Monday, June 4, 2007

Mismanaging a Public/Media Meltdown … Celebrity Style

By Ned Barnett, APR, AHA PR Fellow

Note: This column was developed for IABC and was published initially on their member-column website.

Self-induced celebrity PR meltdowns are not a purely American phenomenon (Prince William is having some serious media problems at the moment, too), but it may be particularly American that its media celebrities are ignoring sound PR response techniques. They are clearly not learning from their predecessors.

Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and shock-jock radio host Don Imus have all undergone very public meltdowns – disasters that have some remarkable similarities. In each case, their self-inflicted problems could have been largely overcome by a savvy and consistent PR response to their crises.

Gibson, Richards and Imus have shared two major mistakes: They ignored sound PR strategy in favor of seat-of-the-pants unscripted responses to their evolving crises. As a result, they each wound up engaging in seemingly-endless and very public rounds of “serial public apologies.” These compounded their initial PR problems by sustaining the story. They each gave the media additional fuel – fuel enough, in Imus’ case, to destroy his job, and perhaps his career.

For those not familiar with American radio, morning “drive-time” is the highest-rated and most profitable day-part. Competition for audiences is fierce, and “shock-jocks” are encouraged to push the envelope in order to drive ratings, ad revenues and profitability. Some who fell before Imus pushed way too far. One pair of shock-jocks in New York City encouraged listeners to have on-the-air sexual relations within the confines of St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and they lost their jobs when those listeners got caught “in flagrante delicto.” Oops.

Don Imus could be crude, but he wasn’t that crass. His show combined envelope-pushing comments with incisive and often newsworthy interviews with leading US politicians and major-league news media superstars. But in early April, Imus went a giant step too far. Instead of focusing his satiric boorishness on politicians or public figures, he used racial- and gender-offensive terms to mock a team of predominantly black college women athletes whose only sin was not looking as good as the predominantly white college women who beat them out for their sport’s national championship.

After more than a week of flopping about like a beached whale instead of responding to the crisis in a PR-savvy manner, Imus was fired for his comments.

Imus’ termination by the “suits” at CBS is a cautionary to those who assume that stand-out financial success was “proof” against unemployment. Imus had long been the $15-million-per-year cash cow at CBS Radio’s talk enterprise – but when his inept PR response to the crisis he crated didn’t work, the suits panicked and the rest is history.

Those are the facts – his botched response, perhaps even more than the initial crude comment itself, cost Imus his job, perhaps his career, as well as his chance to raise funds for a children’s charity he solely supported.

The week between his comment and his termination was punctuated by a blundering exercise in serial public apologies to people other than those he’d offended, along with lame and fungible excuses, half-baked public rationalizations and pathetic public attempts to shift blame to rap musicians – or, it seemed, almost anybody else. At one point, the often-cocky Imus bragged – bragged – that he didn’t have PR counsel advising him. Based on the results of his home-grown PR “solution,” it appears that all of his wounds were self-inflicted.

Some PR pros contend – and frankly, we’ll never know for sure – that Imus’ ‘original sin’ was so egregious that no PR solution could have salvaged his career.


However, at the time, and again in retrospect, I am convinced that if Don Imus had retained – and actually listened to – a seasoned and media-wise PR counselor, he might have survived. By either properly apologizing or hanging tough, he could have salvaged his career by turning down the volume on the public criticism that ultimately drove him from the marketplace of ideas.

Both of these solutions are based on Barnett’s First Law of Solving Self-Inflicted PR Problems: If running your mouth gets you into trouble, you can’t solve your problem by continuing to run your mouth. More colloquially, if you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot, take it out of your mouth first.

In short – shut up!

This “be-quiet and move-on” rule applies not just to celebrities trying to recover from self-inflicted wounds, but also to corporate CEOs and others whose ego gets ahead of their ability.

How might this have worked for Imus?

First, he should have seen what was really going to happen if he didn’t stop the damage right away (any PR pro would have seen that in about 18 nanoseconds), come up with a plan that made PR sense, then stick to that plan.

Although some PR pros saw no way out for Imus, I see one possible PR solution – possible, but only if acted on within the first 24 to 48 hours.

Solution: Imus should have, immediately on realizing what he’d done, chartered a jet, do what it takes to get in front of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s members and, in private – face-to-face – offered a sincere apology to the women he offended.

In today’s environment, a “make-good” would have also been appropriate – perhaps endowing scholarships for Rutgers women’s basketball team members, or endowing a seat of racial sensitivity on the faculty. Such things are now expected in order to “prove” sincerity. However, the important point is simple; Imus should have apologized to the women he offended, not to Al Sharpton or Katie Couric or Larry King. He should then have buttoned up and hunkered down to ride out the storm.

