There will be many more chapters written as Americans come to terms with the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. In addition to the many ramifications of the incident and events following the grand jury’s decision, the government, law enforcement and public relations mistakes made surrounding this tragedy have been many. One of these may be a decision by Wilson to be interviewed on ABC in the midst of rioting that followed the grand jury announcement.
We often study the PR mistakes made during tragic situations. Sometimes they occur when someone in charge uses the wrong words. BP CEO Tony Hayward told a reporter, “I’d like my life back” after a 2010 rig explosion caused several workers’ deaths and the Gulf of Mexico to be overcome with crude oil. This was an example of a leader who was unprepared and inappropriate when pushed into the media spotlight.
During a hauntingly similar incident in 1989, Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl was loudly criticized when he waited a week to react to a major oil spill in Alaska, leading The New York Times to correctly predict “…the Exxon Valdez episode will become a textbook example of what not to do when an unexpected crisis thrusts a company into the limelight.” Among its many errors, leadership waited too long to respond and blamed others for the spill and slow clean-up efforts, creating the impression that they were uncaring and callous.
Inappropriate words and poor timing can elevate a crisis. Why no one stopped Officer Wilson from being interviewed as demonstrations turned violent made little sense. His comments during the TV appearance (“The reason I have a clean conscience is that I know I did my job right”) only served to inflame the anger as did his on-air description of Brown’s last moments.
Wilson should have been advised–maybe even ordered–to stay quiet last week. What purpose was served by going public, especially as public disdain was boiling over? Was it a poor judgement? Bad PR? Your thoughts?
P.S. Just prior to this posting it was learned that Officer Darren Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department.
My friend and PR mentor Bert Cunningham frequently suggests topics for Public Relations Nation. As I’ve done before, I asked Bert to be a guest columnist this week. I’m very happy he’s again providing us with his wise observations.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to one of Professor Morosoff’s PR classes. One of the challenges, and opportunities, discussed was that PR pros need to know how to use Big Data.
A recent New York Times article entitled “How Facebook is Changing the Way its Consumers Use Journalism” underscored the issue. The article described how Facebook’s use of algorithms to drive news to its users is “changing the way its users consume journalism.” In turn, Facebook’s algorithm-driven news feeds impact how news content providers structure their respective print, Internet and digital products, and how advertisers advertise and on what platforms.
It’s still a “bold new world” for traditional news media seeking to survive as the impact of social media and digital apps drive more of the news delivery process. What struck me was how this changes the PR pro’s role.
A cornerstone of PR is media relations. The basic tenet of media relations is to build relationships with reporters, editors and assignment desks. How will Big Data news algorithms change that equation? How does a PR pro build a relationship with an algorithm? I can imagine a Big Data-influenced call to a reporter going something like this: “Hi, Bill. It’s Bert. I have an interesting story for the XYZ non-profit’s annual fundraiser that’s truly unique.” “Really, Bert, sounds interesting. Let me see how non-profit fundraising stories are trending on Facebook’s algorithm…Sorry, way down. Call back when the algorithm is up.”
Extreme? Perhaps. But, here’s the point: The human factor is being taking out of the news business, because of the need to survive. News outlets always had to survive, but there was a wall between the news content side and the advertising side. Those lines are blurring more and more because of social media-driven news feeds. When the human factor goes out of the news business so will the ability of PR pros to build meaningful media relationships.
So what do future PR pros do? How will they cope with Big Data and news feed algorithms? Your thoughts?
Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent column for The New York Times, “Too Many Sorry Excuses for an Apology” focused on the recent barrage of “I’m sorrys” from leaders when something went wrong or offended people. In the article, social observer Dov Seidman labeled what we’ve been seeing as “apology theater.”
“Target’s chief executive, Gregg W. Steinhafel, apologized for a security breach that affected as many as 110 million customers,” Sorkin wrote. “Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase apologized, multiple times, for his firm’s regulatory lapses. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey apologized for controversial bridge lane closings and traffic jams. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins apologized after comparing the treatment of America’s wealthiest to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. LeBron James apologized for using the word ‘retarded,’ calling it a ‘bad habit.’
“The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite,” Sorkin continued. “It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with, ‘I hope to put this behind me.'”
“We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end,” Seidman said. “…Leaders in apology mode (should) conduct a ‘moral audit’ that includes a hard look at ‘How did I get here and how did I drift from the person I aspire to be?’”
When I talk about PR crises in class, I suggest a four-step process for dealing with the aftermath: first, acknowledge the problem and apologize; then show sincere empathy for those who were negatively affected; tell everyone how the mistake will be fixed; and finally, fix the problem. As Seidman points out, sometimes the problem is within the person who created it. Even still, there’s still no substitute for a well-articulated public apology. Your thoughts?
