PR Can’t Fix Stupid
But Here’s 5 Ways to Ensure It Can Help
Memo to organizational leaders: Leona Lansing, the fictional cable news executive on HBO’s “The Newsroom,” was on to something when she bluntly told a fellow exec: “You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem.”
“You have a PR problem because you have an actual problem.” (See the video HERE.)
The public has seen it — a lot. Outraged sufferers of life-threatening allergies suddenly forced to pay 500% more for a previously affordable medicine, and the CEO essentially responding, “we’re here to make money” (Mylan’s EpiPen). Bank account holders notified about fraudulent accounts set up in their names expressly to ensure that executives and managers reached their sales quotas (Wells Fargo). Shoppers navigating bare, dirty stores, and endless check-out lines before bolting to competitors (Walmart). And those organizations turning to a news conference, a press release, a catchy marketing slogan, or TV interviews, with the hopes the problem will go away.
PR can minimize the damage caused by operational and managerial missteps, but it can’t fix stupid. “I’ve often seen leaders think that a crisis can be resolved in a day or two, in the misguided belief that things can’t get worse,” said Stephanie Nora White, founder and managing partner of WPNT Ltd., an international communications consultancy. “While the acute phase of a crisis may end quickly, true change comes from living through it, as difficult as that may be. Much of the heavy lifting that will reveal the root cause and changes necessary to fix the problem usually don’t come until later, and require real work and commitment.”
In short, recovery from crises and controversies requires more than PR. Here’s a start on what to do:
1. Run an organization where blunders are the exception, not the rule. Tomes have been written about how organizations can operate in a responsible manner. The Cliff Notes version is that doing the right thing is generally simple — but rarely easy.
Photo: Georgia Newsday
Southwest Airlines seems to have learned this painful lesson after generating a social media firestorm in 2014 so big that even People magazine covered it. A Southwest frequent flier tweeted criticism about a flight’s callous boarding process and the flight attendant enforcing it. The airline kicked him and his two preschool-aged daughters off the flight and refused to re-book them on a later one unless he deleted the tweet. Fast-forward to October: I live-tweeted a disorganized and significantly delayed Southwest flight, along with tin-ear comments made to frustrated customers by the pilot, gate agent and flight attendant. Instead of getting booted off the plane for my Twitter tale, a sympathetic Southwest representative contacted me that afternoon with an apology and voucher for future travel. My story stayed within the confines of a few tweets (until now) and I remain a loyal customer.
2. Communicate. From the beginning. The very beginning. Crisis communications practitioners used to refer to the “golden hour” after a crisis, the window during which companies could prepare and respond. Today, organizations are lucky if they get 10 minutes.
“The passengers were on my aircraft, and I have to take responsibility for that.”
When AirAsia Flight 8501 disappeared in late 2014, it seemed a macabre déjà vu. Nine months earlier, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 also had vanished from the skies. However, unlike the unprepared Malaysia Airlines executives, AirAsia CEO Tan Sri Anthony Francis “Tony” Fernandes immediately stepped up and became the airline’s face during the disaster.
He personally briefed families of the flight’s passengers and crew. He consistently shared developing information with the news media and via social media. When the aircraft’s wreckage was discovered, he personally met with reporters and family members.
3. Show concern. Then act on it. Organizational controversies and crises are dramas at best, tragedies at worst, but either way, expressing genuine compassion for those affected is non-negotiable. After jacking up the price of EpiPens five-fold and seeing her own compensation skyrocket by about the same ratio, to $18.9 million a year, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch commented, “I am running a business to make money.” Contrast her remark with AirAsia’s Fernandes after Flight 8501’s crash: “The passengers were on my aircraft, and I have to take responsibility for that.” Fernandes then put his company’s money where his mouth was: AirAsia would provide industry-standard compensation to the victims’ families, rather than the significantly lower amounts required of his Indonesian-based airline.
“I am running a business to make money.”
4. Tell the truth. The whole truth. Ivy Lee is regarded as the founder of modern PR. Although his work took place in the early 1900s, when he saved Standard Oil from the reputational fallout of John Rockefeller’s robber-baron ways, his communication mantra proved prescient: “Tell the truth, because sooner or later, the public will find out anyway.” Accept the pain and rip off the proverbial Band-Aid at the beginning of the problem. People often accept the truth; it’s hoodwinkery they don’t care for.
5. Fix what the public and/or your customers want fixed. Concretely. Specifically. The rest of Lee’s advice is what organizations struggle to implement: “If the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want.”
Now ex-Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testifying before the Senate Banking Committee after the bank created more than 2 million fake customer accounts to boost sales growth statistics. Photo: The Intercept
Customers and clients often display a surprising capacity to forgive, but if an organization is cavalier or dismissive, its leaders shouldn’t be surprised when the public turns on them. Just ask Wells Fargo, whose stock price and reputation have plummeted in recent months after its executives tried to conceal a multi-year scandal and $185 million regulatory fine related to the secret creation of millions of customer accounts designed solely to help employees meet sales quotas.
Walmart’s expectations that its 1.4 million U.S. employees would be satisfied with low wages, few or non-existent benefits and erratic and unreliable work schedules have spawned PR nightmares and unionization efforts for the retail giant. When online competition began to erode the company’s profits, it undertook more cost-cutting, which left even fewer employees to serve customers, re-stock depleted shelves and clean dirty stores. The company initially responded with marketing slogans and PR campaigns. It’s now in the midst of a two-year, $2.7 billion investment designed to increase employee pay and training, and improve scheduling, all with an eye toward recovering some of its previous market dominance. Although far from scientific, I was recently in a Walmart for the first time in a couple of years, and noted stocked shelves, sparkling clean floors and dozens of friendly employees asking if they could help before I even asked for any.
No matter how good an organization’s PR team is, it can’t fix stupid. So, operate an ethically managed, well-intentioned organization that does the right thing. And somewhere along the way, when a misstep or accident sends operations temporarily off the rails, your PR people can work from a point of strength, where recovery and even advancement is not only possible, but likely.
Rebecca Theim is a former news reporter and corporate communications director for several publicly traded companies. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccatheim.