Catholic Church Now in Crisis Mode

After reading in today’s Wall Street Journal that the Roman Catholic Church is now trying to craft consistent messaging in order to deal with the allegations of abuse among its priests, I don’t know whether to say “Hallelujah” or just shake my head in disbelief. After all, this huge problem for the church has gone on for years, and to now be putting a crisis communications plan in place—creating an internal response team in place and monitoring media—seems like too little too late, or does it? It appears that one of the problems is at the top: the Pope is not regularly in touch with the Vatican’s communications team, instead talking to advisors who “communicate his thoughts.” This morning, a quick Google search of “Catholic priests” yielded topics on abuse, pedophiles and celibacy in 8 out of the top 10 first-page slots. That can’t be good. My question is, how can the Catholic Church undo  years and years of PR neglect? Is uniform messaging, a redesigned Web site and a Twitter page a good start?

–Scott Van Camp

Panties and PR

The brouhaha over the Lane Bryant commercial that Fox and ABC allegedly refused to run during certain broadcasts last week has the media buzzing and people taking sides.  Most of you are familiar with Victoria Secret’s “The Nakeds” commercial – unfortunately even my 9-year-old son has seen this commercial since it airs during American Idol.  (The good news is that he likes saying “the nakeds”  but doesn’t grasp the point of the commercial.)  So the question is whether it constitutes a double standard that two major networks refused to air the Lane Bryant commercials showing plus-size woman in bras and panties because this content was too risque, but have aired “The Nakeds” and other arguably PG-13/R rated content prime time. For those reading this blog and tracking the story, the more interesting question is whether Lane Bryant is pleased with this current situation and media attention or truly feel wronged — and would rather the commercial aired under the radar and without controversy.  Anyone who studies and practices PR knows the answer to this question: Lane Bryant should be thrilled with the publicity and milk it for all its worth. No pun intended, really.

- Diane Schwartz

Oh My! Goldman Sachs Uses ‘Public Relations Officers’ to Help Manage the Crisis

Public Relations has come a long way, but once again it’s been shorted by those who don’t understand the value of this discipline. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read or hear about a situation (global or local)  that is just a “PR ploy” or “PR maneuver.”  It’s as if “public relations” is a naughty 2-word phrase that hides the ugly truth about something.

The recent news about the SEC charges of fraud against Goldman Sachs has led to some public posturing from the investment firm and accusations from analysts and commentators that the company is rolling out a PR strategy to defend against the charges. Don’t you shudder at the thought of a company in crisis using PR tactics? How crazy is that? Of course, it’s referred to in a negative light – as if PR is the tactic deployed from the playbook of lies and deceit. I am not going to comment on the unfolding Goldman Sachs investigation, but it is interesting to watch it unfold in the media.

On CNBC’s Street Signs show on Sunday, a principal at R&R Consulting – Sylvain Raynes – accused host Jim Cramer of only having “public relations officers for Goldman” on his show.  Insinuating that Cramer and others on the show were associated with Goldman Sachs and therefore biased in favor of the firm, host Erin Burnett warned Raynes to stop insulting the hosts, took a commercial break and told the viewing audience (assured them?) that Raynes would not be back after the break.  The episode is a case study in poor hosting and the dearth of media training by spokespeople and purported experts.

Raynes,  a mathemetician who holds a PhD in aeronautical engineering, could use a few pointers on how to get his message across without insulting the messengers. And host Erin Burnett and Jim Cramer, by taking his barbs personally, set back the notion that the media is objective and open to all lines of thought.

But back to the criticism that Goldman is fielding its “public relations officers” during this latest crisis.  What they’re doing is not a bad thing.  It’s Crisis Management 101.  Regardless of how the investigation pans out, the role of the Public Relations Officer doesn’t change – to manage the organization’s reputation and communicate the right messages at the right time.

