Tag Archives: crisis communications

Bikes, Baseball & the Power of Goodwill in Preserving a Brand

The future of Lance Armstrong’s personal brand is blurry.

Yesterday was a sad one for me. A long-time cycling fan, and in particular, a fan of Lance Armstrong, the damning report issued yesterday by the USADA was a little heartbreaking.  Specifically, the testimony from eleven other cyclists has pretty much sealed it for me.  He doped, and worse, according to the report, he was the ringleader, pressuring other riders to get on board with the team doctor’s program of systematic blood doping.   The simple fact that he’s never tested positive doesn’t hold much water anymore.

Of course, as a fan of cycling, I knew doping was rampant.  Other favorites – Christian Vande Velde, Jan Ullrich, Alexei  Vinokourov, Tyler Hamilton to name just a few – have tested positive for a variety of sins against their bodies and the sport.  When the news of their positives broke, I was really angry.  No one likes a cheater.

But I’m not nearly as angry with Lance, a fact that has confounded (and disgusted) me.   Where is my outrage over this?

The answer is actually pretty simple.  Lance Armstrong’s story of beating cancer is one we all know, and it’s a heroic tale.  But what makes him such a sympathetic character – even in the face of the charges leveled against him by the USADA – is the fact that Lance is also a bona fide Good Guy.  He has effectively and relentlessly used the story of his survival to power the Livestrong movement.  Livestrong provides tens of millions of dollars annually to a variety of cancer-related advocacy and support programs.  The work this organization does, by all accounts, is impressive and immensely valuable.

From a PR standpoint, Lance Armstrong has provided us with a master class in the insulating power of goodwill and a good reputation.  Though his career as a professional cyclist has been permanently sullied, his work with Livestrong provides an important counterweight.  And the legions of people he’s helped are positive advocates for Lance and his brand.  Right now, they are buoying his brand in the rough surf of this current crisis.   They are buying him a little time in this current crisis.

Barry Bonds – a contrasting case

The polar opposite of Lance Armstrong is Barry Bonds, who was considered to be one of the best baseball players in the history of the game, until his use of steroids and implication in the Balco scandal.  A famously sullen player who  (unlike Armstrong) annoyed sports reporters by refusing to give interviews, Bonds curried no favor with fans, except through is play.  When the news of his steroid use broke, he was widely reviled by media and fans alike.  The teams he played for haven’t retired his number, and he’s fallen from grace, and into obscurity.    Bonds created no insulating layer of goodwill and as a result enjoyed little public support.

What’s next for Lance, and Livestrong?

From a PR standpoint, the question of what Lance should do next is interesting.  His former teammates, in their testimony to the USADA took responsibility for their actions, offered apologies and committed to riding clean (something many have been doing now for years.)  By and large, cycling has cleaned up its game significantly.

All this puts Lance in a tight spot.  He’s vociferously denied that he doped while racing.  An about-face now will be difficult.  But it’s probably the right thing for Lance to do, from the standpoint of his personal reputation, and the longevity of the Livestrong foundation.  The foundation brand is inextricably linked with Lance Armstrong.  One could argue that coming clean and doing all he can to repair his name is part of his fiduciary duty as Livestrong’s chairman of the board.

So, as both a fan of cycling and from the PR standpoint, my advice to Lance is simple.  Own up.  Be human.  Admit your failures, foibles and mistakes.   Transparency is strong medicine – it’s difficult to swallow, but it is a potent remedy.  hrow support behind the clean cycling and anti-bullying movements, and double down on your commitment to Livestrong.  Do these things quickly, and change the public narrative.  The opportunity to salvage reputation is fleeting, but it’s there.

That’s my advice to Lance.  If you were his PR counsel, what course would you chart?

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

Image courtesy of Flickr user AngusKingston.

The cornerstone of managing a brand’s online reputation is active listening.   Our free white paper can help you get started: Active Listening: The Key to Relevance & PR Results.

The Power of Reputation

Every other Tuesday, ProfNet hosts #ConnectChat, a Twitter-based interview that covers topics of interest to media and communications professionals.  Recently, Chris Komisarjevsky, former worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller and author of “The Power of Reputation: Strengthen the Asset That Will Make or Break Your Career,” discussed why reputation is among our most powerful assets.

How do you define reputation?

Reputation is, in part, the way you are seen by others, and it is a critical part of your personal brand.

Is reputation equivalent to social credibility?

Yes, it is in many ways equivalent because reputation has a critical bearing on how you are viewed.

How does one build a good reputation?

There are three critical factors underlying a good reputation: character, communication and trust.

How do they work together?

Character is your values and how you live them, communication is how you relate to others, and trust is the underlying goal.

How can one display these three factors online?

Online or not, how you speak with others and share their concerns says much about character and values.

Is character something that can be learned?

Character can be learned if you think about what is important in the long run and watch how people react to your behavior.

Is it also that people tend to think of short-term gain instead of long-term reputation — especially in social media?

