Two thousand and seventeen is drawing to a close. What a year it has been. It has been a year that has seen some major stories with serious public relations lessons that will be applied going into 2018 and far beyond.
What were the major stories and the public relations lessons that can be learned from them?
- The #metoo movement with stories of sexual harassment and assault and how organizations respond to these allegations. From Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer and numerous other prominent men, 2017 saw their careers come to an end with sordid stories of sexual harassment and assault. For the organizations that had employed these men, the public relations challenge was, how do you address the allegations when made against an employee, how do you reassure shareholders, and how do you let the public know that no such conduct will be tolerated and if such things happened the culture of the company has changed. This calls for a public relations strategy of being proactive and getting in-front of such stories, highlighting the company culture, and navigating social media.
- United Airlines. The videos of a United Airline passenger being forcibly removed from a flight sent stock shares of the airline plummeting and made United the butt of every late night comedian and countless memes on social media. The airline was further hurt by its initial response to the situation. Social media brought this story to the forefront and fueled public outrage. It again showed the power of social media and how it drives narratives. This will only increase in 2018. In fact, social media often reports on a crisis before traditional media. Organizations need to be conscious of this fact. They must ensure that they monitor social media as they do traditional media and address social media in a consistent way with all other modes of communication employed.
- Equifax data breach. The Equifax data breach is still being felt today by consumers. Bad as the breach was, the credit reporting giant’s response to the crisis worsened the situation and caused even additional harm to the once mighty brand. The company waited weeks before reporting the breach and even when it finally admitted to the breach did not get all of the information out at one time. Rather Equifax released information in installments and allowed the media often to reveal information before the company would admit it. The lesson for any organization or individual from Equifax is to be proactive, transparent, and get everything out at one time during a crisis.
- The NFL and the take a knee movement. Donald Trump calling out NFL players who kneeled during the playing of the national anthem led to even more players taking the knee. Yet the public did not support the NFL or the players in this stand as seen by declining attendance at games and television ratings. The reason was that many fans felt that the protests went against the NFL brand and did not understand what the players were protesting. The lessons from this are – be consistent to your brand and fully explain actions that the public might not understand.
- Donald Trump. Donald Trump dominated the news in 2017 for good or bad. His policies and statements created strong passions. From this, consumers came to expect brands to take stands on political and social issues. Brands have often been reluctant to do this fearing they will alienate a sector of consumers. But today’s consumers in the age of Trump expect a brand to take a stand on the issues and brands are being forced to do so. This trend will accelerate in 2018.
Two thousand and seventeen was an eventful year. Its impact on businesses in terms of public relations will be felt far into 2018 and beyond.
It seems like every day a new sexual harassment or assault story is hitting the news out of the entertainment industry, the world of the media, or the political world. The names of celebrities who have been named keep climbing. For the organizations that employed these people or were associated with them the question arises, how should they handle the ensuring crisis. What should their crisis management be?
How an organization responds to such a crisis will have a great impact on its future. They need to think about all stakeholders in their response – employees, shareholders, vendors, and the public. At the same time, they should be conducting an internal audit to determine if any other bombshells about to drop.
When responding to an employee’s sexual misconduct, these are tips that organizations need to implement:
- Get out in front. When scandals such as we have seen since the Weinstein story broke, an organization cannot wait as far as responding to such a story. Delay in responding loses several news cycles and the social media onslaught that arises. It creates the image of complicity with the behavior or worse guilt.
- Show how the company is handling the situation internally. Just condemning despicable and perhaps criminal behavior by an employee is not enough. The organization must show and demonstrate how they are ensuring that such behavior will not occur again by any employee and how they are investigating internally to see if this was an isolated case or if other employees were involved.
- Don’t ignore social media. Social media drives narratives. We have seen this especially in the sexual harassment cases that are dominating the news. Often the stories break on social media first. Make sure that your organization is monitoring social media and if an employee is caught in such a story, that you address the social media world in your responses. Too often this overlooked.
The sexual harassment and assault stories show no signs of abating. Hopefully this will lead to a change in personal conduct. But for businesses, as these allegations continue, it is essential that they know how to address such actions by members of their organization.
