Archive | Crisis Communications RSS feed for this section

United Airlines & Sean Spicer — Two Case Studies in Crisis Communications

28 Apr

 Crisis Comm Title Grapihcs.002    United Airlines and the White House are among the world’s most powerful brands and both recently gave divergent examples in managing crisis communication.  Within a 24-hour span, one had to foam the runaway for a public relations crash landing, while the other managed to grab the stick in a mid-air tailspin and get back on course.  Together, both United Airlines and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offer unique case studies on how to manage and not manage a crisis.

    By its very definition, a crisis can happen at any moment.  And how organizations immediately respond and manage the messaging can make all the difference in either containing potential damage, or creating a contagion that spins out of control and causes severe damage to the brand and the business.  That’s exactly what happened on April 10th.

    When United flight attendants forcibly removed passenger Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight 3411 in Chicago, it not only caused a scene, it caused severe social turbulence.  With the speed of a smartphone shutter button, the images and videos flew faster than non-stop flight on a clear day.

  As outrage virally spread on social media, United issued a tone deaf response apologizing only for having to “re-accomodate passengers.”  Spokesman Charlie Hobart told the New York Times, “We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.”

    It took took two full days for United’s CEO Oscar Munoz to issue an outright apology and launch a communications strategy, but by then the damage was already spiraling out of control.  United’s stock price stalled like an airfoil.  Within five days United lost $1.15 billion in market capitalization. (Figure 1) That’s a steep price for forcibly removing passenger who refused to give up his seat for $1000 voucher.

UAL Stock Price.001

Figure 1

    Less than 24 hours after United’s crisis, White House spokesman Sean Spicer created his own self-inflicted PR wound.  In trying to frame the seriousness of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, he invoked Adolf Hitler.   At his daily press briefing on live television, Spicer said Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”  Never mind that Hitler’s SS used chemical gases to exterminate Jews in Germany’s concentration camps during WWII.  The reaction was swift, incredulous, and furious.  The difference in Spicer’s crisis is in how me managed it.  Within an hour he not only issued an apology, he was on the air live with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer retracting his remarks and admitting he made a tremendous error in judgement.

     By owning his mistake and taking immediate action to correct the record and apologize, Mr. Spicer managed to deftly keep the story out of the next day’s news cycle.   As I’ve written in this forum before, there are established best practices for crisis communication:

  1. Cease and desist—stop doing what you’re doing.
  2. Apologize to those you’ve wronged—and mean it.
  3. Change your tactics.
  4. Communicate the change to employees and customers.
  5. Establish performance measures for how the change is working.

     Mr. Spicer followed the most important of these mantras in a mater of hours.  United’s Oscar Munoz took a week and a half to form a cohesive and strategic response that was finally posted on Facebook and communicated to its employees and customers.  The response issued a strong apology and pledged to customers to no longer force anyone out of their seats, and to reduce the amount of overbooked flights.  United’s attorneys also settled with Dr. Dao.  But the changes come only after United had already caused significant damage to its brand.

 

     What’s especially troubling for United is this incident completely destroys a unique brand equity that it has spent decades earning with its customers.   For years before its merger with Continental Airlines, United implored air travelers to “fly the friendly skies.”    It wasn’t just a marketing slogan, it was a brand promise.   When passengers flew with United, they expected something special–it was part of United’s ethos.  Many successful brands such as Johnson & Johnson have famously made their own brand promises part of their corporate culture.   Johnson & Johnson has a credo that dictates its core values in guiding everything from product development to employee relations and customer service.   In responding to the passenger incident, United’s customer service and communications team lost site of its historic brand promise to use as a guidepost.

    United may now be in the process of charting a customer service flight plan, but it took a disastrous grounding to make it happen.

                              #     #     #

When Poor Crisis Communication Defeats Smart Branding–Trump and NC in Cleveland

20 Jul

 

Trump Blog Still.001

     In a presidential campaign that has been anything but predictable, strategic and organized, Donald Trump has finally put together a surprisingly strong branding strategy for the Republican National Convention.  And then watched it blow up.

     The Trump campaign and the RNC have gone to great lengths to brand each day of the convention with an overarching platform central to the Trump campaign.

     In marketing and branding parlance, the Trump camp and the RNC are very shrewdly appealing to personal core values: keep me safe, save my job, save my country, united we stand.  The clear goal is to reinforce these core values to build to the Trump brand promise of strong leadership to strengthen America.

