For days the sexual abuse scandal broke, Penn State University did not put forward a single human being – leadership or spokesperson -- to answer questions from media and the public.
This breaks every rule of modern crisis communications. As an institution, Penn State knows this. The university is home to the prestigious Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications. It has a College of Communications.
It puts on conferences on crisis communications, like the one in 2009 where an expert told agriculture people that speed of response is critical to maintaining credibility and trust (picture). There's also a 2006 Penn State draft crisis communications plan floating around the Internet.
So what happened?
How did Penn State make its situation far worse by violating one of the most basic tenets of crisis management?
We can assume that its crisis plan doesn't have a section titled, "Allegations of Sexual Abuse of a Minor By An Official and Related Perjury Or Inaction By Other Officials Who Had Information." Or maybe there are guidelines but those went out the window when the president promised "unconditional support" for two of the people involved. Maybe the board was never coached in how to use the plan. Maybe they've never seen a crisis plan at all.
Perhaps lawyers convinced the university to hunker down. Or maybe somebody thought any backlash from stonewalling the press would be mitigated by whatever action they're planning to take. Maybe it's happening too fast. Maybe there's lack of consensus.
Hard to say.
All we know is that Penn State has taken the position to not address the public in real time.
Make no mistake about it. Penn State's communications is a crisis in and of itself, one that will add months of life and millions of dollars to the situation. People are going to lose their jobs.
The lesson here is not that your company or university needs a crisis communications plan.
The lesson from Penn State is that your crisis plan is useless if it hasn't established how you will respond to situations nobody saw coming. That includes horrible acts and cover-up by people in positions of trust.
. . . . . . . . .
Two weeks after a so-called “advocacy journalist” pretended to be a conservative billionaire in a call with Wisconsin's lefty hatin’ governor, a couple of activists pretended to represent a fake Islamist group in a meeting with righty hatin’ NPR executives.
What’s going on out there? This:
Reality media has evolved into the new gotchaism. | This was inevitable. Reality content is far more exciting – and commercially valuable -- when the cleaning lady turns out to be the CEO, the volunteer turns out to be a multimillionaire, and the liberal donor turns out to be a conservative front group with a secret camera.
Mainstream media is more than happy to let activists and propagandists create news. | Remember those quaint times when news outlets considered not running stories that originated from unsavory sources like the National Enquirer? Cute. Those days aren’t just over, they’ve been replaced with a new ethic of anything goes. Today a surreptitious video posted on YouTube can carry just as much weight as the trench coat-donning reporter on the scene. In today’s hyper-competitive news media market, the questionable means to good content has become just another aspect of covering a controversy.
Disingenuousness is a PR problem waiting to happen. The goal of gotchaism is to catch corporate execs, politicians, thought-leaders and institutions being true to the agendas their opponents accuse them of hiding. You’re going to see many more hidden-identity stunts like the NPR sting, and more investigations like the one that uncovered prominent professors who had been paid by Gaddafi's PR machine to write positive things about Libya’s democratic potential.
The new era of opposition outing isn’t targeting just your actions. It’s challenging the validity of your public persona.
. . . . . . . . . .
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)chair/CEO Rosanna M. Fiske sent a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, which is investigating the General Service Administration's use of PR firms, specifically a Kansas City crisis firm hired to help with an environmental issue on a nearby federal property. Fiske's letter urges the Subcommittee to "consider the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs on behalf of the federal government."
. . . . . . .
Like many PR people, I've done work for public entities and government offices. I understand how public contracts can get people riled up. So it makes sense for you as head of the Public Relations Society of America to argue our profession's relevance in your letter to the Senate Subcommittee of Contracting Oversight. Thanks for that.
But I have to take serious exception with the tone of your letter because you paint a picture that in the long run is far more pejorative than politicians calling us flacks and spin doctors.
Your letter emphasizes that the role of public relations is effective communications based on really good intentions. You imply that taxpayers and their watchdogs have no reason to be anything but thankful for government PR contracts, because our industry's only purpose is to provide information so that we may create mutual understanding and serve the public good by getting people to stop smoking and other nice things.
But this description is spin. Unadulterated, accentuate-the-positive-eliminate-the-negative public relations spin. And everyone knows it.
The truth is that we are in the business of influence.
Sure, we should do things ethically and with a mind toward the greater good. But that's the means, not the end. PR people get hired to achieve someone else's bottom line: sell product, win votes, improve share value, create support, make an embarrassing controversy go away.
The father of modern PR, Edward Bernays, came up with the first true description of our profession when he coined the term, "The Engineering of Consent." He didn't call it "The Informing of the Public About Pressing Social Issues."
