When a gaffe is more than a gaffe

ImageI’ve written here before about messaging gaffes, whether they come from the principal himself or herself, an authorized surrogate or anyone else. They force you to waste time and resources explaining what happened (or “revising and extending,” in Washington speak), rather than conveying the message you want to convey. They make you look disorganized, weak and untrustworthy.

One type of gaffe is even more damaging – a gaffe that reinforces a preconceived notion many share of you. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, committed such a gaffe earlier this year. And President Obama, trying to hang on to his job, committed one last week.

Speaking at a White House press conference on the economy, President Obama pointed to the gains – albeit very sluggish gains – in private sector employment since the economy bottomed out. He noted that while the economy itself has a ways to go, that “the private sector is fine.”

In the words of Carl Lewis, “UH OH!”

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that saying the private sector is fine is a stretch at best, especially given the last two months’ unemployment reports (though it is true that public sector job cuts are responsible for a lot of the still languishing unemployment rate). More important are these realities:

1. Most people perceive the economy to still be bad (and in a lot of ways it is).

2. President Obama is perceived by many to be out of touch and incompetent on the economy.

Perception is very often reality. Because of perception #1, this gaffe reinforced perception #2. The President and his aides had to spend the rest of the weekend walking back his remarks. And you can expect this sound bite to get replayed frequently over the remaining months of the campaign, especially if the economy continues to languish or (even worse) slide backward.

In a lot of ways, this gaffe is worse than the one I mentioned from the Romney camp. While Romney’s gaffe certainly makes him seem unlikeable and ill-equipped to relate to middle class Americans, Romney’s campaign is not based on likeability. Mitt Romney is not George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, and, fortunately for him, he realized during the primaries that he couldn’t pretend to be so. What Romney emphasizes is competence and the idea that his private sector expertise will translate to getting the economy turned around as President.

Whether or not Romney’s message is true in reality is an entirely different question. But it paints the starkest contrast to an incumbent who inherited a rotten economy and is perceived (again, rightly or wrongly) to have made it worse. Obama’s gaffe, much like John McCain’s similar “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” gaffe during the 2008 campaign, makes him look oblivious to the problem, let alone to be the person who can best solve it.

The importance of having one voice

I apologize for not having posted in more than six weeks. I started a new job a couple of months ago, and that has kept me plenty busy. Hopefully now that I’m settled in some I’ll be able to write more and post more on social media.

This new job has been great. I work with great people, I get to do intense but fun work and I work for a company that is helping a good cause. There are many great stories to tell.

This is true for many businesses. The key is to tell those stories through one voice that reflects the company’s broader positioning strategy.

Most of my career up to this point has been in relatively small businesses – under 500 employees. My last employer only had 10 employees. Now I work for a company with more than 3,000 employees across the country. And it is responsible for communicating the stories for businesses in many different states. That’s a lot of different interests to consider, and a lot of possible stories that can be told. That makes it all the more challenging to maintain one voice.

This can take a lot of forms. In some cases it is due to the corporate bureaucracy parodied by the Dilbert cartoon above. And in most cases the conflicts are accidental and/or done with good intentions. But they nevertheless can result in more aggravation for the people responsible for conveying the story and/or lead to mixed messages coming out of the company. And that is not a good thing in the world of public relations.

Any entity – whether it has five employees or 50,000 – needs to speak in one voice. The message needs to be the same no matter who is doing the talking. Whatever stories the company is telling need to fit within the company’s overall positioning strategy. The larger the company, the more challenging this communication management is.

What is to come in 2012?

It’s hard to believe, but another year is almost over. Christmas is only a few days a way, and a week after that, we’ll flip the calendar to 2012.

What will happen in the year to come in communication? In healthcare? In public relations? What new technology (or technologies) will emerge? Which existing technologies will be relegated to the dustbin of history, like coin-operated pay phones? What great advances will happen in healthcare and healthcare delivery? Which organization will build a strong foundation for years to come with strong, carefully planned and executed public relations efforts? Which organizations will be tarnished by bungling their public relations, particularly in a crisis situation?