The key is to focus on the long-term. Think about short-term judgments and whether they endure. Take the author Jonah Lehrer, for example. His books were pulled off the shelves last night because he lied and exaggerated quotes from Bob Dylan. Short-term gain, long-term loss. He resigned from his reporter job at The New Yorker. What now for him? James Frey redux.

Isn’t social media a long-term investment? We can’t really expect any immediate gain from using social media.

Yes, it is, sort of the like the early days of radio. At first, who is really listening? It takes time. Speaking of social media and reputation, if you are criticized on social media, you have 12 hours to reply or else you are dead meat.

Why is such a quick response important?

Today’s news cycle is short. There is no luxury of a traditional 24-hour cycle. This is not broadcast rip-and-read, but immediate. And 12 hours is the outside chance for having a fair hearing. After that, your point of view or answer to what has been said is lost. It’s almost impossible to regain control of the message.

Plus, if you respond quickly, there’s also the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.

Absolutely. Think about those who have failed to act quickly. Remember, the cover-up is worse than the crime. Look at the global banking business today: HSBC, Barclays, Peregrine. Short-term thinking, long-term reputation scandals. The humiliation — followed by resignations, apologies — hits hard. Reputation is both personal and institutional.

What about the importance of communication?

We are really talking about engagement. Engagement is the new mandate — an open dialog where ideas are shared, showing respect for other views.

Can these institutions ever recover their reputations?

Yes, but it will take a long time — and it means a change in corporate culture. Anything less will also be short-lived. Read Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience.” “Conscientious men” do make a “conscientious corporation.”

Is there a difference between personal and professional reputation, or are the two linked?

They’re one and the same. You can’t be two different people or you will not be seen as “authentic.” That’s an act.

And being authentic leads to trust, which you mentioned as the third factor in reputation…

People look for authenticity — you know how they will act and can trust their behavior.

The personal brand of employees is becoming more and more important, right?

Great question. When people look at companies they are looking to see the values of the employees. If the values of the employees and the corporation don’t mirror one another, credibility is lost. Those values at work and at play must be the same. In today’s social media world, everyone sees everything, and customers/clients will notice.

This clearly points out the importance of a company’s C-level presence on social media.

Social media is unfamiliar ground to many CEOs. They aren’t sure what to say or how to say it. Interestingly enough, Rupert Murdoch seems to have tweeted more regularly after facing criticism before Parliament. He seems to have seen social media as a way of providing a more human face in the midst of criticism.

In your book, you say that people and corporations are judged in a similar way. What do you mean?

People judge businesses using human terms. They look at the business and judge if the business will deliver as promised — just like you would shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye to see what they are made of. We look at businesses in much the same way. Based on our reaction, we trust or don’t trust. We buy or go elsewhere. We invest or walk away.

One of the things I often struggle with is guilt over work-life balance, but you say having balance can actually strengthen your reputation. How?

Giving employees an opportunity to have work-life balance is extraordinarily motivating. They prove themselves in a different way and, as the boss, you demonstrate that you understand the balance needed between home and work. In my experience, they become more productive, more loyal, and grow in ways you could not have anticipated. With that, the organization grows too.

You also mention that starting at the bottom and doing menial tasks can show you how important those roles are to the company’s success.

Starting at the bottom gives you a picture of the building blocks needed to make any organization thrive. One of my mentors started in the mailroom and retired as the No. 2 in a global insurance company. I pumped gas, drove a dump truck. These early jobs give you a picture that can’t be taught in a classroom or in your MBA class. They make you aware like nothing else.

Do you recommend that all executives take the time to learn about, or even spend time in, all the different departments in their company?

I was trained in the Army, where you learn from the bottom up. I tell a story in the book about peeling potatoes in basic training and the importance of doing a job well, regardless of how menial. In the PR business, if you don’t understand how social media and a newsroom works, it’s tough to be the best.

Can you share some more real-life examples of reputations that were tarnished, and what they did wrong?

Sadly enough, the banking business this summer has been full of debacles and scandal: MF Global, Nomura, JPMorgan Chase. Then there was News International, followed closely by the Secret Service and the GSA. The media are still talking about them. The result has been CEOs called on the carpet to testify before Congress in the U.S. and Parliament. Not fun — and hard to recover from.

Why do you think it keeps happening? Is it just that they don’t think they will get caught?

In some cases, greed and avarice took over, and those involved didn’t think they would get caught. But what we in the public relations and reputation business know is, it’s never if you will be caught but when. Eventually, the truth comes out. There’s an old Italian proverb that, loosely translated, goes like this: “Deceit has short legs.”

This is also a culture question. There needs to be some serious work to understand how to balance the driving financial goals with employee values. After all, without valued employees — working with valued clients — there is no business.

And then there is, of course, the Paterno/Penn State/NCAA case…

I wrote an op-ed about Paterno. Tragic and sad. If he were alive, I would hope that he would apologize. Looking the other way is unforgiveable. I would hope that his family would apologize. Removing the statue was the right decision. I think the NCAA missed the boat by not imposing the death penalty for one year. Like a time-out, it would have forced Penn State to sit back and think. The money was a drop in the bucket — one year’s revenue… But leadership was afraid and abdicated its responsibility to those children. That is tragic and unforgivable.

