Domino’s Shows What to Do When Someone Tries to Cancel You

Domino’s, the pizza chain, recently put on a tutorial on how to handle an attempt to cancel you in the current communications environment.

Political influencer Rick Wilson targeted Domino’s on Twitter, where he has over one million followers, with a tweet that criticized a positive response from the company to current White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Apparently, Wilson took issue with the fact the company’s tweet was positive in nature, and decided to frame the social media exchange as the pizza maker deciding to wade into the current political fray.

Wilson tweeted to Domino’s, “You just killed your brand,” in an obvious attempt to cancel Domino’s by creating guilt by association. Below his comment was an earlier tweet from the company to McEnany thanking her for complimenting them on their pizza.

Here’s the problem. The tweet exchange Wilson took issue with was from 2012, eight years before her current public role.

For its part, the Domino’s response was genius.

“Welp. It’s unfortunate that thanking a customer for a compliment back in 2012 would be viewed as political. Guess that’s 2020 for ya.”

Immediately, the Twitter tide turned against Wilson for his obvious attempt eight years after the fact to cancel a brand for an innocent exchange.

Domino’s is a Model for Effective Crisis and Issues Management

That Domino’s responded so effectively should not come as a surprise. The company ushered in the age of the social media crisis in 2009 when two of its employees posted video of themselves to YouTube tampering with food in one of the franchise chain’s kitchens. Quickly, Domino’s identified the employees and the store, and the company took swift and decisive action, while communicating candidly about the whole situation.

In 2017, animal rights groups tried to pressure Domino’s into adopting stringent restrictions on the company’s suppliers of meat and eggs that would have placed significant hardships on farmers.

At the time, company spokesperson Tim McIntyre summed up the company’s unapologetic refusal to cave in to activist demands. “Farmers know best,” he said.

And now this. Against the backdrop of  “cancel culture,” as it’s become known, Domino’s is showing other companies and organizations how not to be cancelled.

The strategy is simple, but simple is not always easy to do. It’s three-pronged:

1) Decide not to be bullied.

2) Push back in self-defense.

3) Slow things down.

In a conflict-averse culture, it’s almost a default position on the part of many organizations and their communications teams to avoid conflict at any cost. The thinking is you should accept the premise of the criticism, acknowledge the merits of your critics and their criticism and apologize.  You should make whatever changes your critics insist upon, even if the allegations have no basis, and that will make the situation go away.

That’s why on the basis of a single digital video with a few thousand views, a major company or brand can reactionarily change course quickly with no strategic decision-making involved. Corporate leaders make hasty decisions on an emotional basis out of fear of being cancelled. Anyone in the first year of business school would learn that this way of making decisions dramatically increases the risk of failure on several levels.

#1 – Stand up to bullies.

Basic human dynamics can be all you really need to know when someone tries to cancel you. In effect, when someone is out to cancel you, they use bully tactics. And the only way to deal bullies is to stand up for yourself without fear and with resolve. Domino’s has demonstrated time and again that this is an effective strategy.

#2 – Push-back is self-defense.

The second strategy is to push back. It’s one thing to stand up and not give your critics what they want, but that may not be enough. If someone tries to cancel you, you may need to act in a sort of communications self-defense.

When Domino’s responded to Wilson’s tweet, the company clearly surprised him with Domino’s lack of contrition, and by politely framing the issue in such a way as to expose Wilson’s cancellation attempt for what it was.

Domino’s knew that it couldn’t put out a bland statement about company values or policies in response. Otherwise, they would have accepted Wilson’s premise and legitimized his criticism, making matters worse for the company. And yet so many companies and organizations do this very thing when faced with cancellation attempts.  Domino’s may have known they wouldn’t have silenced Wilson. They would have emboldened him and others like him.

So, instead, they reframed the issue accurately.

One characteristic of the Domino’s-Wilson Twitter exchange that worked in the company’s favor was that an inconsequential eight-year-old Twitter exchange was the basis.

#3 – Slow things down.

There is a third strategy that I alluded to earlier.  Had the attempt to cancel Domino’s been based on something more current, even if it was as trivial as Wilson’s allegations, you can’t assume the public would see it for what it is. So, there is a third strategy to consider.

