Chicken Little was Ready in Case the Sky Fell. Why Businesses Should Prepare too.

Chicken Little gif from

Chicken Little gif from

Smart phones and social media. Those two things are why every business should have a crisis plan in place. Why? In addition to media exposure, smart phones and social have empowered today’s “citizen journalists,” and the internet can spread a story in seconds. What’s worse, truth doesn’t always seem to matter if the story is interesting and the video compelling.

It’s easy to see why a large airliner, construction company or food distribution company has much more risk and the need for a crisis – or reputation management – plan. But if you are providing any kind of public service, thinking through what might happen and what you’re going to do is a wise decision. You might feel a little like Chicken Little – and sometimes the boss doesn’t want to hear about what might go wrong – but it’s always better to be prepared.

What questions should you ask during this process?

1)      What is the worst that could happen? This exercise will help you understand your weak spots, spell out why you need to be better prepared, and erase the element of surprise when something does go wrong.

2)      When something happens, who should I call? My recommendation is to always have legal and public relations representation on speed dial. That way, when something happens, instead of wasting time thinking through who to call, you know exactly who to call. Also, if the incident spirals than you will have help for both the courtroom jury and the jury of public perception.

3)      Why should I invest in PR and social media? Practitioners will tell you that both social media and PR take time and effort – neither can expect overnight results. When a company calls me out of the blue because they’ve had a crisis event, it’s much harder to get traction if we’re starting with nothing in place. Reputations are made over time, and if you aren’t building good will and engaging with reporters and customers, you leave yourself completely bare.

4)      Do I need legal advice? A lawyer can assess your risk and advise what you need to put in place to show “due diligence.” For example, if you provide an entertainment venue for minors – arcade games, put-put golf, bumper cars – it would be important to make sure that all employees are background checked to ensure you aren’t exposing children to a predator. And if an accusation does come up, you can prove that you have a robust process in place.

5)      How might incidents escalate? Not all do, but there is a huge possibility that once the thread frays, it easily unravels. For example, if an employee claims sexual harassment, many times other employees are emboldened to step forward with similar claims. Now there is a pattern – a story much harder to fight.

Companies that are ill-prepared are always surprisingly shocked when a crisis event occurs. But crises are nearly always predictable – maybe not exact circumstances, but you can hit pretty close to the general topic: contamination, injury or fatality, employee theft, sexual harassment. The list is similar from company to company, depending on the industry. And when you can predict something might happen, you can plan for it as well. And in the end, as unappreciated as Chicken Little was – he was right.

Ten Days, Ten Lessons Learned from Former White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci

Lesson #1: Do not, under any circumstances, initiate a telephone call with a journalist, assuming your conversation will not be printed, especially if the conversation includes cussing against your colleagues, who work with you on a daily basis and then hope to keep your job.

Lessons #2-10: See Lesson One.

Mooch out. #themooch #themoochisloose (via giphy)

Mooch out. #themooch #themoochisloose (via giphy)

Why Brands Need To Care What Is Being Said About Them

One of my favorite quotes in PR was said by Warren Buffet: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do it differently.”

Many times the brands whose reputations were destroyed overnight could have minimized the catastrophic events simply by pulling their head out of the sand and dealing with the situation. Of course, communication and planning help too.

In the past 12 months, we have seen a fair share of brands who didn’t handle their crisis very well. Often what began as issues that weren’t attended to blew up into full-scale crisis events. I don’t even have to say why they made this list because we all know why!

  • Uber

  • United Airlines

  • Galaxy Note 7 phones

  • Wells Fargo

  • Pepsi

  • Chipotle

  • Mylan’s EpiPen

  • Bill Cosby

  • Tesla

  • Yahoo!

On June 14, Clutch – a leading software and professional services firm – released an extremely interesting survey, Measuring Brand Perception and the Effect of PR.

Clutch’s key findings:

  • 52 percent of consumers spend the most time using social media, allowing for opinions to change and news to travel quickly

  • Nearly 20 percent of consumers are wary of making high cost purchases from brands with negative press

  • News stories about companies have an impact on the way those brands are perceived by consumers – in fact, 46 percent of consumers who identified United Airlines as a brand with negative press also have a negative perception of that brand

(Source: Clutch:

We all know the media landscape is changing. Back when I was in college, I studied abroad in London, and I felt so disconnected. There were no smartphones. There was really no internet. Email had just started, but I didn’t have an email account. CNN was great, but I couldn’t afford cable. I depended on the student union’s subscription to USA Today to get my news. Fast forward 20 some odd years – we all have smartphones, we all have multiple email accounts, many have tablets, computers, televisions with internet access. We have multiple social media logins; most have cable and many office buildings even have headline news in elevators. Many haven’t read USA Today in years. In fact, subscriptions to print magazines and newspapers are at an all-time low. Simply put, we get our news differently, and more importantly, many of us have turned into spot journalists and post this news on our social channels. For brands, this is terrifying. News travels at lightening speed.

Clutch reports that the most commonly used media outlets today are social media (52 percent), broadcast media (22 percent), digital media (18 percent) and print media (8 percent). When a negative story goes viral, how does this affect consumers’ perception? According to Clutch, when negative news about a particular brand is brought to consumers’ attention, opinions of those brands change.

Think about it: As a consumer, if you had the choice to fly Southwest Airlines or United Airlines, which one would you choose? I haven’t seen a person being dragged off a Southwest Airlines flight recently. If you were taking your children out to eat, would you pick a restaurant that’s in the news for contaminated food? I wouldn’t.