Author Maria Perez is director of news operations for ProfNet, a service that helps connect journalists with expert sources. To read more from Maria, visit her blog on ProfNet Connect at http://www.profnetconnect.com/profnetmaria/blog/

The Fine Line Between Your Professional Brand and Your Organization’s Reputation

The Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) last week brought with it some surprises, news coverage gaffes and high emotion in social networks, including some crude – and vulgar – tweets.

As I read the news coverage of and reaction to the bad social-media behavior, I mused on the connections between our personal social media brands, and the reputations of the organizations we represent. Many professionals – myself included – are active on social networks as de facto but not official representatives of the brand.  Sure, we can put “My tweets are my own,” in our twitter profiles, but in my mind, if you associate yourself with the organization you work for or represent, in my mind, you bear some extra responsibility. You may not be tweeting under the organizations’ official account but you are contributing to its reputation nonetheless.

The careless tweeters on Thursday did not benefit either their personal brands, or their employers’ causes.  The inflammatory tweets inflamed their opposition, supplying an opportunity for them draw additional attention to their point of view.    From a strategy standpoint, this tactic was a loser.

So here are my thoughts on guidelines anyone who associates themselves with a brand in social networks should consider adhering to when engaging in conversation online:

Keep it clean. Despite the fact that TV networks now regularly use language formerly considered vulgar in prime time, anyone associated with a brand should steer clear of doing the same in social media. And Defcon-five level vulgarities – i.e. the F-bomb, its derivatives and other phrases of its ilk – should be studiously avoided.

It will come back to you. Be sure you want to see it again. Sure, you can delete a tweet or a status update – but you can’t delete impressions, and if someone else grabs a screenshot of your message, your bad judgment may live on in perpetuity.

Would your boss/CEO/child/parents be horrified? If the message you’re planning to issue would cause people you care about – or people you want to respect you – to recoil if they saw your statement in the New York Times (or on Mashable’s home page), then don’t post it.  The same rule applies for petty insults and snarky commentary.  Don’t give in to temptation.

Take the high road. You will never go astray if you stick to the high road, and your statements will never come back to haunt you – or your boss. Be a good sport -a gracious winner and a good loser.  And never be a jerk.

Do some scenario planning.  What are the best- and (more importantly) the worst-case scenarios your message could generate? Do you want to have the conversations your missive could catalyze?   Before posting that Tweet, think through the scenarios.

Divide and conquer, or don’t mix work and play. It’s fine to have a space to let your hair down, and many people have “work” and “play” social presences. For me, my fun space is on Facebook. My presence there is decidedly non-professional – I yammer happily about sports, my garden and my pets – and my network is made up of people who I really do know and whom I consider friends. I manage my privacy settings carefully, so people I’m not connected with can only see what I want them to see. That said, I don’t run too far amok on Facebook, but I don’t avoid controversial subjects on that network.

It’s safe to assume that someone is always watching, and that messages you issue will never go away. Hewing to these simple guidelines will help you avoid tarnishing your personal brand – and the organization you represent professionally.

Have I left anything out? If so, leave your additions in the comments.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

PR Newswire Waives Distribution Fees for Colorado Fire Related News Releases

Organizations offering aid to the victims of the fires in Colorado can distribute their messages through PR Newswire in the U.S. at no charge

Hundreds of homes have burned this week in Colorado, and many more remain at risk as wildfires continue to rage out of control.  We are heartsick for those who’ve lost their homes (and in some cases, livelihoods).   As is our practice during major disasters, PR Newswire is waiving fees for all news releases from organizations offering aid to victims and those assisting in rescue and relief efforts surrounding the fires tearing through Colorado.

“With the reports of more than 300 homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire and more than 30,000 people evacuating Colorado Springs alone, there’s a great deal of information that needs to be communicated to the residents of Colorado Springs, its surrounding areas, and the broader country,” said Scott Mozarsky, chief commercial officer, PR Newswire.  “We want to make sure that the organizations that can offer assistance have a quick and easy way of getting their messages out.”

If you have a release that you’d like to distribute relating to the Colorado fires and you are a PR Newswire member, you can upload it via the Online Member Center (https://portal.prnewswire.com/Login.aspx) or email it to lahubs@prnewswire.com.  All non members can also email releases to lahubs@prnewswire.com.   Please include “Colorado Fires” in special instructions or the subject line of the release.

To view news releases issued by PR Newswire members offering aid, please see News About Colorado Fires on PR Newswire’s website (http://latest.prnewswire.com/page/colorado-wildfires)

To our friends, families, colleagues and clients in Colorado, you are in our thoughts this week, and we hope you and yours remain safe and sound.