The worst thing you can do in any crisis situation where you are targeted for cancellation is to act too hastily and too emotionally. Chances are you have processes in place for when and how to make major decisions and major changes.

When someone attempts to cancel you, fall back on those processes. Time is built into the process for proper deliberation so that as an organization, you do the right things for the right reasons in the right time. This is not to say you should never change, or that  you should never listen to your critics.

It is to say that in order to effectively handle a cancellation attempt, your third strategy is to be patient. Let matters settle to the point where you and your management team can see things more clearly and that you are following a proven process for analysis, and if need be, change.

Companies and brands are less likely to fail if they exercise disciplined patience in the face of cancellation attempts than they would if they too hastily give their critics what they demand in the heat of the moment.

What do you think? Do you ever worry that your organization could be targeted for cancellation through no fault of its own like Domino’s was? Get in touch. I’d love to chat.

Having Trouble Sleeping These Nights? Same here. That’s why I’m trying 10 o’clock office hours

This is going to be a short blog post.

This is not for everyone, but it may be for you. Given all of the challenges of late, there is a good chance that something is keeping you up at night with regard to your business.

We know how you feel. The people I partner with and I have had numerous conversations about the current challenges our clients face and the ones we all face together. It’s more difficult than ever to put today’s events into perspective so that you can make tomorrow better.

That’s why I’m going to experiment with something as long as is practical – a non-video one-on-one initial teleconference, free of charge to people I think I can help. That may be you, it may not, but we won’t know unless we start the conversation. For now, let’s call this our “June Event” and it’s all about turning things around and getting them back on track.

So, here’s how it works.

  • Based on availability and whether I believe I can help, I will pre-schedule a free 10 p.m., consulting audio-only teleconference with you. Times are Eastern.
  • Each call would be a maximum of 30 minutes long. Please know I will need to give careful consideration beforehand as to whether I think I can help, and that depends on what you can tell me.
  • The subject matter must be of a business or professional nature with a communications element to it.

My core strengths are strategic communications planning, corporate communications, media relations and public relations, writing and content development, marketing communications, and crisis and issues management. I am not a personal counselor, a career coach or a therapist and cannot help in those areas.

If you have a business/communications matter keeping you up at night, just get in touch at 412.854.8845 or email timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Maybe we’ll both sleep better.

Bankruptcy Communications: One Question, 31 Answers

If the entire country opened up for business tomorrow without any restrictions, the residual effects of the shutdown on local economies throughout the nation would last for months to come as no small number of businesses come to terms with the fact that this hole is far too big for them to dig out of simply by opening their doors again. More than a few firms will have to turn to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to give their businesses a fighting chance to survive.

In my work in bankruptcy communication, I’ve found that this type of crisis scenario is unique when compared to other crisis situations because the number-one question on the part of just about every stakeholder group is the same:

How will this affect me?

But what further makes it unique is that there are roughly 31 or more answers to that same question. The reason is that once you start addressing the self-interest of your company’s various stakeholder groups, the answer changes, even slightly, by each group and sub-group.

All employees are not the same. That goes without saying, right? Well consider the fact that your firm could have hourly and salaried employees, union and non-union, full-time and part-time, headquarters and field offices, R&D and operations, vested employees and non-vested, customer services employees and sales representatives. And then of course, you may have retiree groups to consider. And all of that may fall under just the “employee” umbrella.

Companies that enter the bankruptcy process have their share of concerns, but one of them need not be the possibility that they mishandled communications by taking a one-size-fits all approach to the communication process.

Another common mistake they make is that they can spend an inordinate amount of time preparing to announce a Chapter 11 filing without planning for the ongoing communications process during the reorganization and eventual emergence from bankruptcy protection.

Because I’ve gotten calls on this already, I’m going to offer a free initial consultation on this process. If you or someone you know have questions about communicating prior to and during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, please feel free to call me at 412.854.8845 or email me at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.

Crisis Leadership: A Turnaround Mindset is Required to Avert Financial Disaster

If you’re in charge of a business of any size right now, outside of the health and well-being of everyone you know, the one thing that’s on your mind is how your company is going to come out of the current quarantine … or if it will come out of it.

In politics, there is a saying that all politics are local. What that means is that no matter how global the issue, for the voter it really comes down to, “How will this affect me?”

