PR Disaster of the Year: The website that derailed a popular President

As the year winds down, we turn to things that really matter. I’m talking, of course, about the 2013 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year.

Once again, we have an abundance of worthy candidates, including:

  • Carnival Cruise‘s stunning string of misadventures on the high seas disastrously amplified by PR pratfalls–e.g., Carnival’s CEO sighted at a Miami Heat basketball game while being unavailable for comment about the overflowing toilets 4,000 of his customers were enduring aboard a crippled cruise ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Paula Deen — for her clumsy video apologies, Today Show no-show, and overall lack of self-awareness in the wake of criticism about her racist comments from years ago. I mean, even if you have fantasized about having black servers at a wedding to give it that classic Southern ambiance, don’t answer “Yes, of course” in a deposition when asked if you have ever used the N-word. 
  • The return of Pink Slime, last year’s “winner.” 
  • The whole Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, especially the way it “ended”–the team rallying behind thuggish anti-hero Richie Incognito and disparaging his victim for “quitting on the team.” We haven’t heard the last of this…

Obamacarewebsite downBut standing out in terms of staying power and sheer volume of coverage was the launch of  Healthcare.gov (aka, the Obamacare website). This one had everything:

  • The website itself clearly was not ready for prime time when it was launched. Warnings from developers were not heeded. A delay would have been embarrassing, but not as damaging as what actually happened…
  • The website crashed right at the onset, prompting the White House to try to make lemonade from the lemons by insisting that this just proved how popular Obamacare was proving to be.
  • Lots of finger-pointing.
  • The spectacle of the President losing his mojo. A press corps that had been supportive (substitute  ”fawning” here if you like) turned on him… His approval numbers tanked…Even Democrats in Congress disavowed their allegiance to the President’s signature achievement.
  • It took way too long to get the website up and running (aptly called a “slow-motion train wreck” here).
  • It provided endless fodder for the late-night comics. When Jon Stewart starts ridiculing a Democratic president, you know things are going badly.
  • Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius broke a cardinal rule from media training by repeating a damning word in a question posed to her during a Congressional grilling. Said she: “Hold me accountable for this debacle.” (But things were so bad at this point, her quote hardly raised an eyebrow.)
  • The President’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” promise turns out to be false for millions of Americans, prompting a series of clumsy explanations and one half-hearted apology. While technically not part of the website debacle, the President’s untruth became a firestorm of its own largely because the press corps pounced on it–the promise originated at a time when the White House counted on the media to give the President the benefit of every doubt. That’s a dangerous assumption, as any media trainer can tell you.

Here’s to the new year and whatever it will bring. One thing’s for sure:  even some who should know better will stumble at just the wrong time, turning an embarrassing moment into a full-blown disaster.

“It wasn’t a mistake. We followed procedure.” Passing the blame doesn’t cut it when two convicted killers are loose.

The news yesterday that two more Florida prison inmates were in the process of obtaining forged documents ordering their release underscores the need for all prison officials to scrutinize and verify such documents before letting dangerous convicts loose. Of course.

But it raises a much broader issue: In the age of electronic cut-and-paste, how can we trust any signed documents in any walk of life and business? Clearly, the potential for forgery is great. Companies and government institutions alike will need to routinely include a verification step before accepting a signature as valid in any transaction of consequence. Reaching the signatory by phone or in person will seldom be practical. We’re going to need some sort of unique, embedded coding to prove a signed document is valid. Can we get the nation’s techie A-Team on that right away, er, as soon as they are finished fixing the Healthcare.gov website?

killers mistakenly released

Also…for a quick crisis communications lesson learned, let’s go back to the day the original story broke about the two inmates convicted of murder mistakenly released from prison. While the two killers were on the loose somewhere in the nearby communities, causing no small amount of civilian trepidation, Misty Cash, deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections, reassured the public with these immortal words:

“There were court documents that were provided and our department followed the process and procedure that we do for every inmate when we receive documents saying they should be released. It wasn’t a mistake. Nobody forgot to do anything or didn’t do something right. There were forged documents involved.”

