Public Relations Lessons From Celebrities That Apply to Not-So-Celebrity Clients

By Heather Ebert

Recently, singer Taylor Swift penned an open letter to Apple via her Tumblr page expressing dissatisfaction with Apple Music’s policy to not pay artists for music streamed during the service’s free three-month trial period. She stated that because of this policy she would not release her album “1989” on the platform. Apple quickly reversed its policy and pledged to pay artists during the trial period, which began June 30.

The intensity and reach of the public eye often requires that celebrities like Swift be very transparent and responsive with the media and their fans, especially when news stories or scandals break. There are many celebrities that handle such events almost seamlessly, but there are others whose actions make the situation worse. There are lessons to be learned from both. Here are the top three PR do’s and don’ts that we can take from celebrities.

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e-Bola Virus: An electronic adaptation potentially more damaging than the biological disease

By Ross Pfenning

With the rampant spread of Ebola media coverage influencing the American public’s sensibilities, it really isn’t surprising that so many have expressed their fears and concerns – no matter how ill-conceived – as vocally as they have. However, the media, both social and traditional, have amplified those voices to such an extent that the panic and borderline hysteria being exhibited daily are doing far more damage than the disease itself. Welcome to the era of the “e-Bola” virus.

Before we get going, it’s important to recognize that this is not the first time that citizens of the United States have been faced with such a perceived threat, nor reacted in such a panic-stricken and frenzied manner. With this in mind, Washington Post journalist Steven Petrow writes: “Americans nationwide are showing signs of an epidemic of fear, all too reminiscent of the stigmatization, dread of contagion and panic of the early years of HIV/AIDS.”

Living in San Francisco in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Petrow witnessed the ignorance-fueled fear firsthand. As he goes on to point out later in the article: “About the only thing that happened this [time] that didn’t mirror the AIDS panic was that the phrase ‘Ebola fear’ became a trending topic on Twitter — and that’s no doubt only because the social network was unimaginable in 1983.”

The ever-present “threat” posed by the virus, compounded by the media’s fear-mongering has led to some unfortunate and devastating consequences. Teachers are being forced to take mandatory leave or resign, children are being bullied in school and citizens of our supposedly free and equal democratic nation are being stigmatized for their origins. These are all people who have had zero contact with anyone even remotely associated with, let alone afflicted by, Ebola. They are merely people who have traveled to state of Texas, emigrated from countries such as Liberia or are the children of such immigrants to the United States.

According to a poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and shared via NPR, as of mid-October, 40 percent of Americans felt they were at risk of contracting Ebola. Despite constant reminders from credible sources regarding the likelihood of catching Ebola, the public at large seems all too eager to forget that the virus can only be transmitted through bodily fluids and people are only contagious once they have begun exhibiting symptoms. Of course, showmen like Dr. Oz make it harder still for such reassuring facts to sink in, postulating (on national television) as to whether the Ebola virus could mutate and go airborne. (For anyone wondering, epidemiologists agree that it’s unlikely and not even worth discussing at the moment.)

While clearly not an isolated case of the media’s oversaturation and even exaggeration of a given situation, the Ebola scare does provide a textbook example of the systemic spread of (loosely-termed) “news” and its harmful effects. As stated in this New York Times article: “The panic in some way mirrors what followed the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the West Nile virus outbreak in New York City in 1999. But fed by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the first American experience with Ebola has become a lesson in the ways things that go viral electronically can be as potent and frightening as those that do so biologically.”

Lending further evidence to the argument that fear-stoked epidemics within the United States can cause more harm than the diseases themselves, the previously cited Washington Post article asserts: “‘AIDS phobia,’ a term used to describe discrimination against those with HIV, ravaged the United States because of a dearth of political leadership, misleading if not inaccurate information from public health officials, and a news media that stoked anxiety in its quest for ratings and headlines. Together, these became almost as dangerous to public health and civil rights as the virus itself.”

