Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Crisis Communications’

Why the Race of the Public Relations Firm Representing Ferguson Matters

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferguson PR Crisis and Diversity

By now you’re likely aware of the conflict erupting in Ferguson, MO resulting from the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The city has done an abysmal job responding to the situation overall (including from a public relations perspective), highlighted most recently by the hiring of an all-white public relations firm to handle the crushing national media response to the race-motivated crisis.

The perception problem created by the hiring of an all-white PR firm was further escalated when the firm failed to immediately respond to critics via social media after the announcement went public. In its defense, Common Ground has since partnered with a minority-owned firm (The Devin James Group) to complement its capabilities. We’re reminded again that a few hours is a lifetime in the age of social media.

Some have defended the decision, arguing that it’s racist to consider the racial makeup of the PR firm hired to assist with this crisis. They are wrong and here’s why:

It’s not the PR firm’s fault, but we should all care that the firm is all white because it’s another reminder (like the Ferguson crisis) that minorities continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership across the US.

The city has defended its hiring of Common Ground PR on the basis that the scope of the firm’s work is to assist the city’s internal PR staff in responding to the deluge of national media requests that have come in – not to rebuild the city’s relationship with the minority communities. That’s a fair point – but it further reveals the extent to which racism is systemically integrated into American life; the vast majority of the national media are white and can be served by an all-white PR firm.

The origins of this tragedy are at least in part due to the fact that the Ferguson police department is 92 percent white, policing a population that is 67 percent black. The PR firm should have known from the start that the racial composition of their employees was going to be an issue – because the PR industry as a whole is well aware of the diversity problems across the US (and within our own profession – nearly 70 percent of PR practitioners are white). A PR firm dropped into this situation should have first prepared to tout its experience with (and connections to) the African American community even if they weren’t necessarily relevant to the work performed. Moreover, it should be aware that because the PR industry has championed diversity as an issue – it is held to a higher standard when it comes to internalizing diversity.

Experience matters, which is why all of us list it on our resumes – and why PR firms list it (as Common Ground does) on their websites. Unfortunately I see nothing on the firm’s website that would hint at experience working with the African American community, nor relationships therein (not on their Crisis Communications page, nor in their Accolades page, nor their Partners/Memberships page, nor listed among the causes they support on the “Giving Back” page). They absolutely may have it – but the only indicator we’re left with to judge them on their expertise with diversity is the racial makeup of their employees.

Understanding your audiences is one of the most basic components of public relations. It’s well-known in public relations (but rarely discussed) that to work with minority audiences, you need to have minority representation within your organization – it’s an important indicator that you’ve internalized the importance of diversity. That sounds racist, but it’s not – it’s a response to the legacy of racism which excluded minorities from professional positions (which is why they’re still underrepresented today).

That legacy of exclusion is why there are separate professional groups and news outlets for minorities today. The dominant white culture excluded minority professionals and failed to cover news in minority communities – so they had to create their own.

Here’s a thought exercise: if you had to reach a majority white audience, would you feel that you could be best represented by an all-black PR firm? How about your C-Suite? – You’re lying if you say yes. Yet we expect the opposite to be true for Ferguson.

What’s “racist” is pretending that race doesn’t matter – it does.

Update – Burger King’s Twitter Account Hacked; Finally Suspended 1 1/2 Hours Later

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

[Update: the @BurgerKing account was finally suspended about an hour and a half in.]

As I write this, Burger King’s Twitter Account (@burgerking) has been hacked by Anonymous and turned into a McDonald’s account with the parody storyline that BK has been acquired by McDonald’s.  It’s still posting updates (including photos of drug use and links to rap videos on YouTube) unabated.

What’s particularly amazing about this situation is that it’s now almost an hour into the hack and no one has taken action (neither Twitter, nor Burger King), though that may attest to the resourcefulness of LulzSec – the security wing of the unofficial hacker collaborative Anonymous.

Image

@BurgerKing Account Suspended

FedEx Deserves a Black Belt in Crisis Management for Response to Viral Video

December 22, 2011 1 comment

Earlier this week, a YouTube video from a security camera made the rounds showing a FedEx employee carelessly tossing a package (containing a computer monitor) over a fence to deliver it.  As of today, the original has over 4 million views and opportunistic content-scrapers who have re-posted to their own profiles have garnered hundreds of thousands more.

Huge public relations crisis, right?  Nope.

