PR practitioners talk a lot about crisis communication and planning. I mean like daily conversations with peers, staff, and C-suite executives. It’s like the four daily food groups, but for communications professionals. It is in the toolkit. It’s part of the foundation. It is in every new business proposal and every agency review. Crisis Communication is what we do. It’s our Super Bowl and our World Cup. When there is a crisis, we know we have trained all day, every day, for the event. We live and breathe crisis communication.
Yet, I am beginning to think that no one is listening, as I watch, day after day, as social media is blown up by the seemingly endless number of corporate blunders.
United Airlines. Chipotle. Wells Fargo. Pepsi. Mylan. Cosmo. Bill O’Reilly. Adidas. Dove. Taco Bell. Starbucks. Weinstein Company. Cover Girl. Uber. Equifax. Elon Musk. Papa John’s. Facebook. Wells Fargo.
All of these corporations have massive communications teams. All have ended up on the wrong side of social media outrage. And worse. There are material damages. Actual financial losses. This is not just an image, it is cold hard cash!
$13 million. $70 Million. $785 million. $2 BILLION in stock value! Lost!
How is this possible when we have a very precise and dependable body of knowledge that tells us what to do in a crisis, and more importantly, how to avoid a crisis. This is PR 101 and I bet even your intern can tell you how to fix a social media snafu.
Except, it keeps happening. Everyone is shocked. The tweets fly and the memes take off while the executives wring their hands and the PR professionals on the outside looking in give an audible sigh of relief that it’s not them. At least not today.
So what happens? How, with all of our efforts to prevent and minimize potential disasters, are we still mostly chasing crisis after crisis after crisis online? How have we not eradicated the viral social media blunder? Who or what do we blame? Are humans so frazzled and frail that they cannot help but melting-down online, or in meetings, or behind the keyboard?
When we observe these disasters, it always seems like there was a better way. Don’t drag the customer off the plane. Don’t lie about losing your clients’ data. Don’t try so hard to be cool that you act like a fool. Don’t abuse your staff or anyone else. Stay humble and lead with clarity and calm. Don’t steal. Don’t sell people’s data. Be secure.
As we watch (often finding it both humorous and horrific) we begin to see the patterns around the actions that lead to these massive PR failures. Companies that have been socially skewered seem to have fallen into or away from one of The Five Faults:
- Rules and Regulations
- Data and Technology
- Social Exuberance
- Sexism and Lack of Diversity
- Celebrity Style (CEO and otherwise)
Some say the internet has brought out the worst in us. Maybe. I see beautiful things online every day so I could argue that it has brought more beauty. But I can certainly see the allure of anonymously hiding behind a computer as a way for angry people to lash out at the world. But these crisis culprits are not anonymous. Nope! Everyone knows who they are and these individuals know that whole economies shift on their words, but somehow, despite millions upon millions of dollars hanging in the balance, they simply cannot keep their mouths shut or their fingers still.
Many social media blunders happen because the person (often with power and celebrity) cannot zip their lip (or their pants) for a second longer because the joke they have to tell (show) is so hilarious (whatever) that they are willing to get fired over it. Comedians, actors, entertainment executives likely don’t believe their actions will come to light or that they will be held responsible, so the jokes or harassment seems worth it.
But what about the little people? The innocent airline employee or coffee shop manager? For those errors in judgment, we have to blame a lack of training and an overdeveloped reliance on rules and regulations. It seems that in corporate America, keeping to schedules and quotas might mean that we miss opportunities to be human. Somehow we cannot create a process around what we are supposed to do versus what we should do in some situations. And that always seems to happen when 100 people are nearby with cell phones.
Is it arrogance, privilege, unchecked power? Maybe. Running a company as an arrogant, privileged white male with unchecked power may lead to more scandals. Maybe it is just a coincidence that many of these scandalous deeds were perpetrated by privileged white males. (However, a couple good ones were women, surrounded by women, so we can’t be too judgy.)
Perhaps we will never know what makes the CEO of a publicly-traded company say inappropriate things online. Maybe we won’t hold media to an unreasonable standard when it comes to headlines and deadlines. Maybe we won’t ever be so racially integrated that we don’t continue to offend minority groups, even at the very moment that they are buying our product. Maybe it will keep happening.
Or maybe people will start to look at the real reasons these scandals happen and start to work internally within their organizations to make sure that they are creating cultures of communication that serve the company well by completely avoiding public humiliation while they go about their day-to-day operations.
With a bit of study and a solid strategic review, all companies and organizations can scan their internal and external environments and create a plan for avoiding or eliminating The Five Faults.
Or you can simply ask me. I can tell you how to avoid a scandal and keep your company out of the news.
- Be diligent in following rules and regulations. Yes, your industry, your company, and your government have rules and regulations that you must follow. All businesses must follow a certain number of rules and regulations. To avoid a PR crisis, a company must understand those regulations and then consistently follow them.
- Except when they should not. Like for example, when a customer needs something that falls outside of organizations “rules and regulations training” and someone has to decide on the spot: Do I try to be right or do I try to be human?
- As an executive, keep yourself accountable and review your personal responsibilities for maintaining the brand. Do not accept bribes and train your staff so that they do not tell passengers to flush their therapy hamsters. Pay employees a wee bit more and really have a stellar team as the face of your organization because anyone of those low-paid, untrained, demoralized employees could be your next PR disaster.
- Be more careful about the technology you use, how you use it, and the gray areas in between. Limit your reliance on your social media presence and make sure communications professionals are at the helm. If you have a great home to tell, share it with your family, not the entire world.
- Do not be so desperate to be number one or to feel the hot flash of 15 minutes of fame that you do something ridiculous online. When someone suggests a wild idea, ask yourself and all the people you take advice from, why hasn’t anyone done this before? Perhaps looking at it from another vantage-point will help you see, for example, what a horrible idea it is to have a rich, white, young celebrity be the voice of a minority race issue on behalf of your organization.
- Understand gender and diversity issues. Look around your office and do the math on the number of men and women that you see in each role. Once that’s about 50/50, go ask some of those women to join your important meetings and teams. Then make them feel welcome and listen to their feedback. Do not discount their experience, but weave it into the fabric of your culture. The next day, do the same with brown people, black people, and anyone you might guess is different than you and your leadership team. Keep going until all the ‘others’ have been included in your big decisions and have an ongoing power within your organization.
- Chill out on your dependence on the celebrity CEO and other influencers. Train your executive suite to not only avoid a social media scandal but that they are responsible for avoiding them. Have real ethics training, clauses, and real repercussions for violations. Do not pay anyone millions and millions of dollars if they continue to blow up the news cycle. Let HR and PR run amok across all disciplines to ensure an ethical culture. Make human responsibility part of any celebrity compensation package. Hire well and fire fast. Do not keep your CEO after he continues to make racist comments or harass employees. Stop trying to be in and just do the right thing right.
- Do not allow any personalities to take the brand over. Founder, celebrity, reality TV star — no one gets to hijack the brand. Level the playing field internally so that one brazen personality cannot take the whole organization down. Build a culture that values humility over pomp. Reward the quiet, kind people.
P is for Problem – Top Actions that Cause a PR or Media Crisis:
Parody (or humor that has gone wrong)
People (aren’t all problems really just people problems)
Pets (really anything that harms animals or nature)
Philanthropy (whom you are giving your money to because their problems become your problems)
Policies (where are you vulnerable in your procedures and practices, look especially for discriminatory issues here)
Politics (obviously, politics gets people into trouble. Be careful which organizations you support, fund, or work with)
Pollution (or anything that hurts the environment)
Prayer (anything related to criticizing, forcing, or condemning another’s religion or religion in general)
Prison (criminal activities, whether at work or on personal time)
Profits (the more you make the more people are going to dig into your revenues, spending, and such)