Dear Gracie: Tips on Handling Protesters at PR Events

Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to grace.lavigne@prnewswire.com

Dear Gracie,

I recently took on a client who has some controversial stances. We’re anticipating that we’ll have to deal with protesters at some point. Any advice?

Protester PR


Dear Protester PR,

Two ProfNet experts share their insight:

“Protesters are one of the challenges that any politician or major CEO faces,” says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision. How they respond to the protesters says a lot about how the media portrays them.

Protesters show up at events because they want to create publicity and embarrass the public figure, Johnson continues. They want to become the media story, rather than the event or speech that is being held. Protesters also know that reporters love conflict, especially in this 24/7 news cycle.

So what should you do or not do if you are the subject of protesters?

What to Do

1. Let the media know. First, if you are aware that people intend to protest your event, let the media know that, says Johnson. The media should know that you expect protesters will try to hijack the event, and that you are still going forward with it anyway.

A huge advantage here is having a relationship with the press, notes John Oxford, director of external affairs at Renasant Corporation. Unless the protesters are part of a professional outfit, like unions or special interest groups, then they won’t have the same connections as a good press secretary or PR professional.

For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement had a strong protest in numbers, but too often their quotes or message in the media was disjoined and came off lacking a clear reason for protesting, says Oxford.

2. Give protesters their own space. “Welcome the protesters and make sure they have a space for their protest, but try to pack the main area in front of the CEO or politician with supporters,” suggests Johnson. “That way, the media visual the protesters are hoping for is marginalized or even eliminated.”

3. Invite them to speak. The easiest way to diffuse a protest is to invite the protesters up to the podium with you so they can address the crowd and espouse their views, says Johnson.

Most protesters will never take you up on the offer, since they haven’t thought through their position well enough to coherently address a crowd, and by their refusal, they will become quiet. Those who do accept will speak briefly, leave and cease protesting.

Then the media story becomes the speech the public figure was giving, with the protesting incident as a minor footnote, if even that, he says.

4. Have a laugh. “Humor is another way to stop a protester cold in their tracks,” says Johnson.

However, the person using humor must also be seen as possessing a sense of humor, he notes. “It is why a Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Donald Trump can never succeed doing this, while a Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were successful.”

The public figure should address the protesters with a one-liner or quip, he explains. “The purpose of this is to make the protesters seem ridiculous and have the crowd laugh at them. Nothing silences a protester more than when a crowd turns and laughs at them.”

5. Use the power of silence. Protesters want attention — that is the whole point, says Johnson. A public figure who ignores protesters deprives them of the power of recognition, and keeps them in control.

6. Go on the offensive. “Once, after a debate on a college campus, I had protesters follow me to my car yelling,” recounts Oxford. This actually worked against the opposition, because it was out of the realm of the debate, which allowed him to go on the offensive with the press.

7. Pick Your Battles. “One of the best experiences I had with someone handling protesters was with then Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in 2001,” says Oxford.

“There was a large protest being planned by folks in wheelchairs looking to raise an issue they had with the federal government,” he continues. “Obviously, a large group of people in wheelchairs not a public relations battle you can win.”

Instead of ignoring them, Thompson went out to visit with them as they starting protesting. He and his staff spoke with them and listened to their cause, instead of just passing by to give the speech.

“It really disarmed their energy to attack when they saw that he cared and listened,” Oxford explains.

“If you can disarm the protest in a nonpublic fashion, show compassion, or at least reason with the protesters — sometimes you can avoid an ugly event for both sides.”

What Not to Do

1. Do not get upset. “Engaging a protester, telling them to shut up or showing that you are upset with the protesting is the absolute worst thing a public figure can do,” says Johnson. “Such action merely empowers the protesters to continue.” Then the protesters become the focus of the event, and it encourages them to show up at other events.

“Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his campaign was struggling after an early defeat in the Iowa Caucuses, tried to engage protesters and said it was the worst mistake he ever made as a public figure,” he says.

2. Do not be insensitive. Although it depends on the topic and how it’s going to be covered, oftentimes a response can backfire and make the public figure or business cold and calculating, says Oxford.

Sometimes these insensitive responses will become the story, Oxford continues. Like Marie Antoinette’s notorious “Let them eat cake,” to BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” after the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Only respond if not responding would look worse, instructs Oxford.

3. Do not stray from the topic. “Never go off message during the protest of a tragic event, as there can be legal implications as well as total professional embarrassment often due to emotions running high at that moment,” says Oxford.


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jastrow75.

Managing a Brand Crisis

No company is immune from a crisis – it can happen at any time to any brand. How the company handles the crisis will dictate whether the brand survives. That was the topic of a #ConnectChat from earlier this year, which featured Karen Post (@BrandingDiva). Post shared her expertise on how companies can protect their brands against a crisis and rally in the face of disaster.

Post is the author of two books, “Brand Turnaround: How Brands Go Bad and Return to Glory” (McGraw-Hill 2011) and “Brain Tattoos: Creating Unique Brands That Stick to Customers’ Minds” (AMACOM 2004). Since 2000, she has led Brain Tattoo Branding, a firm that provides creative and strategic services to start, grow and manage brands. She is a sought-after speaker and a regular branding contributor on FOX TV.