Lesson learned: When something has gone terribly amiss causing imminent danger to the community, a spokesperson is ill-advised to stress that IT WASN’T OUR FAULT! The public doesn’t care if you followed the “process and procedure,” Mindy, we just want the bad guys returned to prison and for this to never, ever happen again.  

‘Pink slime’ lawsuit could upend one-sided TV reporting–but don’t bet on it

Maybe you were repulsed when reports of “pink slime” began getting national attention just about 12 months ago. Maybe you were amused. But now it’s time for PR professionals to pay attention. A ruling is expected soon on what some view as a “landmark defamation suit” that could put a chilling effect on aggressive, one-sided investigative reporting.

By the end of last year, the makers of “lean, finely textured beef,” aka pink-slime, had been decimated by a public relations sand storm. And had captured Force for Good’s infamous “PR Disaster of the Year Award.”

Beef Products Inc., the leading manufacturer of the beef product in question, has closed three of its four plants and seen its annual revenue plummet from $650 million to about S130 million. The company blames the sharp fall in its fortunes to a relentless series of ABC News broadcasts that began last March in which its product was repeatedly called “pink slime.”

Last September, the company filed a lawsuit against the network and anchor Diane Sawyer, seeking at least $1.2 billion in damages. Few gave the lawsuit much hope of success—the standard for proving defamation in the U.S. is quite high. According to Reuters, to win its case BPI needs to show ABC negligently reported false statements that injured its reputation (it won’t have any difficulty showing injury). And if ABC succeeds in having the court deem BPI a public rather than private figure in the legal sense, it would have an even higher bar to scale—proving the network knew the facts it was reporting were false and “recklessly disregarded the truth.”

BPI contends the ABC disregarded sources contrary to its story line (providing a more positive view of BPI’s beef product) and emphasized critics’ complaints. But any veteran PR professional knows that this is par for the course in dealing with television investigative journalists—it’s an unfortunate reality of the media dynamic we deal with all the time.

Furthermore, ABC’s lawyers argue that use of the term “pink slime” was “rhetorical hyperbole” that is constitutionally protected, much as a colorfully negative restaurant review.

To date, the best PR practice in dealing with TV media investigating your company, brand or product is to work with them with your eyes wide open. Know what you’re getting into, do your homework and insist on high standards of professionalism from the media. Make sure journos are fully aware of the “rest of the story”—not just your adversaries’ view of the story that they may find so plausible and compelling. Provide knowledgeable, credible spokespeople who have been media trained and won’t get rattled. If you believe your spokesperson is getting set up for a media mugging, decline to go on-camera and provide a concise, clear, simple and empathetic statement. Follow up relentlessly as the on-air date nears with any new information important to a fair and complete understanding of the issue.

But when the report finally airs, don’t be surprised by the persistent negative tone and overall slant against your company. Memorable television is not made by reports that carefully hew the middle of the road. You just can’t expect television news to give your perspective equitable play in the story or series.

BPI’s hopes for prevailing hinge on a product disparagement statute in the state of South Dakota, where the case is being heard. The statute protects against information known to be false and stating or implying “that an agricultural food product is not safe for consumption by the public.”

If BPI succeeds in getting any concession from ABC, even though limited by the narrow constraints of this so-called “veggie-libel” statute, the chilling effect on aggressive, one-sided investigative reporting could be substantial.

But don’t hold your breath. And, in the meantime, continue to cooperate with investigative journalists with your eyes wide open.

 Jon Harmon

Lance goes Oprah: Is it too late to tell the truth?

With all the hype surrounding Lance Armstrong’s soon-to-be-released interview with Oprah Winfrey, I’m wondering: Is it ever too late to come clean?

(Also: see my earlier post on when to apologize.)

