Crisis PR

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Joe Paterno statue

Joe Paterno has been synonymous with Penn State. It will be hard to change that.

Last November, we had some wait and see recommendations on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the ensuing months, Sandusky has been convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and this week, the Louis Freeh investigation results landed on the university like a well-deserved ton of bricks. The report provides extensive documentation of school officials creating a false Sophie’s Choice between protecting the football program or protecting the kids in Sandusky’s Second Mile program.

It is hard to imagine how the reputations of Penn State University, the football program, and Joe Paterno could be damaged if they had dealt with news of Sandusky’s activities at the time they learned of them. While there might have been some initial bad press, no one would have judged the institution and its officials badly because of the acts of a sick individual. Fourteen years and many additional victims later, however, there emerges from the wreckage, a remarkable amount of institutional and personal complicity.

There are two kinds of public relations: the PR that comes from an institution’s own communications with the public via media (including now social media) channels AND the PR that results naturally from being a good local, regional, national, and global citizen.  Penn State needs to start practicing both forms. Immediately.

Here are some overall thoughts on PR via good communications practices and Penn State’s unique situation:

  • Start doing the opposite of what PSU did during this dark period. Hiding things (very bad things) and misrepresenting is what got university officials into so much current trouble. PSU needs to be transparent. Share information, more than less, when asked. Unless a university attorney is advising against making a specific statement (and even then press the point with legal), speak accurately and honestly. The truth shall set you free.
  • The nickname for PR is spin. Although politics is involved, this isn’t about winning a campaign. PSU needs to worry less about putting the worst news in the best possible light and worry more about sharing information that is clear and coherent and factual to the audience it is sharing it with.
  • Make some tough decisions ahead by remembering to put the interests of students first and with a goal of restoring the brand and integrity of the institution. For instance, much of Philadelphia talk radio yesterday was abuzz about what to do with the Paterno statue and his name on the library. Tough calls, but one host made the point that especially in the case of the statue, seeing it is only going to spark immediate associations with the scandal (it isn’t next to a scale of justice statue determining whether all the good outweighs the bad). Also, there is never going to be a consensus opinion about this man, so don’t look for one. Use the prism of what will be best for PSU and its current and future students.
  • There are going to be many other voices on the landscape for  the foreseeable future via the past administrators on trial, the Paterno family, attorneys for all, and of course everyone with even a modest connection to PSU with a strong opinion. Some of this represents the parties involved, but the rest represents the court of public opinion. Avoid being sucked into public battles. In fact, the more that some of the parties involved speak directly or through hired mouthpieces at the moment, the worse they sound.
  • Accept that some events are going to be out of the university’s control (court rulings, NCAA decisions, etc.), so however much that rocks your world, be prepared to accept the results, act on them responsibly, and move on as best you can.

Where Penn State can make a huge difference is by making a huge difference. It is largely too late to make any good come out of this very bad situation. So focus on doing good, day in, day out, on many other fronts.

  • Repair any town and gown fallout locally. This may mean gradually de-emphasizing the football program, which created such an integrated Happy Valley economy by cooperatively helping to create more year-round tourism opportunities to visit State College and surrounding towns. Work to partner with the communities around PSU, so the university isn’t looked upon as an 800 pound gorilla with a football helmet on. Penn State is its own community, but it is interconnected with a wealth of others around it.
  • Beef up academic and social outreach programs that teach and practice ethics and morality in business, government, and daily life, especially those that protect and aid the weakest members of society. It is shocking how so many grown men in this situation could not recognize the right thing to do when the welfare of children was at stake.
  • Renew an emphasis on excellence in everything, by not letting the scandal distract from important current programs and activities that have nothing to do with the Sandusky mess except a Penn State logo. Look for new initiatives locally, nationally, internationally. One example is an ongoing effort — every year, without fail, kids from Penn State visit the Philadelphia area and many other communities to raise funds for children with cancer. They do this with little fanfare. I suspect by the number of students involved, they raise an amazing amount of funds. As a father of a childhood cancer survivor, I will never ever judge PSU as a whole on the basis of this scandal, because of the annual enthusiastic commitment I see from these students.
  • Become Penn State proud again. Don’t let the actions of an unfortunate few define the whole vibrant campus. Look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are going to help many others restore the Penn State name through your own deeds and conduct. Step in when you see a fellow Penn Stater doing something that is going to create a negative impression of the university.

Scandals come and go. The tarnish from this one is not going to easily rub off. But a lot of positive energy over time can diminish the memory of some very bad events and set a course that ensures that something so odious won’t ever happen again. The culture of Penn State needs to change. The university needs new leadership in Old Main and can’t allow itself to be controlled by the gate receipts at Beaver Stadium ever again.

Coda: Ironically, as I finished this post, I received a NYTimes e-alert with a link to this story. There’s no time like the present to begin rebuilding the PSU brand.

 

 

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The holiday season opened with a very black Black Friday punctuated by pepper spray and other crazed shopping ugliness. Now, it is winding down with a water cooler moment delivered via a lone FedEx driver and YouTube.

