Category Archives: crisis PR

Huge Shift in PR Speed, Responsibility & Accountability

In the previous post, I outlined our strategy for the president’s announcement about possible changes on campus.

Shortly after our announcement, a faculty member friend expressed concern about announcing the news on social media, feeling that the news was detrimental to the university.  She appreciated the administration’s transparency but felt we should be more cautious in what we “share with the outside world.”

Her concern is  legitimate.  In the mad rush of last minute rewrites to hit a 10 a.m. deadline we inadvertently posted the president’s letter to the campus community on our News site  instead of  the news release.  But the release exactly reflected the letter.  The information was the same.  But there was, to some,  the perception of sharing inside information.

I told my colleague  that in today’s  social media driven world, as soon as someone says something, whether it’s true or false,  it becomes public. People share and comment on it, spreading it whether it’s true or false.

As a PR department, we do have a need to be truthful, accountable and swift.

So it’s crucial to get the the institutional announcement out as quickly as possible.  In doing this, we own the news on this matter; we are the originators.

This was reinforced  when a reporter with a local daily tweeted our news with a link to our announcement.   The reporter had to do no work at all.  This is an ongoing, major  shift in journalism.

Gone is the the buffer of “according to PR spokesperson. . . .”  The reporter simply links our story — the source.

We are no longer PR Departments .  We are multimedia production agencies, creating news stories and distributing them to the understaffed journalism profession quickly and truthfully.

This is a huge responsibility.

More on this in the next post.

If you missed my previous post, check it out to see how we successfully minimized the sting of our announcement about possible campus changes.


Using Social Media to Ease Bad News

Last week our university released some not-so-positive news.

We didn’t have to.  We took a pro-active stance and put it out there.  Thankfully, we have a president who believes in being out front with everything possible.

My news director, campus technologies/social media person and I work very closely together, as these offices should on every campus.  Before we posted the news, I called the social media person.  “Do we have an upbeat story we can post right after our initial news?”


He pulled a five-minute video of our new suite-style residence halls that we had produced for a TV show. He posted the first story on Facebook, which, like it or not, is one of our primary news channels.  A few minutes later he posted the res hall story which sat above the “bad news” story.

The initial news story was seen by 3,838 people, had five likes, one share and no comments.

The res hall story was seen by 8,620 people, earned 142 likes, 30 shares and 22 comments, all wildly positive.  They ranged from a proud mother who was sending her son here and couldn’t wait for him to live in the new dorm, to many nostalgic posts from alumni remembering their days in the old dorms.


1.  When you have news that’s not sugar sweet, be quick, proactive and assure the public know you’re an honest news organization.

2.  Have something else ready to soften the blow and post it in concert with the other news.

PS:  I did get a question from a faculty member on why we posted the initial story, essentially sharing it with everyone on Facebook and Twitter.  I’ll share her concern and my answer in the next post.

A Tip for Applebee’s

The recent Applebee’s fracas included God, waitresses, sadly under-prepared management and the Ever-Shifting Mob.
It’s a great case study in crisis PR but not an easy one from which to pull clear lessons.
Recap: Pastor Alois Bell crossed off the default 18% tip and wrote: “I give God 10% . Why do you get 18?” This sets up the pastor as one of the cheapest Christians who ever displayed her parsimony to the masses.
Another waitress saw the receipt and posted it.
The embarrassed Pastor Bell doubled down on her arrogance and demanded that the waitress be fired. (Hell hath no fury like a woman pastor scorned).
Applebee’s did.
It all kicked into viral gear.
That’s when the Ever Shifting Mob moved in. They demanded the waitress get her job back.
Applebee’s reaction to the firestorm? Initially, none. We in the PR business know that’s an invitation for the mob to fill the void with more anger, more demands, sarcasm, vitriol and of course the boycott threat.
R.L. Stollar lays it out in excellent detail.
The Applebee’s social media folks came in too late and did more damage than good. Once they moved past the company line their posts were amateurish, defensive and mildly condescending.
So this is where I enter and tell you what they should have done.
Nope. This, like many crises, has no black and white. First, the pastor was way out of line, both as a person and as woman of the cloth. (Celestial Voice: “Well, done, sister. Ten percent, by God!”)
Second, the waitress who posted the receipt was out of line, breaking the privacy agreement she must have known about.
Third, management had broken its own policy previously by posting positive customer notes.
Fourth, the management reacted very badly, publishing contrite explanations, then dumb explanations, then started deleting incoming posts, then deleted the status update and the 20,000+ responses. Then they lied.
Fifth, Applebee’s let the mob swell too large. When the mob reaches a certain size it continues to grow on its own accord, fed by its own outrage. Most people who post are well-meaning folks trying to find justice. Others are just angry bastards who want to spread their negativity.
When the mob is large, no answer is good enough. No explanation is thoughtful enough. You, the target, will always lose, falling under a barrage of individual postings that congeal into the cyber equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
In a nice family drama, it would have ended this way. The offending pastor would sincerely apologize for her childish behavior and make good with the other 8% tip. The waitress would apologize for breaking privacy rules despite her sense of outrage on behalf of her colleague. Applebee’s benevolently would nod and say possibly they overreacted and would re-examine the case. It would consider reinstating the waitress with a probation period.
And it all would go away.
There is no privacy. The actions of thoughtless people will occasionally be exposed, not in a local newspaper but on the only remaining stage – the international one.
Businesses, companies, corporations, are by default the bad guys and will get the blame. A crisis plan needs to be in place because when you hit the hot seat you need to instantly jump into action or your butt’s going to burn.
The biggest lesson: The Ever Shifting Mob is always in the wings, ready to wave the cyber pitchforks and torches, screaming for whatever they think at the moment is justice.
As my colleague/media master, Dick Jones says: “You can do the right thing 99 times; screw up once and it can bite you big time. And the unfortunate thing is, all institutions screw up occasionally.”
Be prepared, institutions. You could easily have a pastor and a waitress. And no matter what your official policy is, your response better thoughtful, humane and fast.
The Ever Shifting Mob will rant, then slowly scatter, looking for the next thing to protest.

