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.

Beware of Some Social Media Crisis Experts

If you Google the term “social media crisis,” or even the term, “brand crisis,” you’ll probably find no shortage of advice columns or online videos on how to see your organization through a crisis. Typically, the authors or presenters are social media experts or marketing gurus.

What they usually are not are crisis communications veterans. In all too many cases, they may not have even handled a single crisis for a client. But that doesn’t stop them from offering free, speculative advice on how to handle your crisis situation.

Why?

A few reasons. First, the number of companies and organizations running into social media  and brand crises is increasing. The would-be experts see crisis management work as lucrative even if they don’t have experience. Second, they don’t know what they don’t know. And third, while some may have a good deal of experience in social media or marketing, in terms of defining characteristics, they tend to see a social media crisis as a social media situation, not a crisis situation. This is a very important distinction and can be a mistake. And fourth, they think they’ve read enough articles and books to compensate for their lack of genuine crisis management experience.

And all too many simply imagine what they would do if one of their clients were to get into a crisis, and based on that, they think they know what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s the problem. If you run into a crisis, whether it be a social media crisis, a brand crisis, a plant explosion, or a bankruptcy filing, the last person you want counseling you is someone with only an academic knowledge of crisis management. You want someone who’s been there.

The pitfall of hiring someone with little to no crisis experience is you’ll likely get cliché crisis management advice that may not apply to you, and could backfire on you. One of the most common assumptions non-crisis veterans make is that good faith wins the day. Just take responsibility, own the crisis, accept the premise of your critics and apologize, and everything will be fine, they say.

Don’t buy it.

A crisis communications veteran will likely have numerous examples where simply taking responsibility, apologizing, showing good faith, accepting the premise of your critics, and seeking engagement, backfired in any number of ways. Not because each in itself isn’t the right thing, but the one thing they are all lacking is a specific strategy that takes into account the particulars of each situation.

What if your critics are basing their attacks on a duplicitous agenda of their own fabrication? What if certain groups have decided to fake a narrative about your brand or organization that is so untrue, that to “take responsibility,” “acknowledge” and apologize only help them achieve their goals, which could be to smear and undermine your organization and anyone associated with it?

In other words, what far too many non-crisis communicators don’t fully appreciate is that entirely separate strategies may be required to counter unfair attacks, and that strategies of appeasement are ineffective.  And this is just one scenario.

The bottom line is this. If you are facing a crisis or a possible crisis, do your best to find a crisis communications veteran who’s done more than written an article, given a speech, or even written a book on the topic. Find someone who’s actually been in the trenches on crisis management.

An experienced crisis communicator will likely give you counsel that’s not cookie-cutter, not cliché, but in your best interest. More than likely, it will be effective, and that’s what counts.

One Question that Would Change the Tone of Protest Coverage

When it comes to the media and protestors alike, protests can be big business.

Media coverage of protests tends to generate consistently high ratings, page clicks and readership, which attracts more ad revenue. And when it comes to the protests themselves, in an increasing number of cases there is more than meets the eye. In some instances there is the stated reason for the protest, such as a common environmental or a safety concern, and then the unstated reasons that may better explain why someone was willing to make an investment of thousands if not millions of dollars to prop up the protestors.

The professional-protest economy has gotten very good at creating made-for-TV and made-for-social media events. The recipe is simple.

  • Form a group around a theme that makes it look like you’re a victim or that you stand on morally higher ground than everyone else.
  • Obtain funding for that group from an activist foundation. Or, not uncommonly, it’s the funder itself that conceives of the whole thing, from the theme of the cause and the creation of the protest group, to of course its branding. #GottaHaveAHashtag
  • Create the core organization by paying professional activists to lead, organize and recruit others, and then be willing to pay who you need to make a show of it at protest events.
  • You can target third-party events like a company’s annual meeting or an industry convention, or you can create your own events. The beauty of any protest is that with the right camera angle, you can make 20 people with signs look like popular opinion.
  • If you’re having trouble recruiting people to your cause, simply run an ad on Craigslist looking for “paid volunteers,” which is an oxymoron. You can’t be a volunteer if someone’s paying you. That would make you an employee or paid contractor. More on that in a moment.
  • With a core group of “paid volunteers” you have a better chance of recruiting others who are willing to join a protest to be a part of something, or to just be where the action is.
  • Promote it all on social media and blanket the traditional media with your publicity outreach.

And there you have it, a protest-in-a-box.

The current protest model is based on a tried and true formula and counts on the general media’s need to drive ratings and readership by depicting volatile events as though they represent a popular uprising.

The prevalent and outdated assumption in this kind of media coverage is that these events spring up from the grassroots (Professional protests do not); that the participants are only there because they believe in the cause and not because they are paid (Increasingly many are being paid for the very act of protesting); and that their presence indicates they are willing to risk their jobs or studies for something bigger than themselves (Many don’t have jobs, or are still under the finances of their parents, and many of their professors actually encourage them to join the protests).

In other words, while the professional protest formula follows a very 21st Century template, media coverage of these same protests is still rooted in a 1960s narrative, one that automatically assigns hero status to just about anyone willing to block traffic.

One Question that Could Change Everything

If the general media wanted to bring its coverage of many of today’s protests into the 21st Century – if for any other reason than to be responsibly accurate – journalists would ask protestors one question and then base their coverage on the response. That question?

Who’s paying you to be here?

To be sure, many protestors aren’t paid at all and truly have bought into the cause of whatever it is they are against. Others who may be paid, still may have no idea where the money originates. But make no mistake, in more cases than you may realize there is a money trail if you are inclined to look for it.

If journalists ask this question of event spokespersons and other leaders every time, they might start to see a more clear and consistent pattern.

If a journalist makes sure to know which interviewees are paid and by whom – by asking directly or doing some investigative work – it would shape coverage with the same sort of accuracy as when the same journalist asks corporate spokespersons for their names and titles. In both instances, the valid premise of the question is to provide context that’s based on the motives and self-interest of those involved.

This shouldn’t be too much to expect this since it’s largely regarded as normal journalistic practice when protestors are not involved. But it seems that when they are involved, they get a pass. Just calling themselves “protestors” is enough to give them automatic immunity from standard journalistic scrutiny.

Protestors as Rock Stars

I once happened to be at an event where a group of grungy environmental protestors led a rally where they played acoustic guitars and ladled barley soup to the crowd. On stage it was a mini Woodstock.  They gave the visual impression they could have made their way to the event by hitchhiking, riding bikes or traveling communally in beat up old school buses.

What the crowd didn’t see, but I did, right around the corner was a parked caravan of shiny new, air-conditioned tour buses fit for Bruno Mars and his band. This is where the 21st Century “hippies” retreated to presumably to cool off, drink and eat something better than barley soup, and expand their carbon footprint. The behind-the-scenes infrastructure looked less like that of a group of grassroots environmental protestors, and much more like one suited for a million-dollar, gas-guzzling traveling circus.

If the media wanted to report on the very high-dollar feel of this organization, all it had to do was walk around the corner and just watch, just as I did. But if it did, that would have blown the narrative.

So, if you happen to be a reporter, I’d challenge you in the name of accuracy, to make sure to ask every protestor you come across a simple question, and be willing to use the facts involved to shape your story. Ask, “Who’s paying you to be here?”