Posts filed under ‘crisis communications’

Using a Gavel To Hammer Citizens’ Groups Can Cost More Than Legal Fees

Lawsuits, especially over opinions of a citizens’ group, can cost a lot more than dollars.

Should a developer facing a boisterous and vocal community group sue the members of that group to muzzle them? Tempting, isn’t it?

On the Jersey Shore, a homebuilder has done just that. That company received permission to build and sell 76 homes to the general market instead of to active adults, as originally approved. A group of residents, however, doesn’t agree with the change, and has expressed its opposition in a variety of ways. The builder has filed suit, according to the local newspaper, complaining that one of the members of the group has “issued defamatory statements and information constituting libel and slander.”

I don’t know any more than what’s been written in that one article, so I’m not going to comment on this particular case. But it got me thinking: Is it a good idea to fight back against citizen groups by using the courts?

Here are some of my random thoughts. What do you think?

  • Lawsuits are part of the development process in New Jersey. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Usually, suit is filed over interpretation of points of law, not over points of opinion. The arguments are usually esoteric, and tied directly to some law or regulation related to the project.
  • Companies that protect their reputation enjoy better sales, higher customer satisfaction rates and happier employees. They also can usually withstand the unsubstantiated verbal barrages of a citizen’s group. It is, of course, a different story if the citizen’s group is telling the truth and the corporation is isn’t being completely honest.
  •  Court is the appropriate place to prove a point of law, but is it the appropriate place to stop or hobble a conversation? Even if the gavel drops eventually in favor of a developer who complains in court that people are saying bad things about the company or a community, does anyone really believe they’ve gagged the opposition?
  • There are more expenses to a lawsuit than financial ones. One must weigh the reputational and good-will costs and compare them to walking away from a project or just gritting one’s teeth and bearing the insults. A lawsuit will be seen as heavy artillery wielded by a corporation against residents exercising their First Amendment rights. People – including those who will be giving you approvals and buying your homes – may wonder why the company was so heavy-handed.
  • There are other steps to try before filing a highly visible lawsuit (all lawsuits are highly visible). A developer can meet with the opponents to listen to concerns and, if possible, address them. Use public meetings; op-ed pieces; interviews with news outlets; alliances in the community; direct mail pieces; special Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages or other forms of interaction to communicate. A developer who wanted to build in my neighborhood went door-to-door. Does it work every time? No. Will you win over every opponent? No. Can you proceed and honestly say you’ve listened and tried to address concerns. Yes. Have communities been built and been very successful despite community activism? Yes.

A lawsuit is almost always a last resort. If used to stop someone from saying angry things against a corporation, it must be carefully considered, including how much it will fan flames and what it does to a developer’s attempts to build bridges in the community.

If, however, you find yourself filing such a suit, be ready to defend it in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.

  • Make sure you can clearly explain in a few compelling words why you’ve filed the suit. You have about one sentence to make your case, whether it’s to the media, the mayor or the minions in your company and the community.
  • Make sure your allies and community officials know it’s coming, even if the warning is just a few minutes.
  • Decide with your public relations person whether the filing should be announced or if you should wait for questions.
  • Always respond to the media. Refusing to talk with the media allows your opponents to tell your story for you. Even if you’ve strategically decided not to comment, not returning a reporter’s call is rude. Returning the call keeps the lines of communication open. And remember: Never say “no comment.” You can explain that you can’t comment on pending litigation, or you can decline to speak about specifics, but talk generalities. Your PR person and your attorney must work together to counsel you on your response once a lawsuit is filed.
  • Remember to have your key messages ready and make any interview — media, community appearance or small meeting — yours.

Your development team should include an experienced public relations professional to protect and build your reputation by helping you deal with the media, the community and the government (shameless plug: like In-House Public Relations). Your public relations team is your diplomatic corps. A lawsuit is a big military weapon. You need both to navigate the crazy populist regulatory paths in New Jersey. And your PR team may keep you out of a lawsuit.

