HOT Comms at PSU. Not!

Penn State University President Graham Spanier doubled down on PSU’s reputation gamble — and lost.

I’ve written before about the necessity for organizations to practice Honest, Open and Transparent Communications (HOT Comms).  It comes to mind again as we witness another allegation of leaders concealing the truth related to the child-abuse charges against former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Graham Spanier, former PSU president
Graham Spanier, former PSU president

In this case, former Penn State president Graham Spanier has been charged with concealing child abuse.  I’m sure Spanier was thinking that keeping the public and his own board of trustees in the dark about allegations against Sandusky a decade ago would preserve his university’s reputation (and ability to capture donor dollars, ticket sales and student enrollment). In fact, it did the opposite. By hiding facts from the light of day, Spanier threw his university’s reputation onto the craps table alongside Sandusky’s.

The public would have understood and forgiven PSU had the truth come out because of the university’s actions, not despite them. There are legions of PSU faithful who continue to support the university even now; many more would be on the administration’s side had it acted with integrity and practiced HOT Comms.

With HOT Comms, it is important to remember that people see through b.s., so obfuscating with unclear language and “spin” is never a good option when communicating about an issue. Attempting to conceal it altogether isn’t a good idea, either, because eventually all “secrets” become known in this age of hyper-connectivity. Sharing information — good or bad — in a consistent, straightforward manner builds trust on the part of an organization’s key audiences.

Deliberately delaying the sharing of a “truth” or even an “allegation” basically tells people, when they find out (and they will) that you are dishonest and will place others at potential risk for monetary gain. Spanier’s concern for PSU’s reputation was about donor dollars, football ticket sales and enrollment numbers, plain and simple. Negative news might impact any of those categories by as little as 5%, costing PSU millions of dollars. But only for the short-term.

Penn State failed on many levels. It concealed damaging information and practiced numerous delaying strategies.  The world would have forgiven the university quickly had it acted promptly and honestly when issues first came to light. By doubling down and throwing their hat in with Sandusky, Spanier and other PSU administrators took a big gamble and lost.

Pro Sports Leagues Losing Lustre

Pro sports leagues are shooting themselves in the foot … er, feet … and their reputations will suffer as a result.

Last night I watched two Keystone Kops (aka NFL Replacement Refs) signal two separate interpretations of the final play of a game, with the final outcome being the wrong call winning out and the wrong team winning the game.

2012-09-25 - KeystoneRefs

Not wrong because I’m a fan of one team or the other (I root for the Miami Dolphins, which is a whole different kind of wrong right now) but because it had chipped another chunk of credibility away from the one professional sports league that still had some.

Professional sports is in a reputation crisis. Team owners, represented by league officers, quibble with players and officials over pocket change. For instance, the NFL is arguing with its refs over salaries that lag behind other league officials as well as retirement benefits. The owners may be right in contending that NFL officials shouldn’t earn as much as an NHL ref or MLB ump because they officiate just 16-20 contests a year.

Bringing in DIII refs to coach in the NFL, however, is ludicrous.  By the way, who would blame DI or DII football refs for sticking with their current gigs rather than jeopardize their current income for possibly just one or two games at the highest level.

As my friend Elizabeth used to say, the NFL is tripping over dollars as they stoop to pick up the pennies. Their reputation, after all, has a dollar figure attached to it, and it’s quickly becoming tarnished.

The NFL’s brand is about a quality experience for the fans, including the best coaches, the best players, the best stadiums, and all the team paraphernalia a heart could desire. It is not about two zebras disagreeing on a call, a replay ref unable to overturn a wrong call and every person watching the game knowing that the wrong team won but unable to reverse the results.

The NHL, meanwhile, is in its fourth player lockout in 20 years, demonstrating that some people never learn. Each of the previous lockouts resulted in reduced fan interest (which equals lost revenues for team owners and players). Perhaps the NHL and NHLPA will pull this one out of the fire before too much damage is done, but it sounds like many are ready to dig in for the long haul (with many players already signed to play for European teams this year).