With documented cases of improper and even antagonistic responses to previous crises, one would think we’d have learned our lesson(s). However, in keeping with Santayana’s ethic – and adjusting only slightly for cultural relevancy – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to retweet it.”

Photo courtesy of Twitter.

Crisis Communications 101: What the NFL got wrong and what the rest of us can learn

By Alyssa Bedrosian

Over the past few weeks, the NFL has learned firsthand one of the toughest lessons in crisis communications: Your response to the crisis, not the crisis itself, matters most. So far, the NFL appears to have failed the test.

Most organizations faced with a crisis are not judged by the crisis, but by their response to it, and the first hours and days after a crisis are critical in shaping public opinion and maintaining a company’s image. That is why RLF works with several clients to create tailored, process-driven crisis communications plans to help them communicate with key audiences more quickly and effectively should a crisis ever occur.

It’s hard to believe that the NFL and its public relations team stayed silent and reactive for so long. The NFL has a history of players engaging in questionable conduct and problematic behavior—from dog fighting to alleged murder and rape, severe criminal allegations against some of the league’s top players aren’t new. However, the back-to-back nature of recent events is something that the NFL’s leadership was obviously unprepared for.

So what did the NFL do wrong, and how can companies and organizations learn from the missteps of the world’s most lucrative professional sports league?

The NFL wasn’t proactive.

The NFL knew about some of the domestic violence incidents in the news much earlier in the year and had more than enough time to prepare should these issues resurface at the start of the season (which they inevitably did). The NFL should have met with league owners, player representatives and other officials to develop a plan with key messaging to proactively address the issue. Even if the league didn’t have time to prepare, it should have had a plan in place that outlined potential crisis scenarios and the specific communication process, messaging and goals for each scenario.

Don’t wait until a crisis hits to start fumbling around for a plan — be proactive and prepare in advance for any likely crisis situations.

The NFL remained silent.

The NFL needed to show a strong front and respond quickly to the flying accusations and multiple crisis situations. At the very minimum, the league should have issued a statement that said it was continuing to work with officials to assess the situation and respond with the necessary disciplinary action. Instead, the league remained silent for more than a week after its initial interview with CBS, as many fans and women’s rights advocates called for the resignation of key leaders. In the event of a crisis, it’s not always best to stay silent and let your critics control the message. Identify the right spokesperson, remain transparent and show that you are working to address the situation and make it right.

The NFL forgot a key audience.

In recent years, the NFL has made a concerted effort to appeal to women, who make up 45 percent of the league’s fan base and are vital to the league’s apparel sales. While women across the nation have had mixed reactions to the series of scandals, many women are boycotting the league until it can show that it is sincerely working to end violence toward women. Don’t let a crisis ruin the credibility you’ve built up with a target audience, and be proactive in communicating with an audience that is specifically impacted by the crisis situation.

Organizations face a variety of crises every moment of every day, and it’s likely that at some point, a crisis will hit. When it does, it’s essential to be prepared, be proactive and communicate openly and directly to the key audiences that are being impacted. The NFL has given us the perfect case study of what NOT to do in a crisis situation and offers lessons to all organizations on how to be better prepared.

Five Tips for Effective Communication in a Crisis

By Michelle Rash

At RLF, one of our core strengths is crisis communications. We have several professionals skilled at advising clients on what – and what not – to say in the event of a crisis to help communicate to key audiences, and address any issues and concerns in the most effective way possible.

Crisis communications takes skill – say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and you can make a situation worse. You also need to be able to reach your audience quickly, yet calmly, under pressure.

While we have experience in drafting crisis communications plans and on coaching clients through tricky situations, it’s always good to have a refresher on the dos and don’ts of good crisis communications. Such a reminder was provided earlier this week at the PRSA Tar Heel Chapter monthly meeting where Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, spoke on the subject. Carr has a deep background in communications and has worked with several school districts in times of crises, including Columbine, Colo., after the 1999 shootings and Moore, Okla., after a 2013 tornado destroyed an elementary school.

