Most of the world now knows about the “United Airlines incident” after a video of a 69-year-old passenger being forcibly removed from his seat went viral earlier this week.
The video, shot from another passenger’s phone, showed clearly the screaming man being dragged down the aisle, leaving him bloodied and terrified – along with the over- booked flight of witnesses.
Within hours of the video being captured, #United was the leading hashtag worldwide on Twitter. Even in China, where Twitter and Facebook don’t exist, more than 97,000 comments had been recorded on one Weibo post by the end of the day, along with a new hashtag #Chineselivesmatter.
Following the Twitter (and Weibo) eruption of the United Airlines incident, we’re reminded us just how vital a solid social media communications strategy is to any business, particularly in the event of a crisis.
When a crisis does hit a business, social media excels as a way to spread news in a quick and efficient manner. Bad news will always travel fast, and these days it’s likely to gain traction on social platforms before the traditional media get to it. It’s important to have steps in place to manage reaction in the midst of a social media storm and how monitoring early warning alerts of any change in volume or sentiment around your brand will give your team a chance to prepare for what’s coming.
When tackling a social media crisis, I believe there are 5 essential steps that need to be included in any PR plan:
Even if you can’t predict what might set off a social media meltdown, the steps you will need to take are the same: Respond, reassure, research, respond again, and react. Your plan needs to state how you will do this within the tight time demands of social media. Who gets notifications? Who can access the Twitter account? How slow is your approval process? Who has final sign off? Contact details for spokespeople? Have pre-approved statements available, this will make the reaction process far more manageable.
Every business should have social and media monitoring set up to capture what is being said about its brand so that if there’s a spike in negativity, or an emerging issue, you can react instantly. Frankly, a Google alert isn’t really sufficient. For effective monitoring, you need to pin point what it is you want to listen for. There are 6000 tweets sent every second, so understanding the language around an issue will make it quicker and easier to find the relevant ones. Successful monitoring should include daily reporting, early warning alerts if there is a change in volume or sentiment, or mentions from highly influential critics.
Prepare your posts.
When something happens, you need to be out, publicly, with a response in about 10 minutes. Have a holding tweet at the ready, or a post that acknowledges that something has happened – even if you can’t give out specifics, being the first to acknowledge a situation can go a long way. Even a post that says “We understand an incident has occurred. We are finding out more information and will update in 10 minutes” is better than nothing.
Pick your platform.
Twitter is the place for breaking news. Facebook is the place for connecting and seeking feedback. Instagram should not be used anywhere near a corporate crisis. Understanding the difference of your social media platforms and having sufficient followers to ensure you can engage when needed is important.
Respond swiftly and carefully.
It is essential that in any situation involving your business, you are the first person to weigh in and that you have the right information on hand. If you do something wrong admit, apologize, and accept responsibility. The sooner you do, the less likely that your original stuff up will spiral out of control. It’s important to not add fuel to the fire. Understand how your situation is being reacted to on social media and plan your responses accordingly. Even if you do believe your actions are justified, pause to think about how they are perceived.
Chances are, your business is not in the habit of dragging people out of plane seats while being filmed on a smartphone, but there are lessons in United’s response for everyone.
Take the case of the Sunshine Coast Health Centre, a well-respected addiction treatment centre in Powell River where 20-year-old Brandon Jansen died of a fentanyl overdose last March. The centre was getting a lot of bad publicity with family members saying it was easy for Brandon to get contraband drugs within three days of entering treatment.
But investigations by both the RCMP and the regulator – Vancouver Coastal Health’s Community Care Facilities Licensing authority – determined there were no contraventions of rules and regulations.
In fact, the facility had consistently maintained a low risk rating with no other critical incidents or any drug-related incidents reported since the facility was first licensed in 2004. Yet, the centre’s reputation was taking a beating.
CEO Melanie Jordan has much to say about what treatment is – and what it isn’t. Addiction treatment centres are not prisons or lockup. Clients have rights and freedom.
Accredited staff members treat people for many types of addictions including alcoholism and prescription drugs abuse. Root causes of addiction are addressed including mental health and physical issues. Melanie Jordan wanted to speak publicly about the tragic death in her facility and have a voice in the search for solutions to stop the unprecedented number of deaths caused by fentanyl.
She enthusiastically embraced the concept of being front and centre at a news conference to be held November 14th. A Media Advisory was sent out inviting reporters and videographers to attend.