Equifax’s crisis communications strategy dealing with its security hack has been an epic fail. And the credit reporting giant continues to make the situation worse.
The story of the security hack at Equifax is well known. The breach lasted from mid-May through July of this year with hackers obtaining the personal information of 143 million people. This information included people’s names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, driver’s license numbers. Compounding the problems for Equifax three officers of the company sold stock shares worth a combined $1.8 million just before the breach was detected.
Successful crisis communications requires:
- Being proactive. In this Equifax failed as they waited 6 weeks before revealing the hack. This delay has raised questions of why did they wait and raised suspicions of a cover up. This was worsened by the revelation that company officers had sold stock just prior to the detection. Had the company got out in front of the story, particularly during the slow news period of August, it would have earned kudos for being honest and would have drawn less coverage than it is now when reporters and the public are back from vacation.
- When a crisis hits, it is essential to be transparent which means getting the good and the bad out. Again, Equifax failed. The full story has been coming out slowly with each day a new revelation. The latest is that Equifax did not implement a security patch in March that could have prevented the hack.
- During a crisis, it is critical to show empathy towards those who have been affected. Equifax has done the opposite. Rather than getting its CEO out as the face of the company who could express empathy and apologize for what has happened, the company has hidden behind press releases. Its offerings to help victims have fallen far short and appear in the fine print designed to avoid litigation. The company and its employees have been tone deaf. This goes all the way to employees in the company’s call centers who have been reported to be rude and flippant to consumers.
- Social media. Social media drives narratives. Equifax seems to have overlooked this fact. It was acting on social media as no crisis was at hand, immortalized by its infamous tweet the day the scandal hit of “Happy Friday”.
- No Solution. The final aspect of successful crisis communications is a solution on how an issue will never happen again. In this too, Equifax has failed.
So, what should the company do now?
- Get all the information out immediately. No more slow drip.
- Have the CEO become the face of the company, offer a sincere apology and address all stakeholders – consumers, vendors, policymakers, stockholders, and employees.
- Offer a solution on moving forward.
Equifax has failed crisis management 101. Until it takes corrective measures the company will continue to suffer and offer an example of what not to do during a crisis.
So often in crisis management we observe what individuals and brands do wrong and that receives most of the coverage. Very seldom do we talk about things being done right. So, this article is about doing crisis management the right way. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s crisis management deserves praise and is something brands should study.
So what did he do right?
- Governor Scott’s message was simple and direct during the crisis and he stayed on message throughout – people needed to evacuate from the oncoming storm and the storm was devastating. Every interview or press conference he gave, he worked in his message and never deviated. Often during a crisis and the media frenzy, spokespersons will forget their message or convolute it. Governor Scott never did.
- Included all stakeholders. A common mistake in crisis communications is forgetting one of the stakeholders. Governor Scott never did. His stakeholders were the citizens of Florida, county and city leaders, the federal government, and state employees. Governor Scott included all of these in his various communications and schedule. He conveyed what was expected and needed. A schedule released from the Governor’s office showed just how much time he spent in making sure that all stakeholders were addressed from interviews and press conferences to the public; to phone calls with policymakers; to concise and clear instructions for state workers. This type of inclusion led many (particularly individuals who are normally critical of Governor Scott) to praise him.
- Social media. Often during a crisis, even a natural disaster, social media is overlooked as a means to communicate or does not have the message that is being conveyed on traditional media outlets. To his credit, Governor Scott and his communications team made sure that the same message that they were communicating through traditional media was being communicated via social media. They realized that even though they were saturating the airwaves, that many people get their information via Twitter or Facebook.
- Plan Forward. Throughout Hurricane Irma and now in its aftermath, Governor Scott communicated that there was a plan moving forward to rebuild and restore the areas that were affected. A key to successful crisis management isn’t just communicating about the crisis but offering a vision forward after the crisis has passed.
Hurricane Irma was a devastating catastrophe. Avoiding an even greater tragedy is due in no small part to Rick Scott’s deft crisis management. Business leaders would do well to study his crisis communications handling.
