As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.
Amid all the noise surrounding Barneys New York and its alleged racial profiling, and whether the rap mogul Jay-Z should back out of his partnership with the luxury retailer, came this little noticed fact: Only 25 percent of the proceeds from the partnership, where sales are intended to benefit Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, will actually go to the foundation.
And no doubt, only a fraction of that 25 percent will go to the ultimate objective, scholarships for economically challenged students.
And therein lies a significant issue inherent in all CSR efforts—trust. When people hear about a non-profit entity serving a worthy cause, the first thing many people think is, ‘how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause?’
It’s a common question people ask themselves before they take out their checkbooks, and it’s legit. For example, Business Insider reported earlier this month that “a shockingly small amount of money from NFL pink merchandise goes to breast cancer research.”
How small? Business Insider said that for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society and the NFL keeps the rest.
What these reports do is dampen charitable giving because people have images of well-paid executive directors, lavish staff salaries and benefits and rich expense accounts.
And so, from a communications perspective, PR pros who manage CSR and charitable giving need to know at least one thing: The actual percentages of funds going to a charity or cause needs to become part of CSR messaging, because the media is going to report on it anyway and it’s better to be ahead of the story.
And by mastering this one thing, you can avoid the reaction that ‘oh, well, it’s just another non-profit enriching itself before doing accomplishing social good.’
What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality – and that includes fair pay – and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.”
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.
Amidst the turbulence in marketing communications, one area seems a fairly safe harbor for PR professionals: corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Whether through RSS feeds or my own perusing, I forever spot surveys and studies showing the business benefits of having a robust CSR strategy.
The latest survey on CSR comes via Nielsen. It said that 50% of global consumers surveyed are willing to pay more for goods and services from companies that have implemented programs to give back to society. That’s up from 45% from 2011.
And when you match current consumer sentiment with a sincere willingness among corporations to give back to charitable causes, my guess is that that percentage is on upward trajectory.
The Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility, which was conducted early this year and took the pulse of more than 29,000 online consumers in 58 countries, found that the percentage of consumers willing to pay more increased among both males and females and across all age groups, with respondents under age 30 most likely to say they would spend more for goods and services from companies that give back.
Among consumers ages 40-44, 50% agree they would pay more, up from 38% two years ago.
Sure, many surveys have a pre-ordained quality and could be taken with a grain of salt.
But the constant stream of surveys showing peoples’ willingness to support charitable causes is difficult to dismiss, particularly when such surveys share very similar indices.
Even we before we started to pivot to a digital age, CSR was the domain of PR professionals. Now, amid the digital lurch and the scramble to prove the efficacy of social channels, CSR programs seem like a surefire way to demonstrate the value of PR.
Your audience isn’t going to do cartwheels about your latest Facebook post or online video streamed on LinkedIn. But they will get stoked (not to mention getting into purchase mode) if you can prove that CSR is a centerpiece of your corporate strategy.
In that vein, here are a few tips on a multi-channel approach to CSR, with a hat tip to Bobbie Wasserman, managing director of Wave2 Alliances.
> Text: Text is the “old school” of new media and remains the cornerstone of digital communications. The details of corporate CSR are housed in the annual report, micro-sites and dedicated blogs—all of which tend to be text driven—at least for now. However, using text to convey messages in an interactive digital environment is different.
> Image: For CSR stakeholders, pictures can convey numerous positive meanings. However, negative pictures can spread online like wildfire, another proof point for careful planning and message development.
> Video: Video offers companies a variety of communication options as a training library, corporate documentary vault, creative commercial originator, and credibility validator. For CSR initiatives, it is a “must have” for visual storytelling.
To learn more about CSR trends, check out PR News’ Corporate Social Responsibility Guidebook.
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
The ugly story of Aaron Hernandez raises again the issue of perception challenges in big-time sports, both on the professional and collegiate levels, and it’s worth some time thinking about how we got here.
We’re a sports-obsessed culture. Always have been. It goes way back in the country’s psyche. I recently read a book called “Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Boneheads, Rogues and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.”