“Perceptions of a brand also feed directly into consumers’ likelihood to purchase that company’s products. The way these opinions change is conducive to many factors, and it even varies between low and high cost purchases,” reports Clutch.

I’ve said this many times and can’t say it enough: public relations is one of the most effective uses of a brand’s budget – period. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Having a plan in place for not only the good news but also the bad is more imperative now than ever. I see, over and over, brands bury one’s head in the sand and ignore or hide from the obvious signs of danger. Brands are afraid to admit they were wrong. They blame the customer for negative reviews. Brands hire interns to run their social media. They ignore online reviews.

But it’s not just reviews. Remember when I mentioned that everyone has a smartphone now? People record what’s happening right in front of them and post the videos online. When the evidence of wrongdoing (even perceived) is right there in living color, it’s difficult to deny.

Reputation and crisis management need to be a top concern for CEOs across the board.

I love what a fellow crisis communication expert and speaker, Andy Gilman, has said, “The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.” Bad things are going to happen to every company. Of course, they vary in their magnitude, but they are going to happen. From a slip and fall to executive misconduct to natural disasters to fraud to arrests to investigations to computer viruses – know your vulnerabilities and have a plan to protect the brand.

If your company doesn’t already have a social media policy and a crisis communication plan in place, I beg you to consider doing this now. Hire an expert to come in and help you assess your company’s vulnerabilities, and create and put a plan in place so that when it does happen to your company (and it will at some point), you have a roadmap to help guide you when the tornado hits.

Being prepared for a PR crisis in today’s climate is just as important as having an emergency preparedness or disaster recovery plan for your business. While communication is a part of those plans, dealing with a PR crisis/social media is not the same and requires a separate plan. Without one, your company risks a major storm of negativity that could be difficult to recover from as a result of doing nothing, playing the blame game or – just as bad – doing too little too late.


When Apologies Come Too Late

It takes years to build a brand but moments to take it down

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you have seen the United Airlines parodies and the memes circulating this week. Since Monday, you haven’t been able to turn on the news and not see something about the United crisis. And, if you are like me, you shake your head in disgust that this crisis could have been vastly minimized – so much so that it might have only been a quick mention on the news. Instead, this situation will be printed in their Wikipedia history page.

For a recap of the United Airlines Flight 3411 communications, read The Washington Post story: The full timeline of how social media turned United into the biggest story in the country.

Please note, I am NOT saying that the actions taken by the crew and staff of United Airlines Flight 3411 were OK. As in most crisis situations where the brand is at fault, the actions are almost never OK. However, the way a brand approaches a crisis can set the tone for the entire event.

United Airlines created their own crisis. Had the CEO come out Sunday night or – heck – even Monday morning and owned the situation by stating how deplorable this incident was and how it will never happen again on a United Airlines plane, this topic would not have spun out of control like it has. However, the CEO’s first few statement(s) were about United Airlines’ legal rights, employee policy and how they are looking into the situation. These statements don’t offer much consumer confidence. The CEO totally forgot that PR is about perception. The public is thinking "this could happen to me, and this company doesn’t care anything about its passengers.”

In an age where video is going to happen and social media breaks news, owning responsibility is critical. And even more critical is owning responsibility quickly. If you made a mistake, say that. We have all made mistakes. But shifting the blame is unacceptable.

Here are a few of my thoughts on how this crisis could have been handled differently.

  1. The social media team should have a plan in place for issue management (an issue is defined as something that could escalate to a crisis). This plan would, of course, have the appropriate people to contact including the PR team (internal and external). Brands need to respond quickly. Waiting an hour to respond (as United did) is unacceptable – even if it is only asking for more information.

  2. It is very clear that the legal department was involved with the CEO’s statements. Let legal do their thing; let PR handle public perception. This was the first statement that came out from United (note, at this point the video was going viral), “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.” There is no apology and absolutely zero care or concern for the passenger(s) of Flight 3411.

  3. Again, when the CEO issued his statement, it was all about how his employees followed procedure. Obviously, United’s policy is flawed. The perception is: United doesn’t care at all about the passengers it serves, it only cares that its employees followed policy. The CEO statements were self-serving. This so reminds me of the BP’s apology.

  4. Not until Tuesday did the CEO apologize – reversing his previous statements. From a consumer perspective, this apology has no merit. It only came after reports that he should be fired and after the company saw the financial repercussions.

  5. Wednesday morning, the CEO made his rounds on morning television – apologizing profusely. Unfortunately, this apology came way too late and is not believable. United has lost the trust of its customers, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes it is too late to do the right thing. Do you believe his apology? Check out the story that aired on Wednesday (4/12/17) on Good Morning America, United CEO Oscar Munoz felt 'shame' to see passenger dragged off flight.

In my opinion, the only winner of this crisis was Pepsi. From Wednesday to Sunday, the topic of conversation was Pepsi’s ad. Now, no one is talking about Pepsi – well, except the memes.

For more information:  

Crisis Social Media – You Need to Have a Plan

OU and SAE, The National Organization, Got It Right

Responding to Customer Complaints on Social Media

Not the Vacation I Planned: Tragedy Transitions Vacationing PR Pro into Media Relations Juggernaut

Check out Dallas Business Journal’s What a drag: How United turned a $1,000 inconvenience into a hundreds-of-millions crisis