Crisis Communications

How Bad PR Tactics Can Damage the Industry

By Communications, Crisis Communications, Public Relations

I’m concerned. The whole situation with the ouster of UVa President Teresa Sullivan by, among others, Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas has turned into one of the biggest PR headaches I’ve ever seen a university battle. And then . . . news that Dragas has hired PR firm Hill + Knowlton to represent her and “burnish” her image was released.

As a PR professional, is this a job my firm would take? Hell, no. We’re firmly in the camp of taking only clients who agree to be transparent; who have a prayer of repairing damage done; who  agree to and act on recommended counsel.

That being said, witnessing how Hill + Knowlton is handling the work concerns me further. Evidence of their counsel, thus far includes:

  1.   A letter to the editor published by Dragas’s sister; not an entirely credible source in mending the Rector’s reputation.
  2. Some suspected blog lurking and commenting from unidentified sources offering support for Dragas, sometimes out of context.
  3. A terribly written statement (that was, later, translated into plain English by Waldo Jaquith, underscoring the lack of clarity and, yes, SPIN, the firm is attempting).

I’m puzzled over how a firm could allow their client to walk, unescorted from the Rotunda to her car at 3:00am, facing media and protesters and enabling this:

“As reporters urged Dragas for comment, she replied, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” — as reported in The Hook

A responsible firm with a client in this kind of crisis should be glued to her side for the duration of the engagement. I can’t imagine letting a loose cannon like that out of my sight for a minute.

Come on, Hill + Knowlton; either have the guts to fire an indefensible client or bring your A game and get her to do the right thing. You’re giving the public relations industry a bad name.

Listen to Hillel

By Communications, Crisis Communications

Usually this space is used to discuss recent technology or news in the public relations and social media sphere. But I want to take it back. Way back to Babylon actually.

For your listening pleasure: Rivers of Babylon

“If not now, when?” said Hillel the Elder in Babylon back at some point during the big BC, AD change over. Maybe he was not talking about creating a crisis communications plan before you have a crisis. And he may not have been referencing the importance of a solid social media strategy, but I’m pretty sure he meant that if there’s something worth doing, you better get on it.

He also came up with the Golden Rule, and people seem to like that one quite a bit.

Nine Tenths of Crisis Communications is Stifling the Rumor Mill

By Communications, Crisis Communications

It seems the majority of the Charlottesville community is in violent agreement about the mishandling of the resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. I am continuing to focus on the communications gaffes; above all, the assumption that the Board of Visitors could “control” the message by releasing the news on a Sunday morning. As the lack of information perpetuates, now three days past the announcement, speculation abounds.

When releasing sensitive information to the public, it’s important to be clear, specific and as transparent as possible. The Board of Visitors’ failure to do this and satisfactorily provide the explanation of how the dismissal/resignation occurred and why has only served to fuel the collective imagination of the community. And boy do our imaginations run wild.

How much better it would have been, if the messages had been delivered in an organized, clear and cohesive manner. How much less damage control would University staff have to do, if clarity were employed, if planning of message delivery had been managed and a group effort was evident.

I’m not addressing here the obvious issue of the resignation not making a lot of sense . . . but rather the failure to appropriately communicate it to the world.

If you’re trying to avoid the extra work of putting out rumor fires, be up front with your information in the first place.

How UVa Handled the Announcement of President Teresa Sullivan’s Resignation

By Communications, Crisis Communications

On Sunday, June 10, the University of Virginia released the news that Teresa Sullivan, a president with just two years’ tenure, had been asked to resign. I talked at length with Coy Barefoot on WINA Newsradio 1070, Charlottesville: Right Now on the topic of how the news has been handled.

The challenge with releasing news such as this is that no matter what it’s going to be a shock. There are going to be questions that are either unanswerable or not available for discussion, based on legally binding arrangements among the affected parties. The decision to hold the press conference on a Sunday morning was smart; missing the Sunday paper news cycle and letting the community wrap their collective minds around the information before the opening of business on Monday sidestepped a lot of immediacy in the need to be reactive. Of course, a sudden dismissal of this kind can rock the reputation of a university and of a community that depends so heavily on a university as its major employer, and UVa should be mindful and careful to monitor its online reputation as discussion of Sullivan’s dismissal ensues.

In crisis communications, we urge clients to share news with transparency and reassurance, and the University has focused their messaging on the future: what steps the University is taking to recruit and place a new president. While explanations for the action are somewhat vague and unsatisfying to the community, it’s likely that very few details beyond what we know now will be revealed.

What do you think about how the University has handled the news?

From C’ville Weekly:

“Around 11:30am Sunday, students and faculty received an e-mail from UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington announcing that Sullivan would resign on August 15. Sullivan, who was quoted in the e-mail, said she and the Board had “a philosophical difference in opinion,” but didn’t elaborate.

At an emergency meeting with vice presidents and deans later the same day, Dragas briefly discussed the budgetary hardships faced by the Board and implied a difference of priorities between members and President Sullivan.

“We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions in resource allocation,” Dragas wrote in a memo summarizing the meeting that was posted on UVAToday. She said the compensation of UVA’s employees is continuing to decline, and the challenge of filling vacated spots is “truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.”

The Board still has personal respect for Sullivan, she wrote, but indicated it wants a leader who is more bold and proactive on tackling difficult decisions.

“We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change in both academia as well as in health care,” Dragas said at a press conference on Sunday.

“That environment, we believe, calls for a different approach to leadership.”

Read more:

The Washington Post 

C’ville Weekly

The Huffington Post


Still Working. Still Committed.

By Corporate Strategy, Crisis Communications, Public Relations

Does that sound familiar? Do you feel like you’ve heard that somewhere? That’s because BP Global does not want you to forget that they are still working in the Gulf of Mexico funding nature research, promoting tourism, and helping the area recover from the oil spill of 2010. 

Look, I know no one loves big oil, but they have done a phenomenal job with their crisis communications. Here’s a feel good video for you:

Restoring the Gulf

Everything you could want to know about where they are and what they are doing is on the website dedicated to their restoration work. What actually happened during the spill? How have they changed their safe guarding measures? What are local residents saying? How has it all affected wildlife? Yes, it is all on there. The bad news and the good news on what happened and BP’s response program; it’s all there. What is great about this? Hearing live people tell their stories. These voices are of real people affected by the spill. This is not a spokesperson telling us how they are helping:

Hope with BP’s Vessels of Opportunity Program

Showing the hard realities of the crisis makes the positive response feel more authentic. This spill happened 2 years ago, and BP has invested heavily in their communication to make sure that the public knows they are involved. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube are  updated regularly. The stories are both informative and personal.

Crisis Communications is one of those aspects of our work that doesn’t get a lot of day-to-day attention. It’s easy to talk about Social Strategy or Brand Positioning, but when it comes to a crisis, you want to have that red folder to turn to. We work with our clients to think about what would be a crisis within their company, who would be your spokesperson, which media would you reach out to, how would you acknowledge fault and move forward with an actionable plan. And then, like BP, truly invest in that actionable plan.

So I’m ready for it. Do you hate me for saying I think BP is doing a good job?