Busted? Five Plays from the Crisis Handbook

Three politicians in my hometown of Richmond, Va., are learning the hard way that when you find yourself challenged on issues of ethics — or any issue, really — it’s always best to take the up-front and honest route.

Shonda M. Harris-Muhammed, a Richmond City School Board member, is embroiled in a controversy over her claim that she earned a doctorate through an online university. The diploma mill denies she completed the requirements for the degree and Harris-Muhammed can’t seem to prove it, but she remains defiant. The story won’t go away and gets more embarrassing for the school system — which itself is struggling in terms of its reputation — with every headline.

Frustratingly for parents and school officials, there seems to be little anyone can do to make Harris-Muhammed and her indignation go away because several years ago Richmond voters decided to elect school board members and a recall seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, two of Virginia’s top elected officials can’t seem to escape the muck around gifts they received from the CEO of a Richmond-based company — some of which they reported in accordance with the law, but some of which they apparently did not. Gov. Bob McDonnell claims some of the gifts were to his family members, not to him personally. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli also had to amend previous gift disclosures and successfully gained recusal from defending the state in a lawsuit brought by the company.

Politics are no doubt driving how these three are responding to their ethical challenges. And the world of politics often seems to spin in its own orbit, separate in some ways from the business world or the rest of the world. However, if the school board member, the governor and the attorney general want to survive these trying times with their integrity intact, they could take a page from any public relations playbook that includes guidance on crisis communications or reputation management:

  • Get out in front of the problem. It’s too late for these three, but don’t wait for a crisis to become a crisis before taking steps to manage it. Many businesses have people whose responsibilities include issues management — scanning the environment for potential issues or problems that might flare up and planning how to avoid or respond to them. Of course, if you don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong, it might be a moot point.
  • Own up to mistakes. Publics are intolerant of people and organizations that make excuses or try to justify actions that those publics believe are wrong. On the other hand, people love a good redemption story. Exhibit A: Mark Sanford.
  • Redirect the conversation to what you’re doing to correct the problem. Rather than make excuses, talk about specific actions you’re taking to make sure you never make the same mistake again. Everything you say should focus on action — not blame, promises, intentions or platitudes.
  • Be truthful and transparent. Even when it hurts. In these days of 24-hour news cycles, social media and citizen journalists, the truth will be found out. You can either be the one who tells it, or be the one who hides it while others tell their version of it.
  • Clean up your act. Never make the same mistake again.

The last one seems to be the most difficult step, especially for people in power.


Lance Armstrong’s PR Strategy

Lance Armstrong is expected to confess to Oprah Winfrey this week that he did, in fact, take performance-enhancing drugs for at least 15 years, including while winning seven Tour de France titles.

Sadly, observers and commentators already are painting Armstrong’s mea culpa as a public relations ploy. Even more sadly, they’re probably right.

New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica noted that “Lance once again thinks he is in control of this narrative. It’s not like he’s going to reveal any secrets here.”

I can hear the public relations consultants now: “Just spill your guts, Lance. Cry if you have to. Talk about how sorry you are and admit that you disgraced yourself and the sport. Say how sorry you are for dragging your critics through the mud. Then, sit back and wait because your fans and the sport will forgive you.”

That’s a pretty standard public relations strategy when your client is an egotistical, lying cheater. But it’s a terrible strategy if you’re a self-respecting public relations professional who has even a sliver of conscience.

It could be that the strategy will work. It has worked before. Bill Clinton, anybody? Charlie Sheen? Mel Gibson?

There are a few idealists around who still believe personal integrity, honor and professionalism are more important than money. We would advise our client in this situation to confess if you want to, but then get ready to pay your dues. Take the whipping like a man. Accept what’s coming to you, and do it with true humility. Right the wrongs without regard to what it might do to your brand. Don’t expect redemption. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

But it seems those idealists aren’t retained for very long.

PR Pros and News Media: Truth Emerges from Tension

Social media have forever changed the way information is disseminated and shared. The relationship between public relations professionals, whose job it is to reach audiences with their organizations’ messages, and the news media, who own many of the communication channels, has always been tense because of the sometimes conflicting agendas and a degree of distrust between the parties.

That tension is healthy in a free society. It’s not that one side is right and good and the other is wrong and bad. It’s more an issue of checks and balances. Our systems of free enterprise and a free press work best when no single entity holds all the power and control.

Recently, law enforcement leaders from around the country came to Richmond for the sixth annual Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference. Through panel discussions and workshop sessions they learned how to use social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms — to reach the public directly with their information. Organizations around the world, from for-profit corporations to nonprofits to government agencies, increasingly use social media as a way to engage with their audiences and to share information.