Put aside all the legal issues and look at this from a reputational perspective. When someone has stubbornly denied for years an all-but-insurmountable body of evidence and testimony of witnesses that he used perofrmance-enhancing drugs and engaged in a sophisticated regimen of blood-doping, can he expect to be forgiven by the public once he admits to what we all had long ago assumed he had done?

If Armstrong was content to slip out of public conscienceness, there would be no reason for this too-late and too-limited confession. It just reopns a can of worms.

But if he ever hopes to be relevant again, he had to take this difficult step. The public has an amazing capacity to forgive if not forget, but it can only begin with an admission of the truth. Far better if Armstrong had never lied (and, of course, far better still if he had never cheated). Coming clean with the truth is always the first step to moving on from crisis. Armstrong engendered an enormous reserve of pubic support for being a champion raising money, awareness and hope in the fight against cancer. That’s a fight most of the public would be happy to see him continue to lead. Frankly, most of us couldn’t care less whether he ever races professionally again–quick: Name one other pro cyclist? But we want to see him continue to wage war against cancer and he had crippled his own effectiveness in that crucial role. The public won’t get behind a liar.

*   *   *

Kudos to Wal-Mart for taking two bold, patriotic steps to help address national issues: committing to hire any returning veteran wanting a job and to increase its sourcing of U.S.-produced goods by $50 billion over 10 years. No other company has the scale to effect positive change like Wal-mart can. The company has indeed grown up in terms of corporate social responsibility (as I first noted here back in 2007). The behemoth company will continue to draw attacks from critics on every front imaginable who are best addressed with substantive actions like those announced today.

Pink slime oozes way to PR Disaster of Year

The 2012 Force for Good PR Disaster of the Year goes to “lean finely textured beef.”

Huh? Never heard of it? Perhaps this meat product’s nickname rings a bell: “Pink slime.”

You know you have a crisis on your hands when you’ve so lost control of the very identity of your product that it has become infamous under a grotesquely graphic descriptive term served up by opposition groups.

Lessons learned begin with giving your brand a credible name. While a product or brand name should have positive connotations, if it’s too big a stretch from an unbiased description, it will beg to be forever known by a less-flattering nickname. (That’s how “Obamacare” became the defacto name for “The Affordable Health Care Act.”)

Of course, it doesn’t help when your product has a hideous appreance.

The clincher came when ABC News in March ran an investigative series reporting that the “cheap meat filler pink slime” treated with ammonia was used in more than 70% of the ground beef sold in the U.S. Public disgust and outrage led to supermarket chains and restaurants dropping meats with the filler, all but killing human demand for the meat product.

Manufacturers of “lean finely textured beef” tried to make the case that there was nothing wrong with the meat product, but their voices were hard to hear above the clamor condemning pink slime.

A $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit filed against ABC News by Beef Products, Inc. accuses the TV network of making “false and misleading” statements that “caused consumers to believe that our lean beef is not beef at all – that it’s an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption, and that somehow it got hidden in the meat.” Yep, that’s pretty much exactly what ABC News reported day after day last March.

 

 

Journalism moves beyond straight reporting; PR pros must adjust

The practice of  journalism is rapidly evolving with huge implications to the media relations practitioner.

Remember the ideal of a fair-and-balanced, impartial, “just the facts, ma’am” news reporter? Gone like yesterday’s newspaper.

So says Columbia University’s Tow Center of Digital Journalism in a lengthy report “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

News today is increasingly parsed together by computer algorithm, viewed on smart-phones, reduced to snarky headlines and tweeted and retweeted within like-minded communities. “Citizen journalists” provide instant on-the-scene accounts devoid of fact-checking. (Here‘s another excellent perspective–from Naureen Aqueel in Pakistan–on the integration of cit-j into the new newsroom.)

The result, say the authors of the report:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation. …

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.

Today’s professional journalists must dig deeper, add perspective and nuance. They must inject their personalities into the stories they cover. (Back in the day, they called that “New Journalism”–e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. What’s old is new again.)

The Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman reflects on the Tow Center “manifesto” in a thought-provoking column today (thereby demonstrating this new ideal by adding clarity and insight):

This is an era for the journalist who uses critical thinking to interpret and analyze, whether it’s working with data sets, interviewing aggressively or calling BS on conventional wisdom.

This is an era for the journalist who knows how to put herself into her work. Not, necessarily, her opinions or biases — but her personality, energy and voice. “The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world,” the authors write. “Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist.”

The Tow Center report focuses, of course, on the implications for journalists. But what does all this mean to the PR pro?

My take? We should think about potential news coverage two ways.

  • Hard news”  like earnings and personnel announcements should be kept brief and to the point. What the old dogs among us will remember as “inverted pyramid.” Get the principle facts in the first sentence or two, uncluttered with hyperbole or fluff. Follow that with a single hyper-pertinent quote from the appropriate senior person. Then provide a link to a more detailed summary that leads to another link to the full text. Remember you are writing for news aggregators and your Twitter community. Don’t feel put out that they will read only a sentence or two plus one quote. Be happy you have their momentary attention and work to regain it again and again. (And work diligently to quickly correct misinformation through traditional media, the news aggregators and directly to your followers.)
  • Feature stories and in-depth reporting requires a different approach. Get to know the reporters who cover your company and industry (this hasn’t changed; PR has always been a people profession). Understand each individual’s expertise, interests and quirks. Be on the look-out for ways to invite a writer in and participate in the story. The pay-off is obvious–if the journalist enjoys the experience, so will the readers/viewers.

- Jon Harmon

BP keeps paying through the nose, but will the public stop holding its nose at BP?

Add another $4.5 billion today to the total of still-accruing costs to BP for its massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.  That’s the amount BP agreed to pay the U.S. government in its guilty plea to criminal charges connected with the deaths of 11 off-shore rig workers as well as the not-insignificant matter of lying to Congress.

The $4.5B is on top of the rapidly evaporating $20B in trust funds the oil company set aside to clean up the mess and to compensate the communities and individuals for property damages. All told, the company has booked $38.1B to cover the costs of the spill. But costs may very well exceed that figure; the settlement reached today specifically does not cover fines stipulated by the Clean Water Act that could reach as high as $20B (the Act calls for fines of $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel spilled; multiply the upper figure in that range by five million barrels of oil spilled).

There truly aren’t many companies that could absorb such massive penalties and continue to do business. And, of course, BP’s very deep pockets are a contributing factor in the magnitude of damages assessed to the company. At some point you have to wonder, how much is enough? Still you won’t find too many in the public feeling sorry for the mammoth oil company. Next to the Wall Street “banksters” who collectively deserve much of the blame for the financial credit markets meltdown that precipitated the Great Recession, BP has few peers as a poster-child for corporate malfeasance, though Bernie Madoff deserves a special Dishonorable Mention in the “individual” category.

So it is that even after BP settles all of its criminal and civil legal obligations, it must continue to make progress on the rehabilitation of its reputation. Are oil and gas customers who have stayed away from BP in the after-math of the oil spill satisfied with the fines and penalties assessed the company and in the clean-up and restitution efforts that are now largely complete?

And, finally, are they convinced that BP is a different company now, committed to doing the right thing against a triple-bottom line accounting (people, planet, profit)?

A crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate an organization’s values, or to reevaluate its values. Criminal actions that led to the oil spill and the death of the rig workers came out of a company needing to revaluate its values, as did the well-documented missteps of BP Chairman Tony Heyward, “winner” of Force for Good’s 2010 PR Disaster of the Year. Since then, the company has demonstrated a new value system that can genuinely be applauded: a dedication to the cleanup and restoration of the Gulf shores, and a humility in acknowledging its culpability and its responsibility to make things right.

—Jon Harmon

 

Crisis watch: What American Airlines can learn from the NFL after the ‘worst call ever’


It keeps getting worse for American Airlines.

Already operating in bankruptcy, embroiled in a rancorous strike with its pilots, and fighting to stave off a take-over bid by US Air, American Airlines has had a week from hell.

