Delta CEO Violates a Cardinal Crisis Communications Rule

One of the cardinal rules of crisis communications is to do everything you can not to become the face of a negative issue that affects multiple people or companies. That is a lesson Delta CEO Ed Bastian apparently doesn’t fully appreciate.

By now, almost everyone has seen the viral “Recline-gate” video featuring two American Airlines passengers:

 

The first 24 hours of the debate centered on who was in the wrong – the women who reclined her seat or the man behind her who repeatedly pushed her seat in protest. That debate quickly changed, however, as people began to realize it was the airlines who created this Stanford Prison Experiment-esque scenario. The airlines are the bad guys here.

American Airlines no doubt was preparing to manage the negative publicity, but then they were given a gift. Delta’s CEO appeared on CNBC and was asked who was right. He weighed in and said that he thought reclining was reasonable, but that you should ask permission first. That answer reignited a new debate. Instantly, Delta became the face of the issue. Even though the viral video was of American Airlines passengers, the general public will associate Delta with the lack of knee room on airplanes.

Meanwhile, you can bet American Airlines CEO Doug Parker will be hiding out for a week or two. He’s more than happy to let media and social media replay the clip of Delta’s CEO over and over again. To paraphrase Napoleon, never get in the way of a competitor who is making a mistake.

 

Dunkin’ Donuts CEO in Fetal Position Under Desk after Snoop Dogg Threatens CBS’ Gayle King & Offers Support to Bill Cosby

It’s not quite the same as finding out that the most recognizable face of your company has been arrested for pedophilia, but Dunkin’ Donuts has to be rethinking its marketing strategy after spokesman Snoop Dogg spent the last 48 hours threatening CBS news anchor Gayle King and calling for the release of convicted sex offender Bill Cosby.

In January – one month after Dunkin’ Donuts’ CMO resigned to pursue “the next opportunity” – the coffee chain launched a national ad campaign featuring Snoop Dogg. Now, less than a month later, it has to make a decision about whether to suspend the campaign entirely.

Those of us old enough to have owned The Chronic on CD marveled at the idea that Snoop Dogg had evolved to the point that he would be the star of a mainstream advertising campaign. And it turns out maybe we were right. I think Snoop himself said it best on Gin & Juice: “With so much drama in the L-B-C, It’s kinda hard bein’ Snoop D-O-double-G.”

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Starbucks Shows it Takes Discrimination Seriously

Starbucks logoBy now, you have no doubt seen the news that two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks Thursday. The men were waiting for a friend when they were asked to leave because they hadn’t yet purchased anything, a request that appears to run counter to the company’s policy.

The incident sparked outrage and protest amid accusations that race was at the heart of the incident – had the two men been white, for example, it is almost certain the police would not have been called.

Give Starbucks’ senior management and crisis communications teams credit for neutralizing a delicate situation. The company recognized immediately that it had a highly charged and potentially combustible issue on its hands, and its reaction has been impressive. Among its responses:

  • Starbucks immediately acknowledged the issue on social media and promised to look into the issue.
  • Once Starbucks quickly determined it was in the wrong, CEO Kevin Johnson personally apologized to the men. Johnson also apologized publicly in written and video statements that were posted to the company’s social media platforms.
  • Johnson traveled to Philadelphia and spent several days listening face-to-face to members of the community.
  • Starbucks reassigned the store employee who called the police.
  • The company announced that it will close all 8,000 of its U.S. stores on May 29 to conduct racial-bias education training for nearly 175,000 employees. Additionally, Starbucks shared that the curriculum for that training will be created in collaboration with some of the leading experts on addressing racial bias.

Starbucks followed the PR crisis playbook closely, and it has been incredibly effective at neutralizing this crisis. It didn’t just react, it leaned toward overreacting. Protesters in Philadelphia (and nationally) have been trying to leverage this situation into something bigger, but Starbucks has been a step ahead of them from the beginning.

Additionally, Starbucks has signaled to its socially conscious customer base that it shares their inherent values and is more than willing to be a leader in the fight for principles such as racial equality and respect for all individuals.

The Hits Keep Coming at Chipotle

When I was at StorageTek, the CEO asked me what it would take to get him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. “Embezzle $100 million,” I joked.

Recently, Chipotle has seen a lot more coverage in the Wall Street Journal than it wants, and the hits just keep on coming. If you see Chris Arnold today, buy him a drink. He’s earned it.

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Cinemark asks shooting victims to cover $700k in legal fees

Now that Cinemark has been found not responsible for the Aurora theater shooting, it’s pretty easy to see why it would want to get the money it spent defending itself back. But I’ll give Cinemark the same advice I have given literally dozens of CEOs across many different industries: You are never sorry later for having taken the high road. Not to mention that the reputational damage for trying to collect $700,000 will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The ‘Sharapova Response’

Miguel Piedra of RockOrange argues that tennis star Maria Sharapova’s response to a failed performance-enhancing drug test will become a crisis communications blueprint. From his column in PRWeek:

Her tack was one of honesty, directness, and accountability. She did not use spokespeople or press releases or even Oprah to come clean. In doing so, she has saved herself countless hours of brand-damaging news reports.