Major League Baseball has been rocked by doping, bad umpire calls and inflated egos for years.  The sport lost me years ago when it failed to deliver a consistent level of parity across the league (something the NHL and NFL actually did achieve), allowing small-market teams to continue struggling for the Yankees’ leftovers.

The NBA, meanwhile, is a collection of over-inflated egos and salary cap rules that allow certain big-city markets to form and re-form all-star teams in big city markets while the hinterlands can only hope they can naturally grow their talent into a contender once every generation.

Individual athletes — think Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Lebron James — have had their own reputation crises the past few years. We expect individuals to be flawed and make the kinds of mistakes these guys did (hurting their own careers, legacies and marketability). One would hope that the collective wisdom of many smart people, including many high-priced consultants of every ilk, would come up with better solutions than the ones we have seen so far from professional sports leagues in North America.

The Ad Men of Mad Men Turn to PR?

AMC’s Mad Men returns to television tomorrow night. Looks like the ad guys of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce need some PR help!

No, I haven’t seen an advance script of tomorrow night’s season premiere of Mad Men, but I’m going to make some educated prognostications based on the brief description of the episode and its title, “Public Relations.”

Back in the ’60s, PR was much less “developed” as a profession. Today, nearly 50 years later, Public Relations is still less defined than I’d like, based on the fact that its practitioners come from a myriad of backgrounds and are asked by their organizations to practice in a myriad of manners. Typically, however, communicating with public audiences with a heavy emphasis on earned media are part of the profession. Also, there is that tendency to turn to PR when a crisis strikes (as opposed to using good PR practices to all along to earn trust and goodwill).

AMC's Mad Men returns for a fourth season tomorrow night. Draper and crew turn to Public Relations in this new episode.
AMC's Mad Men returns for a fourth season tomorrow night. Draper and crew turn to Public Relations in this new episode.

SO, how are Don Draper and cohorts going to use Public Relations? Sounds like the agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in some trouble after a Draper gaffe and, just guessing, they need some PR help.  I’m hoping the agency actually hires a new PR person (need some new characters!) and they start to demonstrate integrated marketing campaigns. That would be novel (and way ahead of the times)! 

I’m guessing, however, that the firm has a “public relations crisis” that affects client confidence and Don and crew fix it themselves. There’s nothing those ad guys can’t do, right?

PR and Social Media

PR is strategy; Social Media is tactic. To me, Social Media is best managed within the organization by PR.

I’ve had many conversations about PR and its use of social media.  It’s been discussed in various chats on Twitter as well as at conferences.  On a few occasions now I’ve heard people talk about the PR work that they do managing a client’s social media account. I do believe wholeheartedly that managing a social media account for an organization should be under the direction of the public relations discipline. 

The social media engagement, however, should not constitute an organization’s complete PR program.  Perhaps there are a few organizations out there that can get away with that, but to create a mutually beneficial experience for an organization and its target publics, more than tweeting will be necessary. Meanwhile, people who haven’t been trained in public relations and really don’t fully comprehend what PR is shouldn’t claim to fulfill an organization’s PR needs simply because they track friends and fans and followers in Facebook and Twitter.

Some of this was part of what Jenny Luth and I talked about at the Grand Rapids Social Media (GRSM) lunch event yesterday. A good group joined us for the excellent dialog about roles and responsibilities in social media and what constitutes effective PR for an organization.

Inputs and Outputs

You need to change what you’re doing if you expect different results.

It’s simple, really.  Change the inputs and  you’ll get different outputs, right?  Or, keep doing things the same way, and you get the same results.

Ideally, before changing inputs to achieve a different, desired result, you’ll research your new inputs and have an understanding of what kinds of results can be expected.  You can’t just mix up some ground coffee and cinnamon and expect a cup of tea. 

The same is true of a communications program.  You can’t just do what you always did if you want to achieve different results. You can’t just go after traditional media publicity hits and place some TV and print ads and suddenly expect to reach the audiences you’ve been slowly losing over the past decade.  You have to change up the inputs because, unfortunately, your audience is a moving target and what worked yesterday isn’t going to work today. 

