Social media drives narratives and brands react to the social media narrative. This means that many of the old rules of crisis communications no longer apply as social media drives a crisis regardless if everything was handled correctly or not in addressing the situation with the media and key stakeholders.
We saw this happen this week with tennis star, Maria Sharapova. Sharapova, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, admitted that she had tested positive for the recently banned drug, meldonium while doing a standard drug test at the Australian Open. The five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she had tested positive and that she had been taking the drug for health reasons since 2006. The drug had just recently been banned. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced that it was provisionally suspending Sharapova as of March 12, 2016. From a crisis communications response, Sharapova had done everything right. She was proactive in announcing the scandal herself rather than allowing it to be announced in the media and losing a news cycle. Normally that would have defused the situation considerably, save for social media.
Social media, particularly Twitter exploded with attacks on Sharapova and implications that there were even darker scandals that she was hiding and hoping to avoid coming to light by her admission. Many traditional media outlets as has become commonplace began picking up the Twitter comments and doing speculative stories on what other scandals involving the tennis great might emerge next.
Sponsors of Sharapova who have stood by stars with far worse scandals – Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, and Lance Armstrong bailed from their sponsorships of her. First Nike announced that it was suspending its relationship with her. Porsche and TAG Heuer quickly followed suit. Others are expected to join them. The major reason wasn’t because of Sharapova’s admission but rather the social media outcry, particularly on Twitter. Brands react more to social media outrage than traditional media coverage and traditional media coverage now follows social media outrage to keep a crisis alive.
This leads to the point that in crisis communications, no longer must a crisis communications strategy be developed to deal with the media and key stakeholders, now a social media policy must be included in any successful plan. Bloggers and key influencers on Twitter and Facebook, as well as, the average person must be addressed via a clear social media policy during a crisis. If not as we are seeing a firestorm will ensure and brands will bail. Maria Sharapova is the first but certainly not the last to fall victim to the new rules of crisis communications in the social media world of today.
Comedian and television personality, Steve Harvey made the verbal blunder that is resonating around the world while hosting the Miss Universe pageant when he announced the wrong winner. Harvey in announcing the winner of the contest announced that Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo was the winner only moments later to announce that she was first runner up and Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurzbach was the actual winner. Compounding the blunder was the fact that Arevalo had already been crowned and had to suffer the indignity of having the crown removed. Social media and traditional media exploded. Conspiracy theories surfaced that it was all a plot to attract attention to the Miss Universe pageant.
Harvey admitted that it was his mistake, calling it a human error and apologized to both contestants which is the proper response in any crisis. He then took to Twitter to apologize again only to misspell both Colombia and Philippines. This created yet another controversy. So great was the gaffe, that Justin Bieber took to Twitter to mock Harvey. With this falling on the start of the slow Christmas news week it is guaranteed to dominate social media and the news for the next few days.
So what should both Harvey and the Miss Universe pageant do in terms of crisis communications?
For Harvey, I would recommend the following strategy:
- An interview on one of the morning television shows explaining what happened and apologizing again. In the interview I would recommend that he use his famed humor in poking fun at himself.
- Use the interview to bring the focus back on the two contestants where it should be and praise them.
- Draft a new correctly spelled apology for social media.
- Personally call Miss Colombia and apologize and send her several dozen roses which knowing him, he probably already has done,
- Stop talking about the incident.
What should the Miss Universe Pageant do?
They should announce that they are having two Miss Universe winners this year. This would come across as a class act and earn the pageant renewed respect.
The one true winner from this gaffe has been Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo who has handled the situation with class and tact, applauding the winner and congratulating her and not criticizing anyone. She has been a lesson in grace under pressure.
The Miss Universe Pageant is being talked about more as a result of this then it has been in the past several years. How it and Harvey respond to this crisis will determine do they emerge as true winners or the butt of late night comedians’ jokes for weeks and indeed years.
Businessman and Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump continues to dominate the media as he has since announcing for president. His latest firestorm is his proposal to ban Muslims seeking to enter the United States. Trump made his proposal as the focus of the campaign has shifted to terrorism following the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. Trump’s proposal has created a firestorm with fellow candidates, House Speaker Paul Ryan, former Vice President Dick Cheney, foreign leaders, and the White House all condemning it. Pundits are predicting this latest from Trump will spell his demise. Yet despite this, Trump is not backing down and all campaign coverage is about him drowning out his opponents. So far voters are still backing him and in many ways he seems to have a better understanding of what is motivating voters than experienced politicians.