Crisis PR Management Made Simple

This post is for PR people and anyone in a leadership position.
Most of your organizations, at some point, will have a crisis.
Predicting that is easy because  organizations are composed of humans  and we’re all fallible.
In the coming months we’ll continue to see lying, cheating, stealing and  some very weird fetishes.
And, as we’ve noticed over the past few years, it’s getting really hard to hide things.

As  an FBI official in Ali Soufan’s The Black Banners says, there are no secrets, only “delayed disclosures.”   If you made a mistake, admit it.  If you’ve done bad, come clean quickly.

Crisis moments are multiplying fast in our social media world.    Two people come to mind in just the past few weeks.  Penn State President Graham Spanier, gave one of the worst first responses in the history of higher ed during the debut of the Sandusky scandal.    Chancellor Robert Birgeneau apologized for his police force who beat students and faculty during Occupy Cal.  The problem was that the weak apology was recorded on his way to spend Thanksgiving with his family, nearly two weeks after the incident.

Spanier got the boot and Birgeneau is facing a faculty vote of no confidence.

Listen to your PR people and come clean with as much grace as you can.

If you can’t come clean, resign.

And if your PR people tell you they can spin it, fire them and find PR pros who’ll help you with the truth.

Misbehavior has been part of mankind’s story since the Old Testament.  The misuse of sex, money,  and power have been constants in our continuing story.

Which means  there are more of you out there.  You’re going to have sex in ways not acceptable to society.  You’re going to acquire money in ways you’re not supposed to.  You’ll abuse power a little or a lot.   Some ambitious folks will do all three.

In today’s media savvy society, chances are good that you’ll be caught.  When you do, don’t try to spin it, downplay it, lie about it or ignore it.

Deal with it up front and immediately and accept the consequences.

There really isn’t any other option these days.  A tiny list of the fallen:  Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno,  Anthony Weiner and a whole boatload of priests.

There are no secrets in this world anymore.  Bad acts, when caught — by anyone— can spread worldwide with a vengeance that amazes even seasoned PR folks like myself.

Now, I know one other thing:  if you’ve committed any of these acts, you’re probably too arrogant or insulated to think you’re going to suffer any consequences.  You may think you’re above the law.

So I’ll turn my attention back to PR people:  if your boss asks you to hide, twist or lie about an incident that might cause the boss or your organization pain, refuse.

In the worst case, resign.

Your integrity is hard to retrieve once you’ve abandoned it.

Penn State, PR, Media & Chaos

I’ve been following the Penn State story with the same sorts of feelings nearly every other human being has had. But from a professional’s point of view I’ve concluded that both the public relations and news professions have failed miserably.
I have known the Penn State university relations VP for decades. He is the consummate PR professional, as are his staff members. So I have to assume that the PR staff was told to sit on the sidelines during unfolding debacle.
Why do I think that? Because no PR professional would have let his or her college president meet the media and support, by name, two employees who would surrender to police the next day.

I’ve been in crisis PR situations on a much smaller scale. In every crisis situation, the prevailing force is chaos. The president relies on the PR staff for guidance and knowledge of how the media works. It is a time when cool heads, logic, and especially truth as far as it is known, is needed.