We can ask those questions at this time every year. But here are some unique ones to think about as 2011 comes to a close:

1. Will Google+ seriously challenge Facebook? I was not impressed with it when I first got on, and I still use it only rarely. But it does appear to slowly be catching on. Will it become real competition for Facebook in 2012?

2. Will organizations reevaluate and improve their crisis communication plans? We saw the tattoo scandal at Ohio State and the horrible sexual molestation scandal at Penn State – they were just two examples this year of poor crisis PR. It’s an area to which many organizations do not devote sufficient resources or planning, and they can and have paid a huge price for that. Hopefully this year’s prominent crisis PR disasters taught them a lesson.

3. Will more pharmaceutical companies get serious about social media, even with no FDA guidance on the horizon? One of my favorite reads in the area of pharmaceutical marketing – Rich Meyer’s World of DTC Marketing blog – praised Sanofi’s “Why Insulin?” Social Media campaign as an example of how pharma companies can creatively and effectively use Social Media while not running afoul of the FDA. With no specific FDA guidance likely to come anytime soon, pharma companies can and should learn from Sanofi’s example. Will they? The cutbacks to marketing that many pharma companies made this year won’t help any.

4. Which Presidential candidate will do the best job crafting and selling his/her story? Next year will be a presidential election year (the Iowa Caucus is on Jan. 3!). Which candidate will put forth the best story? Which candidate will be the most effective at selling that story? And how much of an impact will the stories told by PACs and outside groups – who were greatly enabled by last year’s Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court – have on the election? While I do find the partisan bickering in Washington to be tiresome, I do find campaigns themselves to be fascinating, and the upcoming election will definitely be fascinating, no matter which side you want to win.

That’s all for me in 2011. It’s been an interesting year for me in many ways – finishing my masters degree, helping build a start-up pharmaceutical company into a tangible product that could attract a merger with a major pharmaceutical company and now looking for the next opportunity.  I leave you with what, in my opinion, is an underrated holiday song from an underrated movie. Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2012.

Overreacting can worsen a PR crisis

I have written here several times about the importance in PR of responding as swiftly and unequivocally as possible to crises. But you can’t panic either. Overreacting to a crisis can exacerbate the problem just as much as trying to ignore or hide it, if not make it worse.

Let’s look at the recent case of Lowe’s, the home improvement retail giant. It came under fire from the Florida Family Association, along with dozens of other businesses, for advertising on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim. The association, a social conservatism activist group that is known to protest TV shows, movies, businesses and other things its Evangelical Christian supporters find offensive, called on Lowe’s and other advertisers to withdraw from the show because it considers the show to be “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” according to its statement on the matter.

Lowe’s response to this complaint from one group of Evangelical Christians was to pull all of its advertising from the show, and this move has brought it under even more criticism, from all religious sectors. In a statement released Monday, Lowe’s claimed that it made this decision not just because of the Florida Family Association but because the show is “a “lightning rod for people to voice complaints from a variety of perspectives — political, social and otherwise.” But it doesn’t matter – Lowe’s has been branded as gutless at best, as bigoted at worst.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Lowe’s bigots, but I would definitely call it gutless and guilty of pandering. Yes, there is a significant amount of Anti-Islam paranoia in this country; it has been here for many years and has only gotten worse since the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago. But the vast majority of Americans do not share the views of the Florida Family Association and similar groups.  And businesses, like people, need to show guts to do the right thing. Pandering to one group of Evangelical Christians who (wrongly) associate all Muslims with terrorists is most certainly not the right thing.
Lowe’s would have been much better off addressing the Florida Family Association’s complaints but continuing to advertise on the show and explaining why. It could have even used the moment as an opportunity to do a public good. Instead, it made a panic reaction that only hurts its brand.
Lowe’s experience should be a lesson for all public figures and entities. You need to be proactive and emphatic in responding to problems. But you can’t panic either.
What other examples can you think of like this, where a person or business overreacted to a crisis and made their PR problem worse?