SO, you have to research where they’re at.  Then you have to create a plan for how you’re going to reach them there … and figure out how to do so in a cost-effective manner.  And now you learn something new!  This new way of talking to them isn’t just a “one-and-done” deal.  You can’t just drop a value proposition tag line on them and move on.  They … talk … back!   AND they expect you to respond!  But … we don’t have a script to respond to their unexpected questions! 

The rules have changed and you need to understand your organization and your products and be able to have extended conversations with people about them.  And since there may be a lot of people with questions, you may have to train a few friends to also have those conversations on your behalf!

I’ve been dealing with various clients who are at different developmental stages along the communication highway.  Some are stuck somewhere on the plains on Route 66.  Some are in the right neighborhood, but caught up on a sidestreet.   Getting on the right highway requires a map or, better yet, a good navigation system.  A plan.  It requires some expertise and knowledge.  The rules of the road.  It requires a good vehicle.  And it’s gonna take some time.

These same rules govern careers, too.  You’ve got to change up what you’re doing if you want different results, right?  Actually, these days, you have to change up what you’re doing just to keep your job!   There can be no complacency if you want to stay employed. 

And all of this is very unsettling. Lots of people don’t deal with change very well. I have to admit, my new, independent career is very unsettling. It requires different muscles than the ones I flexed within the corporate walls of Amway.  It requires me to go out and sell myself … and not just clients.  It requires me to manage time differently.  I’m learning these skills and getting a lot of great advice from people on which inputs I need to change to achieve the results I desire.  Am I on the superhighway of career success?  I don’t know about that, but I think I’m moving in the right direction!

Owning it

Tiger Woods taking ownership of his issues in interview with The Golf Channel.

I’ve blogged here before about Tiger and hope to not do so going forward. He’s announced he’s coming back to the tour, and I’m sure the media will be ruthless in its pursuit of him.  But I’m impressed with the interviews he’s conducted as part of his “re-entry,” especially the one with Kelly Tilghman of The Golf Channel.

In it, he answers tough questions and admits his faults. He doesn’t dodge questions, but he also doesn’t provide details that he’s said all along he will not provide. Good for him. The worst thing would be if he starts to provide any of those details or hints at it even. Because with that little bit of blood in the water, the media would be relentless. 

Many of the comments following stories about Tiger are becoming much more sympathetic to him. Many question why this is a story at all. As I’ve said earlier, the sooner he gets on the course and starts winning, the sooner all the questions will go away.  But I totally respect him for taking his time and dealing with his issues through therapy. Hopefully it will save his marriage. Hopefully it will save him, too.

Tiger’s Path to Recovery

Tiger has apologized and asked for forgiveness. Will you forgive Tiger?

A few months ago I blogged about Tiger “doubling down” on his personal and professional crisis by not being honest, open, and transparent. I was watching closely today to see if he would be able to pull out of his steep dive and begin to right his course.

I was asked to join Terri DeBoer and Rachel Ruiz on the set of WOOD TV8’s “eightWest” morning talk show to provide live commentary about Tiger’s address to the nation. Not only was Tiger’s address nearly unprecedented, since media were not permitted any questions, but it also was an atypical morning for eightWest, normally taped a few hours before its broadcast at 11 a.m. Thank you to everyone at WOOD TV8 for your professionalism and the opportunity to chat with Rachel and Terri.

Last night, preparing for my stint as analyst, I thought about what I wanted to hear from Tiger and created my checklist. Of course, everyone wanted to hear he was sorry.  I wanted to see emotion from Tiger, who normally can be quite stoic. I wanted to hear him express concern for Elin and his children. I wanted him to acknowledge that he was viewed as a role model, and that he had failed in that regard. I wanted to hear him apologize to his fans and to golf and to his sponsors.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

I think Tiger was prepped well by his handlers to hit all of these marks. He did show some emotion at the beginning, and the embrace of his mother at the end was nice. Although he was a little stoic for the latter tw0-thirds of his speech, you could tell he was uncomfortable. With good reason.  He was standing in front of tens of millions of people admitting infidelity, poor judgment, broken values.

