Image Protection: The #Provincetown Condom Conundrum

Posted on June 29, 2010 by Comments Off

As a child in Massachusetts, I would long for the dog days of summer when my family and I would pack up the car and drive down to the Cape for a few weeks. And it’s pretty much an unwritten rule that every Cape Codder must make a day trip to our beach Mecca — Provincetown — at LEAST once a year. Our beloved and liberal “P-town” has everything an oceanside community should command: stunning beaches, killer shopping, cute little cafes and bistros, and, of course, the proud GLBT community for which you would have to be absolutely crazy to miss the joy of the daily Main Street parade.

But now P-town finds itself in a legal squall over its typically calm waters.

On Thursday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick urged Provincetown school district to revise its policy allowing students as young as in elementary schools to get condoms if they are believed to be sexually active. The policy — unanimously passed on June 10 by the school committee — has no minimum age on supplying condoms to students. It allows nurses to give condoms to students they think are sexually active after counseling and education without informing their parents. It is due to go into effect in the fall, but the committee plans to re-examine its wording amid the concerns.

There are endless moral edges to examine in this conundrum, but I will focus on a few core communications issues:

  • Issue to Crisis. Sex Ed is a long-standing issue in public schools. As sensitive an issue as prayer in schools (recall the Reagan years), each decade has brought new thinking and acceptance to educating our children about their bodies on the taxpayers’ dime. The distribution of condoms through the nurse’s office is not new; however, the element of young age has sparked this round of controversy. The key to getting ahead of a crisis is to manage the issue before it becomes a crisis. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the school district’s debate to develop, draft and pass this policy. Perhaps this small community, which is seemingly at the edge of the Atlantic, thought it would continue to be isolated in the Internet Age.
  • Audience. This is an issue with a far-reaching constituency. The students, parents, teachers, nursing staff, local, state, and national government officials, and the general public all have a stake in the future of our children. No one wants anything negative to happen to our future, but there is obvious disagreement about how to manage their education and who is ultimately responsible. This again questions whether the government (teachers) or the parents are in charge of developing our young people. What got parents’ goats is that under the policy they will not be notified if their children participates in the program. This raises huge issues about the rights of minors versus the rights and duties of parents to be their protective guardians. Not to mention the criminal laws regulating the sexual behavior of children under the age of 16.
  • Spokesperson. Policy author and Provincetown school district superintendent Beth Singer is the person on the hot seat for this issue. She has conducted a few broadcast interviews and has been quoted in the Boston and Cape Cod daily newspapers. In addition to coming under fire for the policy itself, she is receiving criticism for being somewhat casual and cavalier about the issue. It’s difficult to tell if she’s not taking the crisis seriously, thinking it’s easily remedied with an amended policy or staying in a typical mode of kick-back-take-it-easy-I’m-on-the-Cape attitude. Whatever the case, Singer will need to prepare for round two of inquiry when the policy is revised and passed again. School may be out for the summer, but she could be sweating it out.
  • Impact. The real effect is on the students and the town itself. I was curious to know what young children thought, and I caught some “kids on the street” video and was surprised to see that children were mostly negative on the policy, calling the policy “disgusting” and “gross.” I guess if you want to know where kids stand on the issue, just ask one! In the interest of protecting abused children that desperately need help from public agencies, the Provincetown school district should make clear how and where children can receive the 24-hour help they need. Lastly, P-town is legendary for its liberal attitude around sexuality. And Massachusetts is known for passing groundbreaking legislation that other states tend to adopt.  Creating a brouhaha around condom distribution in Provincetown public schools simply creates more focus on a reputation that doesn’t need to be put under a microscope.

