For years, businesses have known that a crisis could arise from an accident, product defect, or random statement by a company spokesperson. Now in this highly polarized political environment many businesses are finding that a crisis can arise from advertising on a polarizing show or sponsoring events that are politically charged. Social media not only goes after shows or events they consider wrong but against the advertisers and sponsors. Just see how JP Morgan Chase was forced to temporarily halt their ads on NBC News because of the Megan Kelly interview with Alex Jones or the hits that Bill O’Reilly’s advertisers took before they pulled their advertising. As a result, businesses are being forced to rethink their approach to crisis communications.
So what should businesses be doing in this new era of political divisiveness and crisis communications?
- Do a risk analysis of all sponsorships and advertising that could potentially cause a public backlash among the right or left. In this analysis review all social media and traditional media mentions.
- Develop a prepared response in case your businesses is targeted because of its various sponsorships and advertising, and have it ready.
- Engage with activists on social media. Remember, that social media drives narratives not merely on social media but in traditional media as well.
- Remember all of your audiences – internal and external.
- Stay consistent on the message and response that you have decided for your business.
In today’s charged environment anything can cause a crisis for businesses. More and more many businesses are finding themselves in a crisis due to indirect association. That is why crisis communications is more essential than ever before in any overall public relations plan.
The past several days have been a public relations nightmare for United Airlines and it does not appear that things will be improving for the embattled airline and its CEO, Oscar Munoz in the near future. The United saga began when Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. Dr. Dao was so badly injured that he will need reconstructive surgery. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. Munoz originally praised United’s employees and blamed Dao for the incident. After an international furor aroused, fueled on social media and late night television, Munoz apologized to Dao finally and made an appearance on Good Morning America that made him look anything but sincere.
Added to this debacle were fresh news stories of other passengers who had been threatened when United had overbooked flights, allegations that United Airlines was behind negative stories appearing in the media about Dao’s past, and reports that United was considering suing passengers who had recorded the Dao incident. United is of course facing lawsuits. The company’s market share has dropped by an estimated billion dollars. United’s public image is in ruins.
Soon things will get even worse for United. In the next few weeks, United will announce Munoz’s annual bonus that is expected to be $10 million or more. The cause for the bonus is raising United’s short term profits. How did Munoz achieve this? By having the airline sell more tickets for flights than they have seats (overbooking) and refusing to pay passengers enough to voluntarily give up their seats. The core reasons that led to the crisis United is facing.
So what should United do to begin repairing its image?
- Announce that it is deferring Munoz’s bonus. Or even better, have him announce he is rejecting it or donating it to charity.
- Announce that it will discontinue overbooking. Yes, the practice is legal and other airlines do it but this practice is now lethal for United.
- Munoz needs to do more interviews apologizing not only to Dao but all customers and announce what steps the airline is taking to assure better customer service.
- Announce a companywide customer service training program for all employees.
- Take out full page advertisements in leading newspapers across the nation apologizing and announcing again the steps the company is doing to improve the customer experience on all flights.
United needs to realize that the damage its reputation has suffered has been severe. It isn’t fatal but the longer the company takes in moving forward with its crisis recovery program, the worse its reputation will be.
United Airlines continues to generate bad publicity days after a man was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. The man was bloodied as he was dragged on the floor from his seat. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. The entire story provides several lessons that business leaders can learn from and apply during a crisis.
- The CEO of the company is the public face of the company and his or her words reflect on the entire company. Following the incident and the ensuing media coverage, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement merely apologizing for any inconvenience passengers may have experienced but never addressing the specific incident nor apologizing to the passenger directly. That statement alone was viewed as insensitive but then Munoz added to the media firestorm by sending a letter to United employees praising them for how they handled the situation and labeling the passenger as belligerent despite video contradicting this accusation. Munoz’s statements became the public face of United Airlines and has drawn condemnation and ridicule from the media, the public, and Hollywood. It has angered the Chinese market (the passenger was Chinese) which is United’s key growth market and driven down the airline’s stock by over a billion dollars. Munoz came across as uncaring in his response and as a result all of United is now perceived that way.
- Apologies Matter (and how they are worded even more). What should have been a one day media story has now been spread across several days and counting, due to Munoz’s lack of apology. If Munoz had offered a strong apology for what happened and condemned the actions, the media would be moving on by now. Rather by failing to issue a strongly worded apology and blaming the passenger, Munoz has kept the story alive in the media causing more days of bad press for United. His response has become a bigger story than the original incident and is overshadowing the original report.
