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

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.

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.”

Advertiser Boycotts: Does Your Team Have an Experienced Crisis Manager on It?

If you haven’t noticed by now, there’s an advertiser boycott template and it goes like this. Activists select a television show, a radio program, a network, or a show host to boycott, and then they wait for something they can use as a justification for the boycott they have planned all along.

The goal is to get the show cancelled, the host fired and an opposition voice silenced. Secondarily, the purpose is to send a message to anyone who support those who challenge them that they could be the next target.

Once the activists identify something to be outraged about, such as a comment or an interview guest who they’ve framed as undesirable, the activists will post a list of that target’s advertisers on web sites and on social media with a call to action that is squarely aimed at advertising agency media buyers, account executives, agency owners and corporate chief marketing officers.

“Don’t advertise here, or else.”

The consequence of not adhering to their demands could be a steady and growing drip of social media posts attacking your brand, or a full-blown “Twitter storm” that conflates your brand’s decision to advertise with an endorsement of everything said on the programs where you advertise.

Traditionally, the lines between programming or content and advertising have been clear. Producers and program hosts have been free to run their shows as they wished. Advertisers determined whether or not they sponsored certain programs based on ratings and an ability to connect with highly valuable targeted demographics that certain shows can deliver. In other words, the relationship was completely transactional, and one the public and the show’s audience clearly understood.

Program hosts and producers knew to expect no efforts to influence content by advertisers. For their part, advertisers have always been seen as independent of the programming in which they advertise.

Advertisers are Skittish

What’s changed is that activists behind these sophisticated campaigns have identified what they perceive as the weak link in this process, which is the skittishness of advertising decision-makers. The activists know that advertisers are often conflict averse and can tend to overreact at the slightest whiff of controversy.

If you’re one of those decision-makers, they want you to respond to their tweet with a tweet of your own that distances your brand from the program on which it is advertising. That’s just their first step in a series designed to drive a wedge between you and their target.

They want you to rethink your entire advertising presence on the program. They want you to wonder if advertising on this particular show is worth the hassle. They want you to pull all of your advertising within days and to do so publicly so that enough pressure is applied to cancel a show or fire a host or both.

Activists do this because at least in the short-term it works. They know advertising and marketing professionals are not in the crisis and issues management business. They know that in the normal day-to-day world of advertising and marketing, the best pros are keenly sensitive to the slightest shifts in consumer sentiment and feedback, prepared to change course and strategy to seize new opportunities and avoid possible catastrophe.

While these heightened sensitives can be huge assets in the marketing process, they can be vulnerabilities that activists know how to exploit through an advertiser boycott.

An Advertiser Boycott is Not an Advertising Issue

The first thing to recognize about an advertiser boycott is that it’s not about advertising. Once it starts, it’s a crisis and issues management scenario.

Think of it this way. If you’re a marketer and you get sued, do you decide to handle it yourself, or do you bring in an attorney? Or, if the IRS comes knocking on your door for an audit, do you handle it yourself, or do you call your accountant?

Keep these things in mind before you decide to take a DIY approach to managing the next advertiser boycott you may face.

To be sure, while the battleground for an advertiser boycott is most certainly the marketing arena, the decision on whether to continue advertising is issues management. Yes, any and all decisions made here will have an impact on the success of your marketing program. But the criteria for making decisions has been intentionally, calculatingly and effectively muddied by the activists.

An objective crisis or issues manager will help to triage the factors that must be considered to ensure you do not overreact, and you do not make overly emotional decisions. Tied to this, a good counselor will help you best frame for the public any decisions you ultimately make.

If you’re an advertising agency leader, you may be thinking, “What does a crisis manager know about advertising?” The truth is not as much as you, which is why your role in the process remains critically important. But it doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

You may be surprised at what a true crisis and issues manager can do for you.

A good crisis and issues manager has become accustomed to telling clients what they need to hear and what they don’t want to hear, and if need be is willing to get fired for it. Wouldn’t it be better to have the crisis manager take the heat so that once the current crisis passes, you still have the account or your job?

The value an experienced crisis manager brings is a battle-tested point of view who knows what works, what doesn’t, and how things are likely to play out, from a best-case scenario, to a worst-case one. The crisis manager follows a process for making and framing these tough decisions just as you do for marketing.

Of course, the time to add a crisis manager to your bench is not after the Twitter storm against your brand has already started. The best time is long before an activist decides to make an example of your brand.

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.

