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.

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Should Ghostwriters Tweet for the CEO?

We’re still in the wild-west period of social media. The tools and their applications in the business world are new enough that we can chalk up the occasional misstep to the fact that we’re still figuring out the rules.

But now and then we hear something about a social-media practice that just doesn’t set well and it’s worth having a discussion about it so we can figure out the right thing to do.

A recent meeting of PR professionals featured a speaker who is president of an advertising agency and who is known as an expert in social media. Toward the end of the program, in response to a question, he made a statement that caused quite a stir. He mentioned that an intern in his agency tweets for a client’s CEO.

I didn’t attend the meeting, but I checked with several who did to verify that the speaker made the statement.

Since it was an off-the-cuff statement, perhaps the speaker didn’t literally mean that an intern tweets for the client’s CEO. Perhaps the tweets don’t really appear under the CEO’s Twitter handle, but the client’s. My purpose here is not to impugn a professional colleague’s reputation through misinterpretation of what he said. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But, assuming the speaker meant what he said, his statement raises a serious question — one that I know has been debated in other forums:  Should a ghostwriter (intern or otherwise) pose as the CEO of an organization in social media?

I believe the answer is no. In fact, I believe doing so borders on the unethical. Let me explain why.

It is true that many CEOs rely on their public relations or corporate communications departments to help craft speeches, write columns and op-eds and perhaps even write letters for their signatures. In these cases, a professional communicator will spend significant time with the CEO to determine what he or she wants to say and, just as important, how to say it. This is a widely accepted practice and I would guess that most people in the intended audiences for these communications recognize it. Even the president of the United States has speechwriters and we know this.

There is no deception going on. It’s out in the open. We understand that crafting a speech or constructing a well-written column takes time and effort and that professional communicators are employed to carry out the task.

However, social media are different from traditional media. The biggest difference is that social media are about personal interaction. Blogs, for example, are not just electronic versions of the CEO’s newsletter column. They are personal observations, ideally brief and not necessarily letter-perfect. A blog is an online journal. Many CEOs and other executives write their own blogs, as they should.

Twitter is even more personal. It’s like having an online chat or a phone conversation. There is back-and-forth. You don’t have to worry so much about cadence and flow in 140 characters. More important, I believe the audience’s expectation is that a tweet is coming directly from the person who is identified as sending it.

Having an intern — or anyone else — write tweets for a CEO would be akin to having that person impersonate the CEO’s voice on a conference call or webcast. It just wouldn’t be right.

And that’s what it comes down to for me and for some others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. It just doesn’t feel right. The audience’s expectation when using social media is that they are interacting with the person whose name appears on that icon. Anything else feels deceptive.

If someone other than the CEO is writing for social media, then the organization should be identified as the sender, not the CEO.

No guideline has been written about ghostwriting on social media as far as I know, so this is just my take on it. I’m interested in what you think.

When It Comes to Ethics, It’s Too Late for Jon & Kate

Allow me to stray from the usual topics I cover on this blog in order to vent about something that sickens me to the core. After all, what good is a blog if you can’t hijack it once in a while and use it as a personal soapbox?

Actually, there is some relevance to communications and public relations, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let me just repeat something I posted on my Facebook status and which, as of this writing, elicited 12 comments not including my own responses to them.

Hey, Jon & Kate: Divorce isn’t an intriguing plot twist on a reality show. It’s an awful reality for the kids and a sadness that never goes away for the grown-ups.

Of course, I’m referring to Jon and Kate Gosselin of the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which airs on the TLC network, the irony of which didn’t escape one of my Facebook friends. The show chronicles the life of this family which includes sextuplets and twins — their struggles, joys, everyday challenges and celebrations. As reality shows go, it sounds good and in fact has been pretty good. My 12-year-old son has watched it a few times because he gets a kick out of the kids.

But then reality disrupted this reality show. Jon and Kate’s marriage hit some serious bumps including allegations that each of them had cheated on the other. Jon and Kate weren’t appearing together on the show, they took separate vacations, Jon got his ears pierced and everything fell apart. All in front of a nationwide audience.

When I first heard on TV news that the marriage was in trouble (and why, by the way, am I hearing about this on the news?), my first thought was what would my 12-year-old think. He seemed genuinely hurt when he saw the unavoidable tabloids in the supermarket line declaring that Jon was fooling around with a younger woman.

Then, when The Official Breakup was announced on the show this week, concern for my son’s reaction turned into disgust with the entire social system that would allow this television show to make a mockery of marriage and, especially, of parenthood.

Who do these people think they are? And by “these people” I mean a long list of guilty parties:

  • The people who watch reality shows out of some need to live vicariously through others, to feel emotions by proxy, to be voyeurs in the privacy of their living rooms.
  • The people who create, produce, write and broadcast this crap, caring only about how cheaply they can produce “entertainment” in order to achieve greater profit margins.
  • The people who become “reality show stars,” who will do anything for money, who allow their greed to trump their dignity, their privacy and in this case the sanctity of their family.

Let me get personal for a moment. My marriage fell apart nearly seven years ago. My sons were 10 and 6 at the time. It was the most excruciatingly painful experience of my life so far. To this day, I deeply regret that I had a hand in putting my children through such an experience. And the sadness really doesn’t leave. Whether or not it was “for the best,” divorce is an ugly, awful thing for a family to go through.

It’s not entertainment.

I truly wonder how anyone connected to this show — and to the many other equally repugnant shows that trade on people’s problems, shortcomings and quirks — live with themselves. I believe there is an ethical issue here. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to broadcasting tragedies like the dissolution of a family?

And that’s where the connection to communications and public relations comes in, though I admit it is a tangential one. Thinking about the obvious ethical lapses among the guilty parties I noted earlier, I realized how proud I am that I belong to two professional associations that hold members accountable for our actions. The Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators each has a code of ethics that guides how we do our work. For example, there’s no room for prostituting our clients in order to make a quick buck.

Maybe the reality-show industry could use a code of ethics of its own.

Update 6/26/09: Good communication is good communication, whether in the office or at home. If your kids are asking questions about the Gosselin divorce — or even if they’re not, but you know they’re  aware of it — this article from Common Sense Media has some good tips for how to talk about it. Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Virginia Franco for passing this along.