Our society is more polarized today than at any moment in recent memory. Our politics is divisive. Opinions have become more outspoken and outraged. Driving all of this is social media. Social media has allowed millions to have a voice and share their opinion. It is also a driving force in spreading disapproval of a brand when it takes a stand that someone disagrees with. The hashtag #Boycott followed by a brand’s name is one of the most popular ones on Twitter. Brands need to be prepared when this happens.
Here are a few examples.
A local Cracker Barrel in Indiana fired the wife of a man named Brad. Brad went on to social media to demand that Cracker Barrel explain why his wife was fired. His posts were picked up by people on social media with the hashtag #JusticeforBradsWife. The Cracker Barrel social media sites were inundated with comments and questions about Brad’s wife. Traditional media picked up the story which became a humorous running joke. Cracker Barrel ignored the posters and social media outcry. This led to a new hashtag #BoycottCrackerBarrel. The chain took a hit and its stock price went down.
Adidas made a tone-deaf move by sending out an email to Boston Marathon participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” the day after this year’s marathon – just four years after the bombings at the 2013 marathon. The backlash was immediate. The hashtag #BoycottAddias started. Before it could gain traction and Adidas quickly issued a public apology saying, “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.”
The heartfelt public apology stopped #BoycottAddias in its tracks. It prevented the incident from turning into a negative three- to five-day story.
A result of #Boycott means that it is more important than ever to make sure that you are prepared with a statement supporting your decision if you are caught in the crosshairs of a boycott. Or if you feel like you’ve made a mistake, make sure the statement explains why you made the decision in the first place and what you are doing to fix the issue. Consumers want to know their voices are being heard and changes are being made.
Social media drives narratives. That cannot be emphasized enough. And it is particularly true during a crisis over customer service. More and more dissatisfied customers are taking to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to express their displeasure over poor customer service or what they view as poor quality products. A case in point happened with the Twitter war between conservative author, Ann Coulter and Delta Airlines.
Coulter’s problems with Delta began, after the exit-row seat she reserved on her flight from New York to West Palm Beach was given away to a fellow passenger without any “explanation, compensation or apology” she claimed on Twitter. Delta’s social media team reached out via Twitter apologizing to Coulter and offering to compensate her the extra money she had paid. But that wasn’t the end of the Twitter war heard around the world. Coulter took again to Twitter attacking Delta, its employees, and even the passenger who took her seat. Delta responded to her via Twitter defending its employees and passengers. The feud between Coulter and Delta was picked up by the news media and is still ongoing. Yet it raises the question in this social media driven age in which every tweet and post is analyzed, how should a company respond when under attack via social media?
These are some things a company should do and remember:
- Respond to the complaint. Ignoring it will only make the customer angrier and lead to others on social media joining in. Like Delta originally did, acknowledge a mistake if it was made, offer an apology, and finally offer a resolution. Always act as if your response will be viewed by the entire world because with the power of social media it probably will be.
- Stand up for the company if you are unfairly accused of something. In the case of Delta, the company stood up for its employees and passengers when Coulter’s tweets began attacking them. This showed a humanizing face for Delta and allowed the company also to stand up against false allegations. They also remembered that part of their brand identity is their employees and they defended that brand DNA that was under attack.
- Use humor and class in admitting a major mistake if possible. Social media can be abusive and snarky. If admitting a mistake, a company is always smart to use some self-depreciating humor in its response and take the high road. Anything else will make the social media crisis worse.
- Have a social media team that responds 24/7. Social media never rests and that why a company always needs to respond right away or else the social media firestorm will grow.
Social media complaints are never-ending. The key for companies is to respond to each in a way that it is one and gone. Failing to do so will ensure that the complaint becomes a full blown crisis on social media and then in the traditional media causing extreme brand damage.
The major challenge for a business after a major crisis is regaining public trust. It has taken years for a business to build the trust and now that the crisis has hit, the business must begin rebuilding the trust again. It helps if the business had a reservoir of goodwill prior to the crisis and managed the crisis with a strong response. It cannot be emphasized enough that in having a strong crisis management plan in place during the crisis helps in the rebuilding.
So now moving forward what is to be done?