So, on the matter of the many issues that have come to play during the current pandemic, the crisis communications rule of thumb is very similar. You must answer the question of each of your stakeholders, “How will this affect me?”

If you run a company, you’re worried about how the economic shutdown will affect you, your company, your employees, your customers, your partners and your collective future together. Will it survive?

This reminds me of many times where I’ve worked with companies in financial crisis.

Missed earnings expectations, restructurings and turnaround situations, Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filings and subsequent reorganizations. They all had the same concern at their center. How will we move past this? Will we move past it?

Obviously, I can’t speak to your specific situation in a blog post like this, but here’s what I can say. The companies that emerged stronger had the following things in common.

#1 Focus on What it Will Take to Survive – Every successful management team was able to take a sober look at what they had been doing prior to the crisis, and then envision a post-crisis company. They were able to compare and contrast the two different scenarios, and in the process see what changes they needed to make as the crisis was unfolding. And they made those changes quickly and decisively.

#2 Focus on What You Will Need to Survive – One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen some management teams make is not having a full appreciation for what they would need to survive. It’s almost counter-intuitive, but the successful firms knew what investments they had to make even when financial resources were scarce. But they couldn’t do it without a clear objective of where they needed to take the company in the near-term and the long-term. Sometimes that meant re-allocating existing resources, and other times it simply meant reaffirming their commitments to certain existing plans, strategies and business units in order to re-emerge from crisis stronger than before.

#3 Focus on How You Will Emerge Stronger – This is all about vision. You know the challenges. You know how your peer companies and competitors are fairing right now. You have a sense of how they will try to emerge, how they are positioning themselves for the post-crisis period. So, how will you? What kind of company will come out of this situation stronger? Is your firm capable of being that company? How? It’s not only time to envision it, but to challenge your own vision. Try to knock it down, look for the flaws in your own thinking, and then fix it in those places. Ultimately, you will have a practical and achievable vision of a stronger company post-crisis.

#4 Focus on How You Will Sustainably Thrive – Too many companies focus primarily on cost-cutting to get through a financial crisis, but that’s a short-term fix at best. Once you’ve cut costs, chances are you’ve cut resources, and when you’ve done that, you’ve hindered your company’s ability to realistically sustain itself post-crisis. While cost-cutting is prudent and necessary in many financial crises, there has to be a plan to restore a smart self-investing strategy, fueled by growth, to assure that your company can sustain its post-crisis resurgence and then grow for the long-term.

You Need to Know This Up Front

It’s important to work through this planning process as quickly as possible, because chances are your stakeholders – investors, customers, employees and others – are already waiting to hear from you. What’s your plan? What are you going to do? What are you not going to change? How can we be sure all of it will work?

They want to know, and they need to know. And that’s where an effective communications plan enters the picture. To build and maintain confidence among the people most important to your company’s ability to survive and thrive, the glue is effective communication. And that can’t wait until the quarantine is lifted.

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Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator who has handled the full range of crisis and issues management matters for clients. If you have a question or concern, he’d be glad to hear from you: 412.854.8845; timobrien@timobrienpr.com; Twitter: @OBrienPR

Ricky Gervais Dishes Cold PR Advice at the Golden Globes

On Sunday, January 5th, comedian Ricky Gervais got the New Year off to a hot start in Hollywood by using his platform as host of the Golden Globe Awards to roast the Hollywood celebrities sitting in front of him.

That he would make some people uncomfortable was to be expected. In all of the pre-event media coverage, the award show’s publicists actually hyped the event by showcasing Ricky Gervais’s unpredictable and irreverent nature. It seems safe to assume no one imagined just how irreverent he’d be.

The most shared video clip of the night on social media was when the host played the role of brutally honest PR counselor and told his celebrity-packed audience:

“If you win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech,” he advised the stars during his opening monologue.

“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

Needless to say, more than a few award winners would later reject Gervais’s unsolicited advice and did use the stage for political speech.  But the headlines the next day mostly centered on backlash Gervais received in Hollywood for his cold candor.

Vanity Fair reporter Mark Harris’s tweets the next day were representative of the backlash:

“Here’s my Ricky Gervais problem,” he said. “The idea that celebrities are not only pampered babies but hypocrites who cause the problems they make speeches deploring and should therefore shut up and act/sing/be grateful is a right-wing talking point, and an especially stupid one.”