The method of dealing with issues that I’m suggesting may take more time and the outcome isn’t assured — you may still wind up in court. But then, a legal verdict is not a sure thing either. The longer method enables you to look everyone in the eye and honestly say you tried to be a good neighbor.

July 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

3 PR Lessons For All Businesses Observed While Spending Hurricane Irene In A Paramedic Truck

Natural disasters are strange times for me. I am a homeowner who is concerned for his home and family, a paramedic and a firefighter who is concerned for his brothers and sisters and wants to do what he can to help the victims of the event, and I’m a PR guy ready to help his clients prepare for the disaster and recovery from it. I always enjoy watching what others are doing and saying during the storm.

So having spent all of the storm weekend on a paramedic truck or a fire truck (up to about noon Monday) here are some observations:

  • Kudos to the public officials who got people out of harm’s way, knowing full well they were going to be criticized no matter what they did. They stayed on message with laser-like focus. While that message may have seemed obvious, everyone from governors to local officials transmitted the same message, the presentation was well orchestrated and consistent and it was presented across a variety of media. As a result, lives were saved. Even away from the most devastated areas, people were better prepared for flooding and power outages because of the focus on the message. And to those now complaining the dangers were oversold, well, I’ll be polite: Go find something better to do with your time…like help those without power and with basements full of water bail out. Or help those whose homes and businesses were destroyed rebuild. If nothing else, just stop and pay your respects to those who lost loved ones.   Are there messages here for how you run your business? Definitely: A simple message consistently and forcefully delivered at all levels of an organization will yield results. But someone will still bitch about it.
  •  If anyone still doubts still doubts that social media is main stream, look at the wide use it enjoyed during the storm. Many governmental entities, including the county and township in which I live, used a combination of Web sites, Twitter and Facebook to keep constituents up to date on information from road closings to dam bursts and evacuations to dealing with tainted food. News organizations gathered and used audience pix and videos. And the hospital where I’m a medic used text messaging, emails and Web sites to assure the staff was up to date and keep all of its EMS vehicles staffed and on the road. If all these organizations know they must use social media, don’t you think you should make sure you’re using the same channels to engage your audience?
  •  How did your crisis plan work? Did your employees know what your company was doing in preparation for and in recovery from the storm? Did your customers know? Did you have a crisis plan? Every organization should have a plan of what to do when it is threatened, whether by a competitor, a person’s deliberate or accidental action or a natural disaster that threatens its ability to provide whatever service it provides. If your crisis plan didn’t address the preparation and outcome of this hurricane, or if you winged it, maybe you should contact a public relations practitioner to help you better prepare for the next literal or figurative storm.

 Hurricane Irene gave us all stories to tell our friends and relatives. But it also should serve as a teaching moment. None of us want to see another Irene. But we will. And before we see a hurricane identified by the National Weather Service, we’ll likely see our businesses rocked by a figurative storm. Here are three lessons that can be applied.

Good luck.

August 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm 1 comment

Whole Foods Serves Some Crisis Management Lessons

If you think you’re immune to a crisis just because you’re not the biggest player around and you try to do things right, take a look at the controversy Whole Foods is dealing with. 

The store is well-known for having ethnic and special foods (disclosure: I shop there because it has products that meet some personal dietary needs). On its shelves are halal products, which are foods that meet Islamic dietary laws. When the company decided to promote those products to people who celebrate Ramadan, a period during which Muslims engage in rituals, including dietary practices, designed to encourage patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God (Muslim friends – jump in here if my description is inaccurate), an employee apparently wrote an email to his bosses questioning the idea.

I’m not sure how those goals can be bad, but apparently the employee was afraid that right-wing activists might have a problem with promoting something associated with Islam. His email somehow made it into the Houston Press  and on to Twitter, where it was taken as an official statement that the company was backing away from the promotion and – boom – Whole Foods found itself in crisis mode. 

Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, Tuesday told me the company became aware of the issue because it monitors its online presence and because of the tweets.