First was a scathingly hilarious op-ed in the New York Times, A Trans-Atlantic Trip Turns Kafkaesque, which began:

You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor.… You need to stop. 

Then today the airline admitted that a row of seats had become unbolted from the floor and tipped over in mid-flight – on three different planes in the past week (!).

According to the Associated Press, an American spokesperson…

said an initial review indicated that there could be a problem with the way the seats fit into tracks on the floor of the Boeing 757, but technical teams from the airline “are looking at everything.” Asked if seats had ever come loose on an American flight before last week, (she) replied, “Not that I’m aware of.”

“American Airlines’ reputation is in free fall,” writes Daniel Gross in Newsweek today.

Ok, it’s easy to pile on (and we certainly will hear more on this seat business from the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman, prolonging AA’s agony). But let’s focus on what the company should do.

  • Ground any suspect planes immediately. American Airlines has now taken this obvious first step, grounding eight Boeing 757s. But they need to make sure no other planes in their fleet fall victim to this strange malady—every seat row in every plane should get an immediate inspection. Thoroughness is essential to begin winning back the trust of the public after such an embarrassing series of events.
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  • Get the facts straight, then correct erroneous reporting. Spokespeople need to thoroughly understand American Airline’s safety record. “Not that I’m aware of” is not a good answer to a question that was sure to be asked. Remember that in the absence of solid information, others will feel free to speculate, and discrepancies over even the most basic information will appear all over the media. For example, some media outlets (including CNN) continue to report that there have been two AA planes with unfastened seats; other outlets insist that there have been three. Which is it? Why isn’t American Airlines clearing up the confusion? It just contributes to the whole Keystone Cops aura that the airline is exuding these days.
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  • Don’t blame your employees, but don’t be too quick to rule out potential causes. The AP story states:(The AA spokesperson) was adamant, however, in saying that the incidents were not the result of sabotage by workers. American’s union employees are unhappy about pending layoffs and cuts in pay and benefits that American has imposed since filing for bankruptcy protection in November.  Her instincts are right in not putting the blame on employees, but how can the airline so definitively rule out any potential causes until they understand what isto blame? A better answer might have been: “We have no reason to think any incidents were intentional. We will continue to investigate this matter until we understand what caused them. The safety of our passengers is our highest priority.”UPDATE: American Airlines is now saying it has determined the cause of the problem, improperly installed clamps.
  • Understand that your reputation has been seriously harmed with far-reaching consequences. American Airlines’ position in each of its negotiations (with the pilots, with US Air, with the flying public) has been weakened. Public confidence has been eroded. To pretend otherwise will only prolong and deepen the airline’s crisis.

American Airlines should take a lesson from Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League. Embroiled in a lengthy dispute with its referees, the NFL brought in less-qualified replacement refs which naturally led to suspect officiating and ultimately a devalued product to the fans. Still, Goodell and the league’s owners would not accede to the ref’s demands, though miniscule against the scale of the multi-billion-dollar NFL.

But all that changed last Monday night, when replacement refs blew a crucial call on the last play of a nationally televised game. What became widely known as the “worst call ever” tipped the balance of the referee dispute. The NFL clearly had no remaining fan support for continuing the lockout and the the very credibility of the league was being questioned. The owners wisely folded their hand two days later. On Friday, Goodell issued an apology of sorts to NFL fans, though he avoided using the words “apologize” or “sorry,” and it smacked a bit of arrogance.

So AA, here’s a plan to win back trust in your airline:

  1. Put the seat debacle behind you by inspecting and fixing every plane that could possibly be affected.
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  2. Commit to clear and informed statements from your spokespeople, and quick action to correct misinformation.
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  3. Settle your dispute with your most valuable employees. Do you really expect people to fly on your airline when your pilots are on strike?
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  4. Make a real, sincere effort to satisfy your customers with a safe, reliable and yes, enjoyable experience. It could begin with the CEO sending an electronic copy of that nasty NYT op-ed to every employee in the airline with a note saying he’s embarrassed by the way American Airlines has at times recently lost its way, and asking everyone in the company to commit to doing better. Think of that op-ed as the moral equivalent of a “before” picture someone dedicated to losing weight hangs up on the refrigerator for motivation.

Do those four things and number 5 will be imminently achievable:

Get your fiscal house in order to deliver consistent, sustainable profits.

- Jon Harmon

 

If even Joe Pa couldn’t resist pressure to cover up an ugly scandal, are we sure we would have done better?

Covering up a problem always makes it worse. It’s axiomatic in crisis management. And yet even the strong and the brave succomb to the pressure to keep the ugly hidden.

Such a sad reminder of this today in not-so Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, where Penn State continues to feel the repercussions of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up that allowed his preditory behavior to continue for so long.

 

Yesterday, the university did the previously unthinkable in removing the seven-foot bronze statue to beloved coach Joe Paterno and the surrounding memorial, calling it “an obstacle to healing.” Gone too are the plaques detailing his many winning seasons. And now we can’t even describe Paterno as the winningest coach in college football history, as the NCAA today vacated all PSU football victories from 1998 to 2011. According to US News and World Report, the NCAA found that Paterno and other university officials “had concealed allegations of Sandusky’s actions, and concluded their motive was to protect the football program and the school from negative publicity.”

The NCAA sanctions will all but shut down Penn State’s football program, which has been so much a part of the university’s identity. So now a new leadership team at PSU will begin the long, hard process to restore trust and build a new identity stressing excellence apart from football. Meanwhile, litigation from the abuse victims will drag on, a continuing reminder of the ignomy of scandal and cover-up. One can only imagine how many victims of abuse might have been spared if Paterno and the others had acted swiftly against Sandusky–if they had stood up and said “No more,” and let the sun shine on the ugly problem no matter the immediate consequences. It would have taken courage and leadership, qualities Paterno seemed to have in abundance.

All of which underscores how hard it is to do the right thing when confronted with credible evidence of wrong-doing in the organizations we represent and believe in. We must redouble our commitment to get after the truth quickly and push back against the inevitable pressures to just keep it all quiet.

- Jon Harmon

 

Facebook needs to step up its transparency

Ironic though it may be, the world's largest social network (with a misson "to make the world more open and connected") needs to step up its commitment to transparency.

As I write this post, Facebook stock is down another 7% today to $27.50. That's a 28% drop from the $38 IPO price two weeks ago, and an even harder fall for the retail investors who got in at between $40 and $42 a few minutes after the stock went public.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg who at IPO instantly became the 29th richest person on earth according to Bloomberg's Billionaire Index has fallen off the list completely, even as he and his new bride have tried to enjoy their honeymoon. There have been cries for Zuckerberg to end the honeymoon early and make a statement, just say something! to calm investors.

Others have sensibly pointed out that an abrupt end to the Zuckerberg honeymoon might indicate panic and further unsettle investors. The optics around a message can be as important as the message itself, particularly if you really have nothing new to say.

More to the point, Facebook's executive team needs to step up to the realities of being a publicly traded company. That means quickly addressing accusations that insiders and participating bank partners knew a lot more than was public concerning falling revenue projections. Investor lawsuits have already been filed, the SEC is kicking off an investigation and Congressional hearings clearly are coming soon (expect a circus act of grand-standing Congressmen salivating at the opportunity of grilling Zuckerberg on behalf of aggrieved investor constituents).

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” Zuckerberg wrote in a letter to potential investors that was part of Facebook’s filing. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”

It's a fantastic thing to have an aspirational mission–it's what drives employees to greatness. But you also have to have a steadfast commitment to integrity in everything you do, including how material information is shared. Zuckerberg needs to return to work Monday totally committed to unearthing and releasing true and complete answers to the accusations. And he needs to commit to conduct open investor webcasts regularly, assuring that his new bosses, stockholders big and small, receive the information they are entitled to.

- Jon Harmon