As we all ponder the difficult moral aspects of this situation, a few words of wisdom…

How you SHOULD be spending your summer in P-town if you’re a first grader at Veterans Memorial Elementary School:

  • Building sandcastles supported by seaweed
  • Taking swimming lessons
  • Wearing your flip-flops or going barefoot on the hot sand
  • Climbing Pilgrim Monument
  • Going sailing with your parents
  • Driving your brother or sister insane
  • Eating as many stuffed quahogs as possible
  • Practicing how to spell and write your name
  • Remembering to wear sunblock
  • Breaking your cheap sunglasses
  • Riding your banana-seat bike with an American flag bell and a woven flower basket

There Are No “Do-Overs” With the Media. #McChrystal is latest reminder

Posted on June 24, 2010 by 7 Comments

I can’t count the number of times I have counseled colleagues and clients over the years that there really is no such thing as “off the record.” It is best to assume that everything you say can and will be used against you.

History is brimmed with examples of private or off-the-record comments that have ended up in the headlines. There are some classics, such as the time former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s mother Kathleen (thinking the comment was off the record despite the rolling cameras) whispered to Connie Chung on national television that she can’t say what her son thinks of Hillary Clinton, “…but it rhymes with witch.”

Or more recently when L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was slammed for alleged tax evasion in France after secret recordings made by her butler found their way into the press. (The butler did it.)

Even more dumbfounding, is when someone makes reproachable or down-right stupid comments on the record.

Helen Thomas managed to end a legendary career as a journalist by making anti-Semitic comments to a rabbi at a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration.

Brooklyn Dodgers great Al Campanis talked himself out of Major League Baseball when he offered his personal thoughts on why there are not more African American managers in baseball. Nightline with Ted Koppel is not the best place to launch into your personal view on anything, let alone race.

And now most recently, General Stanley McChrystal was dismissed from duty after chumming it up with a reporter from Rolling Stone. This guy is a decorated four-star general. I guess they don’t give out medals for common sense.

What are these people thinking? Or were they thinking at all?

 One more time, here are some fundamental tips on how keep your foot out of your mouth:

  1. Assume that everything is on the record and that the walls have ears. This adage takes on added importance in a world where social media is gaining dominance and information travels instantaneously. Case in point: President Obama had made the decision to dismiss McCrystal before the Rolling Stone article hit the street.
  2. Be prepared. Know who you are talking to; craft a cogent and succinct narrative, and stay on point.
  3. Stay focused. It is important to set the agenda and control the discussion. Have a conversation, and don’t let yourself be interrogated.
  4. Keep your personal opinions to yourself. It is called a “personal” opinion for a reason. And, don’t talk about things you don’t know about.
  5. Speak with purpose. Keep comments brief and to the point. Don’t pontificate, and avoid verbosity.

Something Funny Is Going On … @BPGlobalPR

Posted on June 14, 2010 by Comments Off

BP is facing a public relations disaster on yet another front — this one over the highly publicized fake Twitter account BPGlobalPR. The social media hoax, called “brandjacking,”  tweets sarcastic news about BP’s missteps and suspect corporate behavior.  It currently has more than 150,000 followers and continues to gain attention.

This week, the tweets finally caught the attention (or hit a nerve) of BP’s communications team, who demanded that the site declare itself to be a parody. Those behind the BP parody tweets are refusing to back down. If BP presses the issue, things are going to get nasty.

Two observations jump out from this situation.

First, why did BP wait so long to try to stop the hoax? Were they not monitoring what was being said about them in social media? Is it possible that a multinational corporation currently embroiled in an environmental disaster failed to recognize the influence of Twitter?

Second, this issue speaks to a growing acceptance of pseudo-news and comedian commentary as a mainstream source of information and influence.  

Granted, editorial cartoons have been a mainstream source of influence for centuries (it has been a Pulitzer Prize category since 1922), and for years The New York Times Week in Review section has included quotes from late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman in its news summary, but something funny is going on here.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are now routine stops for politicians, authors and opinion leaders. More young adults get their news from these programs than from nightly broadcast news shows.

Blogs such as the Huffington Post and The Drudge Report regularly cover items that are decidedly ironic or funny (and generally with a political bias).

The list of bogus Facebook pages and YouTube videos has also proliferated.  By some estimates, roughly 40 percent of Facebook postings are ficticious. 

Funny thing is, these parodies are proving to be effective tools. They enter the web of influence and have a lasting and profound impact on public opinion.

