Tag Archives: crisis PR

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.


Corporate Loyalty & Real PR

Dick Jones is one of the most respected professionals in the PR consulting field.  Over the years, his company, Dick Jones Communications, has assisted more than 60 colleges and universities in the areas of public relations, story placement, media relations and  crisis communications.  I asked Dick to do a guest post on the role of the PR professional.

Arthur W. Page was a very smart man. He was the first corporate vice president of what today is known as public relations, taking that post in the 1920s for American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
Page “got it” from the start. He knew that sending the company’s messages to key publics was only half the job. The other half—and the more important part—was to inform AT&T and to provide counsel on what the public was thinking and feeling about any topic that could impact the firm.
The PR Department, said Page, “…ought to bring to the management at all times what it thinks the public is going to feel about a thing.”
Public relations scholars agree. Think how much heartache could be avoided if this occurred routinely. This mandate, however, is ignored more often than observed and that is not because PR professionals don’t believe in it or understand it. It is ignored because senior management does not believe in it or understand it.
Unfortunately, PR pros who sense trouble ahead and alert management to it are often running risks, especially if the trouble they spot is headed their way because of some action proposed by the organization they serve. This is particularly true within organizations that value loyalty—or rather a misplaced definition of loyalty—above all else. In such circumstances, the PR practitioner is liable to be considered disloyal or, at the very least, not a team player, if he or she has the temerity to point out problems that may arise from a particular course of action.
Of course it is not disloyal at all to point out potential public relations troubles arising from an organization’s decisions; quite the opposite, in fact. But if senior management doesn’t see it that way, it can derail a career and often has.
You can get a sense of the value an organization places on honest, reasoned feedback by whether or not the public relations function is included in senior management. If PR pros are present at the creation of policy, that’s a good sign. If, however, PR is “represented” in the councils of top management by some other staff function which then “interprets” management policy to the PR staff, that’s not such a good sign.
PR people who find themselves in the latter position will want to:

(1) see if they can find a “seat at the table” where they can provide feedback to senior management;

(2) resign themselves to doing only half of the job they are supposed to do;

(3) update their resume and look for a place that values the full public relations function.

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.

Sunday Afternoon Thoughts 17

Deborah Saline, chief operating officer at PR Works in Harrisburg, PA, taught a PR class at Bloomsburg University this semester and shares her observations of college students in Nexters Enter the Work Force Oh


Ad Age blogger George Parker is catching up with the new wave of un-conferences, concluding that marketing conferences are becoming irrelevant.


An interesting article in Advertising Age about adults spending more than half their media hours with TV. According to the survey, Internet advertising still is not faring very well. At the same time Wall Street marketers are ditching radio,TV and print for the Internet. What the survey doesn’t cover is the market that we’re interested in – the teens. And it does not address social networks. While it’s good information for what it’s trying to do, it does show that Advertising Age and traditional media are still catching up with what’s happening in communication today.


Well, almost out of touch. They skim the market with this article, Is Your Consumer Using Social Media? They’re talking about a different marketing than what we’re looking at, but it’s worth the read.


Interesting to see how Simmons Research breaks consumer categories into the “socially isolated,” “approval seekers,” etc. Don’t laugh. You’re probably in one of those categories yourself.


The survey also showed that TV advertising overwhelmingly remains the most influential with 81.4% of the 25-54 adult segment, compared with advertising on internet (6.5%), newspapers (5.8%), radio (3.9%) and magazines (2.3%).

Those surveyed also overwhelmingly reported TV has the most persuasive advertising (69.9%). Only 9.5% of respondents said newspaper has the most persuasive advertising, followed by 8.1% magazines and 7.5% radio. Wow. Don’t tell the Wizard of Ads that.

To be honest, I don’t think the survey is even relevant. I’ve read too many articles that say the TV audience is bailing. The remaining are fragmented. What does it matter who’s the most persuasive in markets that are shrinking.

It overlooks a large and growing culture of people seeking information on products they’re interested in, comparing products and making their own decisions. How does nearly everyone find what they’re looking for? They Google. Google search. Google ads. Google world.

Traditional media and the corporate world are having a hard time making the transition from incessant message shouting to seeking consumer input and sharing information. (Am I too harsh here?)