Yet over the last two decades this notion has become the great disconnect between PRSA and the working world of PR, especially the consulting side. Out here we get clients by showing we can get results. We only hope our competitors are saying they should be hired because their singular mission is to "advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information."
Not that it's true anyway. Yes, there are many PR people who represent good causes and all things beneficial to children and other living things. But there are also as many PR people – and PRSA members – who represent questionable candidates, fatty (but mighty tasty) cheeseburgers, corporations being sued by the EPA and more than a few controversial public works projects. In almost all of these situations, good and bad, public relations people are packaging and managing information to advance the interests they work for. You're doing the same thing right now.
The point is that public relations people are not journalists. It has never done us any good to pretend we are.
The sooner our profession acknowledges the realities of what we do and why we're hired, the sooner we can deal straight-up with legitimate questions about government paying for our kind of expertise.
Steven Silvers (APR)
. . . . . . . . . .
Guest post by Michele Ames
In Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice faces a host of inexplicable anomalies: two-sided mirrors, time running forward and backward, the need to read jabberwocky and ambulatory chess pieces that cause no end of havoc.
In short, she went through the looking glass. And so are many companies having to deal with immigration investigations.
No doubt you’ve seen the headlines about companies including Chipotle Mexican Grill (disclosure: a long-time GBSM client) being subjected to “employment compliance inspections” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security. In contrast to Bush-era bum’s rush raids on factories and business offices, the new modus operandi is what they call a “silent audit.” This is where ICE selects a good-size target company and then – without revealing why that company was singled out -- requires it to produce thousands of documents.
ICE reviews all of the I-9 employment eligibility verification forms, then alerts the company to any workers who do or may not have proper documentation. Typically, the company has no choice but to quickly fire those employees to put itself in compliance with standards it thought it was meeting, and to establish at least minimum position to begin negotiating with ICE toward resolving the situation.
Even so, the government fines the company for having employed people whose paperwork may not have been legit. And all during this process, ICE holds at least the threat of escalating its actions to even bring the company’s leadership up on charges.
There are a million issues with this approach to enforcing America’s immigration laws, starting with the fact that the employers are being investigated by a public agency as transparent as a wall of cinder blocks.
These companies are caught in a untenable double bind. They must check for illegal workers with each hire, and do so thoroughly enough to root out falsified documents. But whatever system they use must be applied uniformly across the board, or they will be sued for discrimination by the very potential employees they are required to investigate.
Almost none of the corporations that get the silent audit treatment have broken any law. Far from it. Federal laws only require companies to make a good faith effort in trying to not hire undocumented workers. But you wouldn’t think that from what these companies pay in hard dollars and damage to their brand reputations. Meanwhile, the governmental entity behind the chaos has no obligation to disclose why they started the investigation, what they find or even when the investigation is closed.
They are at liberty, however, to announce just about anything they want in relation to the investigation at any time they choose.
These ICE actions leave a lot of companies asking themselves if they have, in fact, gone through the looking glass into a world where infractions real, perceived or with no basis at all are taken as definitive. Where the people asking questions give no answers.
There’s a name for this kind of environment. If a company finds itself navigating through a world where logic doesn’t apply and two plus two equals purple, they are no longer playing in corporate governance and public relations.
They’re playing politics.
For many companies, their otherwise excellent legal, communications and investor relations teams aren’t enough. Now they will have to spend considerable resources on high-powered government relations executives – meaning lobbyists -- and a flotilla of lawyers who specialize in this byzantine parallel universe.
The only way out is back through the looking glass. It’s a process that resolves itself on a political timetable governed by the next election cycle and the sessions of Congress, not a quest for justice governed by the rule of law. This is a playing field where the chess pieces move themselves, where both the opponent and the referees speak an strange jabberwocky.
It an expense that creates no value, no brand equity. In the end it doesn’t really fix anything. But for companies that find themselves arbitrarily targeted, it is an unfortunately reality that has to be reconciled as quickly as possible.
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
People who believe reporters should be licensed and regulated have a new outrage: So-called "polemical journalist" Ian Murphy's call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in which he pretended to be billionaire right-wing activist David Koch.
We'll be hearing about this for months, maybe years. Was it a prank call or guerilla journalism? Does the end – important insight into an elected leader's intentions and personality – justify the means? Is there even such a thing as ethics in journalism when the public interest is at stake? Is transparency the only thing that matters? Is media accountable like politicians should be?
These are important questions. And they don't mean squat.
Because in the real world, Murphy's explosive success at simultaneously creating headlines and celebrity status means his way of doing business has value. It is going to be copied many times.