As the news conference got underway, news cameras quickly swung to the doorway where three visitors had appeared: Brandon Jansen’s mother Michelle, her son Nicholas and her lawyer.
They politely listened as the news conference went forward with Melanie Jordan providing reporters with the written investigation reports that found her centre was operating within the regulations.
But her most important message was aimed at the government and the medical profession.
Staff at the centre had not been permitted to administer the opiate antidote naloxone and it was possible that could have saved Brandon’s life.
Since Brandon’s death, the centre has received permission to train staff to administer naloxone and the staff physician can treat clients with Suboxone that takes away the craving for opiates.
With more than a dozen news organizations present at the news conference, this important information was received by the public across Canada. The record was set straight. The way forward was articulated. The news went out – all at once.
And the voice of Brandon Jansen’s family was also heard. They held their own media briefing following the news conference so as much information as possible surrounding this tragic death would be in the public forum.
Melanie Jordan and the Sunshine Coast Health Centre have standing at an inquest into Brandon Jansen’s death scheduled for January. This will be another forum where voices will be heard.
Donald Trump is breaking every conceivable PR101, 202 and even PR PhD rule and remains completely unaffected by it. In fact, the more he breaks the rules, the more popular he becomes. So, are those basic public relation rules that we all know outdated? His communication style is aggressive to the point of stand-up comedy; more propaganda, less public relations. But, for argument’s sake, should we throw out what we know and adopt the shoot-from-the-lip style Trump embodies – especially in the face of a crisis?
In a political nomination campaign, particularly in the United States, you can do the following, apparently without fear of law suits or reprisals:
Call opponents liars
Threaten to punch protestors in the face
Be yourself – no matter what
Make fun of the media who carry your message
Say Trump wins the election. Should you or your company adopt his style and become more aggressive in the face of attacks by the media or critics? Should you go on the offensive to try to galvanize your supporters? Should you simply thumb your nose at powerful media and treat it and your detractors with disdain?
Consider this: If “the Donald” was your CEO in a crisis and talking about your company’s critics or competitors as he is talking now about his opponents and others, how do you think it would affect your brand? I suspect his board of directors would be the first to say, “Donald, you’re fired!”
In the real world of business, you simply can’t do what “the Donald” is doing. Why? Because politics is not business reality. So, in light of Trump’s recent antics in the media spotlight, here are some lessons we can all learn:
Never attack your competitors
The first rule of good public relations is you never attack competitors. Exxon didn’t gloat publically when BP sprung a leak in the Gulf of Mexico. When Walmart parmesan cheese was found to contain cellulose recently, Safeway didn’t run attack ads about it. When you begin throwing stones it’s too easy for the media or the public to pick up some of those same rocks and toss them back at you.
Don’t call opponents liars
“The Donald” calls his opponents liars. He does this often. It’s his go-to pitch. In a heated public debate which your company may be involved in, calling opponents liars will galvanize opposition and lose you public support. When you lose your cool, you lose – period. The best strategy is to stick to your facts day in and day out and to let your facts ultimately win the day. Keep a level-head because the more nasty and out of control your opponents get, the more support you will get.
Don’t threaten to punch protestors in the face
When asked, many a CEO might agree privately, that in certain instances they’d like to punch a protester in the face. Now imagine a big project, like B.C.’s pipelines and Site C dam proposals. Imagine a CEO saying on TV, “I’d like to punch that protestor in the face.” They’d be looking for a new career immediately and the project would be dead.
You can be your own worst enemy
In Trump’s case, this means his shoot-from-the-lip style is not a good idea in a crisis. Being yourself is actually good advice for a CEO facing a crisis, as long as being yourself means you show that you care, admit your mistakes, are truthful and outline a plan to make things right. If you are shaken by what happened, allow it to show, allow your concern to show through – be human. But, if being yourself means you go on the offensive and attack everyone in your path, then save that for the boardroom.
Media don’t like to be made fun of
The media, including social media, carry your message. Making fun of media pundits, reporters, bloggers and analysts is never a good idea. It may feel to you like you are winning but the “win” is temporary. They always get the last word. You should correct factual errors they have made, point out your positive message, and then take the high road. The public is smarter than you think. They will get your message and understand when the media is being unfair.
The bottom line?
Everyone likes to copy a winner; business schools teach investment success models such as Warren Buffett’s. But, we also laud those who break the mold and go against the establishment. Case in point? Donald Trump.