Among Carr’s tips for good crisis communications:

  • Most people are not prepared for the crisis that actually comes. While companies plan for natural disasters and physical tragedies, the vast majority of crises (82 percent according to the Institute for Crisis Management) are the result of bad employee or management decisions.
  • Expect the unexpected. While having a crisis plan is important, and one that is reviewed and discussed regularly, a crisis will not unfold in real life the way it does on paper. However, planning and preparing are still important because it will help you more instinctively make the best decisions under pressure.
  • Communicate clearly, quickly and frequently. Carr says whoever gets the message out first will shape the agenda, and in the age of social media, getting the message out first can mean sharing information in a matter of seconds. She advises that facts are shared early and often, updating key audiences regularly as needed. If misinformation is shared, by you or someone else, be sure to correct and clarify as quickly as possible.
  • Know your key audiences and how to reach them in advance. During a time of crisis is not the best time to create a media list or find the mayor’s phone number. Compile all the key contact information you need and keep it in a safe place. Update it regularly so it will be current if you need it in a crisis.
  • Communicate internally first. Carr says that so often in a crisis, organizations are worried about talking to reporters or external audiences that they often forget to keep their employees and other key internal audiences informed about what is happening. These individuals can be key advocates for you, and have a vested interest in helping you through a bad situation, so make sure they know everything they need to know.

Good communication is key and can make a significant difference in how a crisis is handled internally and how it is perceived externally. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, having a good plan in place and trusted partners in advance of a situation can make all the difference.

Crisis Communications & Tourism

By Monty Hagler

I recently had the opportunity to hear Norman Stowe, CEO of Pace Group Communications in Vancouver and WORLDCOM partner, present near Milwaukee, WI at the Upper Midwest Travel & Tourism Conference to more than 100 travel and tourism professionals.  The speech focused on lessons learned from a number of catastrophic events that have taken place in recent years:  the tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the collapse of a coliseum roof in Vancouver, the outbreak of SARS in Canada and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

During each of these disasters, WORLDCOM partners played (and continue to play) a critical role in helping communities get back on track, with a particular focus on communicating with external audiences what is happening and the steps being taken on the road to recovery. Disasters – whether man-made or natural – take a tremendous toll on a community’s revenue from a travel and tourism perspective. Events get cancelled, hotel rooms go unbooked and attractions are left bare.

Norman shared many good points, but highlighted below are five intriguing tips that he and I discussed at dinner the night before.

Who Tells the Story Best

In deciding who is going to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis, pick the person who can tell the story best. A person’s title matters far less than having someone who is comfortable talking to the media, who is adept at explaining what is taking place and can elaborate on what is yet to come. Storytelling is not a negative word here. You need someone who can capture what is happening and articulate that to the outside world.

As a corollary, Norman and I both agree that trustworthiness is more important than technical expertise for crisis communications. Norman had a particularly sad but funny story about an engineer being named spokesperson during a crisis, despite the fact he disliked talking with the media and refused to answer any questions that he did not think were relevant.

Don’t Forget the Binder

When a crisis happens, take five minutes to pull out the “Crisis Communications Plan” that has been developed, review the core steps that need to be handled – regardless of what the specific nature of the crisis is – and then get to work. Companies and organizations spend a tremendous amount of time preparing crisis plans, but rarely take the time to put them to work when a crisis hits. The steps are laid out, and while they will undoubtedly need to be tweaked, following that big binder will ensure fewer things are missed or forgotten.

Make Decisions

In a crisis situation, the ability to make decisions quickly is a critical skill. A failure to act compounds the entire chain of response. Yes, information needs to be gathered and assessed, and there must be collaboration among various agencies and groups. But someone must be the decision-maker, and his or her most important task is to MAKE DECISIONS.

