Three Strikes … You’re Out

In mid September, New York TIMES reporter Kenneth Vogel sat down at a Washington D.C. restaurant, BLT Steak, expecting a routine lunch meeting. However, a media mistake of not so rare proportions was about to fall in his lap.

Ty Cobb. Photo Courtesy of the Denver Post

Over a salad of tuna nicoise and iced tea, he overheard a public conversation between Ty Cobb, who is overseeing the White House response to the Russian probe and John Dowd, President Trump’s lead personal lawyer for the Russian investigation.

They thought their conversation was private because they were focused on each other, not the crowded restaurant around them. Mr. Cobb further forgot that his distinctive appearance shouted to everyone who he is, which of course is his purpose, but not this time. He and Mr. Dowd proceeded to discuss highly sensitive subjects regarding the investigation. In addition, the two blatantly expressed tensions within the legal team and production of documents. According to Reporter Vogel, they also discussed presidential privilege and their colleagues. Mr. Cobb suggested that White House counsel Don McGahn “has a couple documents locked in a safe” and one colleague who is not on the president’s good side. But, he added, “I’m trying to get the president not pick a fight with her.”

Their actions raise the question: how can these esteemed men who have become known in the realm of politics display such hubris and lack such basic common sense?

Interestingly, this is not the first media mistake for Mr. Cobb. As the Washington Post presents it, Mr. Cobb’s errors rival those of his distant relative, “the original Ty Cobb,” former major league baseball player who still has the title for the highest career batting average. But less well known, he also holds the record for most career errors by an American League outfielder.

Apparently, errors are common for the Cobbs. Luckily for America, the errors made on the baseball field don’t pose threats to national security.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It’s often said that the camera doesn’t lie, nor does it blink. But until recently, the camera has always been in the hands of responsible and professional photographers, videographers and journalists. Not in the hands of passengers documenting airline brutality or murderers recording their own deeds as selfies.

cell phone picture

Photo courtesy of: Time.com

Now everyone with a cell phone, and that’s pretty much everyone, is a documentarian, taking cameras and matters into his or her own hands. And thanks to social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat, et al, there is no shortage of airtime.

Traditional print media like the New York TIMES, which narrowcasts to only those who choose to pay for it, advertises its policy of “all the news that’s fit to print.” But these social media publishers have yet to restrict the freedom of their presses.

According to Wikipedia, Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was one of the greatest and most influential Westerns of all time. But today’s citizens offer cowboy justice at its best and worst because there are no filters on these cameras.

In our Los Angeles media training and social media training world, this is the phenomena of loose cannons. Executives  must be Ready for them. It cannot be the “shoot from the hip” approach taken by United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz recently. There must be a sensible crisis plan, designed, prepared and practiced in advance.

Crisis training would have explored whether it is the best policy to boot paying customers to make way for employees.  Then, not defend employees’ actions in the face of excessive force without being aware of the details: a passenger being beaten seriously enough to cause a concussion, two broken teeth and a broken nose.

Then, after a deluge of negative traditional and social media not abjectly apologize saying Dr. David Dao “did nothing wrong.” A more appropriate response would have been, Dr. Dao was badly mistreated. But for the safety of all the passengers on my airline, everyone needs to follow the orders given by my people, even if you think those orders are stupid or unfair. And for that, I will not defend his actions either.

The cost to United Airlines in dollars and reputation is impossible to estimate. Each passenger on that flight is now being reimbursed for the price of his or her ticket, which may set a precedent that other companies will be forced to follow every time someone pictures and posts a misdeed. Finally, the passenger who was documented being dragged bloodied and broken down the aisle by countless cell phones is very likely to sue and is from Asia, an important market for the company.

The lesson, of course, is to get in front of a crisis, but to do it correctly. As the victimized doctor’s code would suggest, “First, do no harm.” And not respond impulsively without planning or design.

The world wide web offers the broadest of broadcasting possibilities to everyone who holds a cell phone. And that’s pretty much everyone.

 

Be Ready

“Be ready,” is the lesson marketing executives must now take, according to a recent New York Times article, “Planning for Unexpected Criticism by Trump.” Crisis consultant Andrew D. Gilman, who has counseled such brands as Johnson & Johnson, General Motors and Pepsi during crises advises “prepare for Mr. Trump as you would for a natural disaster — an event that is highly unpredictable but poses a big risk if it happens.”

Photo Courtesy of: bceforensics.com

Photo Courtesy of: BCEforensics.com

Mr. Trump’s trigger-finger tweeting is prompting some brands to preemptively draft informal contingency plans, and others, like H&R Block, to spend money shoring up their reputations. One contingency is to line up a third-party spokesman who can help if the brand’s image is dinged. That is essentially what H&R Block did in signing Jon Hamm, the “Mad Men” star and an H&R Block customer for years.

“The fit between H&R Block and myself,”  Mr. Hamm commented, “seemed copacetic and natural. And the tone of the creative was clever and outside the box for something as humdrum as taxes.” Even before the election, Mr. Trump offered to “put H&R Block out of business” with his plan for a simplified tax code.

And what if your company is trampled?

Scott Farrell, a specialist in corporate branding and the president of Golin Global Corporate Communications, said “The only thing that applies, no matter what the issue, is speed. Slow kills companies fast in a Twitter conversation.”

Vanity Fair’s swift response after Mr. Trump reacted to a negative review of a restaurant in one of his buildings by saying the magazine was “dead” could be an example for others to follow. Mr. Farrell explained, “its message — including banner ads on its website calling itself “The Magazine Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read” and asking for subscriptions — captured the magazine’s voice and identity. More than 40,000 people signed up for new subscriptions.”

“If you’re a CMO, Mr. Gilman, concluded, “you need to put another filter on your plans. Normally, you’d never have to worry about a president singling out your company. Now you do.” Amen.

 

 

Minding Your Own Business

Practicing what you preach is good advice. But even those who are accustomed to helping others can themselves mishandle the media. Edelman Public Relations, the largest independent public relations firm in the world by revenue, specializes in crisis control. However, Edelman has run into a few media predicaments of their own lately.

The Guardian recently reported on a survey by the Climate Investigations Center (C.I.C.) regarding those clients who do not believe in climate change. Edelman made the statement that they “do not explicitly rule out taking on climate change deniers as clients.”

The first mistake came when their initial response to the C.I.C. inadvertently included an internal email from Edelman’s U.S. president and chief executive, Mark Hass. It read, “I don’t believe we are obligated in any way to respond. There are only wrong answers for this guy.”

Oooops!

Mr. Hass has since stepped down from his position, and while this mistake was damaging, the real media mishap came next.

Edelman Logo

In an article for Vice Magazine’s Motherboard, reporter Brian Merchant recapped a follow-up phone call with Edelman president and chief executive, Richard Edelman. Presumably intending to do damage control, Mr. Edelman merely added fuel to the controversy. According to Motherboard, Mr. Edelman stated that the company has “fired” Mr. Hass, “the ham-head who filled out the questionnaire, in part because of that stupid note he wrote.”

The editor-in-chief of PR Weekly, Steve Barrett, said of Mr. Edelman’s comments, “It certainly wouldn’t be in line with the media training they give their clients.”

In light of this controversy, most recently escalated to the New York TIMES, Edelman has implemented a global-wide strategy for dealing with internal issues. Hopefully, their global-wide strategy will include what we teach at READY FOR MEDIA. Every issue needs its own 1/2 day  to day-long media coaching session, complete with messaging and soundbites that work for, not against, the company.