Top PR Fails 2013

2888102664_8a07d8d0bc_oAs I’ve stated in other posts, the key to understanding how to successfully communicate during a crisis, is to look at what others have done and learn from their mistakes.

There are countless examples of failed public relations in the world every year. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to give a list of what, in my opinion, were the top three worst PR fails of this past year.

In no particular order:

Lance Armstrong – One of the most inspiring and reputable athletes in recent history, found his image in shambles after evidence surfaced that he used steroids. This situation was doomed from the get-go, as he publicly denied doping for nearly a decade before this information came out. He found himself in an amazing little crisis. In the aftermath, he went on an highly publicized interview with Oprah, in which he seemed insincere and lacking remorse. I wonder if this was due to lack of planning, or he just wasn’t able to reflect the emotions we expected from him. Regardless, he let all of his supporters down. Luckily, the LiveStrong foundation was able to separate themselves from him and this catastrophe.

Carnival Cruise Triumph- After a fire broke out in the engine room of Carnival’s Triumph ship while afloat in the Gulf of Mexico, passengers were stranded onboard for five days in horrible conditions. Human waste, limited water, extreme heat and horrible odors burdened the ship. While passengers were stuck on board, they were constantly tweeting about how horrible the experience was and this social media use took hold in media. Carnival’s restitution to passengers, $5,000 and a ticket for a free cruise. Since I’m sure so many of those people want to take another cruise… But now several of the passengers are suing Carnival claiming they have PTSD.

Justine Sacco – The tweet heard around the world. Justine Sacco is a communications director for the internet company InterActive Corp. When traveling to Africa, she tweeted an incredibly offensive remark, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This coming from a professional communicator? Hard to believe she would make such an arrogant mistake. And she paid for it. Despite publicly apologizing she was fired from her position at the company.

Honorable mentions include Target’s credit card information breach, JP Morgan’s twitter conversation fail and the Chick-fil A CEO’s homophobic comments.

Blaming the Intern


It is likely that most people will go into the professional world as an intern, or at least have internship experience at some point. This is an inevitable fact in any profession. I myself, have held several internships throughout the years.

I can’t help but notice the undeniable presence of “blaming the intern” in crisis communication. Seemingly a go-to tactic for organizations that have controversial mishaps while communicating.

This was brought to my attention by my roommate who gave a presentation about the PR fail surrounding the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash last July. In the aftermath of the crash, the NTSB released the names of the pilots to the KTVU news station. The problem was that they were fake names. Not only were they fake, they were offensively racist. “Sum Ting Wong,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” “Wi Tu Lo” and “Bang Ding Ow” were the names given to the media by NTSB. Remarkably KTVU, in a major failure of oversight, reported the names on live television. Long story short, the NTSB blamed the offensive “joke” on a summer intern.

This story sparked some inspiration, so I did a little research and found that it is not a rare occurrence to blame an intern when communication errors take place.

Here are some other famous instances of blaming the intern for PR faux pas:

  • During the 2008 presidential election, a website was created for “McCain Family Recipes.” Essentially supposed to be a cookbook to make the public feel “at home” with John McCain and family. Problems arose when the recipes listed were directly copied from Food Network recipes. Needless to say, goodbye intern.
  • Habitat, a furnishings retailer based out of London, blamed and fired an intern after trying to use the election protests in Iran as a promotional vehicle on twitter in 2009.
  • In May 2011, when Allure magazine sent out an emails to the blogosphere urging them to “say something nice, or don’t say anything at all” they blamed the intern for not understanding editorial policies.

Their are countless examples of interns becoming scapegoats, especially when it comes to social media.

So what is it about the intern?

I mean, they are the obvious scapegoat material – unpaid, expendable, temporary. But I can’t help but wonder if all these mishaps were actually the fault of the intern.

There are several possibilities to why this takes place. The organizations may be giving to much freedom and responsibility to under experienced employees (interns), they may be asking their interns to take part in risky communication with the knowledge that they have a scapegoat, or the intern isn’t actually involved but they divert blame in order to protect the organization as a whole.

I’m sure that the reasons behind blaming interns changes on a situational basis. In terms of the NTSB blunder, I can’t imagine a scenario that would contradict an intern being at fault. In what world would any intern do something like that though? Maybe they were disgruntled. Maybe they were under the influence. Whatever the reason, it was poor form.

The moral of the story… Tread lightly if you’re an intern.

Crisis Issue Management

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Being as though I am a college student majoring in public relations, I have access to some of the most brightest and critical minds in the industry; my professors. So I’ll take this opportunity to share some insight that I received from Pat Curtin, who was not only the acting PR chair for the school of journalism here at UO, she also has years of experience in the industry.

She gave a lecture on crisis communication and image management during my Strategic Planning class.