      Here’s how the themes it will play out during the four days:

Monday: Make America Safe Again

  • Core value: Keep me safe

 Tuesday: Make America Work Again

  • Core vale: Save my job

 Wednesday: Make America First Again

  • Core value: Save my country

Thursday: Make America One Again

  • Core value: United we stand

             Trump himself had already been ramping up his social media rhetoric in preparation for the first convention day’s core value of ‘keep me safe.’   He especially used the Baton Rouge police shootings as a Facebook call to action.

                  On Twitter the day before the convention he also tried to weave the threat from ISIS into the narrative.

      But Trump’s marketing team has also been proactive and smart in making sure his social media messaging has tied directly into the core value agenda.  Each day on Facebook the team has posted branded content reflecting the day’s agenda and inviting followers to engage.  Monday’s theme of ‘keep me safe’ brought several posts throughout the day of videos and images for viewers to share.

 

     On day two, the core value of ‘save my job’ was addressed directly by Trump himself on Facebook.   It’s a smart tactic to keep Trump’s own words in the public dialog of his followers as they await him to address the convention on Thursday night.

 

     But even the best branding can’t overcome the push of a campaign’s own mistakes and the pull of the news media and social media in off-message directions.  Case in point is the speech of Melania Trump on the opening night of the convention.  The allegations of blatant plagiarism from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention are damaging at best.   The side-by-side split screen compiled by CNN and other news outlets is a communications management nightmare for any organization.

 

   Even worse, was the campaign’s denial and refusal to address the issue.  If there’s any lesson for communicators in the 21st century it is that you have to work at the speed of news.   The complete 20-hour vacuum of activity on the GOP convention floor and the virtual silence from the Trump campaign is deadly in the world of 24 hour news.   What the campaign organization doesn’t help fill, the news media and social media will fill for them.   And that’s exactly what led to the heated confrontation between CNN anchor Chris Cuomo  and Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort where Cuomo called him a liar.

 

    It took the Trump campaign two days to finally acknowledge and respond to the crisis.   In a posting on Trump’s website, in-house staff writer Meredith McIver admitted she wrote the speech based on conversations he had with Melania Trump who read her portions of Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples of what she liked and wanted to say.  McIver admitted she did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Letter from Trump in-house writer Meredith McIver

Figure 1 – Letter from Trump in-house writer Meredith McIver

     The incident shows that the best branding and communication efforts also must constantly plan for the contingencies of crisis communication.   In this case, Malania’s speech slipped through the cracks of an otherwise seemingly disciplined RNC communications team and it raises serious questions about the competence of the Trump campaign.

     Effective crisis communications calls for an immediate response, often times an immediate commitment of an organization to cause no more harm, and dare I say it—apologize.   Ms. McIver did.  We know that publicly such a word is rare in Mr. Trump’s vocabulary.  Ignoring the issue while waiting for the next news cycle is not a crisis communications strategy.   Responding sooner would have allowed the campaign to get back on track with the smart branding of his convention.  But it may also leave lingering questions with voters about how he may make decisions as president in more consequential crisis matters.

#     #     #

Wide Left–Lessons From Vikings Kicker Blair Walsh on Crisis Communications

18 Jan

Blair Walsh Graphic

        Brands that drop the ball could very well learn from a man who kicks the ball.

        When the Minnesota Vikings field goal kicker Blair Walsh missed the 27 yard chip shot that could have won their NFC wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks, he found himself in the crosshairs of crisis and scorn.

        The game time temperature was -6, but the Vikings loss burned fans with the heat of decades of blown-up playoff dreams.  The backlash against Walsh on social media was swift and condemning—and that’s being overly polite.

        Walsh’s response could have taken many paths, among them hiding in the bowels of the stadium with the dirty laundry—and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, he did something admirably remarkable.  He didn’t run.  He didn’t dodge.  He didn’t blame.

        He owned it.

        Walsh’s contrition is a road map for brands, corporations and individuals on crisis communication.

        His actions after that missed field goal can be broken down by his own apology, admission of failure, and plan for corrective action.