I guess everything is news in the ever evolving environment of influence.   A valuable lesson for all of us.

When the Going Gets Trough the MPs Get Going

Posted on March 30, 2010 by Comments Off

“Influence peddling,” “lobbying” and “making representations” are all euphemisms for influencing the political system on behalf of special interests. Alternatively, the right-wing press and commentators in the UK have been quick to draw comparisons to pigs with their snouts in a trough when it comes to Westminster’s finest.

Members of Parliament have seen their standing plummet in recent months, thanks to a coordinated campaign by the British media to expose what they see as outrageous manipulation of office and abuse of the archaic expenses system. In some circles, MPs are likely to rank around the level of real estate agents or traffic wardens in the affections of the British people’s hearts. “Sleaze” is the operative word, but it isn’t the seedy fleshpots of Soho that a significant number of our MPs have been frequenting; it has been white collar in its nature. Using contacts to gain cash and embezzling the public purse to clean moats, but more of that later.

Taken individually, each of the scandals to have beset parliament do not appear overly serious. Bundle them all together against a backdrop of similar swine-like activity in the troughs of the city and people’s faith in the parliamentary system has been shaken to the core. With a crucial election just over a month away, alarm bells must be ringing themselves stupid in Westminster.

A series of scandals was topped off this week with the revelation that three former cabinet ministers had been stitched up royally by the famously acerbic “Dispatches” investigation programme on Channel 4. Stephen Byers, a former trade minister was caught on a hidden camera boasting that he was “a cab for hire” charging businesses £5,000 a day for his “influence.” As a serving MP, this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Numerous MPs have been caught by the expenses scandal that exposed many of them to have been claiming thousands of pounds against the rules. Members have been claiming for vital services such as moat cleaning for their castles, paying for mortgages that didn’t exist and even pornographic movies. All of this has eroded public confidence in one of the world’s oldest democracies and does not bode well for the future.

With huge numbers of MPs standing down at the next election, there is something of a Westminster exodus in the pipeline. This is a crisis in confidence in the system and like any other industry, without a good reputation it surely cannot attract the brightest and best anymore. With trade union-led strikes piling up on the horizon, the immediate future for Britain is bleak, or are we just a glass-half-empty kind of people?

SeaWorld: Swimming in the Deep End of Crisis Management

Posted on March 3, 2010 by Comments Off

The evolving reactions to the SeaWorld “incident” are quite interesting.

As the story has developed, the opinions of the public and SeaWorld officials have become more frank and realistic than the initial emotional reaction. At first, the public didn’t want to admit that Shamu (actually Tilikum) isn’t a cuddly little pet or acknowledge that trainer Dawn Brancheau was taking on personal risk. On the day of the attack, BBC coverage was noticeably more open and willing to examine the issue than American press, telling us that Tilikum has been involved in previous incidents with humans.

Why couldn’t we call it what it actually is? Sometimes it takes time to come to terms with the truth. Denial is a powerful coping tool, but looking at the facts can pull us through:

What’s the Real Story?

There were two versions of what happened circulating during the first post-attack press conference:

  1. She slipped and fell into the pool (SeaWorld’s version?)
  2. She was grabbed by the whale (witnesses’ account?)

Two hours later, SeaWorld confirmed that Brancheau was pulled down by her ponytail.

What the General Public Is Saying

  • “She knew the risk – they ain’t called Killer Whales for nothin’”
  • “But we love SeaWorld”; downplaying or making fun of the situation
  • The topic continues to run majority negative on the WE twendz analytic tool for Twitter feeds

 What SeaWorld Is Saying

  • Dan Brown, spokesperson for SeaWorld, was using much softer language, calling it an “incident” or “drowning” instead of a death or killing.
  • SeaWorld is cooperating with OSHA and a few other government regulators for a full investigation.
  • SeaWorld says it is doing a full review of its operating procedures.
  • SeaWorld says that safety of the employees, the public, and the animals is its No. 1 priority.

In the end, the most authentic and effective story is the one grounded in reality. Stick to your story or you’ll end up in the deep end.

Strike Two for Senator Bunning?