The first step is to explain now that the crisis has passed what steps the business is doing to ensure that it will never happen again. This message must be conveyed to the public, vendors, and internally to employees. This should be done in a strong way, outlining the specific steps that are being taken.
A greater emphasis on customer satisfaction and service is critical during this time period. Look at the steps United Airlines took after its disaster when a passenger was dragged off one of its flights.
The organization might want to look at developing a new mission statement as it emerges from the crisis. This should emphasize more than just profits. It should put a premium on customer service and making the world, the country, state, or city a better place.
Ethics and sensitivity training programs based upon the crisis should be instituted. This helps ensure that every employee knows the proper procedures and what is expected of them.
Also a greater emphasis should be placed on community outreach and charitable programs. This will help rebuild goodwill and also show that the company cares.
Rebuilding a reputation after a crisis doesn’t happen overnight but it can be done. Just as with the crisis, you need a strong plan for after the crisis to regain public trust.
It cannot be stressed enough that any good public relations strategy should include a crisis communications plan. Too often brands and companies overlook this and when a disaster strikes, they are caught unprepared. One aspect of a crisis communications plan is determining who should be called in and consulted when the crisis hits and a response is needed.
So to paraphrase the movie, Ghostbusters, ‘who are you gonna call’ when a crisis strikes?
- The CEO/President – As Harry Truman famously said, “the buck stops here”, and that is particularly true during a crisis. The CEO/President is the public face of the company during a crisis. They set the public tone for the organization.
- General Counsel/Organization Attorney – A crisis often involves a legal issue. Any response during the crisis could have legal implications. A lawyer is essential to review and answer these questions.
- Company Communications Officer – This is the internal communications specialist who knows the company’s brand story and values. This person will work to ensure the company response corresponds with them and includes both internal and external audiences.
- Human Resources Officer – A crisis affects an organization’s employees. This person helps make sure that proper information is relayed to employees during the crisis and helps address any misinformation and concerns among employees.
- Social Media Officer – A major mistake many companies make during a crisis is forgetting to have a response on social media and to monitor social media. This person ensures that the social media response is consistent with the traditional media response.
- Outside Public Relations – This is an outside public relations professional who brings an outside and objective perspective to the crisis.
Identifying all the key players that are needed within the organization is essential for a cohesive crisis communications response when disaster strikes. Far too often, organizations waste precious time during a crisis in identifying what personnel are needed for the crisis.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The same could apply in planning for a crisis. A crisis can happen at anytime. It can affect any brand. A crisis doesn’t care about the size of the organization. With social media and the 24/7 news cycle, a crisis that might never have gotten any attention several years ago or only localized coverage can be splashed across the networks and make national headlines, destroying years of positive brand building. What is worse is that much of the damage could have been avoided if the brand had done some crisis management planning.
When the first media call happens or first negative social media post goes live, most brands are still scrambling on how to respond to the crisis. They are determining who will speak for the brand, what stakeholders need to be addressed, what the response should be, and the legal implications. By the time they have determined all of this, the crisis is engulfing their organization, they have lost several news cycles, and social media is exploding.
That is why as Eisenhower said, planning is indispensable. Effective planning will address the importance of moving quickly under pressure; not losing critical news cycles and allowing social media to run amok. It also allows for potential regulatory and political impact to be evaluated immediately.
Planning allows the brand to know what stakeholders need to be addressed. Often in a crisis, the concern is with addressing the public and investors, with vendors and employees forgotten causing great damage. It allows for a company procedure for when the media calls and for employees to know who to refer the call to without getting caught in a gotcha moment with a reporter. Planning allows for a coherent social media strategy to coincide with the traditional media response. Far too often, brands forget the social media component as they are scrambling to deal with the traditional media. This mistake can be avoided with some planning. Finally planning can help develop the empathy that will be essential in a crisis. Just think of United CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the passenger being dragged off the plane, had he shown some empathy with his response much of the ongoing damage could have been avoided.
Planning won’t make a crisis go away but it will lessen the impact of the crisis. That is why it is critical to have a crisis management planning session and to incorporate it into your overall public relations plan.
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.