of our AKC-registered breeders are as passionate as we are, but we will do everything in our power to make sure that no AKC-registered breeder can ever get away with this type of mistreatment again.”
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Tags: American Kennel Club, crisis communications, Mark Sanford, president obama
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
Disclaimer: From 1999-2001, I served as one of three full-time producers for CNN’s Reliable Sources. I worked with host Howard Kurtz for two years. I left the show on good terms, but have spoken to Howie only once since leaving. During our time on the show together (and when producing a few of his pieces for Inside Politics), he always treated me respectfully. I enjoyed working with him.
When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in Sports Illustrated last week, Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, accused him of not being forthright about having been engaged to a woman. Worse, he mocked the player for “playing both sides of the court.”
In fact, Collins had explicitly disclosed his relationship with the woman in the article. When confronted with his error, Kurtz chose to modify the article only slightly. Only after continued criticism did the website The Daily Beast, the site on which his erroneous article appeared, retract the story. (Kurtz left The Daily Beast last week. He says it was amicable; other sources describe it as a “firing.”)
On Sunday, CNN invited two other media reporters to interview Kurtz about this mistake—and others—on his own show. From a crisis communications perspective, how did he do?
Generally speaking, Kurtz did a good job with his on-air mea culpa. He appeared humbled, chastened, and even shaken. He didn’t mince words about his errors, saying:
“The mistake I made was sloppy and inexcusable. I’m not going to offer any extenuating circumstances. I screwed up.”
“I deserve the criticism. I accept it. And I’m determined to learn from this episode.”
But there are at least two things I wish he had done differently.
First, he would have been much better served by acknowledging his original error immediately. As a result of delaying his apology, his eventual mea culpa may be perceived as a reactive necessity rather than a proactive choice.
Second, he didn’t fully answer multiple questions about his workload. During the time I worked with Howie, I wondered whether he was overburdened. At the time we worked together, he was not only writing a weekly column (and other regular articles) for The Washington Post and hosting Reliable Sources, but he was also writing a book called The Fortune Tellers. His workload has only seemingly increased in the digital age, with more columns, tweets, and online videos.
When asked whether he would decrease his workload, he said:
“I’m going to try to be careful not to take on too much.”
“I’ll leave it to others to judge whether I have taken on too much…my kids tell me I work too hard.”
“There are some people who say, ‘Well, maybe you had a little too much on your plate.’ I’ll leave that to others to judge….I’ll be careful from this point on not to take on too much.”
That strikes me as a rather tepid pledge, and Kurtz should have been more specific on this point. If his workload is going to be the exact same, how can he slow down and fact-check more carefully? If he’s going to take on less, what, specifically, does he intend to give up? An unspecific pledge that fails to enumerate specific action steps falls short of an ideal crisis communications approach.
For now, Kurtz is fighting to continue his role on Reliable Sources. As the pointed questions asked of him in the video above show, it won’t be easy.
Photo credit: David Shankbone
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Tags: cnn, crisis communications, Howard Kurtz
Posted in Crisis Communications | 3 Comments »
Frank Luntz, the bestselling author of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, recently got himself into trouble by uttering words that didn’t work—and making matters even worse for himself afterwards.
If you’re not aware of Luntz’s work, he’s the wordsmith behind the 1994 Republican “Contract With America” and the person who convinced estate tax opponents to label it the “death tax” instead (they did, and it worked). He frequently appears on the Fox News Channel as the moderator of focus groups, one of his firm’s specialties.
Last week, he spoke to a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania. He decided to go “off the record.” And that’s when the trouble began.
Here’s the write-up from Mother Jones Magazine:
“At one point, Luntz was asked about political polarization. He replied that he had something important to say on this matter but was apprehensive about speaking openly; doing so, he explained, could land him in trouble. Members of the audience groaned; some called out for Luntz to continue off the record. Luntz asked if anyone was recording the event, and Eric Kaplan, a reporter from the college paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, indicated that he was. Luntz requested that he turn off his recording device. Kaplan did so and agreed that this part of Luntz’s talk would remain off the record. But one of the students present, Aakash Abbi, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics, started to record Luntz on his iPhone (without letting Luntz know), and Abbi has provided that recording to Mother Jones.
Believing he was speaking privately to the dozens of students present, Luntz proceeded to gripe about conservative talk radio and its impact on political polarization:
‘…Marco Rubio’s getting his ass kicked….He’s getting destroyed! By Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He’s trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn’t the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him.’”
Luntz’s political analysis is spot on. But many Republican insiders are terrified to speak ill of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, since the radio hosts mercilessly punish apostates.
But it’s Luntz’s response to this leaked tape that made matters even worse. He blamed the University—and pulled the plug on a scholarship he gave to the school. He said this to The Daily Pennsylvanian:
“’I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so open. I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so candid,’ he said. ‘Frankly, I think it’ll have a chilling effect on whether speakers do or don’t come. I wish it didn’t.’”
“He also added that he would not renew a scholarship in his father’s name for students to travel to Washington, D.C.”
“’Call me naive, but I thought it was possible to have an open, honest conversation about American politics and not make it a national conversation, which is what it has become,’ Luntz said.”