My wife sometimes says you have to “own” your decisions — good or bad. I think Tiger owned his decisions today. He placed blame only on himself. He had made the bad decisions. He was wrong. He had gone against the values he’d been taught.

Elin, he said, had been nothing but graceful in her handling of the situation and deserved praise, not blame. He acknowledged he also had let down his family, friends, “business partners,” fans, and children who had viewed him as a role model. He acknowledged he had broken the rules, somehow thinking he was above them.

And he asked for our help, to “find room in your heart to someday believe in me again.”

It is an important first step in the right direction. I don’t agree with those who believe he should have allowed media to ask questions. He actually provided a lot of information and answered most questions that should have been asked. If there were questions beyond what he shared, they would either have been inappropriate or not questions Tiger desired to answer.

As a public person who has received truckloads of cash to endorse products (of estimated $110 million he earned in 2008, only $6 million were golf earnings, according to Forbes), the public does have a right to know when that person isn’t what he says he is. It’s kind of a truth in advertising thing. You can’t be held up as a shining symbol of dependability and success when, in actuality, you are cheating (by taking steroids, or taking shortcuts, or taking liberties that are not generally accepted).

BUT, that does not mean Tiger has to answer every question the media asks. He does not have to share his conversations with Elin or details of his affairs. His PR people probably scoured the web and prepared him well to address the biggest and most pertinent concerns out there.  And the media will still get their opportunity to ask Tiger questions, but at this time he is a recovering addict and is not ready to have that kind of dialog.

The brand of Tiger may never recover the full value it once enjoyed, but I believe he’s on the right path.  If he returns to his winning form on the links and avoids future salacious sandtraps, he will be forgiven. He just needed to ask for it.  And now he has.

Crisis response = minutes, not hours

Crisis communication response times are now measured in minutes, not hours (certainly not weeks)

In the media training I helped lead last week we discussed the slow response of certain business leaders in the wake of crises affecting their brands. With social media, what once was just a little slow would today be considered glacial. 

One case study we discussed was the emergency landing by Captain “Sully” of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a little more than a year ago.  The successful emergency landing on the river, famously captured on a cell phone camera, occurred at 3:30 p.m.  The evacuation onto the wings of the Airbus A320 happened quickly, and within minutes nearby commercial ferries were taking on the passengers. Capt. Sully, who first walked through the plane twice to ensure all passengers had been evacuated, emerged as America’s newest hero.

At 4:55 p.m., fire crews began to stand down.  All the cable news channels had extensively covered the situation. Many interviews of experts and witnesses and analysts had been conducted. By that time, there was little that the American public didn’t know about what had happened. A jet airliner landing on the river in NYC?! Post 9/11, the media are super-prepared to be all over a situation like this.

At 5:07 p.m., US Airways CEO Doug Parker issued a statement during a news conference at the airline’s headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, confirmed that there had been an accident. He didn’t really say much more than that.  He didn’t use the opportunity to praise Captain Sully, with whom he had already spoken on the phone.  He didn’t say, “We’re thrilled that the expertise of our flight staff prevented this from being a much more dire situation.”  After all, all 155 occupants of the ditched jet survived!  By the time he stood at the podium, he knew his airline had just been presented the biggest gift ever — an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but only minor injuries and some property loss.

Now, 90 minutes isn’t that much time, especially if a number of meetings and discussions had to occur before the hastily assembled news conference.  That said, more information needed to come from Mr. Parker and, more important, some emotion. People know that some accidents are going to happen and are unavoidable. But, people want to see a human reaction to crises … not some “don’t-say-too-much-for-fear-of-lawsuit” statement.

