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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.

Lessons from White House attack Twitter hoax: Vigilance; don’t ‘stop loss’

The hacking of the AP’s Twitter account  this week–about a fictitious attack on the White House–sent the stock market diving reminiscent of the “flash crash” of 2010. Two quick observations:

  • Hackers can be more sophisticated than the social media sites we’re all using. If they want to get past your social media firewall, they almost certainly can. So be vigilant in monitoring your own Twitter and Facebook sites, and even your corporate blog–look what happened to Joel Osteen last week. If a mischievous hacker has taken over your social identity, act quickly to let stakeholders and the media know about the fraudulent posts. Redouble your efforts to beef up your cyber security–but know that you’re still vulnerable. (Here’s a very helpful FAQ from Bloomberg about corporate hacking.)
  • The stock exchanges really need to address susceptibility to flash crashes that certainly unsettle investors and undoubtedly cost many of them significant amounts of their savings. And here’s a tip for the individual investor: We used to be told that we should maintain “stop-loss” orders on our investments to automatically trigger in the event a share price declines precipitously, thereby limiting our losses. In the case of a flash crash, doing nothing is far better than automatically selling into a steep drop that quickly reverses back up. Stop-losses are so 20th century.

- Jon Harmon

 

CSR champion or 2nd Amendment stalwart? Wal*Mart at cross-roads over “assault weapons”

Wal-Mart once again finds itself at a reputational inflection point, in the cross-hairs of critics for the sale of so-called assault rifles just as the national debate over gun control comes to a crescendo.

After making two strong statements earlier this month on its commitment to CSR (detailed in my previous post), the world’s #1 retailer must decide whether it is better off to forego the sales of the profitable military-style, semi-automatic weapons consistent with its family-friendly identity … or stand-up for the undiluted Second Amendment rights of its gun-loving customers.

With recent mass killings fresh in the national pysche, Wal-mart is not going to get a pass on this issue. Company execs initially declined a White House invitation to participate in VP Joe Biden’s taskforce on gun violence, then relented and attended the meeting January 10 (a company spokesperson saying the company had “underestimated the expectation to attend“).

Now comes pressure to act from both the Administration and the groundswell of well-organized gun-violence protesters. With the bill that would ban assault weapons facing long odds in Senate, let alone the Republican-controlled House, a move by Wal-Mart to remove semi-automatic rifles from its stores would be applauded as a significant step toward common-sense reform by gun-control advocates–but be seen as a major betrayal by gun-rights advocates. Wal-Mart has millions of customers in each camp and no easy choice.

According to a Bloomberg story, Wal-Mart  already adheres to “eight of ten criteria of the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership” including background checks and videotaping of firearms purchases. But the flash point is the selling of semi-automatic “assault weapons” (or “Modern Sporting Rifle“, if you prefer) at about 1,200 of Wal-Mart’s almost 4,000 stores in the U.S.

Here’s betting that Wal-Mart opts to discontinue the sale of the controversial semi-automatics while strongly reaffirming its commitment to responsibly sell guns and ammunition for hunting and sports-shooting. And maybe run a big sale on clay-pigeons and shot-gun shells.

- Jon Harmon

 

 

‘People Are Not Lettuce’ is just the tip of the iceberg

Picking up where I left off in my last post … I've written for my sons a collection of pithy aphorisms, nuggets of wisdom and life perspective, most of which they've heard me speak, and some of which I've handed down from things I remember my father telling me.

Each of my sons receives the ever-expanding collection, titled "People Are Not Lettuce," when he graduates from high school, and revisions at other momentous occasions.

The eponymous piece (that is, the one that gave the collection its title) has two parts, and it goes like this:

  • If you have two heads of lettuce in your fridge, one opened and one still in its plastic wrap, and the opened one has started to get some brown leaves, you can pull off the brown leaves and finish that head before opening the other head, but if you do, you’ll always be eating old, wilting lettuce. Throw away the old lettuce when it starts going bad, and enjoy the new one.
  • People are not lettuce. Hold on to valued friendships if you can.

Don't you feel better knowing I have raised my children with such enduring wisdom?

- Jon Harmon