My Favorite Crisis: Helping a CEO in Time of Grief

No one likes a crisis, but for those who have had to deal with them the stories aren’t always as dire as it may appear at first glance. Some will point to the opportunity to make something right in a situation that could have been far worse. Others will tell stories about how going through a trying time with colleagues and stakeholders in the end helped them and their organizations forge stronger bonds.

My Favorite Crisis

A cross-section of crisis situations that I’ve handled have ranged from bankruptcy filings and missed earnings expectations to litigation and workplace situations. None of these problems were inherently positive, but there were a few that when I think about it I’m glad I was there to help.

The one that comes most prominently to mind was the time I received a call from the wife of the CEO of a tech firm who told me that during the night his father, the chairman of the company, had died. Since his father, who was liked, respected and admired by many, had suffered from a serious life-threatening health condition, I had a plan in place for this possibility.

Prior to that morning, I had informed the CEO that should the worst happen, I was prepared on the communications front. So, when it actually happened, he didn’t have to do anything more than to tell his wife to call me and say, “We know you have a plan for this. Implement it.”

Immediately, I felt thankful that I was in a position to alleviate some of the burden from the CEO in his time of grief.

The Problem

The company was publicly traded, so the biggest concern was the possible reaction from analysts on Wall Street and investors. Since the death happened over a weekend, we knew that we had until the stock market opened on Monday morning to prepare.

In the end, this event was a litmus test in the confidence the market had in the CEO and the company’s leadership team.

Other important concerns were the impact the news might have on customers and employees, though these concerns were somewhat less because most customers and employees had substantive experience with the organization and readily understood that day-to-day operations would not be affected.

The Risks and Complications

The major risk in this situation was that a negative impact on the company’s stock valuation could have an effect on current and potential investors, employees who were invested in the company, and on the company’s reputation.

The Approach

The most important thing we did was have a plan in place for the scenario that eventually happened. We knew in advance what the challenges would be. We knew who our most important stakeholders would be and what they would need to know and want to know.

The plan called for a quick all-hands-on-deck management meeting over the weekend. I was able to use the plan as a meeting agenda and fill in as much information as possible so that I had the substance needed for all communications. These included disclosures to the media, employees, customers and others. We were able to quickly establish internal and external communications protocols.

The key message was that while this event was extremely sad and troubling, since the CEO had been in place for some time, and had been the driver behind the company’s currently strong performance, the sad news would have no impact on the day-to-day operations.

We were well prepared to announce the news to all important stakeholders before the market opened that Monday.

The Outcome

When the market opened on Monday, we had already communicated the news broadly to the media and to the analyst community on Wall Street. Employees and customers were informed personally and directly by their managers and representatives.

At the opening bell, the company’s stock price was not impacted by the news. There were no sudden point drops. From the standpoint of the market, it was generally understood that even with the loss of its chairman, the company remained in good hands.

For me, the thing that makes this my favorite crisis was that I was able to achieve the results that come with good planning so that the CEO of the company was enabled to focus on the personal challenges of losing a father and a friend.

Crisis Management: When the Shine Comes Off the Apple

In my experience, clients who’ve already come under attack by activists and the media before tend to be more understanding of the situation than you might expect. They are usually much more open to counsel, and they also tend to be more accountable and transparent than they are portrayed.

On the other hand, I’ve also had the chance to work with some organizations that until a particular crisis situation, they had been considered media darlings. Some have been popular brands, or as emerging growth companies, they had never experienced a downturn in their business to that point. Others have been organizations that have operated in a fashionable industry or sector.

That was until the shine came off the apple, so to speak, with a first major crisis of negative publicity that stunned them.

One of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to crisis communications is the issue of whether or not the organization at the center of the story actually did anything wrong.

In those instances where the company is at fault, like a product recall or a problematic decision, the course of action is relatively simple. While it still may be complicated and difficult, the way through to the other side is fairly obvious. You own up to it and communicate corrective or preventative actions. And you commit to full transparency.

What If You are Not to Blame?

What most people don’t realize, however, is the vast majority of true crisis situations are scenarios where the organization is not at fault, where it’s being falsely or errantly portrayed as being the problem. Usually, a destructive narrative has taken hold, and there’s just enough truth in it to make it very difficult for the organization to prove its innocence in the court of public opinion.

Companies and organizations who have been through this sort of thing before tend to know what to expect, and how to respond, and perhaps even more importantly how not to respond.

But if the organization at the center of a negative publicity flap has never been through this before, they can be surprised to find out their relationship with the media is not quite what they thought. This leads to soul-searching revelations for some managers that they may have been over-confident in their own charismatic qualities, or over-trusting of the media, or had a dangerous sense of invincibility.