“It’s not an act of speaking truth to power or of bravery to attack celebs on that front—it’s a tired way of scolding people into silence because you don’t like what they’re saying, and saying that he’s ‘calling out’ the hyper privileged is just the same thing in a new guise.”

Gervais took to Twitter to give his side of the story, and in his own unintentional way, offer some PR insights:

“Simply pointing out whether someone is left or right wing isn’t winning the argument. If a joke is good enough, it can be enjoyed by anyone. It’s not all about you. Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

Whether you agree with Gervais’s humor, laughed at it or tuned it out, Gervais made a few points that from a PR perspective are worth considering, whether you or your organization is ever the target of humor or some other perceived slight in the public arena. In the world of corporate communications, we like to call this crisis communications or issues management.

While I’m more diplomatic than Gervais might be, when I meet with crisis management clients who’ve been the target of public ridicule in some way, it is important to remind them that as painful as the criticism may be, even on a personal level, the motivation for the attacks may not be personal at all. That’s not a defense of the critic, but it’s an important starting point to start to obtain the clarity needed to make sound decisions on exactly how to respond in a crisis. Chances are, your first instinct at times like this is driven more by emotion than rational thought, and that’s not a good basis.

The most important thing is to gain a real understanding of what emotional and attitudinal place the attacks may be coming from, and more importantly, why some of them may be ringing true for the public.

Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right

As Gervais deadpanned, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.”

The value in that comment is that before you can correct public opinion, you have to know as much about where that opinion is rooted and how it has taken shape in this way. Only then in crisis communications can you start to address the factors that will turn things around.

Given the reaction of Hollywood to Gervais’s comments, it would appear that many of the celebrities would do well to step back and work to understand why Gervais’s unlikely PR advice resonated with so many in the public.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click Here, complete the form and then please check your email.

Senior Level Counsel: Arm Yourself with the Right Questions, Not Just Answers

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in the business of communications happened to me when I was a young account executive at a global PR firm. My client was the CEO of a logistics company. To describe him as tough-as-nails would be an understatement.

He’d taken on investor groups, regulators, unions and competitors with a bare-knuckle approach to business. If you screwed up, he was the first to tell you, and in a way you would never forget.

There was a method to his old school madness. He managed a lot of people. In his mind, if he had to repeat himself, he wouldn’t get anything done and his companies would fail. He had a reputation for choosing not to have to repeat himself, which meant if you were the target of his wrath, you felt it.

When it was my turn

I remember when I discovered this dynamic for myself.

The CEO was in the midst of the emergency shutdown of a major operation to meet the expectations of his investors and keep the rest of the company from sinking under the weight of the failing division. Times were changing. Competition was intensifying. This division had already lost.

It all came to a head on a Friday night in the meeting rooms of a small chain hotel in a crossroads town, where the failing division was headquartered.

The company’s senior managers and consultants were all in the main conference room, waiting their turn, each expected to stand and deliver their plans for their role in the transitionary process. The CEO sat in the back of the darkened room, behind a blinding light coming from the Powerpoint projector. He peppered every presenter with questions.

First went Finance, then Accounting, then HR, then Legal, and then it was my turn, Communications.

You would think that after having watched the CEO verbally destroy everyone who presented before me, I might have learned something.

I didn’t, until I did.

Every presenter was expected to cover what his or her respective function would do to facilitate the shut-down of the division with as little impact on the larger company and its people as possible. Every presenter took the stage with a plan that tried to anticipate every one of the CEO’s questions and preemptively answer them. In other words, we all thought we were expected to have all the answers before we presented our plans.

This is hardly unusual. Anyone knows that if you have to give a presentation to any CEO, you want to be as buttoned down as possible.

So, when it was my turn, I started to lay out our communications objectives, strategies, targeted audiences, key messages, timeline, and a plan for implementation of a communications strategy. Like the others, I didn’t get too far into my presentation before the CEO started laying into me from behind the bright projector light hitting me in the face.

Question after question for which I didn’t have the answers. Most questions were ones no one could answer because none of us could predict the future, I thought.

Maybe it was the time of day at the end of a long week and I was tired. Or maybe it was because I couldn’t actually see his face, or that to get to this meeting I had just driven through a blinding snowstorm, passing tractor-trailers stranded snow-deep in ditches. Whatever the case, my own patience was as tapped out as his.

So, as respectfully as possible, I mustered up the pluck to start asking him questions. I asked him what he viewed as the best possible outcome. I asked him how he thinks this project would be perceived once implemented, and what he felt was the best-case scenario or a worst-case scenario.

There were two company managers to my right waiting their turn to speak. The expressions on their faces told me I was taking a risk. You just don’t put this guy on the spot, was the conventional wisdom.

That’s when something totally unexpected happened. He calmed down. He answered my questions reasonably and thoughtfully, and in such a way that I wondered what had happened.

Then it hit me, he didn’t want us to have all the answers.

This was a working meeting. It should have been a collaborative environment. As important as it is to have ideas on what to do, it’s just as important to tap the power of the collective mindshare in the room, especially the CEO.

He didn’t want to have to tell us what to do. That was certain. But he didn’t want us telling him wat to do. He wanted us to come into the room armed with ideas and plans, but above all, the right questions. He wanted to know that we recognized that some things couldn’t be decided until we, as a group, discussed some of the most pressing challenges and asked the right questions.

Somewhere in the course of my time in the room, we were able to hash out an actionable communications plan, one that was realistic and had the best chance for success. We couldn’t prevent the closing of a division, but we were able to communicate that this was a last-resort measure designed to save the larger company and those who depended on it.

The lesson for me going forward was and is that there are times when we can’t be expected to have all of the answers, but the most important thing we can do is to go into these critical moments armed with the right questions.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

Click here, complete the form, and then please check your email.

A Podcast that Covers What They Don’t Teach You in PR Class

One of my favorite books is from Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” In the book’s first paragraphs he explains, “The best lesson anyone can learn from business school is an awareness of what it can’t teach you – all the ins and outs of everyday business life.”

I had this line in the back of my mind from the moment the idea came to me for what has become the Shaping Opinion podcast.

The podcast, I thought, should be the answer to that question your mother-in-law asks you every Thanksgiving, “So what do you do in public relations?” Still, it should hold you even if you don’t really care much about the public relations field. Most importantly, if you do care about communications, and you want a successful career in it, I wanted the podcast to have a secret sauce that wouldn’t be overtly advertised but it would be the unifying thread for every episode – context.

To be sure, not every episode even mentions PR, and quite a few may not make your mother-in-law more PR savvy. But if you listen for a common thread in every episode, you’ll find elements of history and communication, and you’ll feel their combined impact on attitudes throughout our culture. This is context.

Without context you have sensational news stories today that seem to have forgotten or ignored the contradicting information that came out yesterday, and the cycle will be repeated tomorrow as the media and some communicators seem to have forgotten the lessons of what happened today, not to mention last year, or 10, 20 or 50 years ago. You have media and communicators reacting to everything they see with seemingly no understanding of the past and how the current or future circumstances could have been or could be shaped.

The “people, events or things that have shaped the way we think” that we talk about are sometimes so well known or so unknown that we don’t even think about it. Yet, there was always that person, that event or that thing that has had a major influence on how we see some aspect of society or our own lives.

Take the Emoticon…

The emoticon. You may use it without thinking about it. You may see it every day and not care, yet its very existence has in some way influenced the way you communicate or receive communication. How can something like that even come about? And can it be repeated on purpose? That’s what we talked about when we interviewed the AI scientist who first created the emoticon as a joke decades ago.

We talked to Nike’s former marketing chief when they launched “Just Do It.,” and learned how an advertising line can become part of a company’s culture, and then drive that culture, and then have a major influence on how society sees athletics and how millions see themselves as athletes.

Speaking of ad lines, did you know an ad woman in Philadelphia who herself never married was the genius behind the line, “A Diamond is Forever?” She helped create the common expectation that an engagement isn’t official without that diamond ring. This was the topic for Episode 16.

We revisited the day President Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin with Sheila Tate who was press secretary in the White House with the First Lady at that moment. And we talked to the former FBI agent who handled crisis communications in Somerset, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.

We’ve had conversations with doctors and even a Nobel scientist on such things as the opioid crisis, the now global concussion protocol, and a human’s ability to manipulate proteins to “direct evolution.” These complex topics explained in our relatable conversations all have had some impact on how you and I see the world and its possibilities.