Following is a recap of the chat:

ProfNet: Karen, thanks so much for joining us today!

Post: It’s great to be with you, spreading the good word on branding. I just did a shot of coffee, so I can type fast.

ProfNet: I’m on my third bottle of Snapple, so I should be able to keep up. I really enjoyed “Brand Turnaround.” It’s fascinating to see brands everyone has written off turn their reputations around.

Post: Yes, so many brands we know and love were on death row and they found redemption: Apple, Ford, Robert Downey Jr., even the Red Cross.

ProfNet: Let’s start with the basics. What is branding?

Post: Branding, as a verb, is the action required to navigate your image, reputation and identity. Your brand is what your market, customers, peers, and vendors think about you, feel about you and expect from you.

ProfNet: What is the difference between marketing and branding?

Post: The different between marketing and branding: Marketing is the process. Your brand is the result.

ProfNet: A brand crisis can happen to any company, large or small, right?

Post: No one is immune to a brand shakeup. It’s all relative. It can be an early obituary if you are not ready. Prepare for potholes.

ProfNet: It seems a day doesn’t go by that we don’t hear about a brand scandal. What do you attribute this to? What role does social media play?

Post: All media is a factor, but especially online. Because it’s 24/7, it can spread like wildfire. And often it’s indexed by search engines, and that time you drank three glasses of wine and danced on the table at Chili’s, it’s there for your great grandkids to see.

ProfNet: That brings up another point: In this digital age, a brand has to always be “on.” Mistakes can no longer be swept under the rug.

Post: When a crisis hits, speed and a fast-lane response is key to a brand’s health. Like I say, 48 hours is the new 72 hours.

ProfNet: Even 48 hours seems like a lot. Why so long?

Post: Great point. It’s often critical for a brand to show up and say, “We know there’s a situation, we are gathering all the facts, and are on it.”

ProfNet: In your book, you talk about “game changers,” strategies that brands can use to turn their image around. Can you give us an example?

Post: There are seven game changers. The first one is: Take responsibility. This does not mean saying you are guilty. It means showing up, letting folks know you share their concerns, and your goal is to find the answer.

ProfNet: Can you give us an example of a brand that did this the right way?

Post: Two excellent examples are Taco Bell. For a few weeks they were Taco Hell, all from a crazy meatless lawsuit. They not only responded, but turned a bad deal into a lot of “on-brand,” lighthearted, fun publicity. Another good example is the Dallas Mavericks and Mark Cuban. They were a lame franchise – empty seats and losing money. Cuban’s leadership was key. His focus on customers and then performance counts. The team played well and won a championship.

ProfNet: What are some brands that got it wrong?

Post: The News of the World, Borders, Saab, Oldsmobile, Lehman Brothers. The verdict is still out on Lindsay Lohan, Herman Cain, Charlie Sheen and Tom Brady’s wife. ;-)

ProfNet: What could they have done differently?

Post: Reading my book helps. Seriously, many brand deaths are from inside the company, operations, over-leverage and sloppy conduct.

ProfNet:  What are the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to their brand?

Post: Deadly killers: Wrong spokesperson (Tony Hayward), not preparing for potholes, operating in denial mode. At the first signs of bad, get on it!

ProfNet: That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing your branding wisdom.

Post: Thanks so much! This was a blast. If you love branding, please check out my blog at http://www.brandingdiva.com/blog

Author Maria Perez is director of news operations for ProfNet, a service that helps connect journalists with expert sources. To read more from Maria, visit her blog on ProfNet Connect at http://www.profnetconnect.com/profnetmaria/blog/

More Smart, Less Stupid: PR for Better Business #SXbetterbiz

Some of PR's heaviest hitters spoke to a packed SXSW audience about a smarter approach to PR, and business.

Dealing with crises is the cornerstone of public relations.  However, in many cases, problems are caused by underlying business issues, which are invariably the result of  fundamental business decisions.  The “More Smart, Less Stupid: PR for Better Business” panel discussion focused on making better business decisions, because let’s face it, it’s tough to message your way out of a morass.

The panelists were:

Corporate reputation

Ultimately, PR rolls up into corporate reputation, which has real, tangible financial implications for an organization.  It doesn’t happen by accident – reputation is the byproduct of all the actions an organization takes.

In the case of the recent Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood PR debacle, the Komen Foundation’s reputation suffered. Some on the panel wondered out loud whether or not the organization to recover.  Fundamentally, the whole problem stemmed from Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood.   There were three key elements to the resulting problems.

  • They didn’t have alignment internally.  Some groups within the organization were not on board with the decision, and they said so.
  • They just blurted out the message, failing to test how it would play with their publics.
  • They blindly adhered to a policy, not considering the values of their audience.