The newspaper, to paraphrase Monty Python, is not quite dead. To hear Robert Zimmerman, partner at Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. tell it, the printed paper is still an essential tool in the public relations practitioners’ kit. Zimmerman made this point to the students attending last week’s conference staged by Hofstra’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter. He noted that because the Internet allows us to synthesize our news before it reaches us, we avoid seeing countless stories and photos that would enhance our knowledge of the world–and even the neighborhoods–around us. Many of us, especially young people, are only reading slivers of the news from self-selected categories. We also miss stories we might have enjoyed because they aren’t pre-defined as news we care about.
For example, I wouldn’t set my online New York Times categories to include the style section. But because I get the printed paper delivered, I spotted an article today on how parents are defining success for their kids who are going to college, an article I enjoyed and would not have seen otherwise. By flipping through Saturday’s Newsday, I found out that Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law is on trial in New York, Bill Clinton has endorsed gay marriage and Justin Timberlake is hosting Saturday Night Live. I might have missed some of that important information (my wife loves J.T.!) if I had only read my pre-determined news feeds.”It’s true many younger people get their news online — which for the most part means the headlines — and don’t want to spend the time to read in-depth articles as so many generations did before,” wrote Michael Russnow in a Feb. 19 Huffington Post blog. He added, “…websites do not offer the same quality that comes in the form of a three-dimensional journal. Most online articles are not too substantive…”
He’s right, and so is Robert Zimmerman. When we read online exclusively, we’ve chosen to miss a lot. Good PR people can’t afford be so selective. Knowing what goes on around you is helpful, necessary and expected. Printed newspapers still matter. Your thoughts?
So said “a senior member” of the Romney campaign’s digital team, according to last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “The Late Adopters.” The feature story by Robert Draper focused on the Republican Party’s image crisis and its snail-paced march toward the digital age. Throughout the campaign, young Republican consultants pitched software and technology, only to be ignored:
“Team Romney managed to connect with 12 million Facebook friends, triple that of Obama’s operation in 2008; but Obama in 2012 accrued 33 million friends and deployed them as online ambassadors who in turn contacted their Facebook friends, thereby demonstrably increasing the campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in a way that dwarfed the Republicans’. While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity. And despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the Romney television-ad-making apparatus proved to be no match for the Obama operation, which enlisted Rentrak…through which it accrued an entirely new layer of information about each and every consumer, giving the campaign the ability to customize cable TV ads.”
Like it or not, politicians, retailers, the service industry, nonprofits–organizations and we, as individuals–can’t postpone the paradigm shift the world is experiencing. Some figures show that two-thirds of the planet’s population now use smart phones, and shopping, learning, reading, playing, and meeting online rises significantly every day. Public relations practitioners have deeply felt changes in our profession; we’ve had to become tech savvy very quickly, and many still struggle to keep up with ever-changing platforms and tools.
“There’s an old guard in Republican politics…mostly made up of television and direct-mail consultants,” said GOP digital consultant Zac Moffet in the article. It may seem obvious, but the party–and just about everyone else on earth–has to put down the pencils and get on Reddit and Instagram and whatever is new, or be stuck in 1999. But can they? Can we? Your thoughts?
On a chilly mid-November night, a 25-year old New York City cop named Lawrence DePrimo bought a $75 pair boots for a homeless man. Jennifer Foster, a tourist from Arizona, snapped a photo and overheard what DePrimo, who lives on Long Island with his parents, said to the man. Foster, a communications (PR) officer in the Pinal County sheriff’s office, told the NYPD, “The officer said, ‘I have these size 12 boots for you, they are all-weather. Let’s put them on and take care of you.’ The officer expected nothing in return and did not know I was watching. I have been in law enforcement for 17 years. I was never so impressed in my life.”
Foster posted the photo on Facebook. It has since been shared almost a hundred thousand times and garnered more than 16,000 comments. And the NYPD seized upon the photo, seeing it not only as a random act of kindness by one of its own, but as a tremendous public relations opportunity. DePrimo spent this week on the talk show circuit, making several TV appearances with Foster and doing interviews with the radio and print media. The New York Times reports the police commissioner gave DePrimo a pair of cufflinks to acknowledge his act of kindness, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted that the officer’s story is an “an important reminder to give back this holiday season.”
Those of us in the PR field understand that a picture tells a story in ways words cannot. I blogged about this topic this summer. We also know that the public relations value of this photo doesn’t have to end with this week’s news; it can be “re-purposed” by the NYPD and others to show the world that human beings are essentially good-hearted, and that many (most? all?) cops truly care about the people they serve.
I’m challenging my readers to suggest how this photo might be re-purposed to continue to reinforce that sentiment. Your thoughts?