        First, his apology.  As reporters descended upon Walsh in the locker room perhaps expecting excuses, they instead got a lesson in humility.  The sting of TV lights, microphones and sharp question can wither mere mortals.  Walsh never blinked.  He looked into all of those cameras and apologized.  He kept his composure for more than five minutes before breaking down in tears only after his teammates came to console him.

        Second, his admission of failure.  Walsh could not have been more upfront.  “It’s my fault,” he said.  “I should be able to put that through.  I’m the only one who didn’t do my job.”

        Third, his plan of action.  Walsh promised to essentially get back to work and fix it in the off-season.  “I will be working hard to erase this from my career,” he said.  Under the circumstances, one can forgive him for not having specific details.  Brands and corporations get no such leeway—their plans must be timely, actionable and measurable. 

New Issues Scale

Figure 1

        Public Relations practitioner Phillip Lesly argues it can be a difficult dance re-shaping public opinion after a negative event.   On any given issue that divides public opinion he argues that people will fall into several groups. (Figure 1)  Lesley holds that 1% on either side of the issue are zealots—those wholeheartedly accepting or rejecting Walsh’s actions.  Another 45% on either side are leaners.  The 8% in the middle are thought leaders that can greatly influence the leaners. 

        Blair didn’t necessarily realize it but a day after the game, he got an important gift from a set of thought leaders that may have helped him soften his deepest critics and shift the leaners.  It turns out those thought leaders were first graders—just six years old.

        The students from Northpoint Elementary School in Blaine sent him letters and pictures assuring him all was forgiven. (Figure 2) 

Art 2

Figure 2 – Letter to Vikings kicker Blair Walsh from Northpoint Elementary School 1st Grader

     “Everyone makes mistakes,” little Sophia wrote.  “You can still help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year.”

       Walsh wisely delayed his flight back home to visit the children in person.  It was a made-for TV-moment, and TV and the kids didn’t disappoint.

        “Kids like you are willing to do kind things like that for someone you don’t even know,” said Walsh.  “It really meant a lot to me and I just wanted to say thank you.”

        The NFL books will forever record the last Vikings play of the 2015 season was a missed field goal wide to the left.   Let the record also show Blair Walsh’s response to teammates and fans was straight through the uprights. 

                                                 #               #               #

 

Coach Jerry Kill’s Seizure and how the Gophers can Correct a Crisis Communication Failure

24 Sep

    

    Football coaches universally are a different breed.  Never ones to look back, they’re always focused on the next game with the zeal of a running back focused on the goal line.     

    However, such laser beam focus cost Minnesota Gophers’ head football coach Jerry Kill a golden opportunity to control and contain a growing contagion of doubt after his latest epileptic seizure on the sidelines at TCF Bank Stadium.      

Minnesota Football Coach Jerry Kill

Minnesota Football Coach Jerry Kill

    The seizure during halftime of the game against Western Illinois was his fourth since becoming the Gophers’ head coach in 2010.  During that time Coach Kill’s struggle with epilepsy has been well documented.  But this latest episode produced a sudden spark of dissent from StarTribune sports columnist Jim Souhan that was fanned into flames by sports talk radio.     

    The silence from the University of Minnesota was deafening.  The 72 hours following the sideline seizure produced a classic case study in crisis communication mismanagement.      

    Among the failures:

  • Athletic Director Norwood Teague waiting two days to make a statement supporting his coach.
  • Jerry Kill refusing to talk about the episode once he returned to work. (see video at the top of this article)
  • The University not publically challenging the dissent against Coach Kill.

     But the biggest failure of all was the complete lack of a coherent communications strategy.  Call it a communications seizure.   Given Coach Kill’s recent medical history, it’s probable he may suffer another attack.  If and when it does happen, the University can ill afford to have another breakdown.    

    The athletic department and the football program have a minimum of four audiences they need to address: The general public, ticket holders and boosters, the news media, and Minnesotans afflicted with epilepsy.

     Here’s what a reasonable and actionable strategic communications plan would like.

    

    This is just a start.  There are other important audiences that need addressing in this crisis including the football players, recruits, and even the entire Athletics Department.      

    For a football program that goes to great lengths to game the competition, it clearly has no game plan for the PR challenge of Coach Kill’s epilepsy.  I encourage them to steal this play book.