Her forthrightness is a case study in proper reputation management. It’s a stunningly bold and mature handling of the crisis, especially considering her youth as compared to the old hands who vainly clung to their claims of innocence, and the even older PR axiom that tells us to “deny, deny, deny.” …

Getting out in front of the story — let’s call this “the Sharapova Response” — means owning the narrative. Information flows from the source directly to the media, unfiltered, and even if it is obscured later it is done through the lens of an initially honest act.

Broncos’ Osweiler Credited for Turning the Other Cheek

Fox31’s Drew Englebart covered Brock Osweiler’s recent tussle in Scottsdale, and included the PR perspective from dovetail solutions’ Andy Boian.

It’s unlike other athletes, including like Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who was recently involved in a bar brawl, and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who punched a member of his team’s equipment staff. Osweiler avoided what could have been a PR disaster.

“At the end of the day, what happens is if you compose yourself and handle yourself well, there’s no story there and that’s what he did,” Boian said.

If Anyone Knows Customer Service, It’s a Billionaire from the Cable Industry

New York Knicks owner James Dolan – also the president and CEO of Cablevision –  goes full Dick Montfort on a longtime fan who questioned his competence in an email:

Mr Bierman

You are a sad person. Why would anybody write such a hateful letter. I am.just guessing but ill bet your life is a mess and you are a hateful mess. What have you done that anyone would consider positive or nice. I am betting nothing. In fact ill bet you are negative force in everyone who comes in contact with you. You most likely have made your family miserable. Alcoholic maybe. I just celebrated my 21 year anniversary of sobriety. You should try it. Maybe it will help you become a person that folks would like to have around. In the mean while start rooting.for the Nets because the Knicks dont want you.

Respectfully

James Dolan

GM CEO Credited for Handling of Recall Crisis

When General Motors named Mary Barra its first female CEO three months ago, who knew the biggest hurdle she would likely face would be trying to undo the damage done by her predecessors? For all of her business acumen, it may simply be her likability and sense of trustworthiness that determines whether she survives.

Forbes, among many others, gives her credit for navigating the crisis with aplomb:

… Ms. Barra struck exactly the right tone: calm, in control, honestly sympathetic, yet not going to be pushed into a statement she did not want to make. She was unfailingly polite, and seemed dedicated to finding out the truth, and then to addressing it head-on. She did not grandstand nor was she flustered; she did not defer nor did she deflect the criticism, but she did stand up to her questioners when they were not clear, in a way that was neither angry, nor defensive, nor subservient.

 

PR Debacle of the Day

Last December, Rutgers University officials – including its President and Athletic Director – watched this video of its head basketball coach verbally and physically abusing players and thought a three-game suspension and fine was appropriate punishment.

Now, the world has seen it, and it is only a matter of time before Rutgers fires the coach. The question is how long they will allow their brand to twist in the wind before they finally do it. Free PR tip: quicker is better.

UPDATE: Rutgers made the classic public relations mistake of only dealing with part of the issue when it fired the coach on Wednesday morning. Had Rutgers also fired the athletic director who knew about the abuses months ago and did little, it would have dealt with the issue in one swift moment. Instead, the attention will now turn to the athletic director instead of simply dissipating.

UPDATE II: It took 24 hours for Rutgers to fire the coach, and an additional two days for the athletic director to “resign.”

Lance Armstrong is a Terrible Person

Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs will air tomorrow Thursday, and the speculation about what he said has become the media story of the day.Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 5.17.03 PM

The coverage is taking a lot of different angles, but there is at least one singular truth about his story: Lance is a terrible person. A tremendous athlete, but a terrible person. And not because he used PEDs, but because of how he tried to ruin anyone and everyone who dared to speak the truth.

Sometimes terrible people do good things, maybe even because they need to cover up the fact that they are terrible people. And those good things can offer enough cover that blind loyalists continue to believe. Richard Nixon created the EPA, Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Lance created the Livestrong Foundation.

But I don’t think for a second he founded his foundation because he truly cared about his fellow man. Lance reveled in the money and fame that came from being a world-class cyclist. And he was perceptive enough to recognize that Greg LeMond’s celebrity dried up the second he quit cycling. So Lance did everything he could to make his celebrity last.

First, he took PEDs so he could remain competitive, and then when he realized even PEDs would not keep him relevant forever, he founded the Livestrong Foundation. It brought him an entirely new source of fans and endorsement money. A source he thought would last a lifetime.