When you listen to Shaping Opinion, you will hear a conversation with someone who knows something special about the topic at hand. In the course of every episode, you’ll hear what it’s like to get that critical context needed before true understanding can happen and how this can create broader understanding and connections in society.

See it Through Their Eyes

Each interview is similar to that initial conversation I’ve had with those with whom I’ve worked on a communications matter over the years. It’s that opportunity to see things through their eyes, and in turn, it tends to bring out some of the stories and issues that must be considered before we can really connect with others.

It’s been my favorite part of a long career in public relations, and this podcast is my effort to share what I love most about communication with you. The learning. The context.

The Shaping Opinion podcast doesn’t fit into any neat genre that podcatchers like. It’s not true crime, it’s not a cooking podcast, it’s not politics, it’s not history, and it’s not pop culture or music. But at times, it’s all of the above.

It’s not a how-to podcast for public relations, yet every conversation is designed for professional communicators and others who find the dynamics that shape public opinion fascinating.

It’s a conversation where you’ll probably learn little something, perhaps become inspired in some way by one of our guests, and in the end feel a little better, a little stronger, and hopefully, a little more curious about the world around you.

One thing you can be sure of is that after every episode you will have context that you didn’t have before, which will help create better understanding.

♦  ♦  ♦

The Shaping Opinion podcast was the recipient of the Public Relations Society of America’s Bronze Anvil Award of Commendation in 2019.

The Poynter Institute’s Bad Week

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet is credited with saying, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The Poynter Institute may have been reminded of these words of wisdom last week when it published its list of 515 news sites that it considered “unreliable,” effectively blacklisting sites long considered legitimate (albeit conservative) media.

As a result, the Institute felt the backlash and was forced to apologize and remove the index from its own site last Thursday.

The Poynter Institute has built a strong reputation over the years as it says, championing “freedom of expression, civil dialogue and compelling journalism that helps citizens participate in healthy democracies.”

The Poynter report that has since been taken down off of the Web, included a number of distinctly conservative media outlets, such as Daily Signal, Daily Wire, Drudge Report, Free Beacon, Judicial Watch, PJ Media, the Blaze and the Washington Examiner.

This sparked outrage from the right.

Under the Poynter umbrella, the people behind the index were the Annenberg Public Policy Center at University of Southern California, Merrimack University, PolitiFact, Snopes and Chris Herbert, described as a “data designer.” Poynter said that the index drew from “fake news” databases managed by these organizations.

The reason for removing the index from its site, Poynter said, was “weaknesses in methodology.”

Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen said in a statement on Poynter’s site:

“Soon after we published, we received complaints from those on the list and readers who objected to the inclusion of certain sites, and the exclusion of others. We began an audit to test the accuracy and veracity of the list, and while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology. We detected inconsistencies between the findings of the original databases that were the sources for the list and our own rendering of the final report.”

She later said, “We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication. We pledge to continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards.”

Why Boeing Should Hold Off on Apologizing

It’s been a few weeks now, and I’ve seen the usual pattern among some PR consultants in various media taking Boeing to task.

I’ll get to the predictable PR narrative in a second, but if you need an update on the situation, there have been two plane crashes in the past five months that have been blamed for missing certain safety technologies on the Boeing 737 Max, a successor to the highly common Boeing 737 aircraft.

At the center of the problem is what appears to be a software glitch that resulted in two safety features that are designed to alert pilots to possible incorrect readings not being installed on some aircraft. It seems that Boeing had charged more for those features, so it’s possible the airlines involved in the crashes elected not to buy those “extras” for the aircraft involved in the crashes. At the very least, there may have been some confusion. That’s the simple version.

There have been numerous reports that the pilots of those aircraft may not have been aware of this technical problem and may not have been as well trained as others to compensate for the problems in flight.  I’m sure we’ll learn more as we move forward.

Whatever the case, once this problem became clear, several countries decided to ground the aircraft, including the United States. This had a negative ripple effect on air travel for many airlines and passengers.

As Boeing proceeded to address and correct the problem, several PR pundits, often with little to no actual crisis experience, have weighed in with the same sort of crisis counsel that they would have provided if a major airline had miscalculated a weather delay.