Simply put, elements of the decision that were removed from their community.  Melisssa Waggener Zorkin summed up well, saying, “You have to have engagement of the people who love you and stand by you. “

Mark Stouse noted that the organization could have avoided the entire issue if they had been listening to their constituents, and developing understanding of the issues that were important to them, in addition to Komen’s core focus on cancer.  Data and analytics are readily available.

All people who run companies should be prepared for crises, noted Waggner Zorkin.

Stockman agreed, adding, “If people aren’t heard, they will make themselves heard.  There is an expectation on the part of constituents that corporations will listen.”

Be human

“I’ve dealt with things like anthrax, mad cow and computers that had extra features like shooting fire out the side,” said Pearson.  “In the case where you just make a mistake, nothing wrong with apologizing.”

But it’s not enough to simply say that the company regrets the situation.  When conveying an apology for an organization, you can’t be scripted, you have to be human. “You need to speak like a human being and reach people in their communities,” said Waggener Zorkin.

The rising role of comedy

In medieval times, the jesters were the truth-tellers.  Today, that role is filled by the Jon Stewarts and Steven Colberts of the world.

Stouse recalled a spectacular instance of the use of comedy in developing a response from years ago, when his team wrote some jokes about a competitor in crises and sent them to Jay Leno, who used them on air.

The fact is, clips and jokes that make fun of a situation have a very high pass-along factor and are memorable.  This content travels further than  most company statements or responses.  Planning communications from the Daily Show perspective belongs in crisis communications planning.


One example the panel lauded was American Airlines’ handling of its chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement.    The company took proactive stance in an attempt to temper the discussion.

The ensuing news coverage reflected the company’s key messages – that they had plenty of cash on hand, operations were not going to be effected and customers would not be impacted.

In this case, the company did their groundwork years in advance.   American had cultivated a culture of transparency and openness, that was reflected in the organization’s increasing investment in real-time communications and social media.   Associated customer communications were  also very good.  Frequent fliers received consistent and prompt messaging.   Business decisions enabled the company to do a good job of deploying proactive messages that really stuck with the news media and public.

The cases illustrated how business decisions played a role in the eventual success the organizations’ communications in their respective crises.  This begged the question of the communications department’s role in influencing decision that may not be part of the PR remit.

“Organizations that keep their “true north” in mind manage these situations better than those who are inconsistent,” said Stockman.  And when it comes to influencing business decisions, the panel agreed that the communications team has several opportunities for involvement:

  • Set a roadmap.  Outline the issues your company cares about and stick to them.  If the company threatens to deviate, ask why.  Help the company stay on task.
  • As communicators, actively build internal alignment around key issues.
  •  The military has the concept of ‘over watch.” On the ground, in the trenches, your vision narrows.  The military always has  people doing over watch – keeping an eye on the big picture.  Communicators can do this very effectively.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.


Dear Gracie: Crisis Communications Tips for Colleges

Dear Gracie,

I run a small PR firm, and we’re interested in expanding our services to include PR for colleges and universities. I’m looking for advice on crisis communications specifically. What are the unique challenges of crisis comms for higher-ed institutions? Any tips?

Service Starter


Dear Service Starter,

Seven ProfNet experts weigh in:

Prepare for Every Potential Crisis

Studies indicate that organizations that prepare for PR crises in advance actually experience fewer issues and recover more quickly, says Adele Cehrs, president of Epic PR Group.

“Preparing ahead of time is essential,” says Cehrs. People under emotional stress can make bad decisions, so it’s important to anticipate crises ahead of time.

“Brainstorm every crisis your university would most likely encounter,” says Cehrs. Ask yourself:

  • What has the university faced in the past?
  • What factors could make the university liable for a crisis?
  • Is there a plan in place already?

Start your planning based on the issues that are likely to happen that would have the highest impact on your university, says Cehrs.

Plans should include clear, actionable steps for dealing with crises, as well as assigned accountabilities, policies for addressing the media and issuing press releases, and guidelines for parental inquiries, says Sally Mounts, Ph.D., president of Auctus Consulting Group.

“Practice how you will implement the plans,” says Cehrs. Consider crisis scenario training; or creating a dark website ahead of time where community members can find FAQs, official statements, etc.

Courtney Jolley, director of institutional communications at Loyola University Maryland, says her PR team uses a crisis communications strategy that is essentially a checklist. “Not every crisis calls for every possible response, but the plan ensures we take the time to consider whether a specific constituency of channel is being addressed appropriately,” she says.

The checklist would likely need to be extended for a national crisis to address a prolonged period of time, but the fundamental steps and constituencies to reach out to would be the same, continues Jolley.

Plans should be fluid, agrees Brenda Velasco, manager of PR and internal communications at Biola University in Southern California. Biola classifies emergencies into three categories:

  1. Local and internal
  2. Less severe emergency
  3. Major crisis

“Each category includes a list of crises and standby statements for each,” explains Velasco.

“Nowadays, local and regional crises easily become national crises,” says Brooks. “Assume that almost any crisis can become much bigger.”

