Jack Yeo, senior VP and director of issues and crisis management for PR agency MSLGroup, has traveled throughout the country this year to speak at public relations conferences about some of the more glaring PR disasters. Among the various episodes that are bandied about, one PR blunder inevitably starts to creep into the conversation: Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. The decision sparked a PR nightmare for the breast cancer foundation, which was subsequently barbecued by the media.
“I don’t think they considered the backlash of a business decision,” Yeo says. “When you are going to take a stance, not just in that case but in [ American Apparel using] Hurricane Sandy to [drum up] sales, there has to be a sobering voice at the table to say, you know, this may not be perceived as we think it would be.”
He adds: “In an ideal world you have a senior communications staffer who can participate at the executive level and truly have a voice to explain the reputational impact upon certain actions when they’re being considered.”
According to an informal poll conducted by PR News, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s debacle garnered an overwhelming number of votes (48%) for the biggest PR blunder of 2012. The aftermath of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster got 11% of the vote and American Apparel using Hurricane Sandy as a marketing vehicle got 9%. The survey, which was conducted earlier this month, is based on 190 responses.
GROWING IMPACT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Each PR crisis is sui generis, of course, with myriad factors coming into play, whether it’s communications execs clashing with legal counsel on what action to take or C-level executives who fail to appreciate the omniscience (and power) of the media. No two crises are alike. But what are some of the broader PR lessons learned from the Susan G. Komen for Cure and Costa Concordia affairs?
Perhaps most important is social media’s growing impact on how a crisis may unfold and the ultimate verdict in the court of public opinion about how the company responded, Yeo says.
“You had static monologue from Komen because it had failed to do anything on social media to build a community that could have supported it during its action,” he says. In contrast Planned Parenthood had cultivated a robust social media strategy that was instrumental in mobilizing its supporters after Komen’s decision, Yeo says.
Robbin Goodman, executive VP of PR agency Makovsky, says Susan G. Komen lost its bearings PR-wise when it allowed politics to get in the way of the charitable organization’s traditional focus on women’s healthcare.
“They weren’t being true to their brand, they got away from it,” she says. “And second, Komen was not closely considering the impact of current events and a presidential election. They didn’t think about what was in the environment [at the time]. They could have foreseen that there would be controversy.”
|Biggest PR Blunders of 2012|
|PR News recently took an online poll to see what PR executives thought were the top PR blunders of the year. The winner: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, by a considerable margin.|
|American Apparel exploits Hurricane Sandy as an excuse to sell merchandise||10%|
|Costa Cruises passes blame on its captain and changes its story as it goes||11%|
|Susan G. Komen for the Cure drops Planned Parenthood||45%|
|Homeless HotSpots rile SXSW crowd||2%|
|@Sweden Twitter account gets antisemitic||4%|
|PR pro passes herself off as a reporter on behalf of Wal-Mart||6%|
|Online clothing store Celeb Boutique’s #Aurora tweet triggers outrage||10%|
|McDonald’s take social media beating over its promoted Twitter hashtags #McDStories and #MeettheFarmers||4%|
|Other (please write in)||9%
PUTTING THE COMPANY ON THE DEFENSIVE
The PR reaction to the wrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia raises other questions about how communications executives should respond to major accidents and crises.
The cruise ship in January crashed off the Italian coast and capsized, killing as many as 32 people. Following the crash the cruise ship company initially passed the blame onto its captain.
“I’m not sure there’s a right way to handle this one, but there’s a definitely a wrong way, what they did,” says Reid Walker, co-founder and principal of incite communication, who has worked in senior PR roles at Lenovo, Honeywell and T-Mobile. “There was no information [and] no dialogue, [so] the company was forced into a corner. Once [an organization] is on the defensive, it’s tough to get back any traction or goodwill.”
He adds: “Anytime you have a business that could impact customer safety you must have a crisis plan in place and you have to be ready to move very quickly to address any panic.”
Walker says there’s a growing onus on PR executives to meet on a regular basis with their counterparts to discuss possible crises scenarios. “You can’t just have a book on a shelf,” he says.
Another lesson is the necessity for PR pros to budget for simulations of disasters (respective to their market and industry). And it can’t be a one-shot deal, but committing to conducting crisis simulations on a regular basis.
“Now that doesn’t mean you’re going to have the exact response ready for every situation, because every situation is different,” Walker says. “But you’re a lot further along than you would be if you hadn’t planned.”
Robbin Goodman, firstname.lastname@example.org; Reid Walker, email@example.com; Jack Yeo, firstname.lastname@example.org.