Posted on March 1, 2010 by 2 Comments

Any pitcher in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame should know the importance of hiding your signals.  So what was going through former MLB pitcher and current U.S. Senator Jim Bunning’s (R-Kentucky) mind when he flashed a certain middle finger signal to an ABC News producer? Was he calling for a high hard one? A curve ball? A change-up?  

Or perhaps it is just vivid evidence of what outgoing Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) has called the lack of civility in the Senate of the United States.

Bunning’s “flipping of the bird” came amid his efforts to block passage of a $10 million bill to extend unemployment and health insurance benefits to Americans who are out of work.

We all have had emotional lapses, but most of us learn from our mistakes and try to control any repeat outbursts. Evidently, Senator Bunning is beyond help in that regard. Last week the senator allegedly muttered “tough sh-t” as Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) criticized Bunning’s stance on the package.

Rule No. 1 in crisis and issues management:  Never let your emotions get the better of you, no matter how tense the situation. That rule is especially true if you are in the presence of a journalist — a producer for network news nonetheless.

Toyota’s Lentz Steps in It Again

Posted on February 9, 2010 by Comments Off

Here’s what happens when Brian Ross of ABC News ambushes Jim Lentz (outside what appears to be the Bloomberg News building, of all places):

http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/video/toyota-president-denies-cover-9717898

All the same problems as before, now presented in the form of a perp walk.

And here he is again on Fox Business News (where he looks much more in his comfort zone) minimizing the problem and putting as much of it as possible into the past tense.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NO3sPJIM_HU  

An old friend used to say that the First Rule of Holes is that when you find yourself in one, stop digging.

Company needs a better face delivering a credible message quick, or it’s only going to keep right on rolling downhill.

Identity Crisis. What American Corporations Can Learn from an “Invisible” TV Character.

Posted on February 5, 2010 by 1 Comment

I’m showing my age here, but a recent article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal rekindled memories of the American sitcom Soapwhich aired on ABC from 1977 to 1981.

This classic series, a parody of day-time soap operas, chronicled the foibles of two dysfunctional Connecticut families.  Richard Mulligan played the role of Burt Campbell, who suffers from mental illness and believes he can make himself invisible by closing his eyes and snapping his fingers.  After snapping his fingers, he would simply go about whatever he was doing believing he was invisible to everyone around him.

The article that made me remember invisible Burt had nothing to do with television sitcoms, but in many respects, the topic was just as comical.  Apparently, some luxury hotels are dropping the words “resort” and “spa” from their names in order to retain corporate clients currently under scrutiny for largesse.

Snap your fingers, and – “Poof!” – you’re no longer a resort. 

Just how stupid do these resorts, um I mean conference hotels, think people are?  More to the point, how stupid are corporations that still book meetings at these facilities, believing that no one will notice there’s a lavish party going on poolside?  Or are those companies suffering from the same mental malady as the fictional Burt Campbell?

I sympathize with the hotel industry, which is trying to keep a lucrative business model alive in the wake of the outrage that followed reports that AIG was planning a $400,000 party at a California resort — on the heels of receiving a $180 billion government bailout.  Adopting a more pedestrian name, however, is not a solution to the crisis of confidence faced by American corporations. 

Current perceptions are being shaped by sincere changes in behavior.  Smoke and mirror solutions are about as effective as Burt snapping his fingers.   It is okay to have offsite business meetings.  It is even okay to allow employees to have a little fun at these meetings.  But the day of the egregious junket is over.  The sooner companies accept and embrace the realities of this new world, the faster confidence in big business will be restored.   Conducting business as usual at a “non-resort” resort, however, is recipe for a public relations disaster.

Even Burt eventually figured out that he wasn’t really invisible.

Toyota: Gold Standard in Crisis Mis-Management

Posted on February 3, 2010 by 6 Comments

It’s no secret to anyone at this point that Toyota has made a mess of the reputational management issues stemming from their gas pedal problem. (Fun Fact: Toyota CEO Toyota Akio Toyoda drove away from his brief media encounter last week in a big black Audi).