“Folks brought it to our attention and we immediately sat down and figured out what happened,” she said. They quickly tweeted that the promotion was still on and reached out to those who had tweeted to tell them the promotion was not being cancelled. Libba and her colleagues also started calling newspapers where the story appeared. As the word spread, they began fielding calls from the media.

The fast reaction quelled the crisis before it got legs. It was still a story, but the company’s response circulated so quickly that the story was the Whole Foods’ plans to continue the promotion despite the rumor. The company’s blog continues to include lots of information about preparing for the holiday. The rapid response kept the issue from hurting Whole Foods, but Libba thinks it’ll be kept alive for a while by those who only listened to the initial, erroneous reports.

“It’s inconvenient,” she said. “We’ll have to continue to educate people about it on individual levels.”  

A crisis is anything that threatens an organizations reputation and its viability as a business. This certainly threatened Whole Foods’ reputation, but because of the company’s quick response, the damage was minimal.  There are lessons here for the rest of us:

  1. You will have a crisis.
  2. You need to be ready. Libba adds that you must act immediately. “Social media is so much faster than anything else,” she says.
  3. Assume that anything in writing – email, memos, correspondence – will wind up public, even (maybe especially) if marked “confidential.” Keep that in mind before you send counsel or opinions by email or paper memo.
  4. Social media is a two-edged sword. You must stay on top of what others are saying about your business. Your public relations team, whether internal or external, will have tools to help with that. Your PR team also can make sure that you’re ready when a crisis does hit.
  5. (Maybe 4A) There’s nothing wrong with asking colleagues and members of your network to let you know if they see or hear anything about your company. Part of Whole Foods’ early warning system was tweets and calls from people who saw the original postings.

Public relations practitioners are experts in social media and its role in creating and quelling crises. If you and your PR counselor haven’t discussed situations like the one that hit Whole Foods lately, use this column as a conversation starter. And if you need some crisis prevention and management advice, feel free to contact me.

Finally, to our Muslim friends: “Ramadan Mubarak.”

August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am 1 comment

Apple vs. Android Lawsuits: PR Should Be Part of the Strategy

Apple has filed a lawsuit against several of its Android-using competitors, claiming the Android devices violate certain patents. Earlier this week, a court issued an important first decision in the case. There will be lots of appeals and companion cases.

 

Apple vs. Android

Is that Apple going to diminish the effectiveness of my Android tools? Where's the customer engagement?

I have no clue who will ultimately prevail in this battle. I hope we, the users, will, but I’ve seen no evidence that Apple is concerned about that. I’m an Android user, and I won’t forgive Apple easily if they take away or diminish my HTC Thunderbolt and my new Samsung Galaxy 10.1 (I love toys).

While the Apple vs. Android debate is great stuff for barbecues and water-cooler debates, these legal actions can impact reputations, sales and investor confidence. For that reason, lawyers should include public relations people when they undertake or defend against an action like the one launched by Apple. While the lawyers are worried about the fine points of the law and how to sell them to judges and juries, someone has to worry about the reputations of the companies involved in the lawsuits.

Whatever the legal arguments, public relations people need to:

  1. Explain in simple terms why the highly technical infringements are so important that they threaten the company and – equally important – its customers and employees;
  2. Head off those who will say the company is turning to the courts because it can’t compete in the marketplace through innovation;
  3. Assure customers that they will be protected, no matter what the outcome.

I’m not seeing much of that from Apple or any of the Android manufacturers.

Innovators should profit from their innovation. But high-tech, pharma and other innovating companies know they can’t protect innovations from competitors for long. While innovators certainly have a right to protect their intellectual properties, they should also consider that their defensive actions impact their reputation and the confidence of their customers, employees and others on whom their success depends. Similarly, those accused of violating intellectual property laws also have their reputation and consumer confidence on the line.

PR needs to be part of the intellectual properties strategy for both sides of these controversies. Apple, HTC and Samsung PR folks…where are you on this?