Whenever he was asked by the media for a further comment, he should have repeated his apology, verbatim – endlessly verbatim – and said nothing else. News stories can’t move forward in a vacuum, and eventually the media would have moved on.

If Imus had gotten out front of the news cycle – if he’d taken bold and decisive action to admit guilt and make amends – and if he’d stuck to his story and avoided the temptations of talking about this issue, on his own program or on other radio/TV programs, the story would have eventually had to die from a lack of sustainability.

However, instead of taking his lumps, hunkering down, then (eventually) moving on, Imus apologized – endlessly. And not to the women he’d wronged, but to Al Sharpton and a seemingly-endless series of fellow news media stars, all of whom had professional (and in some cases, financial) incentives to keep moving the story forward. Imus should have known better – as a talk show host himself, he’d been on the receiving end of more than a few “serial public apologies.” Even without the recent examples of Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, Imus had every reason to know nothing good comes from offering seemingly endless, insincere and conflicting or defensive apologies.

He had no PR counsel, so he fell back on what he knew best, and in doing so, he fell into the standard-issue media trap. He’d crossed the ill-defined line of what the media will accept, and that made him fair game. Imus apologized to people who had professional reasons for hanging him out to dry while he turned slowly, slowly in the wind … and his critics’ ratings soared. Once he adopted this public apology approach, there was no sound PR way out. But prompt and savvy PR action “might” have turned things around for him. At least, if he’d followed a sound PR strategy, he would have had a chance.

About the author: Ned Barnett has been working in PR for 35 years; about half on the client-side and half on the agency side. From an agency perspective, he’s been a senior exec at a Fleishman-Hillard subsidiary and he’s been (and is currently) a solo practitioner – operating Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas and Southern Utah ( He was, in 1978, the youngest person (to that time) to earn APR status with PRSA, and in ‘84 he became the first person to earn Fellowship Status in PR from the American Hospital Association. He’s written 9 published books on PR and is working on his tenth; he’s taught PR at two state universities – from an honors perspective, his accomplishments range from earning the 1974 Chattanooga Association of Business Communicators “Writer of the Year” to PRSA’s 2001 Silver Anvil.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Guns, The Lockdown and the Two-Hour Gap

Reprinted with Permission from O' - Jack O'Dwyer's Online PR News Source

Author's Note: I have written a thoughtful and well-reasoned column on the Virginia Tech tragedy for IABC - it will be published in the next issue (and will be posted here when available). It provides a fact-based analysis, along with some specific
recommendations on handling crisis PR.

Jack O'Dwyer asked me to write this very different column for his online publication - one that cuts to the heart of what I think are the PR failures there - specifically, that the University acted too late and with too little in protecting it's students; and, when they did finally act, they gave fatally-flawed advice (and I'm not making a joke - that advice, to hide behind locked doors instead of running away, may have led to some of the deaths - the victims were found huddled in rooms where they made easy and unresisting targets for the madman who executed them).

The O'Dwyer column here also notes that their disaster plan was not field-tested,
and it did not (apparently) have an after-the-crisis component that would guide them in rebuilding their shattered image with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents or Virginia taxpayers, voters and legislators. These are two elements that should ALWAYS be in crisis PR plans, but are almost never - at least not in my experience - included.


June 1, 2007 O'Dwyer PR
By Ned Barnett

Those who make the plans do not fully understand the consequences of the actions they recommend.

The facts about what happened at Virginia Tech are indisputable.

1. The University enacted a policy that went against the intent of the state's concealed carry firearm law, making it an offense for duly licensed and trained individuals to carry firearms for personal self-protection while on campus. This rule ensured that, when the gunman ran amok, law-abiding students and faculty and staff were unable to defend themselves - obviously, the shooter didn't care about breaking this gun-rule as he slaughtered 32 other students.

2. A troubled individual with a history of mental illness and a propensity for making violent threats had his privacy protected by a system not set up to protect society from dangerous individuals. Eventually he snapped, and 33 people (including himself) died.

3. After a first shooting that left two dead, the University followed its crisis
communications plan and called a meeting. Leaders were still meeting more than two hours later, trying to decide what to do, when 31 additional people were shot.

4. When the University decided to act, instead of using available (loud-speaker) technology to make sure everyone on campus knew of the risk, they instead sent out an email, which only reached those who were online and looking at email. Compounding this communications failure, this email did not say "run for your lives" - instead, it advised students to watch out for, and report, any dangers. In effect, it put students on the firing line without giving them enough information

5. When the University finally got around to issuing more forceful warnings - instead of warning students to "run for your lives" - the University urged students to get behind locked doors and hide. This is where the gunman found his 30 additional victims - hiding in classrooms and under desks - easy targets for even a bad shot.