They said that Boeing needs to apologize, it needs to own the problem. The issue they say is one of trust, and in that spirit they must make sure their apologies are genuine, they must take responsibility. If the company does this, the PR ‘influencers’ say it will get its brand back in time.

Let’s start with the fundamental flaw in this sort of PR thinking. These suggestions inadvertently presume the core driver of the crisis was a communications matter or a trust issue. That broken trust is the cause. In other words, since trust has been broken, if you communicate just this way, you’ll have your trust and your reputation restored.

Quite frankly, that’s Pollyanna.

When an aircraft crashes, that’s more than a communications problem. It’s a technical problem. It’s an operational problem. It could be a training problem. It is a customer relations issue. It could be a sales and marketing matter. And we don’t yet know if it could be a cultural or ethical issue.  Because of this you can’t just apologize and be transparent and expect to get your brand back.

When more than one aircraft crash, it’s not only a crisis, but it’s also quite possibly a cultural issue and could have bled into operational systems and processes. In short, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were underlying issues that must now be addressed well before communications strategies and tactics can be effective.

For this reason, expecting an apology to accomplish anything at this point is like trying to put a bandage on a water main break and hoping that it seals the gusher.

Some might say, “Yes, it may not accomplish anything, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Is it?  More often than not apologies are rejected as disingenuous because they are perceived as “just words” and no action.  As for the notion that only sincere-sounding apologies work, see above and know that once you’ve apologized, your critics will seize on it as proof of your firm’s guilt, and more importantly as a foundation of their case that your organization is unfit to do whatever it may want to do in the future. In other words, apologizing at the wrong time in the wrong way usually stands little chance of helping, but it increases the likelihood of hurting.

Then there are the issues of transparency and accountability. Yes, all organizations at the center of all crisis situations have to be accountable. But one thing you can be sure of in this case is Boeing doesn’t need to be told this. Why? Because accountability is built into the process.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators will make sure Boeing is held to account whether it wants to be or not.

So, what Can Boeing Do?

Boeing is already doing it. They are taking accountability. They are being transparent. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known so quickly the cause of the problem and what was being done about it.

They are focusing on corrective actions, which is proper and much more effective than apologetic words. As part of taking corrective action, they are updating the software, making sure it is in all existing and new 737s, and they will be conducting intensive trainings for pilots and airlines on the use of the software. I’m not sure if this was Boeing’s idea or not, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter. The point is, it’s getting done.

And unfortunately for Boeing and its shareholders, they will likely face some very costly litigation from the families of the passengers who tragically died in those crashes, and perhaps lawsuits from their customer airlines seeking to recover damages.  And given our society’s litigious nature, there will probably be a class action or two from passengers inconvenienced by the grounding of the 737s.

Where Does Communications Fit?

With all of these non-communications remedies in progress, what role does crisis communications play in this scenario?

The main thing is to make sure that communications is supporting all of these efforts and making sure the public knows about it all in the right context. The communications function has to make sure that the tone of all advertising and communications does not attempt too quickly to distance itself from this situation. Oftentimes, when something this serious happens, it’s tempting for communications chiefs and marketing decision-makers to want to move on too quickly. Frequently, they think that by changing the subject in their marketing, they can make people forget more quickly. That’s a mistake.

For Boeing, this was a seminal event and it should be treated that way. Make sure that you err on the side of communicating more rather than less on the corrective actions being taken. And stay with the program through its entirety.

Isn’t this transparency?

Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s making sure the focus is on corrective actions at the technical, operational, and internal levels. It’s also about making sure that the tone of your non-problem-specific external communications is more muted and respectful of the larger context in which the company is presently operating. Make sure those invitations to the company holiday party this year are more understated. Make sure that if there is any hyperbole in your trade show literature it is cut down or removed. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to maintain a more serious posture.

This would be a good time to revisit internal ethics policies and processes for reporting problems, including whistle blower policies and practices. Make sure that going forward the communications channels up and down the chain of command are wide open so that problems can be identified, the right people are notified, and that passenger safety is paramount in all decision-making. I’m not saying that Boeing didn’t do this, but I am saying times like this provide an opportunity to revisit all of it.

Are You Saying Boeing Should Never Apologize?