And Tuesday their problems seemed only to get worse.

The morning started with a full page open letter to customers in the New York Times, stating that the company is “truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused.”

Note to management (and the attorneys who worked over your ad copy): People are not concerned about your recall. They are, however, worried about their families dying in a flaming car wreck because the gas pedal was stuck to the floor.

The day went sharply downhill from there, when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales USA makes his first public appearance opposite Matt Lauer on the Today show this morning. It’s hard to do this interview justice; you really need to watch it for yourself to see one misstep unfolding after another.

Here are some things that might have helped you:

  1. Splitting hairs between the sticky-pedal problem and the pedal-stuck-under-floor-mat problem is really not the way to answer the what-did-you-know-and-when-did-you-know-it question. Really.
  2. Do not under any circumstances repeatedly refer to the floor mat issue as the “entrapment” problem. This is not effective framing when crushed metal and fire are foremost in customers’ minds.
  3. Do not say that “the number of deaths, the number of accidents, whether it is one or two thousand doesn’t really make a difference.” (This may have started as a talking point about how much the company cares about each one of its customers, but it didn’t end that way.)
  4. Do not present a timeline that has already been contradicted not only by federal regulators, but also by the company’s own previous public statements. People will notice.
  5. When asked if it might be an electrical rather than mechanical problem (as many fear), do not simply assert without any explanation that you are absolutely “convinced” and “confident” that it isn’t. Even your body language is cocky here. And that’s just what you said about the floormats.
  6. Do not wait until three quarters of the way into your interview to deliver what should have been the very first words out of your mouth: “I drive a Toyota. My family drives Toyotas,” and that you are just as concerned about this as anyone.
  7. Do not expect a softball interview just because you’re being interviewed by Mr.  Nice Guy. Sarah Palin learned this from Katie Couric. And when moms and kids are involved, morning TV will go rougher on you than Mike Wallace ever did. Be ready for it.
  8. Do not keep answering the questions about how this impacts your reputation. Ignore the Wall Street Journal chattering about your stock price and marketshare. Right now, your only concern is the millions of families out there worried about how they’re going to get to work tomorrow.
  9. Finally, think about whether you’ve got the right talker, one who might convey at least a whiff of compassion. Neither the corporate structure nor the culture at Toyota lends itself to charismatic American-style executive leadership. But you need somebody who can be the confidently contrite face of this crisis going forward. Start asking around; she’s around there somewhere.

Here’s how the message might have gone:

  • “My own children ride in Toyota vehicles every single day. Believe me when I say I am just as concerned about safety as any other parent.”
  • “In retrospect, it is clear our testing did not find the right problem in time.” [This will not come as a surprise to anyone at this point, including your lawyers.]
  • “Toyota has always stood for quality. In this case, we had too much confidence in our systems.
  • “Even our engineers did not understand the full scope of the problem until too late.” [This is your attempt to escape endless back and forth on timelines. It may or may not work.]
  • “That is something we deeply regret. We do understand the frustration and the serious concern that people have, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that it never happens again.”
  • “We have also invited Independent Experts in to help us make absolutely certain this is a mechanical problem, not an issue with the electronics. These Experts and our own engineers have tested it and retested and retested it again. Just to make sure, we will also be checking and upgrading software on every car.”
  • “As for the families all over America wondering what to do now, we are providing vouchers you can use at your local car rental agency to get you the transportation you need until we can fix your car.”

And while you’re at it, make a deal with NBC to bring a crew out to your safety lab to show them what you’re doing — and to meet the capable, talented people doing it.

Of course, all of this might or might not have prevented a disgruntled customer from accidentally accelerating his Toyota Tundra right through the showroom windows of a Louisiana dealership yesterday after the manager explained they could not give him a refund on the truck (police reportedly “found no evidence the incident was intentional”).

It probably does not help you with the fact that no less a viral subject than Steve Wozniak himself complained that he has been able to replicate the *electronic* acceleration problem in his Prius (which was not on the recall list), and that it has been impossible to get anyone at Toyota or in Washington to respond.