This year’s communication turkeys

Turkey is the food commonly associated with Thanksgiving. It’s also sometimes used colloquially to describe foolishness or ineptitude. And with that holiday (my favorite one of the year!) coming tomorrow, it’s an appropriate time to look at this year’s biggest turkeys in communication and public relations:

Penn State University: I don’t think there is any doubt that they are this year’s biggest turkey, the way British Petroleum was last year for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon accident. The alleged crimes committed by former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky are abominable, horrible and sickening. But university officials, including the school’s iconic football Head Coach, Joe Paterno, made this situation far worse by creating the perception that they cared more about winning games and preserving the Penn State brand than doing right by the alleged victims. If you believe the grand jury report in the case, these crimes were taking place as far back as 1998, and Sandusky was caught in the act by a graduate assistant in 2002, yet no one from the school went to the police, Sandusky was allowed to remain associated with the program and the victims – innocent children – continued to be cast aside until the indictment was finally handed down this month and it had to go public. And even then Paterno and others at the school only admitted to the vaguest responsibility. Then you have Paterno’s press release that said the school’s Boards of Trustees “shouldn’t waste one more minute discussing him,” the protests on campus that followed Paterno’s firing and everything else.

Herman Cain: I discussed this in a previous post. But his poor handling of the sexual harassment accusations against him, particularly how he changed his story multiple times, violated multiple cardinal rules of crisis communication practice. His campaign, which at one point had vaulted him into the lead in the polls in the Republican Primary race for President, was starting to slide before the allegations. But these allegations and his poor handling of them may have finished him off. Politicians have survived much worse than sexual harassment charges, so if Mr. Cain had simply handled the crisis properly, this would have been far less of a mess.

 

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY): Former Rep. Weiner’s story is sadly similar to Cain’s. The Congressman from New York City was caught texting pictures of his…um…male anatomy to a woman who wasn’t his wife. Rather than just admit the misdeed completely immediately and apologize (again, politicians have survived far worse), Weiner at first denied the story, then only grudgingly admitted to facts as they were reported by others. He lost control of the story and came across as a liar in addition to a fiend. He was eventually pressured into resigning, ending what could have been a promising political career (he had been speculated as a possible candidate for Mayor of New York City).

Jim Tressel: In the span of a few months, Jim Tressel went from one of the greatest football coaches in Ohio State history and someone on the fast track to the College Football Hall of Fame to resigning in disgrace. And all because he knew of NCAA violations in his program and didn’t tell the truth to his superiors and NCAA investigators. It wasn’t until Sports Illustrated came out with a report detailing a slew of NCAA violations that Tressel finally came clean, and by then it was too late. Now the program that won seven Big Ten titles, nine of 10 meetings with archrival Michigan, four BCS bowls and a national championship under his watch is disgraced, and so is Tressel. Like so many college coaches, he preached doing things the right way but sacrificed that principle in the name of winning football games. And that gambit ultimately failed, as it usually does.

Do you have any other examples of communications turkeys?

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

The sins of Marketing, PR and Communication

Yom Kippur begins at sundown this Friday. By translation, it’s the Day of Atonement. It’s the day that the 13 million or so Jews in the world (including yours truly) fast and spend the day praying in synagogue to be forgiven for sins against God (I believe the day should be about much more literally than asking God for atonement for our sins, but that’s another story). Not surprisingly, at the heart of the Yom Kippur prayer liturgy is a series of confessional prayers that list sins that some Jew, somewhere, committed over the course of the previous year; all Jews recite them as a sign of solidarity.