Diane Schwartz

Andrew Cuomo: Tough Guy

There’s an interesting story in yesterday’s New York Times about a different, “old style” media relations approach practiced by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Eschewing a media relations posse and outside image shapers, Cuomo prefers to do is own outreach to the press, often calling them individually after hours, and speaking off the record. It seems as though he learned this “tough guy” approach from his dad, the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. In addition, instead of holding regular live press conferences, the younger Cuomo sets up conference calls, which frustrates journalists (particularly TV broadcasters) no end because they can’t take Cuomo’s body language into account. This media relations strategy intrigues me, because all I ever hear is how PR is supposed to be kind and gentle to the media, and bend over backwards to make sure journalists’ needs are met. Whatever journalists may think about him, Cuomo’s public approval ratings are high as he gets ready to launch his campaign for New York governor. Question: Do you think this approach will come back to haunt him in his quest for governor?

–Scott Van Camp

Is Your Email Memo Safe?

What’s internal is usually external when it comes to corporate announcements, especially those concerning a crisis. Most PR and HR departments understand this and “write once” when it comes to announcing a change or responding to a crisis. What about email? When you email a colleague about something confidential, you expect it to remain between the two of you, right? Wrong, in my opinion. Most of the time, email communications is like talking on the phone to someone – you don’t expect your phones to be tapped. But if you are communicating about a confidential matter that has public ramifications, be careful. Case in point is the latest news coming out of Toyota.

Irv Miller, who was group vp for environmental and public affairs, in the days leading up to the January recall announcement wrote his colleagues in an email: “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean.”  Miller was counseling the C-suite to be more transparent while revealing quite a lot about Toyota‘s crisis in that one email. The Associated Press, in reviewing papers released to government investigators, uncovered other communications failures, such as when another corporate communications exec at Toyota wrote an email to his PR colleague that , “We should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed.”

In reaction to these emails, Toyota said it doesn’t comment on internal communications and conceded that its communication during this time period was in need of repair and it will try to be more transparent.

Would it have been better if Toyota’s communications team met in a board room or at a cafe and discussed the need to “come clean” and never put it in writing? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Because once it’s written, it is writ in the public mind once discovered. And that’s why the media is writing about this latest email mess from Toyota.  The media will identify the sound bites in the email memo (such as I’ve done above) and a reader will latch on to the most negative aspect of the bite, and form a quick, probably negative opinion.

We can all relate to email snafus, especially in the rush to convey a message efficiently, quickly and to multiple audiences. So, before you hit “send,” shift those mental gears, re-read your email and make sure your words won’t be held against you or your organization someday.

Diane Schwartz

Bad Reputations: A Punishing Verdict for the Bailed Out

A survey of the 60 most visible corporations in the U.S. conducted by Harris Interactive using its Reputation Quotient offered little surprises at first glance.  Like a “dog bites man” story, the just-released survey (conducted Dec ’09-Feb ’10) revealed that Americans don’t trust or like financial institutions, federal agencies, tobacco companies, and most automotive companies but they do like Amazon and FedEx, they trust Johnson & Johnson, they are keen on Google and technology company and sticky note leader 3M.

What is telling about this survey of nearly 30,000 Americans is that within the sectors receiving the lowest scores are also companies scoring highest among the six pillars of a great Reputation (emotional appeal, products and services, financial performance, vision and leadership,  social responsibility, workplace environment).  Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was #1 most highly regarded company and Ford Motor Co.  also rose to the top.  Bank of America, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs were among the least regarded among 60 listed companies.  Could the fact that those companies were bailed out by taxpayers (those surveyed) play a part in resting at the bottom of the list? Could the fact that Warren Buffet’s outstanding track record and his down-to-earth persona play a role in his company’s reputation? That Ford is perceived to be trying harder than its counterparts to win back consumers certainly played into consumers’ minds. Amazon, FedEx and Southwest (another top-lister) place customer service as a top priority — and that always factors into financial performance and overall reputation.  And Google, with its reputation as a great place to work and the first place to get answers quickly — you don’t need to search far to figure out why it made the list.

Surveys by respected, independent organizations are always an interesting barometer of stakeholders’ mood and purchase intentions.  Those at the bottom of the list are surely not surprised by the Harris results, and hopefully they are doing something about it. Which is to say, they are sticking to their knitting and not getting too caught up in another survey that distracts from the real issues.   As Warren Buffet once noted:  “A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”

- Diane Schwartz

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