I remember one company that was faced with a situation where a Hollywood celebrity and a group of activists were protesting one of the company’s facilities. The group attracted a swarm of media, which led to national coverage. While the company was used to receiving national media attention, what it wasn’t used to was negative national media attention.

The thing that sparked the protests was not very complicated. Management had to make some difficult cost-cutting decisions to keep its operations going. If it didn’t do so, the company’s future was at stake.

I would end up meeting with the CEO of the company to determine what we could do to help.

We had a frank conversation, and in the end, it became clear there were no easy choices. I knew that I couldn’t tell the CEO what he wanted to hear. I had to tell him to essentially take ownership of the decisions that were made, and to explain why and how those decisions were in the best interest of the employees, customers and the very future of the company.

What he wanted to hear was that there were some simple words he could say that would make everything go back to where they were before the crisis, and that the media would return to treating him and the company like rock stars.

I tried to explain that being honest, candid and frank was his best hope for doing that, but he was too preoccupied with his dilemma. There were other consultants in the room as well, each advocating a complementary strategy for HR and legal. The whole time, the CEO just looked distracted and gobsmacked.

At times like this, it’s very important to give someone in this CEO’s position a chance to process. What we couldn’t give him was more time to decide. As we spoke, a protest in another city was launched in front of one of his facilities, and the media were on hand.

After we talked about his options, with a puzzled look he just blurted out, “I thought they liked us.”

At that point, it became clear to everyone in the room that leadership was so stunned by the manner in which the media seemed to have turned on them so quickly that they couldn’t make any firm decisions on this day.

We wished the company’s managers the best and went on our way. To my knowledge, the company never did engage outside crisis communications support.

Having the Right Perspective is Readiness

Here are some things this CEO should have known before this crisis happened:

  • The more visible you become, it is more likely that at some point, your organization will face a negative publicity crisis.
  • The positive coverage you receive today, and the negative coverage you may receive someday have nothing to do with whether the media likes you or doesn’t like you.
  • No matter how positive the coverage, it is a mistake to assume that the driving force is the power of your personality or the uniqueness of your culture. If the coverage is positive, it’s because there is something about your story that supports a narrative the media wants to tell today but for whatever reasons may not want to tell tomorrow.

In short, when your organization is considered a media darling, that is the time to understand you are vulnerable to an effort by someone at some point to take it upon themselves to try to take the shine off of your reputational apple. Just understanding this will go a long way towards helping to ready you for a crisis of negative publicity.

What do you think?  Let us know on Twitter at @OBrienPR

Even If Your Organization is Not On Social Media, It Could Face a Social Media Crisis

Let’s say your organization doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter presence. You may assume you probably can’t get into trouble on social media.  Such an assumption would be a mistake.  Here is a quick rundown on five ways in which social media could erupt to bite you if you are not prepared:

An employee goes rogue on their own social media account. 

There is a good chance many if not most of your employees are active to some extent on social media. While your organization may have taken great care to take a conservative stance on social media, every staffer may have their own ideas on what is and what is not acceptable online.  A post that attacks the organization, or one that includes names of fellow employees, managers, customers or others that you do business with could escalate in minutes, depending on the situation.

What to do: Make sure you have a solid social media policy in place and communicate it broadly and frequently to staff. While this may prevent some potential crises, there is no guarantee it will prevent all. But in all cases, having a policy in place provides a platform and a starting point for what you can and need to say during those times when the organization has to jump into action to address social media flare-ups among staff members. The policy will likely contain language that can be tapped for internal and external communications, reinforcing the organization’s rationale for corrective actions taken.

A customer slams you on social media and it spreads.

While B2B organizations don’t face this scenario often, it can happen. On the other hand, consumer goods and services companies have found that it’s very common for customers to turn to Twitter with a customer complaint even before contacting the company. How many times have you seen or heard about someone tweeting a complaint to an airline, for example, while standing in line at an airport, prompting the company to have to respond in minutes, if possible?

What to do: If you have a customer service department, make sure systems are in place to coordinate real-time communications with your social media management function. Regardless, your social media managers need to have protocols in place for contacting and coordinating with all of the key people in the organization to respond to small events that may not constitute crises at the moment, but if left unaddressed could escalate into crises.

A negative Glassdoor.com or a Yelp review could gain traction. 

Years ago, to learn how you are perceived among employees, potential employees and customers, you may have had to conduct focus groups and surveys. To be sure, those tools remain as solid as ever in gaining the most accurate assessment of attitudes. But certain sites have emerged allowing your employees, customers and others to submit reviews about your organization. Glassdoor.com lets employees and former employees rate your work environment. Yelp is widely revered among restaurants, retailers and other companies for its influence in painting an either positive or negative picture of your organization in the marketplace.