July 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Crisis Communications: Not Just For the Big Guys

More than three-quarters of companies recently surveyed by one of the nation’s largest public relations firms say they expect to have a crisis within the next year, according to PRWeek.  More than half of them agree that the rise in digital communications and new media make a crisis more likely and more difficult to manage.

While the Burson-Marsteller study, as reported in PR Week (I’ve posted the brief article here), is talking about large companies, it’s an issue smaller companies should think about, too.  Digital media and social networking make it possible for even a sole proprietorship to play in the big guys’ sandbox. What small businesses often don’t realize is that if they play in that big-guy sandbox, they must accept some big-guy liabilities.

Because In-House Public Relations is new and small, I talk with a lot of small businesses. They’re thinking about increasing sales. Very few want to talk about crisis management. Increased sales activities, however, means increased exposure (I know: It’s a problem you’d love to have).  I’m aware that small business people don’t often have time or money for a full crisis plan, but I try to at least have a conversation about crises:

  1. Being a small business in today’s Internet-driven business climate means more people are seeing you. That means you’re more vulnerable. An angry customer or employee, an innocent mistake, a problem with materials you use and you’re in the soup.
  2. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you’re any less vulnerable. The wrong tweet or Facebook posting can land you in hot water. And you probably don’t have the financial cushion big companies have to ride out a crisis.
  3. Take a few minutes and develop a mini-plan:
    1. Understand what a crisis is: Anything that can threaten your reputation and your business.
    2. Have a list of who gets called ASAP. I tell people to put me on the list, along with the lawyer, insurance agent and financial counselor.
    3. Set up a way of monitoring what’s being said about you on a daily basis in the social world. That can be as basic as a Google alert or as complicated as monitoring and participating in social media channels. Don’t neglect traditional channels either.
    4. Think about your worst nightmare and have a plan – at least in your head – of what you’d do if it happened.
    5. Make sure someone else knows about this miniplan in case YOU are the crisis.

 It’s not much, but at least it starts the discussion.

 I’d love to hear from entrepreneurs and small business people: Have you thought about crisis management? If you’d like some help thinking about it, call me.

July 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

PR lessons from the line-of-duty death of a friend

In addition to my public relations counseling practice, I’m a firefighter and emergency medical technician in my home town. Yes, I operate the apparatus, go into burning buildings and take care of sick or hurt people, but as you might expect, I’m also the public information officer.

 Our department provides both fire protection and emergency medical services. On May 31, I responded to call for an unresponsive child. Such a report is bound to bring every available firefighter and EMT to the scene. Among the responders was Assistant Fire Chief Tom Shields. In addition to being a chief, Tom was a close friend.

Within an hour of clearing the call, Tom suffered a heart attack and died at the young age of 42. He left behind a wife – also a good friend — and two sons. The fire service recognizes death by heart attack within 24 hours of a call as a line-of-duty death.

Over the next five days, I juggled my grief and the responsibilities of public information officer. While the situation is not unlike the death of a CEO with whom a public relations exec is also a friend, Tom’s death brought a lot of extra visibility to our department. State and county fire officials as well as representatives of other agencies with whom we regularly worked swooped in to help us with the arrangements, mental health issues, coordinating the help and condolences we received from other fire and EMS agencies, and investigations that come with a line-of-duty death. They also established a command post because other departments took care of fighting fires in our area for those few days. Everybody we dealt with was sensitive and helpful. As PIO, I was in the thick of everything.

In addition to being a great guy, a good administrator and a sharp fireground tactician, Tom was an excellent teacher. In the relative quiet since those five crazy days, I’ve thought about the lessons this incident has taught me. He would want me to share those with other PIOs and public relations practitioners. Here are the Top 5 things Tom taught me through this experience:

