Posts tagged with "crisis communications"

The danger of too-rapid response

Posted by Michael Heenan   on July 23, 2010, 9:08 am


Communications strategists love to talk about "rapid response" as a way to quell unpleasant news and get their clients back in control of the message and debate. But we've seen this week that there is such a thing as a too-rapid response. 

Regardless of which political filter you apply to the Shirley Sherrod story, it seems clear that White House staff enjoyed a brief moment of believing they had applied the art of rapid response to great success.  As we all know now, that response was based on incomplete information and made a bad situation far, far worse.

Here's Ben Smith on Politico discussing an alleged celebration as the story was still unfolding:

It's quite against the fashion in communications circles, but each year I become a bigger believer in the tactic of taking a deep breath and giving the ground a moment to stop shaking before plunging into action.  There are times when you can't afford do this, but not as many as your consultant will lead you to believe.

After all, your communications team is getting paid to communicate... waiting and seeing might be the right move, but that doesn't look as good on an invoice.

In the face of a looming crisis, everything suggest the need for action.  Get out there with your message.  Hold a press conference.  Issue a statement.  Fire somebody. Fight back fast. But when these tactics are employed with incomplete information, it's like fighting in the dark. There's a good chance most of the damage you inflict will be on yourself.

Tags: crisis communications, obama, shirley sherrod, strategic communications

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Fix it fast and move on

Posted by Michael Heenan   on July 16, 2010, 9:21 am


University of California regents have just been handed a basic test in avoiding a PR crisis.  Their grade will be determined almost entirely by how quickly they complete it.

The regents refused to allow a private citizen -- who declined to identify himself -- into their meeting with his camera.  Incidentally, the spurned attendee, Ric Chavez, says he is a documentary filmmaker, but this doesn't matter for two reasons. First, it's basically meaningless -- any one with a Flip camera can safely claim to be making a documentary; just try proving he isn't.  Second, the law regarding access to public meetings doesn't care whether you're a documentary maker, a reporter, or just some jerk with a camera.  You are allowed to attend public meetings of state bodies (like the regents) and record it if you like. And you don't have to tell them who you are when the state body asks.

So, the regents' policy of allowing only credentialed reporters to record their meetings would appear to be in direct conflict with state law. No amount of explaining Mr. Chavez's true intentions or the twisted reasoning behind their practice is going to change that now.

They are stuck with an embarrassing situation.  As guardians of academic freedom, they have made a practice of restricting First Amendment access. 

There's nothing to do here but say, essentially, "oops" and move on fast.  Issue a statement saying the upper levels of the organization weren't aware of the problem but have fixed it.  Invite Mr. Chavez back with an apology.

The other course -- explaining, seeking another legal opinion, shedding light on who Chavez really is, etc. -- will achieve nothing but prolonged headaches. It's the ideal way to turn a small problem into a big one.

Tags: apology, Brown act, crisis communications, public meetings, UC regents

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Surliness seldom the right move

Posted by Michael Heenan   on July 6, 2010, 11:32 am


Tiger Woods' recent performance at a post-event press conference in Ireland is proof that even the highest-paid experts can't reinvent their client.

It seemed clear that the IMG team's plans for Tiger included presenting him as chastened, humbled and contrite. Remember how he was going to be more accessible to fans and more respectful of the game and on-course decorum?  At one point just after his return, he even deigned to greet a little kid as he walked from green to tee.

But that strategy started had begun to look endangered before Tiger was even halfway through his big "I'm so sorry" press conference.  He detoured into anger and indignation when he addressed the media's focus on his family.  However understandable his ire may be, it doesn't play well on camera.  People who are apologizing aren't supposed to be angry.  As soon as they show anger, we intuit they're not really all that sorry.

Fast forward to July and Ireland.  Reporters asked Tiger if his renowned marital troubles were affecting his game... and yes, the questions were probably designed to provoke him.  Tiger didn't disappoint.  He summoned that now-familiar expression of iciness and disgust and answered the questions with curt half sentences.

From the AP:

How will you prepare? "Practicing."

Where? "Home."

Why not try and play some links golf in Scotland beforehand? "I need to get home." Silence.

Why? "See my kids." Silence.