Got that? Luntz says this is Penn’s fault. And I’m not buying the “naïve” act—Luntz is seasoned enough to know that going off the record is fraught with risks and chose to do so anyway.
As a political professional, Luntz knows all about then-Senator Obama getting weeks of bad press in 2008 for claiming at an “off the record” fundraiser that many blue collar types “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.” He knows all about Mitt Romney’s infamous, furtively-recorded “47 percent” video, which sent his campaign way off message.
So he took a risk. It didn’t pan out. But instead of taking responsibility and acknowledging that he should have known better, he blamed a college kid for betraying him, and then compounded his error by acting spitefully and pulling his scholarship from the school.
Perhaps he should have focus grouped his response first. Or, he could have just had the courage to stand up for his convictions.
Note: I chose to take Mr. Luntz’s response at face value. There’s another possibility. As Don Draper says on Mad Men, “If you don’t like the conversation people are having, change the conversation.” The ferocity of Luntz’s response may serve to change the conversation from his comments to the student’s behavior, successfully muting some of the fallout.
Photo credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0; h/t Political Wire
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Tags: crisis communications, frank luntz, U of Penn, Words That Work
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
Remember the 90s pop band Ace of Base?
They’re the Swedish band that had three huge hits in the early-mid 90s, including “All That She Wants” and “Don’t Turn Around.”
If that doesn’t ring a bell, this video for their only U.S. number one hit, “The Sign,” probably will.
We haven’t heard much about Ace of Base lately. But that changed last week when The Huffington Post posted an article about the Nazi past of the group’s co-founder, Ulf Ekberg. The author writes:
“…one the band’s founding members has a disturbing secret: He was in a Nazi band and has ties to a political party that also leans uncomfortably toward the hate-group side of the spectrum.”
“It turns out that Ekberg was in a band called Commit Suicide…Among the lyrics Commit Suicide sang: “Men in white hoods march down the road, we enjoy ourselves when we’re sawing off n—–s’ heads/ Immigrant, we hate you! Out, out, out, out! Nordic people, wake up now! Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!”
But what struck me about the article most was Ekberg’s response. Instead of hiding from his past, he responded to the Huffington Post with this statement:
“Thank you for the opportunity to respond. During the early 1990s I did dozens of interviews, all around the world, about the people I sometimes found myself surrounded by in the 1980s and how profoundly regretful I am now about associating with such individuals. Those interviews covered every aspect of my past as I strove to be an open book to anyone who asked. It has been twenty years now since I chose to come clean about my past, a decision I made on my own at that time and a decision I do not regret. Every angle of my past was covered there in those interviews. I did have a band called Commit Suicide but we did not write or perform the songs in question on this demo, and I have never been a member of the Swedish Democrats, however the teenage mistakes I did make in terms of my chosen ideas at the time were unfortunate and if I were to live through those days again I would have done things very differently! I’m truly deeply sorry for any hurt and disappointment this has caused for our fans and I want to be very clear that Ace of Base never shared any of these opinions and strongly oppose all extremist opinions on both the right and left wing.”
I never conceived that I’d be defending someone associated with such dangerous lyrics. But I also allow for the possibility that people—even those with ugly pasts—are capable of change. And based on this statement, I believe Mr. Ekberg deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Although you’re unlikely to ever be accused of Nazi sympathies, you can learn some valuable lessons from Ekberg’s response:
- 1. He didn’t hide. He responded quickly, giving the impression that he still wants to make this right.
- 2. He expressed gratitude for the opportunity to discuss these accusations.
- 3. He took responsibility for his past actions, expressing “profound” regret.
- 4. He originally revealed his past on his own, not because he was forced to do so due to negative press.
- 5. He put his past in context. He was in his teens when he allegedly participated in this activity—and hasn’t been associated with it since.
- 6. He appeared human, and didn’t hide behind a wall of “lawyerly” language.
If there’s one criticism, I wish he had been a little more specific about what he did wrong. If he didn’t sing those lyrics or associate with the Swedish Democrats, what, exactly, is he apologizing for? Still, overall, I believe he deserves credit for dealing with this story head on.
What do you think? Was this a good response, or are you less forgiving of Ekberg than I am? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Ace of Base, crisis communications, good crisis communications, Ulf Ekberg
Posted in Crisis Communications | 6 Comments »
During the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward thought it would be a good idea to place the awful spill into a larger context.
Sure, the spill was bad—but was it really that bad? Hayward didn’t seem to think so, saying:
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
Hayward may have been technically right. But the fact that he sought to downplay the horrific effects of the worst marine oil spill in history was rightly criticized and widely mocked.
Many companies, nonprofits, and government agencies occasionally encounter similar situations—no, not oil spills, but moments when they think it might be a good idea to place a specific fact into a larger context. For example:
A hospital spokesperson might be tempted to say: “This woman’s death was extremely unusual. We’ve performed more than 14,000 of these types of surgeries, and this is the first time a patient ever died from it.”
A spokesperson from a government agency might be tempted to say: “Although there was massive fraud involved in this case, we’d like to point out that every other project we’ve completed this year has come in under budget.”
