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?

Is Sarah Palin a new type of politician, or just a powerful celebrity?

Someone forwarded me a piece from The Nation today entitled “The Misunderestimation of Sarah Palin.” Author Melissa Harris-Perry raises the point that, while Democrats and many Republicans mock her, they are grossly underestimating her and her ability to build a following – the type of following you need to win elections.

My question is, does building a following equal winning elections? In my opinion, not necessarily.

Whether you agree with Sarah Palin’s politics or not, whether you like her personality or not, you have to give her this much – she knows how to get people to pay attention to what she has to say. Even if you think that her messages often lack substance (and I agree they often do), she knows how to get people to listen to her messages. Both of her books have been on the New York Times’ bestseller list. She has her own reality show. And she is far more adept than most politicians at using social media  to get attention and make news. In barely two years, she has gone from an unknown governor of one of the least populated states in the Union to a multimedia celebrity earning millions of dollars a year. As a communications professional, I give her a lot of credit for knowing her audience, knowing what she has to do to get people to pay attention and then executing it.

But being a celebrity is not the same as being a politician. Politics, for better or worse, is a popularity contest. You need to have a strong base behind you, to be sure. But you can’t equally antagonize the other side either. Just because people listen to what you have to say doesn’t mean they like what you have to say. This isn’t like radio or TV, where it doesn’t matter why your audience tunes in as long as it tunes in.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska, she was not the polarizing figure she has since become. Not coincidentally, her approval rating was over 80%. Even in a conservative state like Alaska, that doesn’t suggest a polarizing figure.

Even Ronald Reagan, whom Palin is often compared to because of their political views and unlikely roads to political prominence, was not polarizing. He was conservative, to be sure, but was more genteel and likeable. He didn’t come off as confrontational and mean-spirited. He skillfully framed his conservative views, so that even if you disagreed with some of the details, you still got behind his overall message. And people certainly didn’t loathe him the way Palin’s non-fans seem to loathe her.

If Sarah Palin is content to be a very wealthy celebrity who can influence Republican Primary elections, then she is definitely on the right course. And there is no shame in that. But if she really wants to be President, she needs to do more than get publicity. She needs to be less in-your-face and make sure people like her message, rather than just listen to it.


Don’t miss opportunities to frame

One of my first posts here was on framing. And a piece of news out of Washington today was a great example of missing an opportunity to frame a situation to your advantage as a communicator.

One of the many issues being discussed as November’s Midterm Elections approach is the impending expiration of the tax cuts that then-President George W. Bush passed during his first term. Since they were passed using the Senate’s Budget Reconciliation process, they have to be renewed by the end of this year or they’ll expire. Letting taxes go up, let alone doing so during a recession as deep as this one, is normally a huge political no-no. But Rep. John Boehner, the Republican’s leader in the House of Representatives (and the man in line to become Speaker if the GOP regains control of the chamber), gave Democrats a great opportunity to frame earlier this month when he said he’d be willing to accept extending those tax cuts only on the first $250,000 of annual income.

And the Democrats squandered that opportunity right away.

All the Democrats had to do was bring a bill to the floor extending the tax cuts only on the first $250,000 of annual income. If the GOP had used the filibuster and/or other procedural tactics to kill it, the Democrats could frame the debate as them being on the side of Middle Class Americans and the Republicans being on the side of the rich and big business. That would have been a very strong talking point.

But the Democrats announced today that they won’t even try to bring the bill to the floor. They won’t even try to pass it. And in the process, they squandered the framing opportunity and lost the message war on two fronts. Republicans can now frame the Democrats as wanting to raise taxes, and the Democrats’ base has even less reason to take the time and jump through the hoops needed to cast a vote this November.

The ability to frame issues and debates to your advantage is critically important in politics. Part of that requires speed. But you also have to seize opportunities when they’re there. Your opponent(s) certainly won’t frame it to your advantage.

The early bird gets the worm

An old advertising campaign for Head and Shoulders shampoo featured the slogan “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It’s an important point to remember in any marketing effort. If your audience’s first impression of you is a negative one, you’re immediately behind the 8-ball. You now have to spend a lot more effort and resources to change that first impression than if you had simply given a good first impression.

A major part of this is making sure that you are the one defining yourself. This means being proactive, getting your message out there first and making sure that you’re the one who frames the situation. Doing so won’t guarantee you success. But it will make your chances of success much better than if you let your competition get its message out first.