While I have frequently alluded to advice given to me by colleagues, teachers or guest speakers, it is interesting to note that different people have different opinions regarding how to go about communicating during a crisis.

What is issue management?

To understand issue management you must first define what an issue is in terms of PR. An issue is a gap between an organization’s actions and its stakeholders expectations. When these are at odds, there is a potential for crisis.

Issue management is aimed at proactively closing that gap. Communicating in a way that reassures and mends the cognitive dissonance experienced by stakeholders.

I wont go into detail on her opinions about planning and preparing for crisis, as they align with others advice which I have put forth in recent posts (contingency plans, go over plans at least once a year, etc).

The most surprising piece of advice she gave; lawyers are never your friend during a crisis.

Why are lawyers not your friend? The prerogative of lawyers is to deny guilt. This is obviously to protect the organization from legal consequences. But as communicators, transparency is essential in the wake of disaster.

To successfully communicate during a crisis you must know what mistakes not to make. So here are some common mistakes to avoid during a crisis:

  • hesitation
  • obfuscation
  • retaliation
  • prevarication
  • pontification
  • confrontation
  • litigation

In other words, do not hesitate, confuse, fight back, evade, mouth off, challenge or get into legal disputes.

PR helps Michael Sam come out in style

Michael Sam, a potential recruit for the NFL draft this year, has recently come out publicly. Since announcing that he was in fact gay, this story has been blasted in media, creating significant buzz and bringing the issue of gay athletes to the public realm.

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It’s unfortunate that this announcement has to be such a big deal. But that’s where we’re at as a society I suppose… Which makes me respect Sam even more. Athletes don’t come out often. Brave guy if you ask me.

This is undeniably a situation that required/requires some public relations work. Howard Bragman, who has past experience with helping athletes come out, prepared Sam to make this announcement.

Reading the PRWeek article, “Five questions for Michael Sam’s Publicist,” I can’t help but feel an enormous amount of appreciation for the work that Howard Bragman is doing for Sam. There’s no doubt coming out in public has the potential to create a crisis situation. But Bragman’s planning and strategy did an amazing job of easing the tension.

So what does Bragman have to say about his plan of action? PRWeek interviewed him about it.

I won’t go over all of his answers in detail, as you can read the article for more information.

Bragman expressed that his main focus was to let Michael Sam tell his story in his own words on his own timetable. I couldn’t respect that more. This story really makes me happy with my profession and the good that can come from public relations.

He strategically selected the media outlets used to cover this announcement based on both their national influence, but also their relationship to the LGBT community. While ESPN was obviously selected because of its pervasive coverage of the world of sports, he also involved the New York Times because they have covered athletes coming out in the past. He had a specific reporter, which he had worked with in the past and knew could do this story justice. This is where media lists and relationships with reporters comes in to play. When facing a potentially damaging announcement like this, having strong relationships with influential reporters makes all the difference. Good thing to keep in mind going into a career in PR.

Bragman explained that one of his intentions with this announcement was to tell it quickly and on their timeframe. This was to avoid the story leaking and getting ahead of them. Surely this situation would have different ramifications if the story broke at the hands of someone else. That would have forced Sam to take the defensive. This is critical for avoiding public backlash and in turn having to involve crisis communication.

So how was the announcement received? According to Bragman, it was 99 percent positive. This is due to his ability to comprehensibly prepare Sam for the tough questions that ensued and also control the publicity surrounding the announcement. This made all the difference in making this announcement a historical win for gay athletes everywhere rather than a historical crisis.

Preparing for the Daunting “Media Interview”

“Let me be clear to you. If you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this fucking balcony, I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

This is a sound bite from a recent interview with New York Representative Michael Grimm, in which he threatened the life of the journalist interviewing him. I guess thats one way to deflect difficult questions… He was under the impression that the camera was no longer rolling. Lucky for him, it was. Okay, yes I’m being facetious, but I just find this to be utterly ridiculous. How can a politician be so foolish as to make a statement like that with cameras anywhere near him? Not to mention that this wasn’t your average, everyday threat, he really went above and beyond with the descriptive language. I mean, come on guy.

This is a crisis if I ever saw one.

Public interviewing always has the potential to be unpredictable, thats why prepping spokespeople or public figures is key to mitigating the potential for crisis. Thats where PR pro’s come in. Its our job to make sure the person being interviewed is adequately prepared to answer possible questions that may be asked.

As PR practitioners, one of the expectations put on us is to be able to think strategically. This couldn’t be any more true than in the process of preparing for public interviews. We need to be able to look at the situation and identify all possible questions and scenarios that may occur during the interview. Then evaluate how to respond in a way that will generate the most favorable reaction/perception.

Ben Silverman gives several things to keep in mind when doing a media interview in his article, Public Relations Basics: Preparing for Media Interviews. While he laid out many suggestions, I will just look at a few of them I found helpful.