A spokesperson from a trucking company might be tempted to say: “This is the first time in our 42-year history that one of our drivers has ever caused a death while intoxicated. We have had 8,200 drivers in that time, almost all of whom have done their jobs responsibly.
But those statements all sound defensive. And there’s one thing missing from all of them: An acknowledgement that even one massive oil spill, case of fraud, or death, is one too many. See how different the above statements read simply by adding that sentiment. As an example:
“We’ve performed more than 14,000 of these types of surgeries, and this is the first time a patient ever died from it. But that gives none of even the slightest bit of comfort. One death is one too many—and we are going to do everything possible to prevent this from ever happening again.”
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Tags: advanced media training technique, crisis communications, media training tips
Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 Comments »
Last Tuesday, the day after the Boston Marathon bombings, the food website Epicurious—which has 388,000 Twitter followers—created a social media crisis by sending out the following tweets:
I wrote about the incident in more detail last week. Today, I’m interested in dissecting Epicurious’ crisis management response over the past six days.
Epicurious’ first response to the social media uproar was to send a stream of tweets, all saying the same thing, stating that their tweets “seemed” insensitive.
The linguistic choice of the word “seemed” appeared to shift the burden of blame onto the website’s overly sensitive readers, adding fuel to the social media flames. So on Tuesday afternoon, Epicurious went one step further:
Our food tweets this morning were, frankly, insensitive. Our deepest, sincere apologies.
— epicurious (@epicurious) April 16, 2013
Then, nothing. Silence. Six days passed without another word. No longer statements. No interactions with angry fans. No explanations of what went wrong. No commitment to getting it right in the future. No pledge to create policies preventing this from occurring in the future.
This morning, six days later, Epicurious suddenly showed up again and resumed its Twitter stream as if nothing had happened:
— epicurious (@epicurious) April 22, 2013
All of this raises a question: Did Epicurious do the right thing by going silent, waiting for the storm to pass, and then resuming when it had (mostly) blown over?
Let me make the case for their head-in-sand strategy. Executives at Conde Nast (Epicurious’ parent company) may have rightly calculated that these types of social media controversies are often short-lived and pass quickly. By waiting until the online fervor had subsided, they could just ride the wave to a moment of relative safety and continue business as usual. Plus, by making a longer statement, they would have just extended the news cycle as the statement itself would spawn new stories.
But that case, while partially true, is also nonsense.
Imagine if Epicurious had come out with a longer statement on Tuesday, such as:
“The tweets we sent this morning were incredibly insensitive. We’re devastated that in a moment of national tragedy, our actions made matters worse instead of better. We are all motivated by a mission of helping to improve people’s lives through healthier eating—and today, we let our readers down.
Please know that we take this extremely seriously and will take every necessary step to make sure this never happens again. In the meantime, our thoughts are with the people of Boston. We’re going to stop tweeting for the next week because we think it’s appropriate to let some time pass before resuming business as usual. In the meantime, on behalf of all of us at Epicurious, we are very, very sorry.”
Such a statement would have been added to every news and blog story about the incident, including mine, showing a brand that screwed up but took full accountability for its actions.
Instead, they said nothing. And that says to me that they learned nothing from this incident about the right way to use social media.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: crisis communications, Epicurious
Posted in Crisis Communications | 3 Comments »
After every national tragedy, you can be sure that some clueless brand will try to exploit it.
In today’s episode of “What the hell were they thinking,” the food website Epicurious sent out the following tweets to its 385,000 followers:
Get your legs blown off by a terrorist? Try these scones! Lose a cherished friend? Maybe this bowl of breakfast energy can help!
Okay, those tweets are beyond absurd. So Epicurious deleted them and tweeted this alleged mea culpa:
First, let’s be clear: their earlier tweets didn’t “seem” offensive. They were offensive. The word “seem” shifts the burden of blame onto their readers, who the brand seems to think were overly sensitive. It stops short of fully acknowledging the obliviousness of their tweets.
Second, a repeatedly tweeted template “apology” isn’t genuine. It’s a form letter. The steady stream of identical tweets does nothing to engage with the audience and express human remorse.
As a result, Epicurious diminished its brand with ill-advised tweets, followed by an “apology” that only made matters worse.
What should Epicurious do now?
- 1. They can start by engaging with readers individually—and offering human responses instead of form ones.
- 2. They can learn from KitchenAid’s crisis example from late last year, when that company’s brand manager personally jumped in, stated that the person responsible for the tweets wouldn’t be allowed to represent their brand anymore, and offered on-the-record interviews.
- 3. They should pledge that they will provide everyone on the staff with social media training; and, if they don’t already have a social media policy, that they will create one immediately.
- 4. Epicurious should pledge a donation to victims of the Boston tragedy in an effort to make something good come out of this experience.
I’m not opposed, as a rule, to brands promoting themselves after a tragedy. For example, Epicurious could have sent one tweet acknowledging the tragedy in Boston, and then a separate one featuring a recipe. But by trying to force a news hook into their food recipes, Epicurious committed a rookie mistake that will rightly tarnish its reputation.
Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Tags: crisis communications, Epicurious, social media
Posted in Crisis Communications | 41 Comments »