And while you can’t predict what your crisis will be, create adaptable messages ahead of time for the university’s traditional and new media outlets, says Cehrs.

And make sure your “proof points,” like statistics and studies, are quickly accessible for reporters asking you to prove assertions, says Cehrs.

Any university that doesn’t have a crisis plan in place is courting PR disaster, stresses Mounts.

When the Storm Hits, Be Honest

When the crisis hits, you’ll have to consider certain factors and tailor your plan to the situation, says Michael Laderman, assistant vice president for communications and marketing at Barry University in Florida. You might have a basic plan in place already, but it still comes down to common sense and figuring out what the right and wrong things to do are, he says.

Consider how accurate the controversy is, if the university did anything wrong and how it can be fixed, and what type of media organizations are inquiring about it (e.g., traditional vs. gossip outlets), Laderman continues.

Universities often have regulatory requirements concerning the disclosure of names and/or disciplinary actions, warns Mounts. Legal counsel should be consulted early so that the school doesn’t make itself vulnerable to lawsuits for violating privacy laws.

“Total transparency is the best policy,” stresses Mounts. Given the steep cost of higher education, parents and students expect their universities to be accountable to them. Full, rapid disclosure allays public fears, and communicates to all that college authorities are responsive, concerned and in control.

Respond to University Constituents Quickly

“Timing is very important in crisis communications,” says Velasco. It’s like a chess game — you need to anticipate your audiences’ next moves.

Today’s audience expects instantaneous responses, forcing universities to issue a limited public statement before all facts are available, says Jolley.

It’s critical for universities to respond to controversial situations before silence sends a message of its own, says Jolley. “The source and format of the response will vary based on the specific circumstances, particularly if there are legal matters involved, but if nothing else, a brief statement — grounded in compassion for those affected by the situation, and a commitment to continue providing updated information — needs to be released almost immediately.”

“There is not one case where a school should respond with ‘no comment’ when they are asked by reporters,” says Velasco. “‘No comment’ allows reporters and readers to draw their own conclusions.”

When you don’t put out messages to inform or educate the community, rumors take control of the situation and spread like wildfire, agrees Laderman.

Even if the only response you can give is “Per university policy, that is an internal matter we are not able to discuss,” it’s better than nothing at all, says Laderman.

Of course it’s not possible to address or correct each and every false statement on the Internet, but as long the official university message is available to all, then you’ve done your best to protect the university, adds Laderman.

And while it’s possible to blow an incident out of proportion, it’s almost impossible to address the matter too frequently, says Jolley. A greater risk is providing coverage that is not effective — that does not inform, that frustrates constituents, that leads them to wonder how the actual crisis response (and not just the communications) is being handled.

Which Audiences to Address

“The challenge with crisis communications for universities and colleges is the wide range of audiences that need to be reached,” says George T. Sopko, vice president of Stanton PR & Marketing. There are students, students’ parents, faculty, staff, alumni, media (local and/or national), government officials, recruiters and more — and each constituency needs a somewhat different and customized message.

For example, if an institution is church-affiliated, the church may also need to be informed of the crisis, says John Brooks, director of media relations and news for North Park University in Chicago.

But less critical situations don’t always call for addressing all audiences, adds Velasco. However, when all audiences are addressed, responses should be tailored to each audience.

Velasco also notes that at Biola University, the PR team advises the school’s departments about whether or not they need to address their audiences as well.

In terms of media, invite communicators into the conversation early, and be ready to respond — because the questions will come, says Brooks. The institution should appear forthcoming, and not appear as though there is something to hide or cover up.

According to Brooks, responses to news organizations should:

  • Stress that the institution is aware of the issue and taking it seriously.
  • Summarize concerns for anyone who may be affected.
  • Emphasize a safe campus environment.
  • Explain actions that have been or will be taken to respond to the crisis.
  • Show that the university is cooperating with police (if necessary).

Always address the students, parents, alumni and general public too, because it’s a chance to secure their support on an issue and strengthen connection to the university in general, explains Jolley.

The biggest mistake schools make when communicating around a crisis is not putting enough personal elements into communications, especially in terms of reaching students, says Sopko. “What these tech savvy students really want and need are more traditional, in-person communications with a sincere human touch.”

Meetings, gatherings and small group discussions — both organized and informal — are most effective in reaching students, says Sopko. “They allow the institutions to set the right communications tone, but also experience first-hand what’s needed or missing in terms of helping students deal with a crisis.”

Social media is another great way to address university constituents, says Brooks. Social media gets the word out quickly and to audiences that might not be reachable in any other way.

Additionally, an unaddressed crisis will be addressed by somebody, and it seems likely that will happen in social media channels, says Brooks. “Respond quickly and in as many forums as possible. You want to be heard early — you don’t want others speaking for you.”

“Anything we address on our website or via an email to our constituents would also be addressed on social media,” says Jolley. The immediacy of social media also allows flexibility in posting incremental updates as information becomes available, she adds.