If you copy Donald Trump’s nomination strategy in your business I would say that you do so at your own peril. Right now, Donald Trump doesn’t need real answers, he just needs one-liners, of which he seems to have an endless supply. When pushed into a corner he goes on a personal attack, calls someone a liar, raises a boogeyman or mentions 9-11.
A nomination campaign is not the business world or even the real world. It is more like reality TV. There is only one measuring stick: winning, and the focus is extremely short term. There is no tomorrow.
Successful businesses have a long time horizon to consider because the public won’t forget and you don’t get to completely rebrand every four years like a political party does. Unlike a new political leader, a new CEO doesn’t make all the old negative news magically disappear.
The company only came clean on its deceptive practice of programming its cars to conform to emission standards only while being tested after U.S. authorities threatening to deny certifying 2016 models.
It is one thing for a company like General Motors to face a crisis like the faulty ignition switches that claimed multiple lives and cost the company $900 Million in fines. It’s quite another thing when a company creates its own crisis.
VW now faces fines up to $18 billion in the U.S. alone on top of multiple lawsuits. The company has withdrawn its affected diesel cars from sale here in Canada. Company management in Wolfsburg has warned employees of job cuts as the car sales nose dive and the company sets aside billions of Euros in a war chest.
The CEO of the company took days before he fell on his sword and resigned.
The company was slow to follow basic crisis management: Mess Up. Fess Up. Dress Up.
Key messages from the new CEO were week and predictable:
We are committed to fixing the problems ASAP
The affected vehicles are safe to drive
We are developing a remedy that will meet emissions standards
The world is watching the biggest automaker as it struggles with one of the biggest breaches of public confidence in automotive history.
Volkswagen’s fall from grace has been sudden and staggering. If the company has a crisis communications plan calling for timely and meaningful communications with the public, it has not been put into effective use.
Fans devoted to hot yoga typically embrace the heat, but in recent days Bikram’s founder Bikram Choudhury is sweating for a different reason. The famed guru is currently facing six U.S. civil lawsuits for rape or sexual assault. The latest legal case has been filed by a Vancouver woman who claims Choudhury sexually assaulted her while she was yoga training and working with him.
When a negative allegation is made, even if it’s eventually unproven or dismissed like in the case of John Furlong, the damage is done. It takes years to build up a brand, but only seconds to have it shattered by slander or harmful rumours. There is much at stake for the reputation of Choudhury’s trademarked empire. With 650 yoga studios around the world including 29 in B.C., a breach of trust will have a detrimental impact on Choudhury along with the businesses that spent years building their individual success upon the multimillionaire’s personal brand.
This is where crisis management communications comes into play. Peak Partner Alyn Edwards was recently interviewed on CBC News to discuss what local Bikram franchises can do to confront the current reputation crisis. He also looks at the dangers of why it’s precarious to build a brand around a single person’s name. Unless you have an irreproachable reputation, it’s impossible to escape the burden of risk. Watch Alyn’s interview below for expert PR tips on what brands can do to mitigate the impact of a crisis. *Hint – it starts with having positive key messages and sticking to them.
People often think of public relations only in marketing terms. How can we use PR to build our brand? If they don’t see an immediate payoff, they ask why bother? They are missing the link between positive PR and saving the brand during a crisis. Positive PR is like getting a flu shot, it won’t guarantee you don’t get the bad news flu, but it will make the symptoms less severe.
When a crisis hits, the first step reporters take is to type your name and your company’s name into Google. They are looking for a general impression. What another reporter has said about you will be given a great deal of weight. Reporters trust other reporters above all others.
Step two for a reporter is to search your name and the key crisis words like “fire,” “layoffs” or “complaints,” whatever best describes the crisis. They are looking for how you handled previous events and if there are any stories about your preparedness or lack thereof.
They will search all your social media channels, personal and corporate. They will dig hard and they are really good at it.
Within a few minutes they will form a picture of your corporate or personal character and that will frame an approach to the story in the hours, days, or weeks ahead. It is a picture you will find very hard to change during a crisis. For media there is no grey. It’s black and white, you are the good guy or the bad guy, the victim or the perpetrator.
Try it right now. Search your name, your company’s name. Now search again and add in a crisis word or two. See what comes up. That’s what a reporter will know about you today if bad news strikes in the next few minutes. If you have been keeping a low profile, not telling your positive stories, then reporters will find a void. This void will be filled with bad news when disaster strikes. Your bad news flu just became pneumonia. It might be fatal.