  1. Be Prepared – More often than not, the publicity we get isn’t about us directly, but about a general subject, trend, or preexisting news story. Some independent research ahead of time never hurts.
  2. I Don’t Know – Don’t talk about things you don’t know about. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not familiar with that.” In the end, admitting you don’t know an answer is better than going on-the-record with something that is inaccurate or poorly thought out.
  3. Take Your Time – Print media is relaxed media, taking a 10 second pause to gather your thoughts can be tremendously helpful. With TV and radio appearances, it’s essential that you do some prep work, which can be the difference between sounding like a genius and an idiot.
  4. Listen – Listen to the actual question before you answer. You may think you know what’s going to be asked, but one word can change the entire meaning of a question.
  5. Don’t Get Something Stuck in Your Head – We all go into interviews with some idea of what we want to say and how we want to say it. Don’t get to attached to specific soundbites you planned ahead of time. Understand what you want to convey and let the conversation flow naturally.

My favorite of these; don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” It seems all to often that people are to stubborn to say this during an interview. This is a sure-fire way to make you seem ignorant. Perhaps they don’t want to seem unintelligent or in any way vulnerable during an interview. Personally, when an interviewee admits they don’t know the answer to a question, I can appreciate that. As long as they do it within reason.

Planning ahead of time, strategizing potential scenarios and adequately prepping the person being interviewed will reduce the likelihood of the interview going aery and causing a PR crisis, such as what happened with Michael Grimm.

How to deal with crisis: tips from a PR professional

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Image by James Vaughn

If you haven’t had a chance to read my bio, I am currently an intern with the student-run firm Allen Hall PR. During a staff meeting last night, Colleen Lacter came in to speak with us. She is a career PR practitioner and currently the Chief Communications Officer for Symantec. As it happens, she dedicated a portion of her talk with us to crisis communication and tips for preparing for crisis.

I won’t even deny the fact that my eyes lit up when she brought up this topic. I immediately opened a fresh blog post and started jotting down everything she said, ferociously. Needless to say I soaked up her advice like a sponge.

So what does a long-time PR professional have to say about crisis communication?

She started by telling us about a PR fail by Symantec, prior to being hired with the company. For those of you who may not be familiar with Symantec, it’s the company behind Norton Anti-virus Software. Years ago, they experienced a source code breach, which is not a good thing for a company that specializes in computer security. The communications team at the time made one fatal error in communicating this crisis, they didn’t get accurate data about the incident. They ended up making reoccurring inaccurate statements in the aftermath; surely crippling stakeholder trust each time. They had to continuously retract and correct their previous statements. Kind of makes you cringe, doesn’t it?

Her first piece of advice for communicating after an incident; make sure you have accurate information before making a definitive statement. While this could have been a short-lived issue for the company, it ended up being a three-month-long crisis. Not having accurate information is the biggest mistake you can make in a situation like this. Keep calm. Be precise. Don’t rush communication at the expense of accuracy.

When something potentially damaging to your company’s reputation happens, it is imperative that you work fast to diffuse the situation. The ability to rally, make a decision and move on this decision is what separates those who drown in the controversy or swim their way out. Lacter explained that you generally have 24 hours to contain the crisis. Any longer and things will start going downhill rapidly.

Lastly, make sure you are in constant contact with the legal team. This is to ensure you don’t make any questionably legal or illegal maneuvers during the communication process. Run everything by legal. Just to be safe.

But how do you prepare for potential crisis ahead of time? Enter the “one-pager.” When she started at Symantec, the crisis plan given to her was 110 pages long. She disregarded the document immediately. Who’s going to read such a lengthy plan, or at least retain any information from it? Having a concise, one-page plan that identifies all the necessary people in the company, executives, legal, employees, whoever may be needed in a crisis is a necessity. Identify a core group of people to pull together in a war-room type setting in the event of disaster. Company management needs to know what to do in a crisis. This means knowing the policies and plan of action for dealing with crisis.

Textbooks may offer similar information, but hearing this advice from an experienced professional really drove it home for me.

The Bieb’s Strikes Again

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Image by Mattias Karlsson

Last Thursday’s breaking news, Justin Bieber was arrested for illegal street racing, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. Can’t say I’m too surprised. When I saw this story my first thought was, how will he communicate in the aftermath of this incident.

As of now, he hasn’t made a statement.

One of the most important things to do in the wake of any crisis is to make a timely statement. The fact that he has failed to do so is only hurting his image further. Well that and the fact that just two days after his arrest he took off on a vacation to Panama. Silence can be beneficial for allowing an issue to die in the public sphere. But that can only happen after an initial  communication plan/statement has been executed by the party involved.

The way I see it, there are two paths to choose from in this situation.

  • Take the reckless/careless Miley Cyrus approach
  • Publicly apologize, ask for repentance, and check himself into a rehab program

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the former.

