Watching the Clock

Learning from the mistakes of others is a tried-and-true method of avoiding missteps in your own company communications. Twice a year, public relations firm Solomon McCown pores through recent headlines to see the best examples of mistakes to avoid when it comes to crisis communications and corporate messaging. In a recent video clip, the company’s president Ashley McCown shared her top six picks for mismanaged media situations, and lessons for companies when dealing with their own crisis communications.

1. The Bill Cosby scandal, where the comedian admitted in court documents from a 2005 lawsuit that he acquired Quaaludes to drug women with whom he wanted to have sex. Takeaway lesson? “It is another reminder that anything, even said under oath, has the potential to go public,” said McCown. “In fact, it is to be expected.”

2. Deflategate and its aftermath. “Never before has air coming out of a football gotten so much airtime. The NFL, in its deflategate scandal, has been a fumble on all sides,” declared McCown. In its mishandling of the accusations against the New England Patriots of deflating balls before the AFC championship game, which involved team equipment managers and even star quarterback Tom Brady, McCown points to how miscommunication played a large part in the scandal. Takeaway lesson: “Commissioner Roger Goodell’s lack of a definitive response in so many of these instances underscores how important it is to have a credible leader when your organization’s reputation is under constant ridicule,” said McCown.

3. The Rolling Stone magazine story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia and the institution’s supposed mishandling of the situation ran in November 2014 was later debunked as fabricated and led to a lawsuit against the magazine by the university for defamation of character this year. Takeaway lesson: “While Rolling Stone should hold its reporters to higher standards, UVA proved that a rush to judgment is rarely the right move, especially in crises where the facts are less than clear,” said McCown.

4. The FIFA corruption scandal topped many of this year’s PR “Don’t do” lists, as the indictment of nine officials and resignation of president Sepp Blatter made worldwide headlines. Takeaway lesson: “This just proves that systemic wrongdoing within any organization will eventually be exposed and heads are going to roll,” says McCown.

5. News anchor Brian Williams and his not-so-amazing flying machine made their own headlines when his oft-repeated claim that he had been in a helicopter in Iraq that was downed by a rocket propelled grenade was very publically retracted under scrutiny. Williams was suspended without pay by employer NBC for six months. Takeaway lesson: “Williams learned the hard way that journalists should cover the story, not strive to be the centre of it, especially when so many brave Americans have served their country so well overseas,” said McCown.

6: Rachel Dolezal, a woman who represented herself as bi-racial or black and served as the Spokane chapter leader for the NAACP before stepping down a week after controversy surfaced over the fact that she was actually Caucasian. Takeaway lesson: “No matter what you think of this story, it goes to prove that no-one should claim to be something they are not,” said McCown. “If you build your career and your reputation on a foundation of lies, it will eventually come crashing down.”

Of course, when it comes to crisis communications, it pays to keep one eye on the clock. In PR Week, Gene Grabowski, partner at Washington, DC-based kglobal, detailed an hour-by-hour rundown of a product recall to show just how fast information – and rumor – can travel.

6 a.m.: Announcing the product recall and bringing in an external crisis communications expert.

7 a.m.: The PR team keeps its ears to the ground to check out print, social and digital media, then presents its findings to the company.

8 a.m.: Planning time with the CEO, internal communications head, tech expert, marketing manager, and an external attorney experienced in the regulatory processes involved in a recall.

10 a.m.: Executing the strategy, especially internal communications to avoid a mixed message coming from within the building.

Noon: The spokesperson’s ready and press releases are distributed over the newswire. “It should include all the information the company has available, recall instructions for consumers, and a list of corrective steps the company is taking. Include a consumer helpline number in the release,” according to the article.

1 p.m.: Reaching out to retailers through marketing or sales teams.

"Retailers need answers to questions they get from consumers at the checkout counter," Grabowski told PR Week.

2 p.m.: Update the public on the website, using a special section or page.

3 p.m.: Keep an eye on the media to respond quickly.

4 p.m.: Release a short video showing concern and empathy. “A video has a warmer touch than a written release and is a better way to convey emotion," Grabowski told PR Week.

5 p.m.: The cause of the recall is discovered by investigators. Make sure the public knows the process being put into place to avoid future recalls.