So how should Trump proceed from a communications point on this proposal?
- Ignore his critics and stand by his proposal. His proposal is audacious, outrageous, decisive, unrepentant, and brash all in one. It also falls in line with what the Trump brand is all about and why so many voters have bought into it.
- Continue in his interviews and the upcoming debates to point out that his plan is no more extreme than Franklin Delano Roosevelt interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. But go beyond that and point out that we are engaged in a real war with radical Islam and during previous times of war that American leaders have gone to extreme – Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson jailing war critics and deporting radicals during World War I.
- Point out that the job of the President is to save lives and if his action saves one American life and thwarts one terror attack the price is worth it.
- Point out that his proposal is for the duration of the war against ISIS and then will expire.
- Point out that the Obama Administration has failed not only to destroy but even contain ISIS.
- Emphasize that we are war and war is not pretty or politically correct.
- State that he is who he is, he isn’t politically correct but a decisive leader and this is what this nation needs.
- Challenge his critics to show a plan that would be foolproof to prevent terrorists from entering the nation.
Donald Trump has billed his candidacy on the fact that he isn’t politically correct but is a strong leader in a time that America needs just that. With his master showmanship, he has caught the attention of voters by appealing to them on the issues that matter most to them in language that they understand. He has shown that he knows the most important rule of communications – know your audience, a fact the other candidates have failed to grasped. If he communicates his latest proposal convincingly, not only will he be poised to win the Republican nomination but perhaps the White House as well.
Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump has set off yet again another media firestorm. The Republican frontrunner has called for all Muslims seeking to enter the United States to be barred from doing so. This came as the focus of the presidential campaign has turned to terrorism after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California and what many see as the Obama Administration’s ineffectual response to the war on terror. Polls show anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in the United States as a result of the attacks. Trump’s Republican rivals many condemned his proposal as have other leading Republicans such as former Vice President Cheney. Florida Congressman David Jolly, a candidate for the United States Senate has called for Trump to withdraw from the presidential race because of his stand. Pundits believe that this stunt will cost both Trump and the Republican Party.
So what should the Republican message be in response to Donald Trump?
- Condemn him and his antics once and for all as having no place within the Republican Party. They have become a distraction from serious issues facing the nation.
- Refuse to let him participate in the debates. One of the sources of Trump’s success is his access to free media especially the debates.
- Have House Speaker Paul Ryan address the nation on the Republican position on the war against terror.
- Ryan should point out we are not at war against Muslims but radical Islam in the form of ISIS. In doing so, he should point out how during the Cold War, every President from Truman to Reagan made the point that it was the Soviet system of government not the Russian people that were opposed too. In World War II, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower made it clear that it was the Axis leadership not the peoples of Japan, Germany, and Italy.
- That discriminating against any religion or ethnicity is wrong and goes against not only the values of America but that upon which the Party of Abraham Lincoln was founded.
- Explain that this is a war and there will be civilian casualties. It can’t be fought by words but by strong actions and define how Republicans if elected will differ from both Donald Trump and President Obama in prosecuting and winning the war.
- Arrange for Republican leaders and figures from the Reagan and the two Bush Administrations along with Tea Party leaders to address the Trump issue and state that his words are an insult to the memory of Ronald Reagan and if Reagan was alive today he would denounce Trump.
- Dare Donald Trump to run as an independent if he wants too but let him and the American people know there is no room for him in the Republican Party.
- Use humor to belittle him not his followers.
Donald Trump is a showman and also a bully. In some ways he is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy. Attacking him as Republicans have done by treating him as an equal and with seriousness has failed. Rather they should take a page out of their two greatest post-war Presidents – Eisenhower and Reagan. Isolate Trump and use humor at his expense, in doing that and the above mentioned strategy, Trumpamania will disappear and Republicans will be stronger with America at large and it will be their Sister Soulja moment.
