ITL #162 Defining moments: the right response at times of crisis

8 years, 2 months ago


In order to protect corporate reputation, Chief Communications Officers must develop a personal radar system for recognizing defining moments as they occur – and then act quickly and decisively to influence the outcome. By Roger Frizzell.

We witness defining moments nearly every day. Many of these are moments so important or visible that they ultimately shape the person, the event or the enterprise to literally define their reputation for years to come.

Certainly, it is always easier to identify defining moments when looking back in history. When we think about President Richard Nixon, we often recall Watergate. We often remember the Iranian hostage crisis when it comes to President Jimmy Carter. When we think of President John F. Kennedy, we recall the Cuban missile crisis, the space race and the assassination the shocked our country. Many of us think about the Berlin Wall being demolished when we remember President Ronald Reagan. Further back in history, we remember President Abraham Lincoln for the eloquence of his moving Gettysburg Address.

These are symbolic events defining moments that captured the public’s attention and literally defined not just their term in office, but their historical narrative.

Granted, these are bigger-than-life moments connected to the top office in the land, but not always. Think back to the golden spike railroad ceremony or the Boston Tea Party, two moments that help define the fabric of the USA. Of course, we will always remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as a defining moment, and Astronaut Neil Armstrong will be forever remembered for saying “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he took that amazing first step on the moon.

On the lighter side, actress Marilyn Monroe is often remembered for her uplifting photo session over the ground air vent or her special rendition of Happy Birthday Mr. President. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is known around the globe for saying, “I’ll be back” from The Terminator.
Football great OJ Simpson is likely to be forever defined by the murder trial of the 20th century, not for his Hall of Fame career as one of the NFL’s greatest running backs. Famed athlete Bruce Jenner may end up being more remembered for publicly making the transition to a transgender woman than winning the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1976 Olympics. Tennis star Billie Jean King will be remembered in history for her efforts surrounding women’s rights in a single tennis match with Bobby Riggs called the Battle of the Sexes.

Defining moments in corporate America

By the same token, there are defining moments every year in corporate America that determine the reputation of the company for years to come. For most of us, it is easy to recognize the defining moments for major brands that faced crisis situations, like Tylenol, Exxon, BP or Volkswagen.

I’ve certainly experienced my share of these moments tied to crisis, such as the consent decree that broke up the largest company in the world, the merger between two corporate giants, the recall of products, the closing of factories and downsized business lines, the grounding of a fleet, a deathly plane crash, a gas explosion or a sunken ship.

These are the situations we practice and prepare for while praying and hoping they never happen. But when they do, it is often undeniably clear they are defining moments.

The challenge for us as public relations practitioners is to avoid taking any incident too lightly. We all face a regular stream of issues each day that aren’t so obvious. These are the small and sometimes not so small issues that unexpectedly pop out of seemingly nowhere to alter your calendar and consume your days. It is important to address these seemingly smaller issues with speed and care. If not, they can mushroom into larger issues that can become an unfortunate defining moment.

Take the presidential election, for instance. How Donald Trump responded to his skirmish with the Pope can certainly be considered a defining moment in his presidential campaign, even more so had he not responded quickly or decisively.

Do we recognize these defining moments as they are happening? Do we have a radar system to help provide an early alert? Do we have the institutional instincts to watch out for them? And can we act quickly and decisively so that we can influence the outcome?

To me, these are the questions that underscore the tremendously vital role today of chief communications officers when it comes to protecting the reputations of the companies we serve.

The message matters

The biggest tool in our toolbox is our message. I recently heard a political pundit talk about how the campaigns that were well-funded weren’t having the same level of impact as those campaigns that were simply well-messaged.

Our message matters. It’s something we all preach every day, and frequently finds each of us toiling over every single word in a public statement as a result. It is the hallmark of our profession, in my view.

When I was at American Airlines, an ABC docudrama aired nationwide that erroneously added a scene to the show where the terrorists were allowed to board the plane even after the gate agent was warned by an alarm system that the passengers were possible terrorists (which never happened because no such warning system was in place at the time).

What little hair I had stood up and a shiver went through my entire body. I felt deep in my bones that this could be a defining moment for our company.

Within minutes of the airing of the show, we had hundreds upon hundreds of emails from the public outraged that we might have helped the terrorists with their 9/11 attack by allowing them to board. Again, there were calls for a boycott, a favorite tool of the masses in these type of situations.

It was critical for us to loudly and immediately refute the creative license ABC had taken with this scene to set the record straight. But what was our message? A simple outcry of foul play? Would a statement break through the clutter? After all, ABC had a worldwide audience that, according to its report, saw first-hand that our gate agents allowed the terrorists on board, and much of the public believes wholeheartedly what they view on TV.

I felt we had to be controversial enough in our approach that our message would break through the clutter and capture the public’s attention. We also had to showcase our outrage at this blatant disregard for accuracy. While it is often overused, we went back to the tried-and-true public threat of a law suit to tell our side of the story and threaten loudly and vigorously that we intended to take ABC to court over its false portrayal of the facts.

As we had hoped, our response caught on fire in the media, and became a social media debate in the process. Instead of becoming urban legend as we had originally feared, along with becoming a defining moment for our company, the public storm against us subsided. Within hours of our statement going public, the letters and calls (for our heads) from the public went from the hundreds to the dozens to none. Ultimately, it became nothing more than a blip on the radar screen with no lasting impact or damage to the company’s brand.