Norman put it this way: “In a crisis, you have to make 100 decisions a day. You should aim to be right on 85 percent of them. Be decisive and let people move forward. If you only make 50 decisions a day – even if you get them all correct – you have made things even worse and the recovery more difficult.”

News Media Competition Trumps Accuracy

For anyone who has been involved in dealing with the news media during a crisis, this is a sad, harsh reality. Media coverage is driven by who gets the first details of a story – the sadder and more outrageous the better. Accuracy is lower on the list of what matters to media outlets competing for story angles and breaking news. Organizations must be equally aggressive in telling their story to the media.

The Travel & Tourism Practice Group of WORLDCOM has established a speaker’s bureau of top agency leaders who have handled a wide range of crisis communications projects. If you would like to book a speaker for an upcoming event, or learn more about how to help your organization prepare for potential crises, please email me at mhagler@rlfcommunications.com.

Beware Scooter Hypocrisy…

montys-scooter

A year ago, I sold my beloved Lexus GS 300 and bought a scooter. It is Carolina blue, gets 75 miles per gallon and can exceed the speed limit on my short one mile commute to work.

Most people thought I was nuts when I made the switch. My wife was skeptical about our ability to “share” a car.   The RLF staff took up an office pool to see how long it would last. Clients lobbed in calls to laugh when the temperature was in the teens.  But some 750 miles later, the scooter is still my primary form of transportation (although RLF employees have learned to hide their car keys when I look like I am running late to a meeting.)

Many people ask if I sold my car because of a commitment to “go green.” As much as I would like to claim that mantle, I have resisted the urge.  Yes, there have been environmental benefits, but I cannot claim to be a leading edge environmentalist. I don’t recycle very well. I waste energy in many ways. And I’m virtually positive that I will own a car again in the future, and it may or may not be a fuel efficient vehicle (although no car can have worse gas mileage than our current Jeep).

The point is, I do not want to hold myself up to a standard that is not true to who I am or motivates my actions. Over the long run, my reputation and credibility will be damaged.

That is the advice we give clients who want to get credit for their environmental friendliness. Companies should absolutely get credit for environmental efforts, but there are short and long-term consequences to overstating ones actions. Charges of greenwashing (the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue) are difficult and messy to fight.

So, as I embark on my second year of scooter life, I want to thank my wife, staff and Avis Rental Car for helping keep me on the road when I need more than 2 wheels.

Public Relations is More than Negative vs. Positive Publicity

I’m going to violate our Orange Slices policy of not commenting on how companies handle public relations and media relations. In reading this morning’s Wall Street Journal, I was stunned to read the comments [subscription required] by Bayer CropScience CEO Bill Buckner regarding a tragic explosion at one of its chemical plants in 2008. Buckner is quoted as acknowledging that his company’s response efforts created “confusion and concern” because the company had tried to keep details of the explosion confidential out of a desire to “limit negative publicity.”

Note: If you cannot get to the WSJ article through the link above, you may be able to access it by searching for “bayer wall street journal” and then clicking on the first link, which apparently bypasses the newspaper’s pay wall.

I thought we had moved past the time when corporate CEOs think that they can hide or obscure information simply because they want it that way. That is difficult to do in the best of circumstances. It is virtually impossible to do when your building explodes, fireballs shoot hundreds of feet in the air, two employees are killed and rescue workers are injured. And it did not go unnoted that the chemical the plant produced was the same chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in India that killed 4,000 people in 1984.

However, for our profession, the real issue is not the misguided desire to “limit negative publicity.” It is the continued misunderstanding and misperception that public relations is about good or negative publicity. Public relations is about managing communications with stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization’s mission by what they think, believe, say and do. It is an interactive process and it is an open process that builds trust, understanding and credibility. When the CEO of a major company talks about limiting information and obscuring details so that it could better shape the “public debate,” then we know our profession still has a long way to go in making our voice heard at the management table.