For weeks, the crisis at Toyota has been building.  A little less sensational, but affecting many more people. Quality issues have now resulted in the recall of 9 million cars worldwide. Again, people don’t expect mechanical things to be perfect, but they do expect the manufacturers of mechanical things to not only fix the problem, but to publicly acknowledge the errors and demonstrate some *human* remorse.  Not just a statement. Not just a policy. Not just a fix.  They want to see real people saying real things about real situations.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda (grandson of company founder), was part of a hastily arranged news conference Friday night (earlier today) and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the problems. “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people,” he said. “We will do our utmost to regain the trust of our customers.”  He acknowledged this is a crisis (Really? You didn’t know that earlier?) and he also apologized to shareholders for the 20% drop in company stock.

That he is apologizing and taking this seriously is great.  That it’s happening a few weeks after the news first broke is not so great.  And while I believe shareholders are indeed an important audience, an apology to them should be done through a shareholder-only communication. Doing so in the news conference only indicates that the only reason Mr. Toyoda is up there is because the crisis is affecting financials, rather than the fact that his faulty cars are affecting people.

I appreciate good brakes. This morning, while I was taking a left out of a parking lot, some oncoming cars were stopped to allow me through.  Little did I know, however, that another car was barreling down the left turn lane.  The driver/cell phone talker, however, did have good enough sense and brakes to come to a skidding stop as I inched across the lane. Thank you for good brakes to unknown car maker (I don’t remember what make of car it was … it could have been a Toyota!).  

I want Toyota to say, “We’re sorry that a faulty process has led to this. We will do our utmost to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to make sure every Toyota owner has complete confidence in their car’s mechanical abilities!” I don’t own a Toyota personally, but I believe I drive next to many of them every day. 

And I want them to say these things early in the game and not weeks later when their stock is crashing. That’s all I want.

The Media Trainers

Media Training helps prepare you for crisis situations as well as normal, everyday communications.

Yesterday I spent a wonderful day conducting media training for a major corporation with two media trainers I highly respect. One, Bill Salvin, is an excellent trainer I used for many years while at Amway. He started working with us back in the ’90s when he was with The Conner Group, founded by Tim Conner. The other tainer I worked with was Tim Conner himself.

I’ve always enjoyed working with Tim, an accomplished trainer with extensive experience working with the aviation/aerospace, defense, energy, high tech and healthcare industries.  He’s conducted hundreds of programs for companies such as DuPont, BP, Lockheed Martin, United Space Alliance, NASA, Starbucks, Expedia and more. Plus, he’s a Commander in the Navy Reserve and, between his service and his consultancy he’s worked on six continents and nearly all 50 states and 20 foreign countries. He was an award-winning journalist earlier in his career  and covered presidential primaries, interviewing Bill Clinton and George Bush as part of his work.

Tim, with whom Bill started his media training career, has an equally incredible career spanning four decades and touching nearly every corner of the communications industry. He developed training programs for and consulted with some of the world’s largest corporations. From airlines and energy companies to retail fashion and government agencies, Tim is one of the most sought after communications consultants. He too began his career in the media, starting as a writer and reporter in radio and television while earning his degree from Coe College in Iowa. He alter earned his graduate degree in communications from Syracuse University, then flew jet fighters for the Marines for five years.

Having dinner with Bill and Tim essentially is tapping into a wealth of expertise and history and stories. I enjoy both of these guys so much. A company that hires these two guys to do media training, meanwhile, taps into some of the best training available to prepare company executives and spokespeople to represent their organization in front of the cameras during a crisis.

SO, working with them this week to train 15 execs of a major U.S. corporation was a GREAT honor for me. I’ve done media training internally at Amway for many years and have helped prepare a few clients for the cameras as well.  Working with Bill and Tim, however, is really working in the big leagues, and I think our sessions went really well.  I did practice interviews and provided counsel to four of these execs, helping them understand some basics about going into media interviews with an agenda and using simple bridging tactics to get to their key messages.

I’m looking forward to future opportunities to work with Bill and Tim and to providing media training to my own clients as well. I truly believe that the things we taught during these sessions will help the trainees not only in times of crisis but also as we prepare for just about any meeting they go into.  How prepared are you for your next crisis?  How prepared are you to talk from the podium? How prepared are you for your next staff meeting?