What to do: One or two negative reviews are nothing to worry about. In fact, I recently read a scientific study that indicated that the majority of people who submit reviews are predisposed to emphasize the negative in their reviews. The same research indicated that people who are satisfied with a product or service are less likely to submit reviews in the first place. This means that the reviews your organization receives may not be an accurate representation of the marketplace at large. At the same time, should one review start to gain traction by spurring additional reviews or social media activity, it’s best not to take it lightly. Depending on the situation, you may need to respond publicly, online, on the forum where the review was posted, and then work one-on-one to address any issues. Should a concerning pattern emerge, it may be time to convene your crisis or issues management team for a more thorough response.

Ubiquitous cameras.

Everyone who has a smart phone has a camera on them, which means if you have 200 employees there’s a good chance you have roughly 200 cameras beyond your control throughout the organization. Add to this the number of customers and others from outside your organization that potentially could post photos having to do with your organization, and the potential for problems is omnipresent.

What to do: Have a policy in place for the use of cameras by employees and in those facilities and locations under your organization’s control.  Like the social media policy, having this policy in place is important to the kind of messaging you would create should a mobile camera be at the center of some future crisis or issues management situation. Chances are, each crisis situation where smart phone video or photographs are at the center of the matter will be unique, so it’s best to prepare to mobilize your crisis communications team when these things do occur.

Your Facebook ad could generate negative comments. 

I helped a client with this situation not too long ago. The company had no Facebook presence, but it did sponsor a Facebook advertising program for recruiting purposes. When each ad was posted according to the criteria that was pre-set, the comments function was enabled so that anyone who saw the ad could post a comment. This caused one person self-described as a “former customer” to complain, and a few others who saw the comments to ask the disgruntled poster to elaborate.  At first, the company could not verify that the person complaining was a customer, let alone whether the claims made by this individual were true or not.

What to do: In this case, the organization was not a consumer-facing company, so they were able to do some internal investigating to identify and reach out to the person who complained on Facebook. They addressed that person’s concerns proactively and achieved a positive outcome. Worth noting, it is possible to disable comments on certain social media ad programs, so if the success of your ad program does not require comments, and you want to avoid this type of problem for your organization, disabling comments for your ad may be an option.

Do you have a story about social media flare-ups? Let us know on Twitter (@OBrienPR) or better yet, send me an email.  I’d love to hear it. 

Case Study: Updating an Assisted Living Facility’s Crisis Plan

What do you do if a resident of an assisted living facility “elopes” and no one can find him? Or when caregivers are accused of possibly mistreating patients and residents?

These are just two of the hypothetical scenarios we had to address recently when we helped an assisted living facility update its crisis communications plan and conduct media coaching for senior leadership.

We’ve found that the crisis planning process rarely changes, but the potential types of crises, challenges and unique characteristics of the operating climate change every time. We’ve found that even with organizations that have crisis plans in place, and senior managers who’ve been media-trained, it’s important to maintain constant vigilance against new communications challenges.

That’s what was on the mind of the senior leadership at an assisted living facility when they worked with us to develop an updated crisis communications plan.

The Approach

The approach we took was to conduct extensive interviews with key managers, staff members and other constituents to gain the best perspective on the types of possible crises that could happen, and to begin the process of analysis and prioritization on what challenges could be faced, what resources were available, and what resources may need to be added to effectively respond to the full range of crisis situations.

With that intelligence, and a treasure-trove of data from internal reporting, protocols and processes, and other background material, we were able to create an informational mosaic that enabled us to develop a crisis communications plan that was concise enough to be an actionable, useful resource in an actual crisis, while at the same time being extremely specific in the range of roles and responsibilities manager would assume during a crisis.

This particular crisis communications plan was developed to work in conjunction with other organizational and operational emergency response plans and policies.

The plan included the major levels of crisis categories, recommendations on monitoring and identification systems, an internal and external notification process, and the most efficient means for convening a crisis communications team in the minutes after, or even before a crisis situation unfolds.

Processes were created for mobilization and messaging, and then for implementation, scaled to meet the challenges of crises from mild to major.

After the crisis communications plan was complete, senior management, who were tapped with spokesperson duties, felt more comfortable and ready to engage in media coaching, which encompassed classroom-style training, along with role-playing and other interactive exercises.

This is a general overview of our approach. If you’d like to know more, or have a question of your own, we’d be glad to talk.  Please feel free to get in touch.