In Crisis Management

oopsIt was another festival for crisis watchers in 2013.  Check out our piece in today’s  Hartford Business Journal.   Here’s an expanded version for your crisis-viewing pleasure: 

It was another good year for those of us who look for lessons in crisis management in the daily news stream.

There was the dynamic duo of motor-mouth CEOs who showed us what not to do.  A Food Network star whose mouth would (and did) melt butter.  An NFL team that knew how to handle the off-field troubles of a player.  And companies that saw the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as a marketing opportunity.  In short, 2013 provided a living laboratory for the study of the good, the bad and really ugly in crisis communications.  One that contains some really serious lessons for all of us in business.

I’m Talking and I Can’t Shut Up

 Two executives took the cake in 2013 for opening their mouths and inserting their feet, over and over again.

Let’s start with the Abercrombie & Fitch CEO, Mike Jeffries, who found out the hard way that nasty does not die courtesy of the web.  In May, a 2006 Salon interview found new life on the internet.  In that interview, Jeffries candidly suggested that the teen retailer’s clothes were only for the thin and attractive and that people who weren’t the “cool kids” really shouldn’t attempt to wear them.  The interview got new life in a May, 2103 “Business Insider” blog post.  It spawned a social media frenzy and a #FitchtheHomes YouTube video that suggested giving away Abercrombie clothes to the homeless.  The video garnered millions of views in a matter of days.  As the furor continued, Jeffries finally issued an apology, which read, in part, “”While I believe this seven year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense”.  He also claimed that A & F was an “aspirational brand” that “targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers.”   In other words, “Sorry you’re so thick-skinned and unattractive that what I said hit home and bothered you.”   When in doubt, trash the customers.  That’s an interesting PR strategy.  The brand has not recovered.  Last month it reported a quarterly loss for the seventh straight quarter.  In early December, Shareholders Engaged Capital LLC pleaded with the A & F  board to replace Jeffries as CEO once his contract expires in February.  The lesson here is that a real apology requires a display of honest contrition and an understanding of what and why you need to change.

And speaking of apologies that went wrong, we can’t overlook the fiasco caused by billionaire Chip Wilson’s attempt to make things right after news of the company’s see-through yoga pants.  During a Bloomberg TV interview, a reporter asked him about the issue (which had pretty much cooled down at that point) and the fact that customers were complaining that their $60 yoga pants were “pilling”.  Wilson poured gasoline on the fire by defending Lululemon’s black Luon material and putting the blame on customers’ body shapes.  “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work,” he said.  “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs… (and) how much pressure is there.”  Wilson’s follow-up apology for that little gaffe came in a moist-eyed, company-produced YouTube video.  In it, he said he was “I’m sad.  I’m really sad for the people at Lululemon who I care so much about who have had to face the brunt of my actions.”  It somehow overlooked any apology to the very customers he so obviously offended.  Reaction was quick.  One tweet summed it up well, “I full accept that Lululemon’s pants are not flattering on my body.  So I wear brands that are.  Problem solved.”

The lesson here is this: dis your customers and expect them to respond in kind.

Lay Low Till the Flames Go

 Paula Deen, The Queen of both Butter and Political Incorrectness, may be proving that a little time away from the grill of public scrutiny pays off.  She’s been laying low since a controversy erupted earlier this year over her alleged use of racial slurs.  In the summer, her racially insensitive remarks surfaced in a race discrimination lawsuit.  The blowback caused her to lose much of her TV and food empire.  And, while the judge later threw out the discrimination claims, it’s reported that the incident damaged almost every part of her $17 million business empire.  Those running away from this grease fire included the Food Network, Smithfield Foods Walmart, Target, Home Depot, QVC and diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk.  After badly executed apologies by Deen and her son (and the hiring of famed crisis manager Judy Smith, the inspiration for Scandal’s Olivia Pope) Deen has laid low.  But that’s about to change in 2014 when she has something of a “Coming Out Party” with a live appearance in western New York.  Deen will appear on a live show in February in support of her partnership with the company that makes Paula Deen Foods.  Deen will also do the ribbon-cutting and launch of the company’s headquarters and a retail shop for Paula Deen Foods in nearby Clarence, NY.