The Friday after Thanksgiving has been branded Black Friday in the public’s consciousness for years as an integral part of the traditional holiday season as the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and Thanksgiving. For decades it has signaled the start of the holiday season for retailers with a strong Black Friday signaling strong holiday sales and signs of a robust economy. Consumers have flooded the stores waiting for coveted specials that come but once a year. Retailers have started opening earlier and earlier each year. Now many retailers are open on Thanksgiving Day with some beginning Black Friday sales days and weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. In this day of online shopping many are offering Black Friday discounts online so the consumer can do all of their holiday shopping from the ease of their computer without even leaving home. Plus for those online shoppers who want to wait a bit, there is now Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving for the best online deals.
So from a branding point are retailers hurting themselves with the way they have extended Black Friday? The answer is a resounding yes.
First Black Friday was branded as the day for the best holiday sales that happened but once a year that nothing could compete against. Today consumers no longer believe that. Black Friday is not a special event it has become like one of the billboards you pass time and time again and stop paying attention to after a while. The day no longer has meaning to consumers who begin seeing Black Friday advertised days if not weeks before Thanksgiving itself. So the credibility of retailers who claim that Black Friday deals are the best of the year is strained.
Next retailers stood out and enhanced their brand identity with their fabled Black Friday sales. Consumers would brave the elements to show their loyalty to a retailer who offered those exclusive sales, today all the sales seem the same and the retailers all seem the same except for those who differentiate themselves from the crowd.
Yet retailers that opt to do the opposite are building deeper brand loyalty and attracting even more consumers. Consumers today look for more than just the cheapest price, they buy into a brand’s story and its beliefs. REI made headlines when its announced that its stores would be closed on Black Friday. That move directly appealed to its consumers who frequent the store not for its sales and products (although that plays a role) as much as for what the retailer stands for in this world. Likewise Nordstrom garnered media attention by announcing that its stores would not only be closed Thanksgiving but there would be no holiday decorations in the stores until after Thanksgiving. Discount retailers, Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, and Homegoods have mounted massive advertising campaigns reminding consumers of Thanksgivings long ago and that all of their stores will be closed Thanksgiving. These retailers and others like them stand out to consumers. Consumers are more likely to seek these brands out on Black Friday as they buy into the story that the discounts offered mean something and that the brand itself is more about profits and the bottom line. Additionally, this strategy is likely to develop brand loyalty not only during the holidays but year round.
Black Friday as we know it may be close to disappearing. Yet retailers and brands that are savvy will honor the tradition knowing that it is smart way to stand out from competitors but beyond that build long lasting consumer loyalty.
Sometimes a public relations crisis can also be an opportunity if managed correctly. The fast food chain, Arby’s has been presented with such a situation. But so far, Arby’s has failed to turn a public relations crisis into a gain.
Arby’s has been under attack ever since the story of how one of their employees at a Pembroke Pines, Florida location refused to serve a police officer, because the officer was just that a police officer. Compounding to the crisis, was the Arby’s manager seemed to think the entire episode was funny. The Pembroke Pines Police Department and social media didn’t think the story was funny (don’t forget this comes at a time that law enforcement officers are being gunned down execution style). As soon as the story was reported and hit social media, Arby’s CEO called the Pembroke Pines Police Department to apologize. The company also issued a statement stating that they support local police departments. The company also fired the restaurant manager and suspended the employee indefinitely. Beyond that they did nothing.
Yet Arby’s competitors moved to take advantage of the situation. McDonald’s partnered with a local radio station to deliver bags of pancakes and Egg McMuffins to the department Thursday morning. A Whole Foods store in Pembroke Pines put out a spread of its own, while residents supplied donuts and coffee from a local Dunkin’ Donuts. Yet Arby’s has remained silent.
So what could Arby’s do?
- Contact the officer who was denied service and give her a free year’s worth of Arby’s or even a lifetime supply.
- Provide Arby’s for everyone at the Pembroke Pines police department.
- Team up with law enforcement charities.
- Have a national law officer appreciation day at all Arby’s locations nationwide.
- Donate to funds set up for family members of fallen law enforcement officers.
Arby’s handled its apology perfectly. Firing the manager and suspending the employee indefinitely (it is hard to see him ever returning) was the proper course. Now to change the narrative and garner some positive public relations it needs to do more. If not, as we have seen Arby’s competitors will continue to capitalize on this incident and the public will be left wondering where does Arby’s really stand in regards to law enforcement.
One can win in the court of law but still lose in the court of public opinion. We have just seen this with New England Quarterback Tom Brady. A federal judge threw out the NFL’s four game suspension of Brady for his involvement in ‘deflategate’ last season during the playoffs. In case you forgot, ‘deflatgate; arose when the New England Patriots used suspiciously underinflated footballs in the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts in what became known as ‘deflategate’.