This is a positive development because, especially in a free society, information must flow freely. Truth emerges from transparency. However, as we see every day on television, radio and the Internet, it is sometimes difficult to discern the truth from all the information that is out there. After all, our system of the free flow of information depends on some degree of honesty and fairness from both the press and providers of information including public relations professionals.

The Public Relations Society of America has a code of ethics that it expects its members to follow. Among its principles are the protection and advancement of the free flow of accurate and truthful information and honesty and accuracy in all communications. Ethical practitioners of public relations will adhere to these principles, but as with any profession, there are those who will test the boundaries or outright ignore them.

Likewise, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics encourages reporters and editors to test the accuracy of information they receive and to distinguish between advocacy and journalism. Ethical journalists will engage in balanced reporting, but of course there are journalists who will skew toward one party or another.

We should expect that the free marketplace of ideas will weed out the unethical public-relations practitioners and the biased journalists.

When it comes to information the public has a right to know, a free and independent press plays a crucial role. That’s why remarks from Rick Clark, the police chief in Galax, Va., who was a panelist at the SMILE conference, disturbed me. While he was correct in encouraging law enforcement agencies not to hide from the truth and to tell the bad news along with the good, he also apparently feels that a town with no independent press is a good thing. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s story about the conference, “Clark said he was lucky to work in a town without a daily newspaper or television station. He said he thought his department’s website was his town’s news source, at least on police information.”

Even in the age of social media, no organization — especially a government organization — should attempt to be the public’s sole source of information. While I would hope Clark’s department adheres to the standards of ethical public relations, he should appreciate the vital role that a free and independent press also plays in disseminating information the public needs to know.

Without a doubt, social media present an opportunity to put more information in the hands of more people. Social media also give organizations a chance to interact directly with their stakeholders — whether they are consumers, stockholders, government agencies or other businesses. However, we should also embrace the positive tension that exists between organizations and the press. It is that tension through which the truth emerges.

Creating a Culture of Honesty

I once worked for a company in which a change was coming to the department where I worked. It was a change that would be disruptive, as most changes are, and that would require adaptation by every person in the department.

After the change was in place, I asked a co-worker what she thought of the change. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t see how this is going to make anything better. In fact, it’s making things worse. But I guess there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

I was impressed with her candor and honesty — until we and others in our department found ourselves in a conversation with the vice president to whom our department reported. The vice president asked us what we thought of the change. Everyone, including the woman who told me how much she hated the change, told the vice president that they thought it would require a little adjustment, but they were sure it would be great in the long run.

That kind of dishonesty happens all the time in workplaces. And dishonesty is not too strong a word to describe it. Feeling and believing one thing, but saying another, is the definition of dishonesty. It keeps teams from performing at a high level and it leads to all kinds of disharmony among co-workers. A company simply can’t get things done if this lack of integrity exists.

To overcome this kind of disingenuous behavior requires something of everyone at every level of a team:

  • Company leaders must set the tone and the expectation of honesty and integrity. And they must do more than just talk about it, they must demonstrate it. Leaders have tremendous influence on the culture of an organization. They must ensure their words truly reflect what they believe and that their actions match their words.
  • Mid-level managers, including the vice president in this example, must create an environment in which it is safe for employees to be candid and open. Employees must know they can express their worries and concerns and ask questions without fear of retribution. Often, retribution is not overt, such as terminating someone for speaking their mind. More often, it’s subtle — making life difficult for the employees who speak honestly, shutting them out of opportunities, constantly criticizing their work. Sometimes employees who speak honestly are labeled “malcontents” or “troublemakers,” and indeed some employees take on that role. But in order for a team to deal effectively with change and to perform at a high level, employees must feel safe in expressing their ideas, opinions and questions.
  • Once a trusting, safe environment is established, employees have a responsibility to speak sincerely and honestly. They will “test the system” first to see if it truly is safe to speak up, and then they must be vulnerable enough to trust it. In a culture of integrity and honesty, employees are obligated to say what is on their minds. That’s when the best ideas come forward and assumptions are challenged, which leads to growth.

Yahoo!’s Seinfeld Moment

One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is “The Apology,” in which AA-inspired Jason “Stanky” Hanky apologizes to people he has wronged. Everyone, that is, except for George Costanza, who tries to pry an apology out of Jason for what he considers an insult concerning the size of his head.

Jason offers a sarcastic apology, then later apologizes for it — or does he, really?


I was reminded of this half-apology when I read a memo to employees from Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson. The company revealed last week that Thompson lied on his résumé, stating that he had received a computer science degree from Stonehill College when in fact his degree is in accounting.

Yahoo! defended Thompson, saying that “This in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.” Well, yes it does. The leader of one of the world’s leading technology companies shouldn’t lie. And if he lies about his college degree, what else would he lie about?

As Yahoo! scrambled to figure out how to manage the fallout from this embarrassment, Thompson wrote a memo to employees. He does a few things right — talking about how the board is dealing with the issue and trying to refocus employees on the considerable work ahead of them — but then there is this:

I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you. We have all been working very hard to move the company forward, and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.

Thompson has made one of the most common mistakes CEOs, politicians and other scoundrels make when they are caught doing something wrong and try to apologize for it. He apologizes for the fact that his lying has affected the company and its employees, but he doesn’t really apologize for lying.

I wouldn’t blame Yahoo! employees if they felt a bit like George Costanza. They deserve an apology — the right kind of apology for the real offense, not regret for the fallout it has caused.


If We Can’t Define PR, Congress Will Do It For Us

For many years, public relations professionals have wanted to be taken seriously, to be known for more than the stereotype of “spin doctors.”

We might get our chance, but first we have to survive the spotlight of the U.S. Congress.

William R. Murray, president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, writes on the Institute for PR’s blog that Congress is increasing its scrutiny of the profession through investigations into government spending on PR. The inquiries are likely to shine a lot of light on the profession and it will probably get pretty ugly before all is said and done. That’s how Congress operates these days.

Of course, PR professionals who go about their work ethically have nothing to worry about. As Murray points out, “Such scrutiny — if conducted fairly and objectively — may prove valuable for public relations.”

He could be right. This might be an opportunity for leaders of our profession to explain what ethical PR practitioners do — which brings to mind another recent kerfuffle around the definition of PR. PRSA recently put forth three options for defining the profession and a public vote determined the final one. Critics came out of the woodwork. Many ridiculed PRSA for the process and for even attempting to provide a definition, saying it was a waste of time and money.

However, at a time when the PR profession needs to explain itself and how ethical practitioners do their jobs, we need a succinct, accurate definition of what we do. If we can’t provide one, the upcoming congressional circus will define the profession for us. And I don’t think we want that.

Drop the Membership Requirement for Accreditation in PR

Last year, while still a self-employed communication consultant, I allowed my membership in the International Association of Business Communicators to lapse. When I did, I immediately lost my Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) status, which I had earned in 1992.

I had been an IABC member for 23 years before ending my membership. I had been president of the Richmond, Va., chapter twice, district director for two years and served on the international executive board for three years. However, I didn’t have an employer to pay for my memberships in both IABC and the Public Relations Society of America. I chose to stick with PRSA because it better meets my needs at this point in my career and due to dissatisfaction with IABC’s focus on products and programs rather than the member experience.

When I dropped IABC, my accreditation went away, as if I never had it.

Accreditation was a point of pride for me, but it was also valuable in other ways. The ABC process is rigorous. It includes submitting a portfolio of work and sitting for a thorough written and oral exam. (PRSA’s Accreditation in Public Relations process is even more so.) Achieving the designation was like receiving a seal of approval from my profession. I can’t directly quantify its value in terms of getting higher salaries or better jobs – I got my current job without having the letters behind my name – but I do believe ABCs are looked upon as leaders in the profession, just as those who have the APR label.

I pay more attention when I read articles or listen to presentations by accredited communicators. I figure they have the body of work and the recognition of their profession that lends a bit more credence to what they have to say.

Accreditation also opens doors. At chapter meetings and conferences, I had a conversation starter when I ran into other ABCs or APRs. Accreditations aren’t exclusive clubs, and most accredited members don’t look down their noses at peers who are not accredited, but having an ABC did create an immediate camaraderie.

It’s time to remove the “members only” requirement for accreditation in IABC and PRSA. Lack of membership in IABC doesn’t mean I suddenly became less experienced or knowledgeable about my profession. It simply means I could no longer afford, or no longer found value in, membership. IABC does give me the option of preserving my accreditation for an annual fee (which I won’t do). It’s just another way to make money rather than focusing first on what’s right for the profession – which is one of my gripes about IABC in the first place.

PRSA requires ongoing professional development and public service, making the APR a more meaningful designation that goes beyond simple membership. Beyond the membership requirement, the APR at least helps to strengthen the profession. IABC should adopt similar conditions and drop the membership requirement. Both designations would then serve the public relations profession by setting standards through their accreditation programs rather than simply using them to add numbers to their membership lists.

P.S.: There’s an interesting, relevant discussion going on over at Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks blog about her proposal to somehow regulate the public relations industry. One idea is for required accreditation to be the mechanism for setting some sort of minimum competency level for PR professionals. Of course, the first step in that scenario would be removing the membership requirement for accreditation by either IABC or PRSA.