The lesson here is that sometimes it’s best to step away from the controversy, let it cool down for a while and then come back doing what you do best – your job.

Understand the Damage and Act Quickly to Rebuild

 The New England Patriots followed the getting-back-to-business lesson well this summer as they sought to recover from the murder charges against their star tight end Aaron Hernandez.  On June 18, police searched Hernandez’s home in connection with an investigation into the shooting death of a friend, Odin Lloyd.  Only two days later, Pats told the Boston Herald that Hernandez had been “barred” from Gillette Stadium.  On June 26, the Pats released Hernandez, less than two hours after he was led from his home in handcuffs.  On July 24, Pat’s quarterback Tom Brady gave an interview in which didn’t mention Hernandez’ name but did say, “I’ve seen a lot of things over 13 years, and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what’s in the best interest of the team matters most.  My job is to play quarterback, and I’m going to do that the best way I know how, because I owe that to my teammates regardless of who is out there on the field with me. I have moved on. I’m focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games…The fate of our season will be determined by the players in our locker room — nothing else.”

In addition, the Patriots removed all Hernandez memorabilia and merchandise from the team’s official pro shop at Patriot Place, and their website was Hernandez-free, within hours of his arrest. The Patriots ProShop also gave those who bought officially-licensed Hernandez jerseys the option to exchange them for other in-stock jerseys.  They went out of their way to encourage parents to exchange their children’s jerseys. About 2,500 jerseys were exchanged in two days. According to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the Patriots, who destroyed the jerseys before recycling them, lost about $250,000 in the swap.  But what they gained was a lot of goodwill and traction towards getting the crisis in their rear view mirror.

The lesson here is that you need to see, acknowledge and act on a crisis with an understanding of who your target audience is and what they want from their relationship with you.

Tie Into a News Event With Care

 For some tasteless reason, several organizations saw the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 attack as a marketing opportunity.  Two in particular, AT&T and the NBA, were particularly egregious, and they suffered the consequences on social media in a big way.

Using the hashtag #neverforget (which is used to honor those fallen in war) AT&T tweeted a photo of a hand holding an AT&T cell phone against the Manhattan skyline.  On the phone is an image of the “Tribute in Light” from the National September 11 Memorial.  The Twitter backlash was swift and nasty.  They included: “You’re ugly and you’re tacky. Seriously. SERIOUSLY”; How f***ing dare you. I will Never Forget what vultures you are” and “not an occasion for product placement, AT&T”.  By 10:24 a.m. the company took down the tweeted photo, but the damage kept on coming through tweets and retweets.

Similar #neverforget tweets by the NBA teams suffered a comparable fate, often being pulled down after the social media backlash erupted.  Those creating particular outrage included the Los Angeles Lakers’ tweet of a 2001 Kobe Bryant with an American flag patch on his jersey and the Phoenix Suns’ tweet of a soldier in desert camouflage at half court waving a flag who was flanked by a pair of flash pots bursting forth.  Who thought that 9/11 would be a good “hook” for a marketing campaign and why?

The practice of riding the coat tails of a story is called “newsjacking” and nine times out of ten it comes across as opportunistic, tacky and cringe worthy.  The lesson here is to stay away from emotionally charged news story altogether.  Think you’ve got a legitimate tie-in with a news event?  Before you post ask yourself these questions: Does the event directly affect our brand, or its consumers?  Is this really in good taste? Does the comment’s timing generate a “yuck” response?  Is it better to say nothing at all?

As a crisis manager and someone who teaches crisis communications, I enjoy a good gaffe.  As a business person, though, I see these as cautionary tales.  They tell us that crises often ignite because of hubris, a myopic focus and an inability to think outside your own box.  Keep a lid on these and you won’t end up in my 2014 end-of-year column of the year’s most noteworthy crises.


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