FedEx delivered a master class  in crisis communications with its response that should be taught in PR classrooms.  Check it out:

Let’s break down what happened (which is an affirmation of the principles articulated by Arthur W. Page):

  1. They responded quickly.  They didn’t wait for the situation to reach a tipping point; only two days passed between the uploading of the original video and the response.  Can you imagine the kind of effort it takes during the heaviest delivery season to negotiate and organize a well-crafted video response to a negative customer service experience for a global corporation?  Right now the response video is the #2 video, right under the original negative video which is #1.  It has over 116,000 views – six thousand of those were accrued in the time it took me to draft this blog post, so it’s gaining traction.
  2. They told the truth.  At no point did they try to write it off as an isolated incident, a hoax, or try to blame a third party contractor or regional human resources department.  They embraced it.
  3. They made it right with the customer (a YouTube user with the alias ‘goobie55′).  Before anything else, they reached out to the party affected and fixed the situation.  Unfortunately, goobie55 has not (yet) done the right thing – which is to post an update to the video noting FedEx’s response – hopefully that will still happen.
  4. They took it seriously.  FedEx knows how quickly information is shared online and they responded swiftly with senior management.  They didn’t let the situation linger unanswered or task local staff to handle it.  They also likely used all the resources in their arsenal – which may have included a traditional public relations pitch campaign (given the over 150 articles covering the response).
  5. They internalized the problem.  According to FedEx Senior VP Matthew Thornton, they are also are now sharing the video with employees as a case study in why careful handling of packages is important.
  6. They gave the organization a face.  You could hardly find a better face for the organization than VP Matthew Thornton; the nonverbal communication is fantastic.  He’s in a shirt and tie (no suit coat), with thick-rimmed glasses and a similarly-thick mustache – he looks like a working-class executive who is personally-invested in the company and doesn’t shy away from rolling up his sleeves.  Though he’s likely reading from a prompter, Thornton is convincing nonetheless.  In a way he projects the feel of a small business owner who knows well how accountable he is to his customers.
  7. They had a track record to stand on.  This is perhaps the most important part of any crisis is what happens BEFORE the crisis – something that can’t be emphasized enough.  Every organization needs to make quality service and products a priority (which should go without saying, but it doesn’t – plenty are operating on an old model of sub-standard quality upholstered in glitz and style).  No crisis response, no matter how eloquent, can save an organization that sucks at what they do from a high-profile example of their suckage – the companies that conduct themselves that way are only able to do so because they’re a monopoly (think AT&T or Comcast).

The only improvement I might have made is to have Thornton add an action item at the end of his video (you can provide hyperlinks within YouTube videos very easily) that invited any other customers with a bad experience to immediately share, or link directly to the process for resolving disputes, it so it could be fixed.  But that’s just me nit-picking.

Hopefully a lot of people are able to learn from this – kudos to FedEx.

The Remote and the Real: Shopping for a BP Oil Spill Thong

May 25, 2010 1 comment
A Selection of Thongs Related to the BP Oil Spill Available for Sale on CafePress

In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann noted:

“The incidence of policy determines the relation between leader and following.  if those whom he needs in his plan are remote from the place where the action takes place, if the results are hidden or postponed, if the individual obligations are indirect or not yet due, above all if assent is an exercise of some pleasurable emotion, the leader is likely to have a free hand.”

I think about that in the context of the oil spill currently underway from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig and how different the crisis would have unfolded in decades past.  Even in the past couple of years, technology (particularly social media) has stripped leaders of their ability to keep such phenomena remote and abstract, shielding them from the public.

Google Maps Mashup Depicting BP Oil Spill

Now, we can look in directly on the results and feast at an all-u-can-eat buffet of related information:

In crisis situations, we tend to look to past crises for insight on how a new one will unfold.  The problem is, all of the technology and the rapid adoption of social networking platforms has made those past comparisons obsolete.  This is true for virtually all fields, but especially public relations which has borne the brunt of the upheaval from the communications revolution.  Trying to downplay crises with euphemistic language is deadly, as BP CEO Tony Hayward found out after comments made in past days have come back to bite him.

Anything you can imagine could be a facet of the next crisis your organization faces (even a video game based on your crisis; just wait – some programmers are likely downing cases of Red Bull feverishly coding a BP-themed oil spill video game right now).

Anti-BP Merchandise on CafePress

One would be hard pressed to make case studies older than a few  years relevant today, and yet most PR textbooks still teach the Tylenol recall scare from 1982.  If your playbook is older than 2007 – it’s time to get a new playbook.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,687 other followers