Category Archives: crisis communications

Drive A VW Diesel, Destroy The Atmosphere

VW

Who knew that a car company could program its cars’ pollution controls to recognize emissions testing equipment and emit fewer pollutants during tests, then go back to emitting greater amounts than legally allowed during normal driving?

Who knew that a car company, upon realizing this was possible, would be devious enough to deliver cars to market with this trick up its sleeves? Volkswagen did exactly that!

As Volkswagen addresses its reputation crisis caused by the diesel pollution scandal, its first concern must be for the victims of the company’s deception. Who are the victims?

VW diesel owners must now submit to a retooling of their cars, which will likely reduce vehicle performance. Their resale/trade-in value has been diminished. Current owners should be compensated.

Local dealerships are likely to have fewer sales as a result of the scandal but their service departments will be extra busy when they begin reprogramming VW diesel vehicles.

Germany and its reputation for engineering prowess are also likely to take a hit. In a perverse way, we could admire them for being clever enough to devise this scam. But if Germans would be so dishonest as to engage in this practice, what other sneaky stuff might they try to pull off? VW is that nation’s biggest company; how this will affect the entire country remains to be seen.

The auto industry as a whole suffers yet another blow to its integrity. Following last week’s settlement of the General Motors ignition switch situation, we have to be extra diligent as car shoppers, lest we become the victims of further corporate malfeasance. (The GM resolution was in regard to criminal charges. Several lawsuits are still pending.)

The environment is a big victim of Volkswagen’s impropriety. Almost as much as damage from actual pollution, VW’s callous disregard for environmentally responsible behavior is a disappointment. EPA fines should be heavy.

Can VW overcome this crisis? Without a doubt they can and they will survive. How well (or poorly) they manage it will be instructive for all who are concerned with reputation management and good business practices.

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Applebee’s and Its PR Nightmare

When larger groups eat at restaurants, there’s often a mandatory tip included in the tab. That’s to protect the servers from getting stiffed.

At an Applebee’s in St. Louis last month, a customer responded to such a fee by writing the words “I give God ten percent, why do you get 18?” on her credit card receipt. Her server showed it to a co-worker. The co-worker (also a server at the location) snapped a pic of the customer’s comment and posted it online at Reddit.com.

Initial negative response was directed at the woman who wrote the note. Later, after Applebee’s fired the co-worker for posting the message online, the negative vibe on the web has been pointed directly at Applebee’s—in a big way.

A few thoughts on the matter:

  1. Diners across America will not eat at Applebee’s today because of this incident (and its resulting actions) at one location. The company needs to take quick action to mitigate the blowback for other franchisees. The Papa John’s Pizza/Lebron James episode of 2008 is instructive.
  2. It is not completely clear whether the Applebee’s server who posted the receipt online did violate company rules. But even if she did, Applebee’s should rehire her. This would cause the firestorm to quiet down. (FYI, here is her version of the story.)
  3. All Facebook admins should read this blog post for guidance about how NOT to deal with angry comments. And, if you delete comments on your Facebook page for whatever reason, don’t deny it.
  4. If, as alleged, Applebee’s posted to Facebook a handwritten receipt note praising their food and service just weeks earlier, they should not have deleted that post. There are good reasons to delete posts on an organization’s Facebook page. But be honest if you do it.
  5. PR reps/teams should monitor all media for stories/posts about your organization. This seemingly minor incident has the potential to do serious damage to a chain that has enjoyed over two decades of relative success. When such an event takes a few days to reach its boiling point, PR folk need to anticipate worse case scenarios and be ready to act.
  6. Communications teams for national and world organizations need to be able to reach franchisees and managers at any time, including weekends and overnight. Maintaining a current list of cell and home phone numbers to supplement workplace numbers is vital.
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Seven Ways P.R. Is Like Football

  1. Training and Conditioning are Vital. Why do football teams repeat the same play over and over again at practice? Why do players run laps and wind sprints? They do it to be ready at game time. Similarly, PR pros must constantly hone their writing and editing skills through blogging and social media work. And they need to participate in workshops and webinars to learn new tools and techniques (and to polish up old ones).
  2. A Versatile Offense is Essential. The most successful teams mix the pass and the run. A successful PR pro is one whose personal communication skills are as strong as his or her formal communication skills. Writing a good release is one thing, making a good phone call to an editor or reporter to encourage coverage is another.
  3. Good Defense Often Wins the Game. Limiting the progress made by opponents is a concern of defensive coordinators and crisis communicators. Sometimes a crisis or an offensive lineman must be confronted head on. At other times, you may want to slip around the lineman or the crisis to halt the forward motion of a running back or a delicate situation.
  4. Scouting Reveals Important Information. Just as watching game film shows players and coaches things they may have missed, so does researching your client’s history and that of competitors. Flaws in branding, positioning and communicating can be tempered, but only when they are identified. Scouting uncovers strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, learning about a client and a client’s business area gives a PR pro ideas about how to proceed.
  5. Special Teams Can Make A Difference. Those players who serve on kickoff and punt squads have opportunities to make game-changing plays. In PR, going the extra step can lead to positive results. Handing an under-informed interviewer a fact sheet can salvage what might’ve been a disaster. Finding a sidebar angle to support the main gist of a story can lead to more ink or more airtime.
  6. Injuries and Pain Are Part of the Game. PR pros don’t suffer hip-pointers or dislocated clavicles, but injured feelings can occur. When a reporter you had lunch with last week replies “not interested” to your pitch, you cannot sulk. When you offer a perfect story to a TV assignment editor and she says, “that’s not our kind of story,” say “thanks, anyway,” and call the next name on your list.
  7. Victories Must Be Celebrated. Football teams play fewer games than other sports teams, so every win must be savored. When you score that front-page placement for your client or a nice feature on a TV news show, share your excitement with friends and colleagues. Post links on Facebook and Twitter. Acknowledge your success by treating yourself to something you enjoy, such as a bottle of wine or a venti frappuccino. Just win, baby!

Transparency Versus Translucency

In PR, especially in the area of crisis communications, we repeatedly are told that organizations must maintain transparency in sharing relevant information with the public. The key word here is “relevant.” But is transparency the best policy?

When I was in high school, two friends and I managed to sneak into one of our school’s basketball games without paying. We thought little of it until the next day when the principal summoned us. Our punishment was to call our mothers and confess our misdeed.

As painfully embarrassing as it was to tell my mom that I had done this bad thing, this was all I told her. There were other things I did in high school that I am happy she never learned about.

When BP addressed the issue of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010, the company’s communicators worked to address the relevant issues. In keeping focus on the problem at hand and the company’s efforts to control it, the PR team did not offer to media a complete list of the corporation’s sins.

Admitting that the entity you represent is imperfect and capable of making mistakes is vital. Stating that action is being taken to resolve those mistakes is imperative. Expressing concern for those directly affected is essential. But sharing too much information can result in headlines that focus on points that are not relevant and may even supplant information that is more important to the public.

The point is this: total transparency is a myth. But translucency—sharing relevant information—should be the goal in a crisis. Making leadership available to media is a good practice, but leadership should know the limits of what can be said.

Having a filter on what you say is necessary when you are in a casual, informal conversation with a media member. It is utterly crucial when addressing a crisis issue with media. Be translucent, not transparent.

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