The most overlooked component to effective crisis management is building a positive public reputation in advance of any crisis. You can’t control when a crisis will strike but you can control how you build your reputation in advance of the bad news. This reputation will be the foundation you stand on during the crisis. Create a public perception of your company as a positive member of the community. It will help shape how media and the public will view the crisis story and your efforts to deal with it.
There is an old saying in politics, “If you don’t define yourself, your opponents will define you.” Business is no different. If you don’t define yourself now, the media, your critics or the crisis will do it for you.
An organization with a good public reputation will take a hit but will weather the crisis better than one that the public first hears about when a crisis has struck and the blame game is in full swing.
Layers of truth have defined every crisis I have been involved with during my 15 years in public relations. While it seems obvious that a client would recount their story fully when first meeting with the team they’ve hired to help them, in my experience that has not always been the case. I’ve learned that people often ‘forget’ major details, and it can take a few days or longer for all the information to come out. Indeed, in some cases it never does.
As the story of Jian Ghomeshi and his accusers unfolded last week, and the media and public narrative around him shifted, I asked myself: If Ghomeshi had asked Peak to work with him through this crisis, would we have said yes?
On Monday, the answer was yes. By Thursday, the answer was no.
When Ghomeshi first published his 1,600-word Facebook post last Sunday, some assumed it had been written without assistance from his publicist or the PR firm he had hired to handle his crisis, yet it displayed fundamental principles of crisis communications 101:
Take control of the message and frame the narrative
Be credible and human
Provide media with enough detail to cover the story
His confession was shocking and intimate, and was directly communicated to a huge audience via a social channel that is both personal and viral. In the first 48 hours, tens of thousands expressed their support for him and shared his post, which had soon garnered over 100,000 Likes. His support was palpable and very real. By all accounts it was a PR win.
But, over the course of the week, more women came forward and more accusations of non-consensual, unprovoked sexual violence were laid against him. The stories these women told were shocking, disturbing and offensive. Doubt began to collect around Ghomeshi’s side of the story. People began to question what he didn’t reveal in that candid Facebook post.
By mid-week, Ghomeshi had begun to lose Facebook Likes at a rate of 350 an hour. By the end of the week, he had been dropped by Navigator, his crisis communications firm, and Rock-it Promotions, his longstanding PR firm. He was also dropped by his publisher, two speaking firms and an electro-pop singer whose career he managed through his production company. Perhaps most importantly, Toronto’s Metro police have now opened a sexual assault investigation into the allegations against him.
Public opinion is stacking up against Ghomeshi and has moved to the side of Ghomeshi’s accusers.
Did Ghomeshi reveal everything to Navigator when he first met with them? Instinct and experience lead me to believe he withheld major details. As a PR professional advising clients in a time of crisis, you need your client to be forthcoming with information, accept the consequences of their actions, and work collaboratively with you to manage their brand and public perception. Without equal measures of credibility and accountability—and without co-operation—planning and implementing a successful crisis commuications strategy becomes almost impossible. Without these elements, I would never want to support a client through a crisis.
At the end of the day, it is up to the client to decide if they want to move forward with the agreed-upon communications strategy. But PR consultants also have the option of saying no, and at Peak we have said no to potential clients in the past. Ghomeshi, had he sought our expertise, would have been another. By the end of last week, it was clear Navigator and Rock-it Promotions felt something similar.
We shall see how Ghomeshi manages public perception and his brand in the weeks and months going forward. For now, though, as Ghomeshi’s layers of truth begin to curl and peel away, we will wait to see what week two of the crisis brings.
For the last three days the biggest water cooler topic across the country has been CBC’s firing of Jian Ghomeshi.
Ghomeshi‘s $55-million lawsuit and the numerous allegations about Ghomeshi’s violent sexual behavior, lead many to conclude that he will never work in the media again. Most people are wondering: “Who would hire him?”
While the CBC won’t take Ghomeshi back (ever), I expect he’ll have little problem bouncing back in his successful media career. Here’s why:
Many talented film, sports and media stars have had similar moments of “heightened awareness,” about their abnormal or illegal sexual behavior, yet most have gone on with their careers. I don’t recall Roman Polanski or Woody Allen making apologies for their disturbing sexual relationships. The revelations resulted in a loss of fans, but both continued with their successful careers as film directors.