If you have yet not seen the clip, taken by the surveillance camera of a customer whose delivery of a Sanyo monitor was shot put over a driveway gate, here it is.

Hard to tell what was going through the driver’s head — a tight timetable that did not correlate with the backlog of packages in his van, class warfare envy that the package recipient lives in a gated home and he doesn’t, the turbo ingredients of his 4th energy drink of the morning. . .could be just about anything. If he has shared those thoughts with FedEx, they have not shared them with the world. Here is a link and a blogpost to FedEx statements since the video has gone viral. They have taken the driver off the streets, reassigning him within the company. That has triggered a secondary PR backlash judging by the posted comments — unemployed capable people are incensed that this clown still has a job at FedEx. Worse, as Corky notes: “No the delivery man isn’t working with customers any more, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t throwing packages around a warehouse somewhere. Most of us would be fired for doing something like that. FedEx, you are hurting your other employees by keeping one who does such public relations damage to your company.”

FedEx, normally the model of reliability and efficiency, has been challenged by the actions of one driver and its own HR policies.

FedEx, normally the model of reliability and efficiency, has been challenged by the actions of one driver and its own HR policies.

So, yes, this delivery man will go through the rest of his life as that crazy Christmas delivery loon. However, the venerable FedEx has managed to make itself look foolish, too, by projecting a mysterious at best, clueless at worst image by responding to this viral video fiasco in a nebulous squishy-HR manner. FedEx made things right with that single customer, then managed to cause everyone else to question management judgment on what appears to be cut and dried grounds for dismissal. FedEx’s statement sounds vague in light of the video —“We do take this matter extremely seriously, and have initiated action in accord with our disciplinary policy, while respecting privacy concerns. Without going into detail, I can assure you that this courier is not delivering customer packages while we are going through this process.”

Just one more example that the people running America’s biggest corporations and institutions don’t understand crisis PR, let alone social media. It is sad when you think about how much money FedEx has invested in positive PR and advertising programs to build brand image. The initial damage done was inflicted by one poor excuse for an employee, but then management has compounded that damage by failing to act decisively to show that such outrageous conduct will not be tolerated.

And on that note, happy holidays and a wonderful and profitable 2012 to all!

Update: This is the 5th time I have had to repost this entry. FedEx lawyers must be working hard through YouTube to get all the viral video clips in the public domain taken down. It is a shame they did not put as much effort into their PR.

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Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Olive Garden has a social media firestorm on its hands.

Hell hath no fury like an 80-year-old Kiwanis Club member denied the chance to proudly display the American flag during the Club’s meeting/meal. Just ask the Olive Garden restaurant chain, which is learning unexpected lessons in handling crisis PR and social media wildfires following the incident and subsequent flare-up. Here is a link to one of the original news accounts, which took place at an Alabama location of the restaurant chain, not exactly the heart of PC policy USA.

Once this news hit the local news, it became a sound bite headline that spread nationally to places like the Drudge Report. By the time I saw the story, the Comments section on the page was loaded with angry posters, many of them Facebook commenters, who had already decided they were done eating another meal at ANY Olive Garden. What struck me was the explosion of the myth that social media, is wholly owned and operated by Generation Y. This is not your son’s (or grandson’s) Facebook network anymore. There are Hank Williams Jr. lookalikes looking like they just got the opportunity to defiantly stick it to ESPN. There are grandmothers forming a solidarity movement with the Kiwanis Club lady. The common theme was that an American corporation had knowingly decided to tread on Old Glory (or at least banish it from their premises) and each poster was weighing in as a former customer (with plans to virally make family and friends former customers as well). Ouch. Some posters noted that Olive Garden is part of a larger restaurant group and they named the other affiliated restaurant chains. The potential for business damage here remains huge.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

Many Olive Garden customers are angry over the flag incident.

At this point, I visited the Olive Garden Facebook page and corporate’s web site home page. Both contained the following explanation/apology intended to contain the damage and assure customers that this was not corporate policy and it truly was an isolated, unfortunate incident brought about by one manager or staffer acting in the absence of policy.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

Official Olive Garden response to the "flag" incident.

The following day, Olive Garden announced to the news media that the CEO would be personally apologizing to the Kiwanis lady. Given the heat and the fury out there, I suspect neither of these steps individually or together will be enough to undo the damage.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

Lots of "tweets" about Olive Garden after the "flag" incident, too.

I predict that Olive Gardens will have to start couponing deals like crazy to win back lost customers and flying a flag twice the size of the ones at Perkins Pancake Houses outside all locations. This isn’t a case of isolated anecdotes about bad service or a cold meal. It is much more visceral and hits at the heart of American culture and patriotism. It isn’t clear what the decision-maker at the Alabama Olive Garden was thinking, but the default corporate answer to most such “special” requests these days is “No.” Sometimes the perpetual worry about offending “someone” clouds your ability to see you might wind up offending “nearly everyone.”

Does anyone still doubt the power of social media, especially when triggered by news media? Does anyone want to bet against civics lessons being added to corporate managerial training at every restaurant chain and retailer in America after this?

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Every business decision can be a way to burnish the brand or avoid nightmarish PR scenarios like this one.

Every business decision can be a way to burnish the brand or avoid nightmarish PR scenarios like this one.

Let’s admit it — as marketing and PR have gotten increasingly commoditized and digitized, C level executives have increasingly tuned out this profession. When high level branding and marketing decisions are made, it is often C level executives themselves who craft the messaging. For bread and butter stuff, too often inexperienced and sometimes entry level people are tasked to administrate programs.

This local news story that escalated to national attention is a perfect example of what can happen when corporate decision-makers limit their thinking to what is legal and to what will save them money in the short run. If you haven’t read this story yet, you need to and to draw your own conclusions. I don’t intend to rehash it; however, it is, as Oprah says, “a teachable moment.”

Now, their need for PR is immediate, but it is crisis PR, and frankly, there is no way to “spin” a story like this so the company and the decision-makers come out looking like reasonable people or good corporate citizens.

There may be a very significant backstory here that makes the decision to terminate this woman seem sensible and a practical course at the time. However, it will be forever drowned out by the ripple effect headlines. It will cost a lot more than this employee’s salary during this period to repair the damage to the company’s reputation. In retrospect, it might have even been forehead slapping commonsensical to retain her instead of taking the weasel course of having her “sign a form” before she left. “What were we thinking?” Light bulbs are probably going off now that perhaps a woman taking medical leave for such a selfless reason is the kind of employee any company would welcome back to work.

The truth is that the best companies recognize and appreciate that corporate branding, marketing, and PR is integral to every business decision made by every department, at every level— it is all about customer service, enterprise operations, employee relations, community involvement, industry thought leadership, etc. The littlest things can sometimes have the biggest impact. It is impossible to anticipate everything that might lead to negative headlines or bigger problems, but when experienced marketing and PR people are part of the day-to-day mix, they see things differently and can serve as a conscience and a buffer to what is strictly legal or totally bottom line driven. Without them, even seasoned business professionals can wind up looking very amateurish.

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Duck Tours

Duck Tours

Some times it is fun to learn what is going on at home when you’re on vacation. That was not the case last week, while in Boston with my family. We were grabbing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant when my oldest son looked up at the TV and noticed a scene from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area featured on CNN. The story was about the sinking of a Ride the Ducks tourist amphibious vehicle following a collision with a barge. Ironically, at that moment, my wife was on her cell calling the Boston version of this attraction to get information on departures later that day.
Needless to say, this story resonated with my family the rest of the week. We had all taken the Philadelphia tour the other year and enjoyed it a lot. Even though, we were familiar with all the on land sites, it was fun to see them from a new perspective and the 20 minutes or so in the Delaware River was a view of our city we’d never seen before. Throw in the plastic “quackers” and the fun Philly music favorites played on the Ducks’ speakers and you had a winning outing for all ages. We were more than interested in repeating the experience in Boston.
For awhile the story seemed to get better. Initially, it sounded as if all the passengers were rescued and that those who were had not been seriously injured. Then, news came that two passengers were unaccounted for. As time wore on, hope began to fade and eventually the bodies of 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man from a Hungarian church group touring the states were recovered. A sad riverside memorial service on Saturday indicates that the thoughts and prayers of many in the city go out to the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem.
Reading the detailed accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer answered most of our questions as to how this tragedy could have happened. This tidal section of the Delaware River is a major shipping channel, and although the tourist boats stay close to shore, unforeseen circumstances such as this can bring them into harm’s way when motor trouble occurs. Making matters worse, the barge was being powered from the other side by a tugboat attached near the rear. There was evidently no visual recognition that the stranded duck tour vehicle was even in the barge’s path.
One surprising revelation came from Chris Edmonston, Director of Boating Safety at the Boat US Foundation. He noted that a Pennsylvania rule that requires children 12 and younger to wear life jackets applies only to recreational vessels. Commercial vessels must have enough life vests for everyone on board, but passengers are not required to wear them. This tragedy could spur a change in that regulation. From passenger accounts, it sounded as if things went from minor problem to full-blown chaos very quickly. Plus, if we should have learned one thing from the current BP rig disaster it’s that we must never forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” A corollary to that might be that “No matter how many contingencies we plan for, there will always be another one that we didn’t plan for.”

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

That might be why the very next day after Philadelphia’s tragedy, the streets of Boston were still active with so many of their own Ducks tours. The ones I saw were all filled with eager tourists. Either they hadn’t heard the sad news

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

from the Delaware River or they didn’t believe in lightning striking twice.
From a PR and marketing perspective, I guess this all makes sense. The Ride the Ducks tour company seemed to be taking appropriate steps. The President flew up from Atlanta to Philadelphia and made himself accessible to address questions promptly. Not sure that Boston’s duck tours are run by the same company, but regardless, all their livelihoods depend on making tourism fun. You just hope they will incorporate everything they learn from the Philadelphia tragedy into standard operating procedures going forward to also make tourism safe. Improvements that might prevent future tragedies are the least that should be done in memory of Dora and Szabolcs.

Historical Footnote: Peter Binzen writing for The Inquirer has an interesting bittersweet personal account about usage of the Ducks in WWII in Italy.

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