You might think it was about 2008, and Alex Rodriguez, Brian Wilson (the San Francisco Giants closer with the long dyed-black beard), and George Steinbrenner.
But it was really about the 1908 season, when America was equally baseball crazy.
Then there’s the long history of idolizing college football players like Red Grange, George Gipp (Ronald Reagan made Knute Rockne’s phrase “Win one for the Gipper” famous) and Notre Dame’s 1924 “Four Horsemen.”
Going back even further than that, baseball became a national sport during the Civil War, when soldiers from all over the country were introduced to it and in the years after the war spread it to the four corners of the nation.
This explains why we revere sports institutions and athletes. But we give them a pass way too often. We create a hothouse environment where a sense of entitlement reigns, where cheaters are celebrated, where criminals are excused, where the money is huge, and where institutions like the Penn State football program end up driving university policy, not the other way around.
In what other context would someone like Ray Lewis, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens, be considered the face of a business?
Big-time sports are popular, but also tarnished. And they have the power, when they run amok, to tarnish other brands, like the universities that lend their names to sports programs. After Hernandez’s arrest last month for murder, new light was cast on his time at the University of Florida, when 25 players were arrested a total of 31 times during the tenure of coach Urban Meyer, a period when the team won two national championships.
Are championships worth more than character and reputation? It appears so, and while Hernandez and others must face the consequences for their alleged actions, the system collectively really is to blame. Here are some suggestions on how to fix things.
1. Make use of performance-enhancing drugs a career ender. Baseball, especially, has a huge problem, mostly because it turned a two-decade-long blind eye on the problem while gladly raking in the revenue generated during the steroid era.
2. Pay college athletes. This will go a long way toward eliminating the mostly false notion of the “student athlete.” If the athlete is selected based on raw economics, overlooking character will be less likely.
3. Do a much better job to acknowledge and explain the role athletics plays in college finances. This will mitigate the excessive influence that boosters play, and also help schools from a public relations standpoint. Incredibly, in 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee is either the football or basketball coach. That made major headlines a few months ago. The reaction was largely indignation. Put aside questions about terribly misplaced priorities, however, and you really can justify those salaries based on the economics—who brings more revenue to a school (and thus helps fund important academic initiatives) than the coach of a successful sports program?
4. Don’t play the victim, as Bob Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, did when he recently said that the team was “duped,” by Aaron Hernandez. Own the mistake. And communicate to the public how you’re going to do everything possible to avoid the same mistake in the future.
Tony Silber: @tonysilber
If you’re an immigrant from Krypton living in the U.S.—or in any spot on Earth—then flying without the benefit of a wingspan or jet propulsion and hearing the flutter of a butterfly in Ensenada while you’re leaping over the Empire State Building in a single bound is old hat. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, is no cause for celebration for you either—it’ll just flush out the anti-immigrant wingnuts who’ll once again terrorize you and your relatives with Kryptonite hockey pucks.
You didn’t ask for superpowers—you just needed to find a more hospitable planet. Your superpowers make you feel like a freak and, if you work in PR, cause no end of frustration. Using your superpowers for your own professional ends feels too much like cheating—your old-school Kryptonian parents certainly wouldn’t approve—and so you toil away like just another Clark Kent.
I’m telling you now to embrace your true, Kryptonian self—own your inner Superman or Superwoman, put your powers to use as a PR pro. Let’s face it—part of the reason you deny your superpowers is you’re afraid that they might not be so super after all. And that’s just not logical.
Here are just three suggestions to get you started:
- If your brand is in crisis because of, say, an oil spill or because of a cruise ship that’s run aground, fly around the Earth really fast to reverse its rotation around the axis. This will take you back in time so you can prevent the oil rig from exploding or the cruise ship captain from carousing.
- Make your brand a CSR leader by using your super breath power to re-freeze the melting polar ice cap.
- Use your blinding speed to respond to every tweet that mentions your brand’s name—in real time! And, as a bonus, using this speed you’ll finally be able to clear out all those unopened emails.