Lance has received world-class PR counsel over the years, and until recently it allowed him to stay in front of the rumors and accusations. But, for the moment, it has all caught up with him. Lance is a survivor, literally and figuratively, and I wouldn’t bet against the comeback for which he is desperately trying to position himself. But if his reputation does survive, don’t ever forget the one true thing about Lance: he is a terrible person.

State of Colorado Sues Kirsten Hamling’s ‘Fired Up For Kids’

Following recent questions about whether Traction Communications’ Kirsten Hamling misled firefighters and stole money intended for The Children’s Hospital Burn Center, the Colorado Attorney General’s office has filed suit against “Fired Up For Kids.” And the allegations are not pretty for Hamling. Among them:

15. In its solicitation materials, including materials sent to event sponsors as well as on its website, Fired Up For Kids has represented that it is a “Denver-based nonprofit organization” that donates all proceeds from special events and sales of The Colorado Firefighter Calendar to The Children’s Hospital Burn Center.
16. Fired Up For Kids also has represented itself in public solicitation materials as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization.
17. In fact, Fired Up For Kids never received 501(c)(3) status from the United States Internal Revenue Service. Nevertheless, upon information and belief, Fired Up For Kids never paid taxes.
18. Kirsten Hamling was the sole director of Fired Up For Kids and its founder. Ms. Hamling is also the sole signatory on Fired Up for Kids operating account, maintained at Wells Fargo Bank.
19. Almost immediately after the incorporation of Fired Up For Kids as a nonprofit corporation, Ms. Hamling began making charges of a personal nature to the Fired Up For Kids operating account. These charges continued through at least July 2010. Charges included money spent at nail and hair salons, money spent on gym memberships, money spent at department stores, and money spent on airline tickets to California. These charges had nothing to do with Fired Up For Kids.

So, based on the allegations, it appears that Hamling may either have admit that Fired Up For Kids is a non-profit and she misused and/or stole money it, or that Fired Up For Kids is a for-profit enterprise and she never paid taxes.

Hits to Traction Communications’ Hamling Keep Coming

The hits to Traction Communications’ Kirsten Hamling keep coming. KMGH/Channel 7 has an update on a story CBS4 broke about Hamling’s alleged theft of money intended for The Children’s Hospital. According to KMGH’s Lance Hernandez, “the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation has issued a cease-and-desist order” against her organization, Fired Up For Kids. And sources indicate that the amount of the alleged theft is at least $50,000.

Additionally, Hernandez talked to a firefighter who appeared in the calendar who says he is “betrayed and hurt that all calendar money may not have gone to burn victims.”

UPDATE: CBS4 News Director Tim Wieland says that no cease-and-desist order has been filed, but that future calendar sales and events are on hold pending an investigation. And according to the Denver Post, TCH has asked the calendar maker to stop using its name until that independent investigation is completed.

Gambling Ring Implicates Armstrong, Sander

It isn’t as juicy as the Denver Players Club scandal, but this weekend’s report of a high-end Colorado gambling ring has done what the Players Club scandal couldn’t do: name names. Among those who have been caught up in the ring are Denver Post sportswriter Jim Armstrong (who was fired Friday when his name surfaced) and Steve Sander, Denver’s director of strategic marketing and a member of the Metro Denver Sports Commission’s board of directors.

The silver lining for Denver Post colleagues is that Armstrong represents one less layoff that may come should the newspaper’s buyout program not yield results.

Murdoch, ‘Annoyed by Negative Headlines,’ Retains Edelman

If you have been breathlessly waiting to hear from Rupert Murdoch after FedExing him your latest brochure, bad news: he picked Edelman. This seems like a good opportunity to point out the value of giving PR a seat at the table in order to head off trouble, or at least engaging a PR firm earlier than 11 days after becoming the biggest story in the world, but those lectures generally are lost on the people who need them most. Sigh.

2009 PR Salaries Down; Tiger Fatigue; Social Media Tips

The First Winner in the Tiger Woods Floozy Epidemic

We have our first winner in the Tiger Woods floozy epidemic of 2009: The University of California at Davis. Two economics professors at the school have calculated that the Tiger Woods scandal “may have cost shareholders of companies endorsed by the world’s No. 1 golfer up to $12 billion in losses.” True? Probably not. Easily reported tidbit that keeps the Tiger scandal in the news another few days during this holiday drought? Absolutely.

Picture of the Week

Microsoft is playing a little public relations defense today after a photo appeared on its Polish-language Web site that Photoshopped a black man into a white man. There are, of course, a number of lessons to be learned here, not least of which is that a white guy with black hands may arouse suspicion.

Apple Fumbles ‘Billionth Download’ Celebration

The truly great PR blunders are self-made, as Apple showed us this week. As the company prepared to publicly celebrate the one billionth download from its App Store, it managed to change the focus to how it ever could have allowed the Baby Shaker application to get approved. Apple finally hit the billion downloads mark early this morning, but every article written about the achievement will now mention the Baby Shaker controversy.