The Patriots, Super Bowl Champions and star quarterback, Tom Brady denied any knowledge of the incident. A beleaguered NFL Commissioner Goodell appointed attorney, Theodore Wells to head an investigation into ‘deflategate’. The investigation concluded that it was “more probable than not” that New England Patriots equipment personnel were deliberately circumventing the rules. Further, Brady was implicated as it being more probable than not that he was aware of the deflation.
The judge did not address the issue of whether Brady knew and participated in ‘deflatgate’ but said the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL players union did not give Goodell, the authority to suspend Brady. In terms of public relations it was a blow to both Brady and Goodell.
Tom Brady has been one of the most popular NFL players in years. He has been a proven champion. Yet ‘deflatgate’ has tarnished his image. A majority of fans believe despite his denials that he did know and participate in ‘deflategate’ and lied to investigators. The judge’s ruling in his favor does nothing to change that perception.
What should he do to rehabilitate his image?
- Address ‘deflategate’ in a press conference in which he answers every question thrown at him until reporters are exhausted.
- Adopt some charities to work with and be active with. Just lending his name will not be enough.
- Become a role model for new players.
- Do an exclusive interview with a Charlie Rose or Oprah that will allow him to show a more human side.
- Continue playing like a champion.
- Realize that no matter what, ‘deflategate’ will always be a part of his legacy.
For Roger Goodell who in 2014 suffered severe criticism for not being tough enough, today’s ruling is a public relations defeat. Goodell has spent much of this year in trying to restore the integrity of the game. Yet many believe he has been giving suspensions such as he did to Brady with the knowledge that they would be thrown out but with the purpose of looking tough.
So what should Goodell do?
- Address the issue that his punishments are not just a public relations ploy but rather an attempt to restore the integrity of the NFL.
- Speak out vocally on issues where the public has lost trust in the NFL.
- Continue to give out strict punishments against players who violate the rules.
- Work on change within the NFL culture from within with players and owners.
Today’s ruling puts Tom Brady back on the field and Roger Goodell on the sidelines. But it also leaves a black-eye for both, and the NFL in terms of public perception.
Social media drives narratives. This cannot be stated enough. Yet despite the power of social media and brands realizing its importance, they forget about its power and potential to create a crisis. Very often their social media strategy does not reflect their tradition public relations strategy.
A case in point was celebrity chef, Paula Deen. A photograph of Deen dressed as Lucille Ball and her son, Bobby with a brown face supposedly as Desi Arnaz was tweeted on Deen’s Twitter account. This is occurred as as Deen has been waging a public relations campaign to rebuild her brand after accusations of racism in 2013 practically sank her brand. The public outcry was tremendous with Deen the focus of outrage and ridicule. It was later stated by Deen that the photograph was from several years ago and her social media manager who was responsible for the tweet had been dismissed. Yet the story received widespread media coverage.
Whether an innocent mistake or not, the damage has been done to Deen, reinforcing the image in many people’s minds that Deen is a racist and justifying to sponsors yet again why they were wise to sever ties with her. This as Deen has been going to great lengths to rebuild her image with a carefully orchestrated media and public relations campaign. With that one tweet all the work she had done was undone and its back to the drawing board for Deen.
Brands often forget that their social media strategy must correspond with their traditional media strategy. If it doesn’t that becomes a story.
Brands also forget the power of social media. The Deen photo was taken down yet it had been screen captured and re-tweeted thousands of times. Once something is posted on a social media site, it can be captured even if it is taken down. Nothing is ever permanently deleted from social media.
Social media also creates the news stories that the media cover. The Deen photo would never have received the coverage it did save for social media driving it. Very often the media doesn’t even consider something to be newsworthy until it explodes on social media. This is why every social media post needs to be handled with the care that a brand would handle a press release and needs constant monitoring. But it isn’t just Deen who forgot the power of social media. Both the recent Brian Williams’ story and Bill Cosby story were the result of social media. Veterans’ organization had tried contacting NBC and other media outlets for years about Williams’ fabrications and were ignored. Only when the story appeared on social media did it obtain coverage. Likewise the allegations by numerous women against Bill Cosby did not receive strong media coverage until they appeared on social media. In both cases the media went into a frenzy to compensate for not covering them originally feeling they had been scooped by social media.
Brands know the power of social media in reaching consumers and playing a role in their marketing efforts. What they must never underestimate is the power it has in driving narratives and causing a media firestorm. To do so is to do it at their peril.
Many start-ups know that they need public relations to get their message out but are unsure on how to do it. They know that distinctive brands, which are easier to identify and thus purchase, can be achieved many ways via traditional and social media. A single cover story in a key trade magazine, an executive profile on CNBC, or inclusion in The Wall Street Journal can generate sales. A sustained visibility campaign across all mediums (news, speaking opportunities, social, etc. ) builds a brand and is a game changer.
So knowing this what should do they do?
- Be a media expert. How many times do you see a competitor on the news talking about an issue that affects your industry and wondering how did they get there? The answer is quite simple, they pitched themselves to the reporter or producer as an expert in the field who can address issues in a story the reporter is working on. For example if you specialize in IT, pitching yourself to reporters on the recent computer glitch on Wall Street as well as offering suggestions on what you would do to solve the issue would be something that any reporter would be interested in. The key is to monitor the news and position yourself and your company as an expert in a story that is of concern.
- Understand media deadlines. Want to see your brand in a holiday gift guide? Then think about pitching media in September and not November. It helps to know the dates, times and potential results of an event before the reporter does. Members of the press tend to act on the fly for most breaking news stories, but plan well in advance for traditional, time-oriented content.
- Be a speaker. One of the best ways to promote a business and reach target audiences is through speaking engagements. A speech at a local organization such as Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce reaches potential customers, can sometimes obtain media coverage, and elevates your business.
Public relations doesn’t need to be expensive or time consuming. A well orchestrated public relations campaign can enhance your business and bring your customers to you.
The Bill Cosby brand was built over the years by his ability to bridge the racial divide and a belief that he stood for traditional values. He was praised for lecturing young African-Americans about the importance of raising children in a two-parent household. During his heyday, appearing as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on NBC’s The Cosby Show, he was seen as America’s dad. According to surveys, his character was one of America’s most popular television dads ranking up with Mike Brady from the Brady Brunch and Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best.
Yet now the Cosby brand is tattered. Allegations that he sexually assaulted and raped women in the 1980s and 1990s had already burnished his image. On July 6th, the brand image was shattered when depositions of Cosby from a 2005 civil case brought against the comedian by a woman who alleged a sexual assault by him were released. In the documents, Cosby admitted to drugging women he wanted to have sex with by giving them prescription Quaaludes. Overnight, most of his defenders turned on him. Cosby seemed to turn into Tywin Lannister or Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones rather than, America’s dad, Cliff Huxtable.
The iconic Cosby brand is damaged, beyond repair. He will remain a comedic genius (no one can dispute his talent) but the brand that was built upon his emphasis on wholesome values and addressing social issues among today’s youth is shattered. The reason is Cosby ran afoul against the number one rule of branding – to be successful the brand must be honest and authentic. As these allegations and depositions clearly show, the private Cosby and the public Cosby were two different people. No brand can survive such a revelation. The Cosby brand that had endured for years is no more.
Now the question is can anything be salvaged for Cosby. The answer is not much. NBC last year when the allegations hit a crescendo nixed plans for a comedy show starring Cosby. TV Land and others pulled The Cosby Show reruns. Colleges and other forums that had regularly booked him as a speaker are sure to cancel appearances. What does remain is a chance for Cosby to make an amends with the public that supported and believed in his brand for so long.
So what should he do?
- Come clean with what exactly happened and apologize. His lawyers will be against this since it will open him up for judgments in the civil lawsuits he is facing and could invite additional potential lawsuits. Yet it will offer the only chance for him to apologize to fans and ask for forgiveness.
- Admit that he has a problem and seek help.
- Fade from the public spotlight as he seeks counseling.
- Re-emerge and work to educate youth, using his rise and fall as a lesson. This could actually be his greatest legacy.
Those are the steps she should do. What should he not do?
- Go silent. Although lawyers love silence to the public it is an admission of guilt
- Attack his accusers. This will make him look even worse.
- This will deepen the damage done to him.
Bill Cosby was an American icon and now a lesson for brands. If the public image and the private are not the same, the public will feel betrayed and turn on the brand.