- Everything can be recorded with a smartphone. Think of any television show (Chicago PD, Law & Order SVU, Chicago Justice, The Catch) where the police make an arrest or rough up a suspect and all of the bystanders are recording it with their phones. This isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood, it happens every day. Part of the reason this story got the amount of play that it has (besides United’s poor crisis management) is that fellow passengers were able to video the entire incident with their smartphones. The video images brought to life the episode in a powerful, emotional, and impactful way and created a readymade story for the media. People often forget anytime an incident happens people begin recording with their smartphones. Every occurence is now just not reported upon but has video accompanying it due to bystanders recording it.
- Social media drives narratives. This point cannot be stated enough. Social media is driving this story with the hashtag being #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos (#NeedCrisisManagement should be United’s hashtag in this crisis). The result is the traditional media is reporting on the social media outrage.
United Airlines serves as a lesson on what not to do during a crisis. Hopefully other companies will learn from United’s mistakes.
Social media drives narratives. That cannot be said enough. Social media can also create a crisis where none existed. Many brands are finding this out firsthand in the current politically charged and polarized environment.
Today’s consumers expect brands to tell a story and share their values including their political values. Many brands have for years avoided taking stands on political issues and politicians as they knew such a stand would antagonize some consumers and cost them sales. Yet more and more brands are finding that they can’t sidestep political issues. Consumers are taking to social media demanding to know where a brand stands on an issue or political personality. We have seen this just recently with consumers taking to social media to demand of brands where do they stand on FOX News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and stories of sexual harassment. This social media outrage has led numerous advertisers to pull their advertising from his show.
Very often brands are caught unprepared for the social media outrage that creates a crisis for them. They need to be proactive, especially in this socially media driven world where a tweet on Twitter can be more powerful than the best devised public relations campaign and lead to numerous negative media stories.
What should companies do?
- Identify potential issues that consumers care about and might demand to know where the brand stands on the issue.
- Identify potential activists, antagonists, supporters, and media that would be involved in such a media crisis.
- Practice stimulations of a potential social media crisis driven by the brand’s stand on a particular issue.
- Respond at once when the crisis erupts.
- Engage on social media. Remember brands are all about engaging consumers on social media about various positive news items. But too often, they fail to do that when a crisis hits. That is a mistake.
A crisis can happen at any time. In today’s polarized world social media often both creates and defines a crisis. To survive such a crisis, a brand must be ready.
Every presidential administration just like every business needs crisis communications at some point. For the Trump Administration, the need is coming earlier than most (not even a month into the Administration). The Administration has been beset by numerous mistakes (Michael Flynn, alternative facts, the CIA visit, the Australia phone call) that have overshadowed its successes. So what should the Administration do in terms of crisis communications?
- Limit President Trump’s media exposure. One of the great powers of the presidency is the President himself. But he has been everywhere all at once. The Administration needs to limit his media exposure to one major event a day that coincides with the message of the day.
- Replace Sean Spicer as White House Press Secretary. Spicer is serving as both White House Communications Director and Press Secretary. He has become a parody in his role as White House Press Secretary through the Saturday Night Live Melissa McCarthy portrayals and has lost some credibility with the media that he works with on a daily basis. Retain him as White House Communications Director but bring in a respected person as Press Secretary to give the White House a fresh approach in its press dealings.
- Now that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has resigned, the Administration needs to replace him quickly with a well-respected individual that will command respect in the media, with the public, and policy makers.
- Stay on message. Too often the Administration has fallen off of its message and got caught in needless distractions. It needs to avoids this.
- Refocus on its campaign pledge of tax reform, infrastructure and creating jobs.
- Limit the President’s Twitter use (perhaps impossible). While reaching voters it creates needless news stories for the Administration.
- Carefully vet all facts released. Mistaken facts or alleged false facts (Bowling Green Massacre) are doing untold damage to the Administration’s credibility. The media is giving everything greater scrutiny so this means the Administration cannot make mistakes with facts.
- Have Mike Pence, Reince Preibus, and Cabinet members be the main talk show spokespersons.
- Avoid lashing out at critics be it judges or Saturday Night Live as that creates an unnecessary news story that the media latches on to with a fervor.
- Have the message of the day come through one central source, preferably the chief of staff’s office as was done in previous Administrations.
Righting course after a few difficult weeks won’t be hard for the Trump Administration. But to do so means employing a strategic crisis communications plan.
Small and medium sized businesses while knowing they need a public relations strategy often do not include a crisis communications plan in that strategy. Many of these businesses believe crisis communications plans are only for major corporations and they will never face a crisis that needs a detailed response. In this highly polarized political climate and social media driven world nothing could be more mistaken.