Take action

Sometimes, though, the situation calls for more than messaging. This is something that we don’t always recognize in our roles. What I have learned is that in many cases, it is strong, decisive action, not just messaging, that is our best weapon in resolving the problem. We’re not just communications or counselors, we are vital members of the executive team who can make decisions and this sometime takes precedence over our role as communicators.

At PG&E, for instance, we faced severe criticism concerning the company’s roll-out of sophisticated new digital smart meters that continued to generate negative stories in the press on an almost daily basis. As Christmas approached, one elderly grandmother at the prompting of the anti-smart meter coalition had her smart meter removed, leaving this elderly woman without electricity during the Christmas holidays.

Of course, this had all the signs of another defining moment about to unleash itself. I feared this could become the very lightening rod that might take the issue to new heights and define the company. Rather than fight the issue with our messaging with one hand tied behind our back we asked our engineers to do an immediate work around and provide electricity to the house without a meter (and temporarily we would charge for it at the same level as last year).

As a result, there wasn’t a single story run, even though national ABC and others had been alerted by the coalition. Longer term, we took it a step further with our department initiating an effort that would allow every customer the option to opt out (for a small price), giving our customers a choice, and the smart meter issue virtually disappeared overnight.

Create defining moments

It’s worth noting that defining moments aren’t just the moments that we react to in our jobs. These are moments we can and should create.
In recent years, I was involved in a campaign to keep the sport of wrestling in the Olympic Games. We needed a defining moment to capture the public’s attention, something we could build on as a foundation for our campaign.

To this end, we invited the Russians (and leveraged President Putin’s voice) and the Iranians into our country for a series of wrestling meets; but more importantly, we also invited them to a unique press conference at the United Nations in New York at a difficult time in diplomatic relations among the three countries. The event drew tremendous press attendance with hundreds of stories focused on the solidarity of wrestling shared by the three countries and the changes we were planning to make in the sport to rightfully keep it in the Olympic Games. This effort provided a huge lift to the campaign, a defining moment that ultimately led to our success.

On a smaller scale, a single story can also be a defining moment. At American Airlines, our MD-80 fleet of about 300 aircraft had been grounded by the FAA for an infraction that didn’t seem appropriate to require a grounding of the fleet. We assembled press briefings and interviews to apologize and explain the issue, but it was a single article from the New York Times that helped turn the tide after we invited the investigative reporter there to come in and see for himself our maintenance practices being undertaken at our maintenance facility in Tulsa.

It took intensive vetting beforehand with our aircraft maintenance team to make sure we had complete confidence in our processes. That effort reinforced our position that we were in the right, and gave us the confidence to make the bold move of inviting a New York Times reporter onto the shop floor of our maintenance facility, and to drill down on the nuances of our practices.

The result was a highly positive article that validated our claims. It had a huge impact on driving positive editorials and coverage around the country – and demonstrated that our aircraft maintenance practices met high standards, a tremendously important message to send to consumers for future air travel decisions. Again, another defining moment.

Don’t forget social media

In today’s world, as we all know, it is often social media that can catch a company unaware and spread out of control instantaneously. Most companies today leverage sophisticated social media programs that provide early alert systems, but we also must have the right work processes in place along with an orientation towards immediate action to help put an issue to bed.

Case in point: a simple house pet had somehow escaped its cage during its transport in cargo on one of our flights when I was at American Airlines, and its whereabouts were unknown to us. At first this seemed to be a fairly innocent situation.

Within in a matter of hours, it had become the latest internet sensation, and we were literally wading through hundreds of internet messages from our customers who were threatening to boycott our airline. This was one of those times when my movie-watching habits paid dividends. Rather than relying on just our messaging, we went the extra mile to hire a pet detective yes, a pet detective along with a reward for information leading to the recovery of the pet. Just the action alone settled down the hordes of pet lovers (let me tell you, there are millions of them) and within the week, our crack pet detective miraculously found the pet and we were able to reunite it with its owner. The issue was resolved, and all was well in the world of social media.

Create an infrastructure

Since I have been at Carnival Corporation, we’ve had our share of issues to manage, including recent voyage incidents that had negative impact on the company’s brand. The best approach, in my view, is a strong offense to address past issues and get ahead of potential new issues through proactive plans and programs that plant seeds of support that are so helpful before the next crisis or defining moment happens.

I’m also a huge fan of a very basic strategy to create the pillow of good news and change the conversation in the process but there’s also a need for a basic alert system (personal or institutional) to help quickly identify issues and set a course of action before they become defining moments.

Through a tremendous amount of effort across the company, Carnival realized a full recovery of its brand and reputation in about 15 months’ time – important progress given that many brand experts predicted it would take much longer. Everyone played a vital role, and a highly focused and proactive communications effort played an essential part in the overall effort, as did having a CEO who fully understands how much impact a chief executive who embraces the press can have on the company’s brand and reputation.

Being effective in our jobs involves not only a radar system, strong messaging, an orientation towards action and efforts to create those positive defining moments, but it also requires a broader PR program as a foundation that includes thought leadership initiatives, strong community citizenship and activism, third-party support and strong and vigorously proactive media relations. Combined, these efforts provide a solid foundation to help companies work through rough spots and avoid issues that may ultimately define their brand if not handled quickly and decisively.

For us as public relations practitioners, it is immensely rewarding to know the work we do day-in and day-out can have an enduring impact in creating, maintaining and protecting a positive brand reputation – and ultimately define our organizations as successful and admired enterprises.

For me, that’s the best part of the job. It makes each day fun and exciting, knowing a defining moment is just around the corner! 

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The Author

Roger Frizzell

Roger Frizzell, Chief Communications Officer, Carnival Corporation.

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