In 2009 David Letterman issued a preemptive strike to a breaking scandal by using his national talk show to drop a five-minute bombshell in his monologue. He used the platform to talk about his affair with a coworker only six months after he was married. His show and contract with CBS continued like nothing happened and his marriage is still intact.
Ghomeshi’s incident is reminiscent of the Marv Albert scandal in 1997. Albert had charges filed against him for viciously biting and having forced sex with a woman he’d had a relationship with for several years. Marv was a very big personality in the USA at the time. He’d appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” over 100 times with his presentation of the plays of the month. And he’d been the play-by-play voice of the New York Knicks basketball team for 30 years leading up to this incident and had done national broadcasts for Super Bowls, Stanley Cup finals and basketball finals.
Albert lost all his jobs and contracts at the time. His lawyers and PR advisors recommended he take a six-month long ‘time out’. After the court case and Marv Albert’s guilty plea, he did a series of high-profile media appearances. In a one week blitz he appeared on Larry King on CNN, David Letterman on CBS, Katie Couric on NBC’s ”The Today Show” and “20/20” with Barbara Walters on ABC.
The PR strategy was for Marv to tell his story fully and quickly. He overexposed himself for a week. Being an experienced media veteran, he was sympathetic and got a passing grade in the court of public opinion. He then stopped the interviews.
At 74 years old, Marv Albert is still active today, calling NBA and NFL games on American TV networks and he is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
We are still in week one of a drama that hasn’t fully played out. Ghomeshi issued his preemptive strike online. He should now take a ‘time out’ and let the story fade.
Will another Canadian network provide him with a similar platform as the CBC’s? Will he get a gig with NPR who aired Q in US markets? I think he’ll land somewhere. He’s a talented broadcaster with a loyal following. He’ll be back.
I was called by BCBusiness magazine writer, Kristen Hilderman, with the question: Does every company need to know how to communicate in a crisis?
The short answer is yes. Any company or organization can face a crisis requiring them to work with the speed of social media to protect their reputation. Once a worst case scenario hits, the scramble is on to do and say the right things.
This subject is extremely topical because Vancouver’s two recent SkyTrain shutdowns, in the same week, were aggravated by poor communication with many hapless commuters trapped on trains.
This followed Lululemon founder, Chip Wilson, creating his own crisis by implying women who require larger sizes shouldn’t buy the company’s yoga tights.
He got publicity alright. But it was the wrong kind. The online petition fell just short of calling for a complete boycott of Lululemon stores and their products.
Laterally speaking, it was the Mount Polley mine tailings pond dam failure releasing that brought crisis communications to the forefront. The flood of 10 million cubic metres of waste water, plus more than four million cubic metres of sediment flowing through a failed tailings pond dam, created its own flood of public outcry and media questions.
Imperial Metals seemed slow off the mark — they communicated with a news release on their website. That quickly got stale and nobody in the head office was available to respond to media questions.
So what are best practices in these situations? Have a crisis communications plan. Ensure that it is practical and that it works. Run a crisis simulation so you can find and resolve any glitches.
That plan should be a quick-response blueprint for anything that might imperil your organization’s reputation.
Make sure the plan is short and workable. Templates for holding statements, fact sheets, topics and key messages, news releases, media advisories, as well as a resume of predictable questions and recommended answers, should be appendices. Crisis communicators should be able to use the templates to cut and paste to meet current needs.
Select key spokespeople and put them through media training. There is a well vetted methodology for managing crisis communications by communicating effectively with media and stakeholders.
With all that in place, issues and crisis management is still very challenging, as those who have been dealing with recent events know all too well. But there is a way through and preparation is everything.
Peak Communicators is excited to be partnering with the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce to host two half-day seminars on building, enhancing and protecting your reputation through strong communications initiatives.
Taking place on April 16th at the Capri Hotel, attendees can learn the secret sauce behind building your brand and business. The session will also discuss how to protect your good reputation by identifying an issue before it becomes a crisis and delivering strong messages to internal and external stakeholders and the public.
Other topics to be discussed include:
Building a brand and profile through public relations and media initiatives
How to find and tell your news and your story
Why a crisis communications plan is necessary and how to develop one
Issues management and crisis communications
Using social media tools to build, enhance and protect reputation
The session will be hosted by two senior Peak consultants, Alyn Edwards and Chris Olsen. Both were news reporters for 30 years and are experts in helping companies tell their stories.