The irony is all this is that back home in Japan, the company is starting to be getting it right. But it’s happening eleven time zones away, and in Japanese. From the Wall Street Journal online Tuesday afternoon:

“In the first detailed comments by a Japanese headquarters executive since the recall and sales and production halt were announced last month, Toyota Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki told reporters in Nagoya, Japan, that the company may not have done enough to look at how parts interact with each other, and how that could cause system failures.

It was a remarkable admission after a remarkable week for a company that has long prided itself as setting the global design and manufacturing standard for quality control.

Mr. Sasaki began the press conference bowing deeply and offering an apology to Toyota’s customers. Appearing alone before a crowded room of reporters, he repeated over and over throughout the press conference the phrase “okyakusama dai ichi” — “customer first” — a concept that Toyota has widely been accused of forgetting as it pursued rapid global expansion.”

It should not have taken a month from when the story broke for this to happen. As we have seen time and again, communications crises like this do not ever end until the company or individual at the center of the storm begins to own the responsibility.

Toyota should also understand that every plaintiff’s lawyer in America is already coming after them on this. How badly it ultimately hurts from a legal standpoint is going to be decided over a very long time based far more on whatever turns up in discovery than anything said now. And somebody from Toyota  is likely to wind up sitting in front of a congressional committee.

But the damage they are doing to their reputation by appearing to bob and weave is instantaneous, irrefutable, and very long lasting.

Stars and Strikes

Posted on February 2, 2010 by Comments Off

Football, or soccer to our North American cousins, is a religion in the UK. Try telling a dyed-in-the-wool football fan that “it’s only a game, pal” and you’ll be met with a response most likely quoting the great Bill Shankly of Liverpool: “Football is not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that.” It is also big, big business.

It is a sign of the times that two of England’s most famous clubs, Shankly’s beloved Liverpool and the world’s most famous Red Devils, Manchester United, are now owned by American investors. What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Well, nothing at all, except that the initially fabled financial saviours of these clubs seem to be running out of greenbacks. Tom Hicks and George Gillett took over Liverpool in 2006, whilst moneybags Floridians the Glazers did likewise at United in 2005. Fans didn’t like it, with a preference for the traditional system of clubs being owned by many shareholders – likely to be fans themselves – rather than ownership by cold-blooded business tycoons.

Closer inspection of the deals revealed that both clubs had been saddled with enormous debts. A recent bond issue prospectus distributed by Malcolm Glazer underlines the severity of the situation. The Glazers had been drawing money out of the club to finance the crippling debt, as if slowly choking the club like financial bindweed. A few miles up the East Lancashire road and Gillett and Hicks are spilling each other’s blood on the boardroom carpet. Rumours abound that they loathe each other and that there is to be no money for the manager to spend on drafting in new, world-class players. A common thread with the Glazers, Gillett and Hicks is that their actions are having repercussions on the pitch. Liverpool’s form has dipped and although United are still leading the charge, there is a growing sense that all of the off-field debt problems are silently creeping up on the team, which needs investment.

By being furtive and always in the shadows, the Glazers have developed a Mr Burns-like image. They rarely engage the media and almost never give interviews. They live in an almost perpetual cycle of anonymity. Things don’t get much better for Gillett and Hicks either. Press stories about their fractious relationship and publicised fallings-out with manager Rafael Benitez fan the flames of speculation that the club is in crisis. Having a tighter rein on what is reported would certainly help.

These tycoons have treated both clubs strictly as a business and in turn their stock has fallen. By overlooking the deep-seated reverence that football fans hold for their club these financial mercenaries could be biting off the hand that feeds them. One shining example of a trans-Atlantic football match made in heaven is at Birmingham club Aston Villa. MBNA tycoon Randy Lerner has the respect of fans and a grateful manager. He has even invested his own personal fortune in a local hospice (who sponsor the team) and gifted cash to the National Gallery in London. Polishing his CSR credentials and being a hands-off operator have made him a success, something Hicks et al should take on board. The bullish approach may work for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the Glazers are owners) but business should not take a one-size-fits-all approach … it’s more important than that.

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