Not at all. I am saying that if you let the operations, legal and other non-communications functions focus on corrective actions and creating preventative mechanisms for the future, and if the communications function provides support with a focus on awareness, culture and credibility, the genuineness and the remorsefulness over what has recently happened will be extremely obvious and understood broadly and widely.

Actions and a fundamental cultural shift are much more powerful in expressing contrition than a well-crafted 200-word apology.

Admissions Scandal: Should It Matter Where You Went to College?

When people see this question they want to say, “No.”

Why do they feel this way? Why shouldn’t it matter where we went to school?

Maybe it’s because we all knew someone who went to a very good school and doesn’t appear to be smarter than anyone else.

“Good schools aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” we tell ourselves and anyone who will listen.

In light of the recent college admissions scandal involving some high-profile celebrities and some national educational institutions, I’ve seen this line of thinking quite a bit in the media and online.

If you’re not familiar with the story, 33 parents are facing federal charges in an investigation that was code-named, “Operation Varsity Blues.” Sounds like a made-for-TV movie, doesn’t it?

This real-life drama stars actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among other accomplished parents, who allegedly were willing to pay certain individuals to ensure that their kids were moved to the front of the line in the college admissions process.

Winning the award for best college in a supporting role is a tie between eight leading universities: Stanford, UCLA, the University of Southern California (USC), Georgetown University, Yale, Wake Forest, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of San Diego.

Can’t Kids Get a Good Education at Any College?

The answer is that under the right circumstances, yes, but let’s take a step back for a moment. The truth is, people send their kids to college for reasons other than simply to learn in a classroom.

Years ago, I remember working on a communications research project for some colleges, and we surveyed high school students on what they looked for in a university. The most prominent factors among high school seniors were nice dormitories, nice gym facilities, a vibrant social atmosphere (i.e. the party scene), an impressive school name for your resume when you graduate, and for some, just enough distance between the college campus and home to keep parents at a distance.

Of course, most parents would likely have a different set of priorities for their kids. As someone who has put two kids through college and who has many friends who have done the same, my anecdotal research, if you will, told me that parents want their kids to get a good education, to major in something that will help them get a good job when they graduate, to minimize the impact of loan debt on themselves and their kids, and to have a good college experience. For some, they may also want their kids to build a network that helps them in life as well.

None of this may be alarming, but when you look at the notorious examples set by the recent Hollywood moms and dads, and it’s apparent that while they, too, had the best interests of their kids in mind, maybe their hopes and dreams were on steroids.

Since these parents obviously had more than enough money to cover tuition at an expensive private school, that wasn’t the issue. Rather, it’s more likely a combination of things, starting with the obvious notion that the kids themselves did not have what it took academically or athletically to get themselves admitted to the chosen schools.

So, we can presume that the parents either really wanted the kids to go there, or the kids really wanted to go there, and the parents were willing to move mountains of cash to make it happen. According to news reports, some parents were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to gain a favorable admissions decision.

So if it’s not all about classroom learning, what’s the driving force?

One reason may be that attending certain schools bring with them a social strata you just can’t get from other schools. Related, their new college friends will probably be their lifelong networks, they hope. Parents know that career and business opportunities five, ten or even 20 years from now will be traced back to this time when they went to an elite school with elite classmates from elite families.

In short, the parents probably think they are buying their kids a future that the kids could not attain for themselves.

Does this justify their actions? No, 1,000 times, no. But it does explain why some were willing to risk the penalty of law to do what they did. It was not about the education.

From a crisis communications point of view, in the coming days and weeks, you can expect all sorts of public relations professionals to explain how colleges need to be more transparent and accountable, that they should apologize (What’s crisis communications counsel in 2019 without the obligatory apology?), and they should bring back merit-based admissions policies.

In a twisted way, you might hear a college or two use this situation to reinforce perceptions of the high value of education they provide. In this context, while technically it may be true, it would not be honest.

My take?

As a corrective action, the parents involved here should openly admit their mistakes and take responsibility in a court of law.

But if the schools, the celebrities and even the media covering them want to be truly transparent, the one thing they all may need to acknowledge is that college is about much more than a classroom education, and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is breaking the law to get it or provide it. Keep in mind, parents and students come and go, but if the colleges aren’t held accountable for the fix, the system doesn’t change.

Where did you go to school? Let us know on Twitter @OBrienPR