  1. Catch your breath and acknowledge your pain. We PR types immediately think of the communications needs of our client organizations. OK. But stop and take care of your own needs first. There’s nothing wrong with a little private mourning before you make your plan and offer your counsel. And find ample time to take care for yourself during the situation. 
  2. Be patient. You know that the questions are going to come, but the people with whom you’re working are dealing with the situation in their own way. Their perspective is different than yours. Give them space, especially in the first few hours. Let them know you’re there and protect them from being caught off-guard, but give them the time they need. If you’ve built a good relationship with them, they’ll soon recognize the importance of your role and be ready to listen.
  3.  It’s OK to be human. A PIO can’t wear his or her heart on his or her sleeve, but I’ve come to realize that nobody will think less of us if a little genuine emotion breaks through while the pain is fresh. While talking with Star Ledger reporter Dan Goldberg, who regularly covers our department, the dispatcher announced Tom’s passing on the fire department radio. I choked up. I don’t remember exactly what Dan said at that moment, but he gave me the moment or two that I needed. Would another reporter have done the same? I hope so. But I really don’t care. I’m human and my friend was dead. I’ve decided there was nothing for me to be embarrassed about. 
  4.  Don’t lose track of all the rules of good crisis management. I stayed informed of what else was being done, pitched in where I could and worked with our county fire administrator to determine if a joint information center (a sort of multiagency press room) was necessary. We decided it wasn’t. But we ran our communications program just as every crisis management textbook says to do. My existing relationships with area media paid off and the media training we’d done in the firehouse was evident. 
  5. Get help. After four days of handling things on my own, I decided I didn’t want to be a PIO during Tom’s funeral. I reached into my network and Mary Danielsen, principal of Documented Legacy and a great public relations person, came to back me up. During the funeral, she took photos, charmed the hell out of everyone in the command post and made sure reporters and photographers got what they needed without bothering Tom’s family. It was a relief to have her there and I realized I should have asked for help earlier.

Tom believed in learning from every experience. I hope I never have to be PIO for a line-of-duty death again, especially if a friend is involved. But, I’ve learned a few valuable things that I’ll apply to any situation where I’m the guy doing the communicating.

Have you dealt with a similar situation? What other lessons should we add?

June 27, 2011 at 11:40 am 3 comments

Troubled companies don’t have a PR problem. They have something much worse

The next person who reports about a company’s “public relations problem” is going to have a Doug problem on their hands…unless they’re talking about the company’s PR budget or something similar.

Over the past few months, hearing about BP’s public relations problem, Toyota’s public relations problem, some politician’s public relations gaffe and that actor’s or actress’s public relations nightmare has worn me out.

At best, these outfits and people have reputation problems. At worst, and more often, they have shoddy products, insulated executives who don’t know how to control their mouths, hands that accept money or other things that shouldn’t be accepted or a substance abuse or other problem. Or all of the above.

None of those constitute a public relations problem, although they are certainly challenges for the public relations practitioners handling the mess. Once things get started, I guess there are instances when a CEO doesn’t pay attention or understand what his PR practitioner is telling him. That, I guess, is a public relations problem, but not the way the media mean it.

Public relations is about establishing, enhancing and protecting reputations. It’s about establishing relationships between an organization and groups that impact that organization’s success. That means listening to both sides of that equation. It means telling the organization’s story the best way possible. And it’s about making sure both sides understand what the other side is doing. One of the ways we “talk to” the public is through the media, although nowadays, we’re just as likely to use social media tools.

No matter how well we do that, we can’t fix an assembly line that knowingly turns out cars with a defect or an outfit that fails to prepare for a technology failure. As much as we counsel executives on how to behave, we can’t overcome irresponsible behavior or statements. Those are not public relations problems. They’re much, much bigger issues.

I think we should start a movement: Every time a reporter writes about some organization’s screw-up and calls it a public relations problem, we should bury that reporter with emails and post cards explaining that when an organization or person acts stupidly or irresponsibly, it is not a public relations problem. Public relations practitioners, however, will use their insight and skills to help that company fix the problem – the root cause, not the appearance — and re-establish those relationships and, in the process, repair its reputation.

We as public relations practitioners should not sit by and let our craft be demeaned by allowing reporters and others to refer to irresponsibility as a public relations problem. Doing so creates a reputational issue for public relations practitioners.

August 4, 2010 at 10:30 pm 6 comments

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