If you are a public figure or chief executive – especially one in the middle of a controversy – pay attention. Protect your access. Let unrecognized mobile calls go to voice mail. Train your people to screen inquiries and verify credentials. If someone calls you out of the blue claiming to be a 60 Minutes producer or a high-profile billionaire, think to check caller ID. Not sure? Ask to call him or her back. If they are who they say they are, they'll understand.
You don't succeed by avoiding legitimate interest in what makes you newsworthy. But don't think you're dealing with mass media on a level playing field.
. . . . . . . . . .
Pundits and news media are debating whether Toyota or Tiger Woods will bounce back more quickly from their respective scandals.
But it’s wrong to think a celebrity brand returns to where it was before the stuff hit the fan. There’s no repairing a brand image that has been demolished by bad behavior. There’s only repositioning a brand to succeed in spite of it.
Toyota and Tiger will never be the personas they were before. That’s not to say they won’t again dominate their markets. They might. But they’ll do so on different terms, from a new starting line. Consumers and the institutions that influence them will align their affinity in context to what went down and how it impacted them. They may feel totally jaded or think the whole thing is overblown. But they’ll definitely consider it.
The 24-7 news cycle and the Internet’s indefinite shelf life means that scandal will be part of the Toyota and Tiger consciousness for a very long time. Even if there were no more nasty headlines to come – don’t bet on it -- it could be a generation before the smoke clears.
For high-profile brands embroiled in controversies of their own making, it’s an important distinction: Even the best-spun apologies and damage control aren’t the end of the matter. They’re the beginning.
. . . . . . . . .
In the spin following the GOP’s game-changing Senate win in Massachusetts, the White House defended its beleaguered health care legislation with an old standard: What we have here is a failure to communicate.
"We lost some of that sense,” President Obama told ABC News, “…of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.”
That talking point has been played down since then. Good thing, too. Because it’s terrible PR.
Think of health care reform as a high-profile but controversial consumer product being introduced into a marketplace of extreme fans and critics (like New Coke or Windows Vista). Blaming a flat-out rejection on poor communications might seem a safe strategy. You hold yourself accountable but without faulting your intentions.
It’s not that your product’s bad. It’s the stupid packaging.
Except a lot of people will instead think you’re saying, “It’s the packaging, stupid.”
Your competitors will do everything they can to promote that interpretation. As MSNBC points out, administration opponents are literally institutionalizing the word “arrogance” in reference to what Massachusetts voters were complaining about and how the White House has responded to it.
At the core of almost every public’s fear and loathing are legitimate issues. You may think your smarts in creating a value-added product trumps all that. They don’t.
You can’t win people who think you’re dismissing them. Even if you suspect they don’t have a clue what you’re really selling.
. . . . . . . . . .
Here’s the first: The threat of discovery doesn’t stop some people from behaving badly.
Tiger’s melt-down isn't the failure of a crisis plan. There wasn’t one. None of Tiger Inc.'s image handlers prepared memos outlining what to do if it came out that Mr. Woods enjoyed extramarital affairs like some people collect snow globes. Damage control strategies started after the truth. Not before.
Today’s Internet-driven reality TV culture means we’re following scandals more than ever. We’re very familiar with the “PR angle” of every story. This has created a belief that PR is the end result of itself. For example: Say a professional sports star gets caught illegally playing partybingo online. The public debate over how the athelete responds to being found out will quickly become as big a headline as the issue of whether what he or she was doing online had any undue influence.
We assume that image is a universally valued currency to be saved or squandered. But this confuses how we rationalize self-destructive behavior by prominent people.
Take for example a recent Harvard Business Review article on responding to scandals. In it two researchers argue that Chinese executives who added melamine to milk sold in the U.S. might have acted differently had they only anticipated people's emotional reaction people to media coverage about dead infants.
The world doesn’t work that way. Businessmen who poison food to increase profits are criminals. And criminals are psychopaths that by definition don’t care what happens to others. They’re bad people, not bad public relations planners.
True story. Many years ago I was in my hotel room watching the local news when suddenly the TV showed a mug shot of my client. The government official at the center of our at-risk youth campaign had been arrested for soliciting a teenage prostitute.
We had nothing prepared for this. What we did have, however, was an appreciation of how things would get worse if people thought we were treating the scandal as primarily a PR problem to be resolved with spin and posturing. That got us through it.
In the same way, Tiger’s self-destruction also reminds us of the second lesson: That effective crisis planning is having the ability to respond to situations nobody sees coming.
In the real world, that has to include people in charge being caught doing very bad things.
. . . . . . . . . .