This is true in any field. But I find it especially interesting to watch in politics. The American political landscape is littered with the corpses of political campaigns that failed in large part because they let the other side define them, rather than defining themselves. Michael Dukakis went from a double-digit lead in the polls in early summer 1988 to losing the Presidential Election by eight points that November because he sat back and let George H.W. Bush define him as weak and soft on crime and defense. Twenty years later, a little-known U.S. Senator from Illinois won the Presidency in large part because he got out first and framed the better-known John McCain as an extension of the very unpopular outgoing President, George W. Bush.

The 2010 Midterm Elections are less than two months away. And here in Pennsylvania, where I live, the same factor may have decided the state’s U.S. Senate election.

Pat Toomey is the Republican nominee. After three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he served as President of the Club for Growth for more than four years. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was 97. That’s nine points higher than the rating held by former Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost re-election four years ago by almost 18%. Yet Toomey is, based on polling, on his way to a fairly easy victory over Democratic nominee Joe Sestak this November.

Why? The very different political climate certainly has something to do with it. But Toomey went a long way toward ensuring his election by getting his message out there first. He put his first ads up in June, when both he and Sestak were still relatively unknown outside of their own parties and former Congressional Districts. Toomey portrayed himself as the common sense candidate and Sestak as the out of touch and extreme candidate. The electorate got a very good first impression of Toomey and a very bad one of Sestak.

Sestak, on the other hand, didn’t put his first ads on the air until September. By then, the narrative had been set. Yes, Sestak’s campaign sent out emails to those on its mailing list and made some appearances. But he was far slower in getting his message out to the masses. And now, only seven weeks from Election Day, he faces a very steep uphill climb to change that first impression.

Everyone who is responsible for any aspect of promoting a brand should heed the moral of this story and the many others like it in politics. In good times and bad, make sure your story is the one that gets out there first. Make sure your audience is hearing your voice before it hears anyone else’s voice. Be proactive, not reactive. And make sure that first impression is the best one it can be.


We see it on the news every day – something major happens in the world, and the pundits representing both sides rush for the nearest TV camera to get their interpretation of the event (one no doubt favorable to their side and unfavorable to the other’s) out to the public first. On an even more basic level, we see companies positioning themselves or a product or service that they’re offering. At the root of both of these frequent acts is framing – the act of providing your audience with meaning to a situation. The side that can do this most effectively is the one that will usually sell more of its good/service or get more votes or better galvanize his or her followers.

The best communicators do more than produce a quality message. They provide a quality frame that allows the message to make sense to the audience they’re trying to reach. If you establish and (very importantly!) maintain a frame with your audience, it tends to see all other news on the subject within that context (this is where the term “frame of reference” comes from), and your competition will be fighting an uphill battle to get itself seen in a favorable light.

Let’s try that one again, shall we?

Hello, and welcome to my new home in the blogosphere. I hope to make this attempt at blogging better organized and focused than my previous attempt. I may still attempt to update that one from time to time. But this blog will definitely be more professionally oriented, and will discuss issues and news in the area I am most interested in – communication.

First, some background. I started my career as a newspaper reporter. But the state of that business – along with my desire to work something resembling normal hours – led me to try to get out of that field. Of course, no sooner then I made this decision then the economy go to hell. So while still working in the newspaper business, I enrolled in the MS in Communication Management program run by Temple University’s Department of Strategic and Organizational Communication. Almost two years later, I am three classes and a Master’s Project away from earning my graduate degree.

During those two years, I also have landed a pair of roles in healthcare communications – the first with a small hospital in Darby, PA, the second (and current) one with a startup pharmaceutical development company in Horsham, PA. These positions grew my interest in developing messages and marketing communication tactics to help people live healthier lives. At the same time, I also became interested in political communication, and how both major parties (and the occasional quixotic third-party candidate) try to frame issues and debates in their favor.

In both of these seemingly very disparate areas, four rules of communication hold true:

  • Know who your target audience is and what will best get its attention
  • Make sure you get your message out there first and not let your opponents define you to their advantage (and your disadvantage)
  • Make your message as clear and concise as possible (in political lingo, make it fit on a bumper sticker)
  • Keep articulating it consistently

I have also recently launched a website, and you can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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