Recently I was called upon to help a medium sized engineering firm that was caught in the firestorm and fallout from the feud between Donald Trump and Congressman John Lewis. We all remember Congressman Lewis, a Civil rights icon saying he would not attend Donald Trump’s inauguration as he did not see Trump as a “legitimate president” and Trump’s Twitter response. Partisans on both sides jumped into the fray. One who did so was a county commissioner in Gwinnett County, Georgia who posted on his personal Facebook page a post claiming that Congressman Lewis was a “racist pig” among other things. Of course nothing goes unnoticed on social media and soon the traditional media was involved. Most of the media was focused on the commissioner and his fellow commissioners as he was an elected official. He also is a contract employee with an engineering firm. There was no major viral footprint linking him to the company. One industrious blogger however found the connection and began broadcasting the fact to his followers and the media. This company has extensive contracts with local municipalities and is actually minority owned. It was totally unprepared and unaware of the firestorm that was to erupt.
The first sign of trouble was when the company began receiving phone calls from the public demanding to know how they could employ such a person and threatening demonstrations outside of its office. Soon their social media sites were under attack by people posting comments attacking the company for ever having employed such a person. This was soon followed by media phone calls. Employees knew something was happening but not sure what was happening nor what the company was doing. The company had no basic crisis communications plan to deal with any of this and lost a news cycle.
Addressing this crisis was a top priority and one that any sized company should learn from. Among the items instituted were:
- Determining a company spokesperson.
- Developing a social media response for the negative posts.
- Informing employees what was going on and how the company was responding, as well as how they should handle any inquiries they might receive and who to refer it too.
- Developing a social media policy for company employees (remember what employees post on their personal pages reflect upon the company and can become the basis of a crisis).
- Developing a formal response to media inquiries that included condemning the post and hand delivering an apology to Congressman Lewis.
- Informing clients and vendors of what was going on and how the company was responding.
- Announcing that the company was conducting another sensitivity class for all employees.
As quickly as the firestorm had erupted it died down. In fact the company began earning praise by addressing the issue and issuing an apology. While the story continued to dominate headlines, the company was no longer mentioned or a part of the narrative.
So yes, small and medium sized businesses, when you develop your public relations strategy, you need to include a basic crisis communications plan as part of that strategy. In this day and age with social media and polarization, the chances of a crisis hitting a company regardless of size increases daily. If a company ignores that, they do it at their own peril.
Celebrity divorces are always high profile news stories. And when the celebrities divorcing have a word that describes their pairing – Brangelina – and are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you can expect nonstop media coverage. Celebrity divorces also use public relations to sway public opinion and force a settlement.
We saw the public relations component with Brangelina play out following the announcement that Angelina Jolie was seeking to divorce Brad Pitt. There has been an endless stream of negative stories planted in the media regarding Pitt (he was having an affair with his co-star; he has anger issues; he verbally abused his children and Jolie; he is a party animal; he is a heavy drinker and drug user; and so forth). While the coverage regarding Jolie has all been positive (she tried so hard; she wanted to give up the Hollywood life to concentrate on her humanitarian work, etc.,). This public relations strategy has put Pitt on the defensive and is shaping public opinion over this divorce. This is similar to the strategy Katie Holmes used against Tom Cruise during their divorce that led to a quick settlement. A key lesson of this is the side that gets their narrative out first wins in the court of public opinion.
Brad Pitt is reeling from the negative stories. He did get some slight assistance from his co-star, Marion Cotillard who denied allegations that she was having an affair with Pitt. Beyond that Pitt’s side was largely quiet. Now two days after while more negative stories are appearing about him, we are only beginning to see a slight pushback from the Pitt camp with friends calling some of the allegations malicious and that Pitt wanted to stay in the marriage and loved Jolie. They need to do more because this case will be determined in the court of public opinion in many ways and what the public believes will also affect his brand long-term.
So what should Pitt do?
- Stay quiet and let others argue his case.
- Have his lawyers and friends deny in the strongest terms possible the allegations of verbal abuse with his children.
- Have female co-stars from his various films come forward to deny the womanizer claims.
- Have friends come forward and on how he worked on the marriage and was a loving husband and father.
- Put the onus of the failure on the marriage and the current nastiness on Jolie.
Celebrity divorces are always high profile – in coverage and the damage that can be done to career and brand. That is why in such cases, a public relations strategy is as critical as the legal strategy as we are seeing now in then end of Brangelina.
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.