When I was younger and Lindsay Lohan rebelled, she was outcast. Her public reputation was ruined for the better part of decade. She has begun to gain more acceptance recently, but too little too late. Now days it seems as though the new “cool” PR stunt for teen celebrities is to unapologetically rebel in the wake of crisis.

The public’s response to controversy is really something to appreciate. These unruly youth are stirring the pot, grabbing people’s attention and holding it hostage. It takes away the need for young celebrities to publicly disgrace themselves by apologizing, tail between their legs. It’s a new form of reputation management. Diverting blame, making the public forget about indiscretions by creating new controversy.

I can’t help but wonder what Bieber’s PR team or publicist is thinking. No doubt they are hashing out a plan, deliberating on how to handle the press fallout from these charges. What Bieber needs to do is to take a media offensive in an attempt to restore his image.

For that matter, did Miley’s publicity team suggest creating her “bad girl” image, or did she simply go against their more sensible advice? Contrary to Lohan, she was able to make this new image work for her. Her music is still popular. People still like her.

As he enjoys his tropical vacation elsewhere, the public’s anger towards Bieber has continued to boil back in the states. This has resulting in a petition to deport him back to Canada. “He is not only threatening the safety of our people but he is also a terrible influence on our nation’s youth. We the people would like to remove Justin Bieber from our society,” reads the petition placed on the White House’s “We the People” site.

In addition to this he has been banned from various radio stations, businesses and other organizations across the world.

Food for thought…

 

The Fall of a Governor… Or is it?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has had a rough couple of weeks. Last week he was the top candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, now his future not so certain. Evidence of the Christie administration purposely closing the George Washington Bridge emerged and has set in motion the latest and greatest example of crisis communication. Since this fact surfaced Christie has been taking considerable heat, including becoming the target of investigation by the federal government.

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Image by Boris Rasin

So lets take a look at how he/his administration dealt with the incident.

Part 1

Immediately after the news broke, he denied and dismissed the allegations. This was his first mistake. His attitude was defiant and dismissive. While no one likes to take blame for something this damaging, he should have made a statement that reflected a bit more concern. Something along the lines of, “To my knowledge my administration took no part in this, but we are investigating the matter thoroughly…”

Part 2

Last Thursday, Christie held an abnormally long press conference in which he apologized for the actions of his administration. He claimed that he had no knowledge of events that transpired. Media reaction was mainly positive, a win for Christie no doubt. Pending a federal investigation into the matter, Christie’s image may be salvageable after all, at least to a degree. Despite his seemingly sincere apology, his leadership and managerial abilities are still in question. How effective of a leader can he be if he can’t even control his own people, high-ranking ones for that matter? And this is/was the leading candidate to be our next president.

Any remaining damage to Christie’s reputation will have to be owned by him at this point. He used every available tool for controlling the fallout of this incident:

  • publicly apologized
  • fired and disgraced the people in his administration who were involved
  • clearly explained his knowledge and actions during and after the incident

In other words, the textbook public apology plan.

“It’s an art form, the sorry-but-not-really-sorry, because in most cases, what they’re really sorry about is getting caught,” explained Jason Gay, a blogger for the Wall Street Journal.

It is unfortunate that this is the case. I’ve always found these alternative motives to be transparent and naturally expect the person involved has more to hide. Call me a skeptic, but I see it as insight.

The interesting thing about crisis is that once trust has been questioned in an individual or organization, there tends to be a snowball effect. For Christie, this came in the form of a separate Federal investigation into how he used the Hurricane Sandy relief fund.

I find it ironic that Christie gained his political clout because of his offensive communication after the Hurricane Sandy crisis, but now he finds himself on the other end of the spectrum.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It would surprise me to see him on the ballot in 2016 after this, but you never know for sure how the public will react.

 

And so it begins.

6148364427_99ddf74fa9_zDisaster does not discriminate. Communicating during a crisis is one of the most important, yet uncertain aspects of public relations. It is an inevitable fact that businesses, organizations and people will experience incidents that threaten their reputation in the public sphere. Public opinion is a fickle thing… PR acts as a life raft to prevent those in crisis from drowning. This blog will take a look at the ins and outs of crisis communication, how to prepare for crisis, how to deal with unexpected disaster and how to rebuild image after the fact.

The purpose of this blog is to understand the intricacies involved with communicating during a crisis by critiquing real world examples, both successes and failures, while also looking into reputation management techniques.

I’m a writer and a strategic thinker. What I lack at this point is an in-depth knowledge of how to go about communicating after an incident. I plan to go into the field of PR and marketing, or public affairs as a career. At some point I will undoubtedly be in a situation where I have to deal with a client mishap. How can trust be maintained in the public’s eyes after a crisis? What makes a crisis communication plan effective or not effective? This is what I will investigate in this blog.

To see more about my professional experience click here.