The Wilbert Group Blog

Posts by Mark Braykovich

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Review of Q1’s Worst PR Performances

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The old Clint Eastwood movie was whirling through my brain as I recalled some of the first quarter’s biggest public relations crises – and analyzed how they were handled. Instead of a buried cache of Confederate gold (that’s what Clint was after in the 1966 film), I found mostly disappointment in how companies and organizations responded during a big crisis.

But let me start with the good – as in good PR response – before unloading my guns on the bad and the ugly.

The Good

General Mills: The maker of Cheerios recently illustrated what happens when you do a good thing that gets criticized, then do another good thing by responding in the best manner possible. The first good thing was the company’s novel marketing campaign for Honey Nut Cheerios to save the honey bee population by (1) removing the famous mascot BuzzBee from its boxes and (2) distributing 1.5 billion wildflower seeds to people across the U.S.

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What could be wrong with that? Well, a lot, according to some ecologists. They contended the seeds could cause harm if planted outside their native regions. Criticism came from everywhere, such as this comment on Lifehacker.com: “. . . they are sending free packets of wildflower seeds to people all over the country – and some of the flowers included are invasive species that, in some areas, you should probably not plant.”

The second good thing was General Mills’ response on social media. Taking to Twitter and Facebook, where much of the criticism was being leveled, the company pointed out repeatedly – but calmly – that the seed varieties in the mix “are not considered invasive,” were selected for their flowers which produce nectar and pollen that are attractive to bees and other pollinators, and are the same as those consumers will find in seed racks at major national home store chains.

At last, the crisis subsided. And the Cheerios-inspired flowers blossomed.

The Bad

United Airlines: What happens when you prevent two teenagers from boarding a flight because they’re wearing leggings? A huge blowback on traditional and social media – and an unnecessary PR crisis.

That is the lesson United Airlines has learned from its March decision to thwart the legging-clad girls who were traveling on employee passes. Turns out their wardrobe violated United’s passenger dress code.

Twitter did not agree with the decision or policy. Celebrities, feminists and others roundly criticized United, many using the new #LeggingsGate hashtag. Delta Air Lines seized the opportunity to mock its rival, tweeting: “Flying Delta means comfort. (That means you can wear your leggings.)”

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The airline’s initial response was speedy but burdened by too much explanation, going on and on about what travelers on buddy passes are expected to wear. As PR pros often say, when you’re explaining, you’re probably losing. Instead, it’s typically much better to investigate, fix the problem, then explain yourself.

Even the company’s global communications director said the carrier should have taken a more thoughtful approach to responding to the dress-code controversy. And it would probably be wise for United to reevaluate what seems like an outdated dress code.

PricewaterhouseCoopers: Never have the Oscars had this much drama. The wrong winner for best film was announced – sorry La La Land, the real winner is Moonlight – and the accounting firm PwC suddenly was an international laughingstock.

The London-based firm did swiftly apologize and promise to investigate the error, stating, “We sincerely apologise to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture.”

Some might argue that short of not making the mistake, there isn’t much PwC could do to mitigate the harm. I’m probably alone on this, but I think infusing some humor in a subsequent response might be useful. I don’t equate handing Warren Beatty the wrong envelope with auditing knee-deep corporate financial records, so why not poke a little fun at yourself?

Regardless, it seems PwC will survive. Last week, the Academy Awards announced it was keeping its accounting firm of 84 years.

Samsung: It doesn’t get much worse than one of your signature products’ batteries catching fire and your next leader getting swept up in a government scandal that brings down the nation’s president. But that has been the Samsung story thus far in 2017.

It was heartening to see the company apologize for the Galaxy Note 7 battery problems at a January press conference, where the company took responsibility for its “failure to ultimately identify and verify the issues” with its batteries. But when you have to issue a second apology a couple months later – as Samsung did in late March – it undermines the first apology.

The second apology, from Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun to shareholders, again referenced the Note 7 debacle as well as the company’ involvement in scandals that led to the ouster of South Korea’s president. In fact, Jay Lee, next in line to run Samsung, remains jailed on embezzlement and bribery charges – never good for your corporate reputation.

My advice to Samsung: Stop doing stupid things so you don’t have to issue any more apologies. And get back to reminding us of the innovation that made you a global tech leader.

The Ugly

Uber: The grand disrupter of the taxi industry steered its way into oncoming PR crises at almost every turn in the first quarter. In no particular order, the company (1) was accused of sexual harassment and discrimination, (2) came under attack from a #deleteuber movement in response to CEO Travis Kalanick’s role on an advisory panel to President Donald Trump in the wake of Trump’s travel ban, (3) watched in horror a video published by Bloomberg of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver who had complained about pay and (4) picked a fight with Google.

How do you deal with these rolling crises? Well, (1) Kalanick issued a heartfelt apology – at times with tears in his eyes, according to one report – for the company’s lack of diversity and promised to do better, (2) Uber released a statement criticizing President Trump’s travel ban, and shortly after Kalanick resigned from the advisory panel (3) Kalanick apologized, again, for venting on the taxi driver and stated he needed to change as leader and “grow up” and (4) the fight with Google is ongoing over whether the head of Uber’s self-driving unit stole trade secrets from Google.

The most promising response has been Kalanick admitting he needs to grow as a leader and get C-Suite help at Uber. Additionally, Ariana Huffington, Uber’s only female board member, has taken on a larger role at the company. Young, entrepreneurial companies often face growing pains and bouts of immaturity. But Uber also needs to clamp down on its CEO and try to keep him out of the news for the rest of the year, if possible.

USA Gymnastics: When a news article starts like this, you’ve got a full-blown PR crisis on your hands.

“Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.”

Sadly, before and after the Indianapolis Star’s December report that revealed that more than 368 gymnasts had alleged abuse by coaches and other authority figures over two decades, USA Gymnastics did not respond appropriately. Instead, what response there has been has been slow, less than transparent, and without an apology.

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The only positive step was the forced resignation of Steve Penny, the organization’s longtime president. But that came months – if not years – too late.

Following the Star’s revelations came additional reporting by the likes of 60 Minutes, hearings before Congress (although USA Gymnastics declined to send anyone to testify before the Senate – not wise), new allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of coaches and doctors, and withering criticism, including from Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu, who called for Penny’s resignation and an apology from the board.

Yet USA Gymnastics has continued to rely on canned, cold video and written statements to defend itself. It also has battled over the past year to block the release of court documents regarding sexual misconduct. And its attempts at an apology have been weakly worded and severely lacking.

In the end, the organization leaves the impression it cares more about its reputation and legal defenses than the welfare of its athletes.

 

Sometimes “Sorry” Is the Hardest Word . . . But Wells Fargo Needs to Say It

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The continuing PR nightmare at Wells Fargo isn’t being helped by new TV ads and outreach to customers. The beleaguered bank is spending millions trying to repair its reputation – but is wasting that money because it seems loathe to say the one magic word.

Sorry.

Wells Fargo is forgetting one of the top tenets of any PR crisis. Say you’re sorry. Actually apologize. Do the one thing Donald Trump will never do. Because saying sorry actually resonates with people. Everyone wants to give the bad guy a second chance as long as they apologize and appear contrite.

How can Wells Fargo not say sorry after paying $185 million to federal regulators to settle charges that its bankers met unrealistic sales goals by opening as many as 2 million bogus accounts for existing customers and noncustomers? How can it not apologize after firing thousands of employees and while government investigators are considering civil and possibly even criminal charges against the bank?

The bank’s one attempt at sorry came in late September when then-Chairman and CEO John Stumpf testified before a Senate panel. But his attempted apology was muddied by his otherwise clueless testimony and lack of contrition. You can’t just say the word; you need to act like you mean it.

In fact, the only positive step Wells Fargo has taken in the crisis thus far is pushing Stumpf out the door, albeit too slowly. As I stated in a recent recap of the top PR blunders of 2016 (with Wells Fargo solidly at No. 1), the buck has to stop with the CEO, who at the time of that writing was still focused on blaming the 5,300 fired employees.

But since Stumpf’s early retirement, Wells Fargo has missed new opportunities to say sorry.

A week ago, the bank sent customers a prepared statement that said a lot, but did not apologize. The word “sorry” never appeared.

Beginning this week, Wells Fargo began airing TV ads nationwide. Maybe you’ve seen them, with the pretty horses and signature stagecoach thundering across the screen. And, again, lots of words and vague promises – but not a single sorry.

The closest Wells Fargo has come to an apology recently is a company-wide speech new CEO Tim Sloan made Tuesday. He told employees he was “sorry for the pain” they have suffered. But that was an internal message, when the biggest apology is owed to the rest of the world.

If Wells Fargo wants to legitimately turn this PR disaster around, it needs to start by saying that one word. Go ahead, say it.

The Top 10 PR Blunders of 2016 (So Far)

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What do Harambe, Yahoo, and EpiPen have in common?

They all made The Wilbert Group’s Top 10 PR Blunders of 2016, along with the Delta, The Wounded Warrior Project, a smug pharmaceutical exec, and more.


Crisis PR: Nothing Beats an Apology from the CEO

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One of the tenets of crisis PR is to get the CEO out front of the issue quickly to show that they are (1) concerned about the issue and (2) doing something about it. Toss in a heartfelt apology and you’re likely to do even more to mitigate the crisis.

The power of this simple act was on full display again this week. Chipotle Mexican Grill, stung by an outbreak of norovirus at a restaurant in Boston that has sickened more than 100 college students, was a bit slow in its early response to the crisis – which made national news.

Chipotle CEO, Steve Ells, speaks out on The Today Show.

Chipotle CEO, Steve Ells, speaks out on The Today Show.

On Thursday, however, founder and co-CEO Steve Ells went on NBC’s “Today Show” and apologized. “I’m sorry for the people who got sick,” he told host Matt Lauer. “They are having a tough time, and I feel terrible about that.”

His comments came across as genuine. It helped that he looked like a college professor instead of a slick CEO in a $2,000 suit. He also went on to say that the “silver lining” in the outbreak was that Chipotle is instituting new food-safety procedures that will put the company 10-15 years ahead of industry norms.

“I believe this will be the safest restaurant to eat at,” he said.

Ells, in a matter of a few minutes, conveyed his concern and explained what he and Chipotle were doing to fix the problem. He went a step further by saying “I’m sorry” – and nothing says I’m sorry better than a CEO saying I’m sorry.

Even the stock market took notice. Chipotle shares closed up 5 percent Thursday – despite a new disclosure that a Chipotle restaurant in Seattle was being closed by health inspectors following an E-coli outbreak.

Which means we may be seeing more of CEO Ells in the near future.