Student support for Coach Jerry Kill at the Sept. 21st, 2013 home game. (Courtesy @Gophersports Twitter)

Student support for Coach Jerry Kill at the Sept. 21st, 2013 home game. (Courtesy @Gophersports Twitter)

Justin Morneau’s Farewell—A Crisis Communication Teaching Tool

2 Sep

Justin Morneau 1     In a game of hardball, Justin Morneau was just pulled from the lineup.  After a 14 year career with the Minnesota Twins organization, the former MVP and fan favorite has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

     It’s a move that reminds fans that baseball is a business. 

     But Morneau is smart enough to realize he is more than a consequence of that business, he is also a brand unto himself.  And any time there is an event that makes a brand’s enthusiasts (fans) question their loyalty and support or threatens the relationship, there is a potential crisis.   Morneau’s response serves as a simple blueprint for executives, brand managers and communicators everywhere in how to respond. 

      In a simple 223 word letter to fans printed in the Minneapolis StarTribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Morneau offers a three-step model:

  1.  Gratitude: Appreciation for the opportunity and loyalty.
  2.  Contrition:  Apology for not achieving more.
  3.  Praise:  Love for the people and the relationships with them.

      Here’s his letter:  Justin Morneau 2

First of all, I would like to say thank you to all of the Twins fans. I would also like to thank the Minnesota Twins organization for giving me a chance to realize my dream of being a Major League baseball player. I was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1999. Since that day I have been very proud and fortunate to call myself a Minnesota Twin.

I was a wide-eyed 22 year kid when I made my big league debut in 2003. I received a warm welcome that day and have felt welcomed ever since. I feel like I was a kid when I first got here, but was able to grow up in this organization and become someone my friends and family could be proud of. My wife, kids and family are Minnesotans and this has become my second home. Minnesotans are some of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever met.

I am sorry that during my time here we weren’t able to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the World Series, but I will forever carry many wonderful memories of my time here. I will always cherish every day I was lucky enough to play in front of you fans in a Minnesota uniform.

Thank you for all of your support throughout the years.

Your friend, Justin Morneau

          Classy.   Wouldn’t it be great if athletes and communicators in every league would steal this page from Morneau’s play book?

Strategic Crisis Communications – How Fairview Hospitals’ Chairman Gets It.

1 Jun

It seemed like such a simple idea.  Then the Attorney General weighed in.

Fairview Health Systems Chairman Michael Mooty appearing at U.S Senate hearing on payment collecting practices at Fairview hospitals.

The idea was a basic business proposition.  Get the customer to pay for the services they need before walking out the door.  But in this case the business is a hospital and the customer is sick.

It is under that scenario that Fairview Hospitals in 2010 hired Accretive Health to help it recover more money from patients.  In an era of health care where costs are up and margins are down, the hospital system’s sustainability was increasingly dependent upon securing payment for the care it provided.  The “Revenue Cycle Agreement” between Fairview and Accretive Health ushered in a new culture at Fairview that often times focused on payment before care.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson

That’s where Attorney General Lori Swanson cried foul.  Her compliance review of Fairview’s contract with Accretive Health released on April 24th uncovered six volumes of alleged abuses and violations of federal law.  The evidence included internal Accretive Health emails that revealed how the aggressive bill collecting tactics led to some patients leaving the hospital in disgust before seeing a doctor.  In one affidavit, an employee describes how they were forced to obtain payments from patients in the emergency room or they would be fired. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 – Affidavit from MN Attorney General’s compliance review of Fairview hospitals and Accretive Health.

In almost every respect, it is another contemporary case study of an organization losing site of its core values and mission—in this case, the commitment to always put patient care first.

It’s perhaps fair to say that Fairview board chairman Charles Mooty never wanted to become the subject of such a case study.  But Mooty deserves some notice for his handling of the crisis and his attempt to take corrective action.

There are several hard and fast rules to effective strategic crisis management and communications:

  1. Cease and desist—stop doing what you’re doing.
  2. Apologize to those you’ve wronged—and mean it.
  3. Change your tactics.
  4. Communicate the change to employees and customers.
  5. Establish performance measures for how the change is working.

In a congressional investigative hearing this week, Chairman Mooty followed the script with near precision.  While testifying in a field hearing before U.S. Senator Al Franken, Mooty offered both contrition and a plan for moving forward. Here’s his very strategic response:

1. Cease and desist.

“We’ve stopped collecting past due balances and co-insurance payments in emergency departments, and we’re reviewing emergency department information and workflow processes.”