IMG must be coming to terms with the fact that anger is something you're not going to message-train out of Tiger.  For better or worse -- no, just for worse -- the client's personality is going to block any attempt to recast him as likable, human or sympathetic.

The challenge now becomes how his agency makes a silk purse out of this sow's ear.  Is there a way to market a bristly client? 

Tags: apology, crisis communications, message training, press conference, Tiger Woods

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Vatican blasts in-house critic, undoes image progress

Posted by Michael Heenan   on June 29, 2010, 1:00 pm


There's a point in most crises when the subject at the center finally "gets" it.  The individual or organization comes to terms with the inevitability of the challenges they face; the seriousness of the litigation, the fact that the investigation isn't going to go away.  And, they come to terms with the reality of public opinion -- they realize finally that denying, explaining and protesting the unfairness of it all is getting them exactly nowhere.

Bitter thoughts about what a jerk the plaintiff's attorney is, or what an opportunist the investigating commissioner is, are left behind. There's a sense that fair or unfair, this is the situation we're in and it must be handled.  And, whether fair or unfair, public opinion has settled on a position; the roles have been cast and we have to work with the one we've been assigned.

This is when the real progress begins.  Messages about conspiracies are tossed in the trash and new ones, about avoiding a recurrence or getting to the bottom of things, are written. Apologies -- once half-hearted and qualified almost to death -- now start to sound sincere and worthy of attention.

In the best of cases, this phase plays out to the end.  The company or organization re-brands itself as genuinely committed to change.  No one is more determined to achieve greater food safety, or product reliability, or broker ethics, or customer respect than this recently chastened entity.

In other cases, though, something goes wrong shortly after that contrition phase begins.  Another lawsuit gets filed, a detractor is featured in media interviews or a new politician enters the fray.  And the supposedly chastened organization fires back, angry and defensive.  All that progress is washed away in an instant.  To the public, their initial perception is reinforced and there is a vow that the next show of contrition will be viewed with even more skepticism.

The Vatican, determined to make every PR mistake in the book and even a few previously unpublished ones, provided a stark example of this in the past week.  Just a couple of weeks after Pope Benedict XVI's apologies were stripped of rancor and a misplaced sense of victimhood, the Vatican blasted back at Belgian police and one of its own bishops. In doing so, the Holy See swept away whatever progress it had made with the summertime shift to contrition.  To critics, it revealed the insincerity of the apologies and revealed a church still more intent on protecting its leaders than on uncovering the truth.

Once you start down the apology highway, you have to stay on it.  You cannot get off when it suits you and re-engage in blasting your critics/investigators/detractors.  If you do, you'll find the path to re-entry is firmly and lastingly blocked.

Tags: apology, crisis communications, PR, sexual abuse, vatican

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Blame Britain policy not as simple as it seems

Posted by Michael Heenan   on June 11, 2010, 10:42 am


It must have seemed like a simple equation.

The public was getting angry at the Obama Administration's apparent inability to have any impact whatsoever on the still-raging oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Worse, Obama's renowned calm demeanor seemed to be signaling a casual attitude toward the tragedy.

So, it was time for the Anger Show.  Suddenly, we were getting daily sound bites about how furious Obama is.  About how he'd fire the BP CEO if he could.  About figuring out "whose ass to kick."  It ranged from scripted to unseemly, but never seemed to hit whatever mark was being sought.

In ordinary circumstances, a politician can't go wrong attacking a company, particularly an oil or energy company.  More than a few Sacramento careers were enhanced by fact-free bashing of Texas energy companies during the state's energy crisis a decade ago.

But this time it's more complicated.  After a week of attacks on BP's integrity and share price, our allies across the Atlantic are getting irked.  With pension funds there heavily invested in the company once known as British Petroleum, UK politicians are firing back at what they see as scapegoating and piling on.

Here's a snippet from former Trade Minister Lord Norman Tebbitt (courtesy of

The whole might of American wealth and technology is displayed as utterly unable to deal with the disastrous spill -- so what more natural than a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance against a multinational company?"

With a new prime minister on Downing Street and growing unrest over the UK role in Afghanistan, this can't be dismissed as just talk.  Every political or communications move in a time of crisis comes at a price, and sometimes that price isn't apparent until it's too late.

Tags: bp, crisis communications, obama, oil spill

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