by Mark Braykovich
If October’s PR mistakes teach us anything, it’s that the prepared statement – a longtime standard in crisis situations – is sometimes a poor substitute for a strong response from, say, the CEO. While true that there are situations in which putting the top executive in front of the media is a terrible idea, too often and too quickly, it seems, PR people resort to “let’s issue a statement.”
The other lesson from the past month: There’s no shortage of important people doing and saying stupid things, which of course makes their companies look bad and keeps crisis PR practitioners like us busy. Quick advice: Think before you act or speak.
We point out these miscues not to poke fun, but because The Wilbert Group’s Crisis PR and Issues Management team is constantly analyzing others’ mistakes so that we and our clients don’t repeat them.
#1 Red Cross’ PR Disaster. A recent investigation by NPR and ProPublica casts a harsh light on the Red Cross’ efforts in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. Among the reporters’ conclusions: emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned as backdrops for press conferences, or dispatched to storm-stricken areas minus any relief cargo “just to be seen”; despite advance warning on Sandy, the agency lacked many basic provisions to distribute to victims; as many as half of the emergency meals prepared for Sandy victims were wasted or never delivered; and the Red Cross, according to its own internal documents, may have fabricated claims of how many people it served during Sandy.
One word sums up this report: Damning. A different word sums up the Red Cross’ PR response: Dismal.
The agency issued several statements to the reporters, who then used them sparingly throughout the article. One Red Cross official – but not CEO Gail McGovern – was interviewed on the record, resulting in a single, short quote in the article. The first on-air interview was granted by the Red Cross to NPR after the story was published and, again, it was not with the CEO but with an agency PR exec.
You might argue, as the Red Cross has, that this represents a failure of the journalists, not the agency. But what is clear is the naivety of the Red Cross’ PR handlers. First, written statements rarely get picked up verbatim, and the longer they are, the more likely much of the verbiage will be left on the cutting room floor. Second, if faced with a scandalous exposé that will most certainly damage your company or organization’s reputation, put the CEO out there for an interview. This sends the all-important message that you are being truly transparent and taking the issues raised seriously. Finally, don’t wait to see how your statement gets used (or not used) or until after publication to give on-air rebuttals or create a blog that blasts the reporting. The Red Cross did all of these things but by then it was too late.
The bottom line: Faced with a negative, reputation-altering report such as this, play offense, not defense. Unless, of course, your offense stinks. Then by all means stick with pre-publication statements and post-publication whining.
Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Photo: NBC.
#2 NBC’s Ebola Embarrassment. Amid America’s panicked response to Ebola, NBC medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman did the unthinkable: After returning from Liberia and learning that her cameraman had contracted Ebola, Snyderman and the rest of her team were placed in a 21-day voluntary isolation. So far, so good. But then Snyderman decided she just had to have some carryout food. So she and a couple of team members broke quarantine to curb their appetites.
Snyderman’s apology – about a week later and a week late – came in the form of a weakly worded message read on-air by anchor Brian Williams. “As a health professional I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public, but I am deeply sorry for the concerns this episode caused.”
The bottom line: When important people do stupid things, they should at least have the courtesy and professionalism to issue a personal apology (in her case, on camera), not via a canned statement she probably did not write. In-person comes across as more heartfelt and credible.
#3 Honda’s Hot Air Bags. Several automakers are reeling from recent disclosures – and resulting recalls – about dangerous air bags. Some of the most serious criticism has been leveled at Honda. In September, The New York Times reported that Honda and air bag manufacturer Takata failed for years to take decisive action before issuing recalls. In a follow-up report in late October, the newspaper detailed the tragic death of Hien Tran, whose injuries following a crash of her red Honda Accord were first thought by police to be stab wounds. Police later determined her air bag, “instead of protecting her, appeared to have exploded and sent shrapnel flying into her neck.”
Honda’s efforts to counter this media offensive have been ineffective at best. A statement on its website reads like a lawyer wrote it, with no expressed sympathy for victims (Honda has said two people, not including Hien Tran, were killed by faulty air bags, and more than 30 people have been injured) or hint of apology. Perhaps playing a role is an expected wave of litigation (in fact, Honda was sued Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles). Yet even for the recent story on Ms. Tran’s death, Honda issued a statement saying it was “too early” to draw conclusions on her fatal injuries. Too early? For an accident that happened two years earlier, in September 2012?
As General Motors is all too slowly learning during its defective ignition switch debacle, a slow, rigid, seemingly illogical response only makes matters worse. With Honda now stating that it doesn’t have enough replacement air bags to repair every recalled car immediately, a more compassionate, consumer-friendly approach is called for.
The bottom line: If your products are alleged to be killing your customers, and your brand’s reputation is taking a beating in the marketplace, play offense, not defense. Canned statements can only repair so much harm and may, in fact, cause additional harm.
#4 Sexist Sentiments from Microsoft’s CEO. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came under fire in mid-October following his remarks at a women’s forum in which, in response to a question, he said women don’t need to ask for raises and instead should have “faith that the system” will take care of them. Microsoft Director Maria Klawe, who posed the question, immediately disagreed with Nadella, stating, “If you don’t ask, you generally don’t get.”
Nadella was widely criticized on social media following his remarks, and even a Twitter apology in which he described his remarks as “inarticulate” attracted continued bashing.
The bottom line: When important people say stupid things, they should immediately apologize publicly. Of course, as Nadella learned, that still might not be enough to quiet detractors.