 “Fairview terminated its work with Medical Financial Solutions, a part of Accretive Health on January 6 of 2012 because of their failure to comply with the Attorney General’s billing and collection agreement.”

 2. Apologize.

“To those patients I offer my personal apology and firm commitment on behalf of the entire Fairview organization to regain your trust.”

3. Change tactics.

“We are reviewing and revising our training tools to ensure each patient interaction reflects Fairview’s core values.” 

 4. Communicate change.

“In addition to our termination of agreements with Accretive Health, we also have initiated better approaches for escalating patient, employee and physician concerns so that they receive prompt attention.”

 This last statement by Mooty perhaps telegraphs what may have been an critically important breakdown within Fairview.  Mooty told the Senate hearing no less than four times that Fairview was going to do a better job of listening to its stakeholders.  Attorney General Swanson’s investigation provided several documents that Fairview doctors and staff had expressed deep concern about the new payment collecting policies instituted by Accretive Health.  Mooty’s testimony strongly signals that those concerns either didn’t get communicated to Fairview leadership, or that leadership simply wasn’t listening.

One of Mooty’s most important changes came during the week before the Senate hearing when he and the board of directors decided not to renew the contract of current Fairview CEO Mark Eustis, the man who hired Accretive Health.  The board named Mooty as interim CEO sending a clear signal that it was breaking with the past.

While Mooty gave no clear indication of how Fairview intends to measure its progress, he clearly used a big stage to send key strategic messages to several key audiences, among them his patients, employees and the public.  But in this case his primary audience is government regulators.  If Mooty can’t convince them that he’s prescribed the right medicine, a more rigorous regimen will be forced from outside rather than inside.

The stakes are high.  So is Fairview’s credibility and trust.

Pink Slime — Anatomy of a Contagion

23 Mar

The gooey mess known as Pink Slime has suddenly become a public relations mess too.  But, how did it go from a food additive to a food disaster in record time?  A large part of the answer lies in the power of social memes and the ability of key audiences to spread it like a contagion.

Figure 1 - Pink Slime

Let’s break it down.  In this case, the food additive included in some forms of processed beef came with a descriptive slang name and an iconic image: pink slime. (Figure 1)

In its basic form, pink slime a substance made from the rendered connective tissues and intestines of cows.  Because those tissues are susceptible to e-coli contamination, they are processed with ammonium nitrate to kill the bacteria and act as a preservative.   For years the FDA has approved the additive as a safe filler for meat products.  But when an image and video of the substance appeared in the news reports in early March about its presence in school lunch hamburgers, pink slime became a household word as fast as parents could hit the “send” button on their computers.   As a Google Trends analysis shows, pink slime went viral in a matter of 24-hours and has not let up since. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - Google Trends

Three key factors are involved here.  First, the image itself of the pink slime became what social psychologist Jaap Van Genneken would call a strong replicator.  In other words, it’s an iconic image that developed and sealed an emotion in the minds of the viewer.  In this case, the image leads to the very human response of questioning what this substance is doing in our food—especially our children’s food at school.

Second, the image sealed itself in the minds of an important audience.   That audience is mainly women, in particular, the mothers of school children.

Third, these women not only saw the image of the pink slime included in stories in various news media, they spread the story to their friends and peer groups in social media.  My own audience research among social media users indicates that women are heavily invested in, and are heavy users of social channels.   They not only use social media as a way of discovering news from their friends, but to share news and issues that are important to them.   When this story broke, the image, the issue, and the salience to their children and families created its own perfect recipe for a modern-day social issue contagion. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 - Contagion Model

The result has been a sudden abandonment of meat products containing the so-called pink slime.  Several major grocery store chains have now said they have stopped ordering beef products containing the additive.   One of them is Twin Cities based SuperValue which owns and operates Cub Food stores throughout the Midwest.   Here’s its statement:

“We’ve heard concerns from many of our shoppers about the inclusion of finely textured beef in some of the ground beef products available at our stores. Effective today, we have made the decision to no longer purchase fresh ground beef products that contain finely textured beef.”  -SuperValue

            The power of the contagion lies in the statement’s first sentence.   Consumers spoke up.  SuperValue listened.  It’s a 21st century lesson in the speed of which issues closely tied to strong memes can spread, and the power of key audiences armed with a “send” button.

%d bloggers like this: