On Monday it seemed like a few scheduled events were set in stone to happen this week: 420 day, Earth Day and the Fox News/Dominion Voting Systems trial.
In life, not everything always goes to plan. PR professionals may be the most adept at considering every scenario. As we now know, Fox/Dominion did not play out, 420 day (today) has been steamrolled by Elon Musk’s Twitter and SpaceX news (goodbye blue check and a blown rocket launch), and well, the jury is still out on Earth Day for the weekend, but let’s hope for the sake of the planet that that still goes off without a hitch.
So let’s take this week’s roundup to consider how some pre-planning for our subsequent scenarios could benefit the outcomes of these situations.
Fox News settles with Dominion Voting Systems
What happened: In a real plot twist, on Tues., April 18 (also ironically Tax Day), Fox News agreed to a $787.5 million settlement with Dominion, just hours after the jury took their seats at court.
This may have disappointed some ardent legal case watchers, and Fox News critics, who hoped to finally hear from high-profile Fox News personalities regarding their sworn truths on the network lying repeatedly about voter fraud.
Instead, onlookers are left to wonder why the settlement? If an organization believes they were not at fault, why pay off the plaintiffs, further tarnishing the credibility of the right-leaning network. The settlement sets off alarm bells as to Fox News’ guilt, but according to Politico, “the settlement also spares the network from weeks of embarrassing testimony that would have put the widespread internal dysfunction at Fox News on full public display.”
Communication lessons: Jill Zuckman, partner, SKDK, noted the curiosity surrounding the timing of the settlement—as most organizations would just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible—causing some to raise an eyebrow.
“What was striking about this settlement is that Fox waited so long to do it,” Zuckman says. “In the run up to the trial, all the juicy tidbits from discovery were driving the media coverage and making Fox’s position more and more untenable.”
And while a settlement may put a damper on any organization or individual’s reputation, the case regarding Fox News is a bit trickier. This is because the relationship between Fox News and its viewership is so unique.
“Typically, companies that settle do take a reputational hit because of that decision, and, broadly speaking, that's because the stakeholders who care about the matter in question tend to want to be informed or educated about it,” says Andrew Graham, founder and head of strategy, Bread & Law. “Settling for a large sum is an admission of something bad in the court of public opinion.”
Graham is hesitant to say that communicators can learn from the matter as it relates to litigation communications broadly, because it is a unique situation with stakeholders who have unique wants and watch a network that caters to their interests and beliefs.
“Fox viewers know what they are watching,” he says. “Fox News viewers pretty broadly and transparently want to be lied to. I don't think this is completely unique to that network—one reason why broadcast news is popular is because it is so effective at confirming the priors of its audience—but Fox News viewers have a particularly intense appetite for propaganda and disinformation.”
Graham does not believe, when looking at the settlement through a reputational lens, that it will have the same degree of negative impact for Fox as it would another organization.
“Fox News lied, was busted for it, paid out a lot of cash, and its viewers are going to take that as a positive, if only because it's this dumb spectacle to talk about.”
Climate groups urge FTC to tackle greenwashing with new Green Guides
What happened: In honor of Earth Day this weekend, we wanted to highlight the efforts of several climate groups looking to update FTC guidelines on sustainability for the communication and advertising industries.
Groups including Action for the Climate Emergency, Clean Creatives, ClientEarth, Earthworks, Earthrights, Food and Water Watch, Gas Leaks, Global Witness, InfluenceMap, and the Sierra Club are all in the process of submitting comments to the FTC urging new guidance to combat what the groups describe as a “tidal wave” of greenwash coming from corporations, and fossil fuel companies in particular. A study by Harvard researchers in 2022 found that 72 percent of social media posts by oil and gas companies engaged in some form of greenwashing.
Green Guides provide guidance to companies on how to make environmental claims in their advertising and marketing. The last time the guides were updated was in 2012.
The FTC recently announced a revision and specifically asked for public comments on carbon offsets, renewable energy, and climate change, amongst other issues. Comments are due April 24th and the guides are expected to be updated later this year.
Communication lessons: Be smart in your sustainability communications. And be prepared to review all language and content when it comes to ESG. Following guidelines from the FTC can help prevent a potential crisis when it comes to public messaging.
“The Green Guides are an opportunity for the FTC to address one of the greatest barriers to climate action: greenwashing and false advertising from the fossil fuel industry,” said Duncan Meisel, executive director for Clean Creatives.
Meisel says corporations have been getting away with lying to consumers about their net zero commitments, carbon offsets, and the environmental benefits of so-called ‘natural’ gas.
“Stricter guidance from the FTC would not only help clear the airwaves of this misinformation, but send a warning to advertising agencies that these sorts of misleading claims will be subject to greater regulatory and legal scrutiny.”
MillerKnoll CEO tells employees to “leave Pity City”
What happened: What is that old saying? “Do as I say, not as I do?” Well, MillerKnoll CEO, Andi Owen, sure got her just desserts all over social media. A leaked, so-called internal motivational video broadcast Owen telling employees to "leave Pity City" after asking how to stay motivated if they didn’t receive bonuses this year.
zoom call from a ceo who cancelled all employee bonuses but took a $6.4 million bonus herself pic.twitter.com/SMZP6QQYCX
— Warren Commission Test Skull (@conzmoleman) April 17, 2023
The irony? According to CBS News, in addition to Owen’s $1.1 million salary, she received $3.9 million in stock awards and other compensation for the fiscal year ended May 2022. Owen has since apologized.
Communication lessons: This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time we see a tone-deaf CEO deliver the wrong message to employees. And it won’t be the last time it goes public as well. Employees are not machines. Nor should they be treated as much. And in this day-and-age, where the internal can easily go external, it’s important to think about your message and how you deliver it to your workforce.
Tracy Williams, founder and CEO of Olmstead Williams Communications, says it’s time to remind CEOs and C-suite executives of the rules of public diplomacy. They include:
- “Be kind: Start with gratitude for the work people have delivered when you’re asking them to deliver more, and be specific on compensation, especially when your compensation is so public.
- Keep it clean: Don’t curse or show your anger on Zoom or any other public platform, unless it’s about protecting your people and customers.
- Be humble: Start with what you’re going to do to solve the problem. Talk about the strategy that will address the problems, and how everyone as a team can do their part to help.”
As aforementioned, Owen took the first step with an apology. Williams says her next step should be having some serious internal conversations.
“She needs to take responsibility for how her comments came off and impacted her employees,” she says. “Next, she needs to listen to what employees say and address the elephant in the room, employee bonuses.”
Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal