Wednesday, January 16, 2013

After All Else Fails, Lance Armstrong Tries Doing the Right Thing

The big PR news this week is Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah, in which, he confesses to using performance enhancing drugs to win all those Tour de France titles. Armstrong's goal is to have his lifetime ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency reduced or eliminated. According to the Wall Street Journal, Armstrong believes competing in events like triathlons will provide him a steady stream of income now that all those lucrative corporate sponsors have dumped him.

There are three keys to successful image rehab after scandal. First is that the confession has to be authentic. In this case, it feels like the expedient thing for Armstrong to do. There is a disingenuity to all of this that feels smarmy.

Second, the confession has to come with an apology to those hurt or impacted. I've not seen the Oprah interview, but Armstrong did apologize to employees of the foundation that he created. The apology, however, came without any admission of guilt. This feels a bit like the apology of a five-year old, more upset at getting caught than for what he was caught doing.

The third requirement is to back up the confession and apology with meaningful actions. How is Armstrong going to make this right? He has spent the last 15 years demonizing anyone who actually told the truth. He ruined people's lives and reputations by deploying the Armstrong Attack Machine. How much of his sponsor money will he pay back? Will he pay back the $500,000 he won from accusing the Sunday Times of libel for reprinting doping claims? The Times, by the way, is suing to get its money back. It will win.

I've heard the argument made that if you look at the history of the Tour de France, you find that, since 1968, more than 80% of that race's champions have had their titles taken away because they cheated. It would appear that everyone cheated in cycling's biggest race. If that's true, Armstrong could make the case that the playing field was truly level and that not only was he the best cyclist, he was the best doper. However, we all learned very young that just because everyone is doing it, that doesn't make it right. That's also the same time we learned that there was a possibility that all our friends might jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which was weird because we lived in Wisconsin. I digress.

People invested a lot in Armstrong's facade over the last 15 years. He had millions of supporters through it all, even when the USADA stripped him of his titles and banned him for life. Now that everything that he's accused of appears to be true, a lot of us feel stupid for having believed and defended him. He was such a convincing liar that the default view for many people will now be: Lance Armstrong's lips are moving = Lance Armstrong is lying.

I'm glad he confessed, I just don't think he did it because it was good for the soul. I think he did it as a means to an end. One of his books was titled "It's Not About the Bike." His image will be rehabilitated when he realizes that this isn't about him either.

Sadly, I don't feel like he's there yet.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cinemark's Box Office PR Fail

Well, that didn't take long. I wrote about the Year Ahead in Crisis Comms less than a week ago and already one of the four things I predicted has, sadly, come to pass.

Cinemark USA, the theater chain that owned the movie theater in Aurora, CO, where 12 people were killed and dozens wounded by a gunman last summer, sent invitations to victim's families inviting "them and a guest" to a remembrance and a movie. The invitations arrived two days after Christmas according to PR Newser and other reports.

I wasn't able to find the full text of the Cinemark letter to families, but family members responded with a letter, which The Denver Post reprinted.
"This disgusting offer that you’d “like to invite you and a guest to a special evening of remembrance on Thursday, January 17 at 5 PM” followed by the showing of a movie and then telling us to be sure “to reserve our tickets” is wholly offensive to the memory of our loved ones." -Letter to Cinemark from families of victims
This falls into the "Lack of Compassion" category from my Year Ahead post. The community has been supportive of reopening the theater and it is appropriate to let the families know that the reopening is near. , but the language in quotes below reads like it came from the promotions department.  This isn't the first insensitive letter Cinemark has written about the disaster. The CEO wrote a letter to Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan in September about plans to reopen the theater.
“We pledge to reconfigure the space and make the theater better than ever." -Tim Werner, Cinemark USA CEO (Aurora Sentinel)
The problem with the theater wasn't that it was a substandard place to watch movies, but that 12 people were murdered while watching a movie there. "Better than ever," seems like one of those throwaway phrases from a CEO who doesn't really have his finger on the pulse of the story engulfing his own company.

Cinemark is in a very tough spot. The crisis happened on their property, but it wasn't caused by the company or its employees. Aurora's mayor asked the company to reopen the theater. Reopening is the right thing to do. But, how they are communicating is not only amateurish, it's adding to people's suffering. Stop it.

The learning point for communicators is this: People impacted the most get to decide when the crisis is over, not the company.  Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded in Theater 9 of Cinemark's Century 16 multiplex in Aurora.

No amount of remodeling or renaming will ever change that. 

Bill Salvin

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Year Ahead in Crisis Comms

In the coming year, we will see companies in crisis. The companies that do well will have prepared for a crisis. Not necessarily the one with which they have to deal, but prepared nonetheless. The companies that do poorly, the ones many of my fellow crisis bloggers and I will write about, will have understood that a crisis can strike, but chose to not prepare. Here are a few mistakes we're likely to see in 2013.

Siege Mentality
You can tell a company that has succumbed to a siege mentality when they respond with "no comment" when asked about the disaster du jour. Even though "no comment" = "guilty" in the public's mind and has been that way since the 1970s, you will still see "professional" communicators using that phrase. When they do, their story moves on without them. Crisis response is not for the faint of heart. Ensure your bosses know what and how you will communicate in a crisis. The less they are surprised, the less likely they are to head to the bunker to ride the storm out.

Lack of Compassion
When you're in a bunker waiting for the storm to pass it is easy to miss the people suffering. All crises are human events, and companies that ignore the human element are doomed to failure. The companies that fail ignore those they've hurt. Their reputations will suffer in direct proportion to the degree to which they ignore human suffering.

Rely on Old Media
We are living in a time when a serious corporate crisis can have a beginning, middle and end on social media. Traditional media are stretched to the limit and a good part of the world gets news from friends through social networks. The companies that focus on traditional TV, radio and print will miss the chance to talk directly to the stakeholders that matter most in an adverse event. Best to have a plan to monitor and engage across multiple networks and platforms. Test it before a crisis so you know it works.

Saying Something Stupid and Being Stunned at its Disclosure

It is not surprising that human beings stick a foot in their mouths when things are going badly. Those that make the worst gaffes are those that likely have had the least training. The stress of a crisis leads them to make silly mistakes that will overwhelm anything positive the company has done to respond to the disaster. Way back in the 1990s, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that "once I commit something to paper, I consider it compromised." That's about 20 years ago, before the Internet, before social media and before YouTube. Don't let down your guard. If you don't want something disclosed, don't say it.

In my best case scenario, As we begin the New Year, I wish you a crisis-free 2013. Since best case scenarios are as common a Chicago Cubs World Series victory, I wish you a successful response so that you don't endure the crisis only to be an object lesson for others.

Bill Salvin