I doubt if a PR person would have waited until the last minute to cancel Paterno’s weekly press conference. By now there were reporters on hand from around the world. A university spokesperson should have stepped in and held the conference because when there is a void, someone will fill it. And when someone else fills the void, it’s probably with content you’d rather not see.

The story would not have turned out any differently, but PR professionals would have helped set a tone of civility and helped the media as much as possible to smooth out chaos’ rough edges.

The media were allowed to run wild, and the media today are, in good part, a batch of barbarians sniffing for blood and egging each other and the public into an unholy frenzy when the bleeder is found.

Granted this is the perfect storm of scandals with:

– an alleged crime so heinous most of us cannot imagine it;

-an American icon;

-football, which is as much about self-identification and emotion as it is about tactical ways to move a ball to and fro.

Sit enough monkeys down with computers and they’ll eventually get a good take on Shakespeare. Our monkeys are thousands of bloggers with opinions, some sincere, some just hit mongers. We have news analysts screaming empty-headed opinions and unchecked “facts” because they have to fill time and race in the ratings.

We have news sites like Huffington Post coloring our view before we even read the story with headline words like “Legendary Football Coach FIRED Among Horrific Scandal!” and “HORROR: Ex-Assistant Rumored to have “Pimped Out” Young Boys.” They’re spinning stories out of rumors.

Facts were allowed to be muddled. Chaos reigns. The victims, for God’s sake, have been smothered in the dust of the stampede for the Next Big Thing.

I know there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that we’ll probably ever know. But I also know that there was no visible PR staff to act as a conduit between university and media.

And the media, for the most part, have acted like undisciplined, irresponsible, screaming children.

Facebook Whining Gets Prof Grounded

A post with three  observations.

Gloria Gadsden, a sociology professor at East Stroudsburg University decided to vent her frustrations with some students on her Facebook.  At one point she asked:  “Does anyone know where to find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day …” Another post:  “had a good day today, DIDN’T want to kill even one student. Now Friday was a different story.” (Full article)

Most of us know there is no privacy on the Web.  Whispers  amplify into roars.  Secrets evaporate upon “send” contact.   A closed circle leaks like a broken dam.

Of course the statements got back to the kids targeted.   ESU investigated and put Gadsden on paid administrative leave.   The story  made the rounds on the Web and wound up in the national media, including USA Today.

Observation one:  No secrets on Web.

Observation two: Don’t believe everything you read, even in the respected traditional national media.


Because the Chronicle of Higher Education also ran a story on the incident, but it exposed a few more complications.  First, the professor is black and had written a piece for the Chronicle last year that she said proved to be controversial.  She felt this influenced the university’s action.

The USA Today piece didn’t include this information even though the Chronicle article came out before the USA Today story.  Did they intentionally leave it out?  Did they not do even the most cursory research?

Observation three:  Blog High Ed’s own Brad Ward of BlueFuego was quoted in the USA Today article.  Congratulations, Brad!

Finally,  I have a suggestion.  Every post-graduate program should create a  course that’s been needed in higher education for centuries.    It must to be a requirement so that when people earn their PhD they’ve at least been exposed to three credits worth of Common Sense.

More thoughts later.

Ignore Questions & Critics at Your Own Peril

Listened to a great episode  on the For Immediate Release podcast. An Australian  t-shirt company, Cotton On was making t-shirts for babies that were a little risque.  (It looks like they’ve since pulled the line).

One saying was particularly offensive.  A mother sent a note to a prominent mommy blogger about the slogan’s  insensitivity.  The mommy blogger wrote to the company asking for clarification about the offensive t-shirt.  She received what appeared to be a standard committee-written response that did not address the issue.

She sent another email asking if the company understood that the saying was offensive and asking if they were going to do anything to correct it.  Result:  another canned response.

The mommy blogger’s posts  began making the rounds.  A Twitter conversation formed.  You know how it works after that.  As people share the messages, make their own comments and create their own posts, it radiates outward creating a firestorm of activity.

A hash tag was created on Twitter reading “Cotton On Are Sick”.  A lot of comments were retweeted.  It finally hit the mainstream media and  Cotton On finally responded.  By now, of course, it was too late.  There was no way to undo their mistake.

They withdrew the offensive slogan with a long apology.

The lesson is not new to us in the business.  If you get inquiries from someone ins the social media, your response needs to be honest, personal, and immediate.

What used to be a 24-hour news cycle is now an immediate 140-character news cycle, as FIR cohost Shel Holtz points out.  He quoted another expert who says when queried, you have to respond immediately and in the same media where the issue appears.

It’s a fascinating episode with a case study that can apply to all of us in the business.