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.

Don’t like devoting Social Media resources to Google+? You may have no choice

I’m not a big fan of Google+, the web search engine giant’s new Social Media tool. It tries to be an all-encompassing Social Media utility like Facebook while not offering anything unique that I find useful. And the numbers show that I’m not the only one who is reluctant to warm up to Google+: while a BrightEdge Survey in December found that while 61% of the top 100 brands in the United States had Google+ pages, none of those pages have more than the 65,000 fans  of Google’s page. Contrast that with Facebook, where dozens of top brands have more than 1 million fans. Ford has 5 million fans on Facebook compared to only about 27,000 on Google +.

But businesses may have no choice to devote marketing resources to this still fledgling platform. And there are two key reasons why:

1. SEO and Google’s incorporation of Google+ results into its search results

Superior page rank in web search results is critical for businesses today. Consumers increasingly are turning to the web to obtain information, and the higher you are in search results, the better the chances of consumers finding you.

Google is using this fact to its advantage by, according to Huffington Post, incorporating Google+ pages into its search results. Its search algorithm will now recommend Google+ pages for you to look at based on your search and web browsing history.

This makes good business sense for Google – by making its social media platform appear more prominently in its own search results, it can drive people to Google+ pages. Even if they don’t adopt the tool themselves (and some will adopt it upon seeing the pages), they’re still going to view the pages. And the consequence for businesses is that they then have to use Google+ – and use it thoroughly – to maximize their SEO.

2. Google’s powerful brand

When we think of web search engines, we think of Google. It is the most popular web search engine; I personally rarely use any others. But the Google brand portfolio now includes email, document storage and writing, a financial information product, a now-defunct health product and, of course, the Google+ Social Media product.

Given the size and influence of the Google brand, it stands to reason that more consumers will look to Google+ as a source of information and that adoption will continue to increase even if Google does nothing to improve the product.

In a perfect world, Google would do more to improve Google+ and use a better product to drive more adoption by businesses and consumers. But for the reasons above, consumers will flock there regardless of the quality of the product. While businesses may not want to devote increasingly scarce resources to a Social Media tool they consider to be inferior to others, reality says they may not have a choice.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Lauren Proctor Internet Marketing, a blog on web marketing strategy. Please visit this blog to see this post in its original form.

#McFail: How McDonald’s Twitter strategy went awry

The beauty of Social Media – the opportunities it provides for businesses to engage and interact with their customers, and vice-versa – can also be its curse if not done correctly. Just ask fast food giant McDonald‘s, which is cleaning up a major public relations mess after a Twitter ad campaign went so horribly awry that it earned the hashtag moniker “#McFail.”

As PaidContent.org‘s Jeff Roberts reports, McDonald’s launched a 24-hour campaign last week using Twitter’s “promoted tweets” function. This utility allows businesses, at a cost, to craft tweets that appear at the top of certain search results on Twitter. The idea is to get your tweet in front of Twitter users no matter when they happen to log on during the period of your campaign. You can read Twitter’s help center page on promoted tweets for more information.

In the case of McDonald’s, it used two different hashtags as part of its promoted tweets campaign. The first,

#MeetTheFarmers, went uneventfully. But at 2 p.m. last Wednesday, it switched to a new hashtag, #McDStories. The promoted tweet quoted a McDonald’s potato supplier, with a link to a video of a happy potato farmer. And that’s when McDonald’s lost control of things.

Twitter users began telling their own McDonald’s stories, and not ones that were exactly flattering to the company. Some were jokes by stoners, others referenced heart attacks (since fast food usually isn’t particularly healthy food) and others still referenced the ongoing fight between McDonald’s and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Within a few hours, the hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. And as a result, the promoted tweet in question has remained a “Top Tweet” even nearly a week after the debacle occurred.

The moral of the story: you need to be very careful before launching a campaign, particularly one on social media where people can respond directly. Do your research and try to envision how people might interpret your message before you send it. Just because McDonald’s believed that the #McDStories hashtag would encourage the sharing of positive stories does not mean customers will see it the same way.

In hindsight, if McDonald’s might have been better off keeping the original #MeetTheFarmers hashtag. Instead, it got a Big Mac-sized social media fail.

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.

Cases of poor crisis communication: Herman Cain

Crisis communication is never a pleasant experience. And good crisis communication is particularly challenging these days when Social Media and the web further reduces how much time one has to get out in front of a story.

But one thing you should definitely not do in a crisis is what Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain did this week: change his story multiple times.

On Sunday evening, the political website Politico reported complaints that Cain sexually harassed two employees while leading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. The Associated Press reported a third complaint on Wednesday.

Cain is hardly the first Presidential candidate to be ensnared in a scandal involving the opposite gender. And while sexual harassment is certainly unacceptable, politicians have survived worse (see Bill Clinton). But Cain didn’t help himself by changing the story he presented to the media so frequently it was hard to keep track.

Here is the timeline of Cain’s “explanations,” as assembled by TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall:

  1. Cain claimed the Politico report was false.
  2. Cain admitted that there were allegations, but that the allegations were false.
  3. There were allegations, but they were false and he didn’t know what money was paid (how could he not know that if he were in charge of the organization?)
  4. He didn’t know whether money was paid and that it would be wrong to find out if money was paid because that is confidential (see #3)
  5. He was cleared by an in-depth investigation but didn’t know anything about it.
  6. Finally explaining the gesture that led to the complaint and admitting that he remembered discussing a settlement figure.

By changing his story so many times, he kept the story in the news longer than it may have needed to be. Had he simply responded quickly to the Politico report with a detailed explanation of what happened and stuck by that story (and assuming that that story held up factually), he could have gotten this story out of the headlines after a day or two. Even with the first Presidential primaries still two months away, there would have been plenty of news (political and otherwise) to take its spot. And if voters can forgive Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and lying under oath, they certainly could have forgiven  Herman Cain for a sexual harassment charge that may not even be truthful.

Instead, it became a major scandal that has been in the headlines all week. And that’s not a good thing for an public figure or organization in a crisis.

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