6. The University's disaster plan had no follow-up component - so an institution whose credibility had already been shattered is now facing the further backlash that
comes from attempting to stonewall on reports identifying what really happened, what really went wrong and who is really to blame. No heads have rolled, and little attempt has been made to win back the trust of alumni, faculty, students, parents or taxpayers in Virginia. EVERY crisis PR plan ought to have a follow-up component; but, like most such plans, the Virginia Tech crisis PR plan stopped when the immediate
crisis ended.

This represents a breakdown in communications at every level. Two hours before the execution-style murders of 30 students took place, the University knew it had a double-murderer out there – he might still be on campus, armed and dangerous. Yet for two hours, they said and did nothing more dynamic than calling a meeting. When they did act, they notified only a small fraction of those who were at risk - and what they told them, in the first "warning" and in subsequent warnings, was potentially fatal advice. Turning students into ill-informed "eyes and ears" of officials puts them at risk.

Telling students and faculty to lock themselves together in groups instead of scattering and running ensures that the murderer will have no problem finding trapped potential victims.

Like most university officials around the country, the leaders at Virginia Tech clearly did not know that handguns have poor accuracy at distances beyond 3-5
yards, or that even trained target shooters have a difficult time hitting moving targets.

Hollywood westerns and TV action shows may present a different view, but reality is far different. Even the best handguns are notoriously inaccurate beyond 25 or 30 feet – and that's when they're being shot at stationary targets under low-stress circumstances. Live-action films of police in close-range shoot-outs with criminals show that even trained shooters have a hard time hitting man-sized targets in high-stress combat-like situations.

That's why experts who understand the limitations of guns - and gunmen - urge people in high-risk situations to run like hell, dodging and weaving and getting away from the shooter.

But the University clearly didn't take the time to figure out the limitations of handguns - instead, and in spite of the bloody history of Columbine and other
school shootings where victims were bunched together, the University crisis planners followed "conventional wisdom."

Instead of telling potential targets and victims to run away, they urged people to cluster together behind closed doors.

The one thing Hollywood has gotten right is that a pistol bullet will shatter an interior lock – not a padlock, or a dead-bolt, but the kind of flimsy door look found in University classrooms and dorm rooms. As a result, when the shooter killed 30 students most of these victims were cowering under desks or standing up against walls. They were immobile targets, hard to miss even by a poor shooter.

Those who survived this assault are those students who, on their own initiative, and
against University advice, jumped out of windows and ran like hell.

This highlights a fatal flaw in most crisis plans. Those who make the plans do not fully understand the consequences of the actions they recommend. They do not field-test their plans – Virginia Tech certainly never field-tested their plan to identify flaws that can be fixed before a crisis arises. Then they rely on approaches that might work in non-crisis situations – such as committee meetings and email notifications instead of taking immediate action that has a chance of saving lives.

* * *

Ned Barnett, owner – since 1985 – of Barnett Marketing Communications, is a crisis PR expert, former college PR director and senior exec for Fleishman-Hillard in Silicon
Valley. Barnett has taught PR and marketing at two universities and wrote nine books on PR and marketing. He was the first person to earn fellowship status from the American Hospital Association in PR and marketing, and in 1978 he was the youngest person to ever (to that date) earn accreditation fromPRSA. He currently writes a monthly column on crisis PR for IABC.

Field-Testing Crisis PR Plans

Field-Testing Crisis PR Plans
By Ned Barnett

One of the (literally) fatal flaws of the Virginia Tech Crisis PR plan was the fact that it wasn't field-tested - they didn't know how it would work, and hadn't tested for flaws that could be fixed before hand. This is a big mistake, though not one widely recognized.

I came up with the idea of field-testing crisis PR plans when I worked at my first hospital, and participated in a crisis "field day" exercise. This hospital - at least once a year - would have nurses and other patient-contact staff actually do things they might be called on to do in a crisis. For instance, we set a hospital bed on fire and had them put it out with the kinds of fire-fighting gear available in or adjacent to hospital rooms. It's one thing to give theory, quite another to get a face-full of smoke while putting out a stubborn sheet/mattress fire. This later paid off handsomely when the hospital was hit by a hurricane and some patient rooms had to be evacuated after windows blew out. The nurses knew what to do - no patients were injured - all because they'd practiced "for real."

From that, I decided that crisis PR plans needed to be field-tested - they cannot just be paper exercises - and when we had a PR crisis (that same hurricane, among others) I was ready to convert the auditorium into a press room, put security into the halls and stairwells to keep roving reporters from roving, etc. My part of the overall plan worked because everyone involved had practiced their roles, they knew what to do, and they did it.

This was almost 30 years ago, and I've applied this lesson many times since - always successfully. If you've not field-tested your crisis plans, you ought to consider it.