With this day fast approaching, I was thinking about what mistakes people in my field commonly make. What are the “sins” of Marketing, Public Relations and Communication in general? Here are several that I thought of:

1. Giving your customers the message you think they SHOULD want: The most important element of a successful business is providing a good or service that your customers want. Many aspiring business owners and marketers make the mistake of trying to force feed their vision to consumers rather than serving their customers. If you own a Ford dealership and car buyers in your area prefer driving pickup trucks and SUVs, make sure you stock a lot of Ford Explorers and F-150s and convey to your potential customers why Ford’s products in these classes are better than the competition. If you stock a lot of Fusion Hybrids and tell your customers that they should buy them instead because they’re more fuel efficient, the dealership probably isn’t going to last very long. The ideal business should know what its customers want so thoroughly and have an offering so finely tuned to those desires that the product sells itself.

2. Letting your opponents define you and your brand: If you don’t aggressively define yourself and your message to your audience, your opponents will, and not to your advantage. Many businesses, celebrities and politicians make the mistake of not being proactive, particularly in crisis situations. Get your message out there early and keep repeating it.

3. Not being up-front and transparent in crisis situations: Many businesses make the mistake of thinking they can hide bad news from the public. You can’t, especially now with the web. And the cover-up is always worse than the crime itself. If you don’t come clean yourself and do so right away, someone else will do so on their terms, not yours. Now in addition to the consequences of the bad news itself, you have the added image damage that comes from not being forthright with your consumers.

4. Using Social Media as just another means to shout at consumers: The most valuable characteristic of Social Media are that they allow for two-way communication. This provides businesses opportunities to actually engage consumers and build relationships with them. A business that simply uses Facebook and Twitter as another channel to send out the press release announcing their new Chief Financial Officer is not going to get the most out of those tools.

5. Using a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing: This somewhat goes back to #1. No two businesses are exactly alike, so no two sets of marketing and communication strategies should be exactly alike either. What works for Amazon.com won’t necessarily work for Southwest Airlines. Know who your audience is and where it is, THEN design the strategy.

What about you? Can you think of any other “sins” of marketing, PR and communication?

And to my fellow Jews, G’mar Chatima Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year ahead.

The cover up is always worse than the crime

There are many important rules of public relations in a crisis situation. Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen two examples of perhaps the most important yet most violated rule – one from the world of sports, one from the world of politics.

That rule: When bad news hits, come as clean as possible as soon as possible.

The cover up is always worse than the crime. ALWAYS. Obviously, lying about what you did will hurt you even more when the truth comes out (and it always will). But even simply refusing to reveal anything will make the problem worse. The truth will eventually trickle out in bits and pieces, and it will do so on someone else’s terms – terms that will likely be far worse for you. Now not only do you still have bad news, but that bad news is staying in the headlines longer.

Consider the two very recent examples I referred to earlier:

Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel: The coach of four Division I-AA and one I-A national championships at Youngstown State and Ohio State, Tressel resigned in disgrace on Memorial Day and left one of the country’s marquee college football programs vulnerable to harsh NCAA sanctions because he lied to school and NCAA investigators about his knowledge of NCAA rules violations committed by his players. Had he reported the violations to school officials as soon as he knew about them (reportedly in April 2010), the players would have served a suspension and that would have been the end of it. Instead, he covered up what happened, finally admitting to things only after they were reported in the press. Now he goes down as both a cheater and a liar, and will probably never coach a college football program again.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY-9th District): When a blogger reported that the Congressman had tweeted a picture of his crotch (I’m trying to keep it tasteful here, folks) to another woman, Weiner should have immediately admitted what he did. It would have been immediately embarrassing, but it would have then gone away. Members of Congress have survived far worse. Instead, he denied the story, then semi-denied it, before finally coming clean this week after more stories leaked out. Now he is facing pressure to resign. And even if he survives politically (he represents a New York City district that strongly favors his party), any ambitions for higher office are likely gone now.

The moral of the two stories: don’t cover up your mistakes or bad news that you couldn’t avoid. Even if you make your confessional on a Friday evening of a holiday weekend, that’s still better than not telling the truth at all. Honesty will hurt some in the short run. But dishonesty, even by sheer omission, will hurt even more in the end.

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