Sharing the Outcomes/Consequences of the Crisis

When possible, sharing the outcomes of a crisis is an important part of keeping your university community informed, but be sure to protect the privacy of your students when the consequences pertain to their academic or disciplinary records, says Jolley.

“The college or university does not want to expose the identity of anyone who has been victimized, nor does it want to expose the identity of anyone who has been accused,” says Brooks.

Consequences are typically not publicized due to FERPA laws, explains Velasco. Defer to the school’s legal department.

Focus on the institution’s response instead, and try to portray it in the best light possible considering the circumstances — even if the person or persons in trouble make their punishments public on their own, says Brooks. “Assume that disciplinary conversations are private.”

Don’t throw any individuals under the bus, agrees Laderman. If the university is at fault, then admit fault, and immediately address how the university is going to fix the matter to ensure it will never happen again.

But it’s not just about proving to the world that the university has handled a situation responsibly, says Laderman. It’s more about doing the right thing and letting all constituents know that the university will strive to do better.

Laderman says the real key with university crisis communications is: Did the university actually learn from its mistakes to ensure that they’re not made again in times of true emergency?


Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

ProfNet Connect Roundup: Crisis Communications, Working with Reporters, Teaching with Mobile Phones

ProfNet Connect, our free online community for journalists, bloggers, PR pros, experts and communicators of all stripes, features blog section where members can write and post as their hearts desire.  The site is chockablock with interesting people and content.  Here are some of the most popular posts from last week. Enjoy!

Working with Reporters: What to Expect
“If there’s one thing I learned about reporters in my time as a journalist, it’s that every single one of them is different. In temperament, in style, in their receptiveness to being pitched by PR pros – every reporter is unique.” Erin Lawley, senior account supervisor at Lovell Communications give us some insight on what it’s like working with journalists.

Crisis Communications: Expecting the Unexpected
The Healthcare Public Relations and Marketing Society of Greater New York hosted a breakfast seminar Thursday, Dec. 1, on the do’s and don’ts of crisis communications. Maria Perez, director of news operations at ProfNet provides a recap of the various presentations.

What do Brand, Service, and Social Media all have in common?
“With over 750 million people on Facebook and another 135 million people on LinkedIn it is always surprising to see how easy it is to talk about bad customer service.” Are you providing good customer service to your clients? Drew Stevens, president of Stevens Consulting Group shares his experience of a bad experience with his daughter in this post.

Yes parents, I use cellphones in my English class.

Jennifer Cronk, director of Transparently Teaching discusses why she uses mobile technology in her classes. What are your thoughts on this technique?

Grammar Hammer: The Myriad Frustrations of Holiday Shopping
This week in Grammar Hammer, Grace Lavigne, editor at ProfNet, uses frenzied holiday shopping to discuss “myriad” vs. “myriad of.”

Stay abreast of conversations, trends and opportunities by joining us on ProfNet Connect, a free online community for journalists, bloggers and communications professionals to meet, connect and share their expertise. Creating a profile on ProfNet connect adds a search-engine friendly element to your digital resume, bolsters your online reputation and enables you to showcase your expertise to media and bloggers. Did we already mention that membership is free?  http://profnetconnect.com

Tips And Tactics for Managing PR Through Social Media

This summer I was asked by Tim Moore to speak at SocialCrush, a nuts and bolts social business conference for small to medium sized companies. Tim asked me if I could talk about how PR has changed because of social media, along with the things businesses need to consider in doing PR in this new environment.

At its core, PR really hasn’t changed much. We are still an industry of communication. It’s only the tools and opportunities for engaging the audience that have changed.

Here are some of the highlights from my presentation:

Audience Relations (Huge! opportunity through social networks.)

  • Use Twitter to find journalists and bloggers in your target industry
  • Read what they are reading and what they are writing
  • Help promote their work to build relationships
  • Target ‘your’ influencers, but remember they are not necessarily the people with the highest Klout scores or the most Twitter followers


  • To what your industry is saying
  • To what your customers are saying
  • To the media and bloggers are saying
  • To what others are saying about you
  • To what others say about your competitors
  • To what others say about your industry

Create sharable press releases

  • Write tweetable headlines
  • Use anchor text with links that lead back to your site, to your product
  • Optimize your release for search
  • Include multimedia which is proven to make your releases more sharable
  • Make sure your release is super sharable with social buttons
  • Don’t forget to share your own releases!

Break a press release down for sharing and post accordingly on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flikr, etc.

  • Quotes
  • Stats
  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Slides
  • Audio

Crisis management

  • Crises now happen in real time – have a plan for action in real time
  • Use your social channels to communicate in real time throughout a crisis
  •  Be aware that little issues can become a full blown crisis on channels like Twitter if not handled appropriately and in a timely manner

And don’t forget the greatest gift of social media: the opportunity to humanize your brand. Use social channels to connect on a human level with your clients and others in your industry. It’s now time for truly ‘public’ relations.

Author Victoria Harres is PR Newswire’s director of audience development and the voice of @PRNewswire.

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