Two blog series I did – Drug Bust and Raging DJ – continue to be viewed, making me think that crisis PR is an in-demand subject. Over the years (oh, God, decades), I’ve dealt with a variety of crisis PR situations. I’ll do more posts on the subject in the future. In the meantime, if you don’t have your own blog and want to share your crisis PR stories, send them to me and I’ll publish you as a guest blogger.

Really! Give it some thought. Do it.

Email me at theperfectsong@gmail.com with “crisis PR story” in the subject box.

Drug Bust! Crisis PR! Part 3

The president called me at 3 p.m. the afternoon of the Attorney General’s press conference on the major drug bust. My news director and I (mainly him) were answering media questions. The president asked me to attend a meeting the students were holding that night.

It was an information session on the bust.

I said I would be there, along with the student affairs person and the provost. Someone said it would be a small gathering.

At 7 p.m. I walked over to the Student Activities meeting room.

At least 100 students sat waiting. They weren’t happy.

The Student Affairs director introduced us and the questions began, directed at me.

First question: “Why did you release the names of the student and all their information?” I was shocked at the students’ naivete.

“We didn’t,” I said. “The police did.”

“ It’s all over the Web.”

“It came from the Attorney General’s Office,” I explained. “When someone is arrested, the information is public.”

Two other students angrily asked me why we were making the students’ names public, making them look guilty before they were tried. The students involved in the bust were composed of black students and white students, but I could see now that this was all about race.

“We have no control over the information,” I said. “It’s provided to the media by the police. Our job is to answer questions we’re legally allowed to. No more, no less.”

There were more questions, then this: “Are drugs a big problem on campus?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “In this case we had a minority of students that made it look bad for a lot of students.”

A sudden buzz among the audience began growing. It was dark and angry and getting angrier. I realized that they had picked up on the word “minority” and turned it into a slam against the minority population.

The grumble became a low roar. Just before it swelled out of control the Student Affairs director stepped up to the mic and told them to calm down and show respect. Slowly the noise subsided. I was amazed.

And thankful.

The provost, to my great relief, jumped in and translated what I had said and took it from there.

The meeting ended quietly. I’m not sure the students ever understood that the PR Department didn’t release the students’ names. They left, a little more educated but still upset.

Bottom line?

Dealing with reporters is easy. We’ve got a major drug bust. It’s public.

Let’s get it done.

The secret is that you’re not on opposite sides. You’re dealing with a big story. For reporters and PR the end is the same: Headlines today. A new story tomorrow.

Students, I found out, are in a gray area in which emotion trumps the law. They are also subject to the influence of friends, faculty and staff.

At the end of a 16-hour-day, it was the students who were on my mind—the angry, the confused, and yes, the arrested.

Drug Bust! Crisis PR! Part 2

When the drug bust press conference was over, Terry, my news director, President Loeschke and I walked outside. It was a sunny, warm November day. I saw a female TV reporter who was my intern years ago. I gave her a hug and we talked about the more innocent days when she was a student.

The Attorney General’s office arranged to march the students out, slowly, one-by-one, past for the media. As a PR professional, I admired their skill.

They had thought of every detail.

So did our president. “Where will the students be coming out?” She asked.

“Over there,” Terry said, pointing to a side door. “The police are going to escort them down this way, then turn left and into the vehicles.”

She nodded. “Then I want to stand right there.” She walked to a spot where the students would be coming around a curve. “I want to be here where they will have to face me and see how incredibly disappointed I am.”

I’ve been in the news and PR business for 30 years and thought I was I was pretty hardened. But a shiver went up my spine. This woman had been president of MU for only five months and here she was handling a drug bust press conference as presidential and human as a person can be.

She had gone on camera thanking the Attorney General’s Office for its fine work , reiterating that our university does not tolerate drugs. And now she was personalizing it. Hers was the last face each student would see before entering the police vehicle.

The students began passing by. A couple glanced at her and looked away. One student made jokes. The rest saw her and looked down in shame and humiliation.

On the PR side, the moment made for some hard-hitting photos. What parent couldn’t relate to this woman, alone, arms folded, watching one of her students, his head down, being led to jail?

She stood for higher education, leadership and values, and they had let her down. They had let the university down.

It was classic.

Dr. Loescke’s response – going on camera and thanking the Attorney General’s office, her insistence on placing herself in a strategic position to face the students and force them to face themselves – turned a negative moment into something universal, positive, and most importantly, human.

We drove back to campus. The afternoon was spent answering media questions and I thought at the end of the day it was over.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

More in Part 3.