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.

Here’s All I Can Say About the VCU Rams

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something profound to say about the VCU Rams’ victories in the NCAA Tournament and what this Final Four team has to say about communication.

It’s difficult because I’m too caught up in the excitement. Not only is VCU my alma mater (Class of ’85, School of Mass Communications), but I’m also on the adjunct faculty there. This is the farthest VCU has ever made it in the Big Dance and — despite what some naysayers will tell you — we’ve had some pretty good teams in the past.

The excitement the Rams’ success has brought to Richmond, Va., is beyond belief. Students poured into the streets after VCU’s victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. (Police reported no incidents or injuries.) Thousands of fans attended a middle-of-the-night rally when the team arrived back on campus. Folks around the country are getting to know what a great city Richmond is (except for Kansas’ Marcus Morris, who doesn’t know where the city is). Applications to attend our 32,000-student school are sure to spike.

This opportunity is too good to pass up. So here’s the best I can do at drawing out relevant points:

  • Be ready for the next crisis, even if it’s a good one. I wonder if VCU Athletics’ public relations office was ready for the onslaught of hundreds of media calls after the team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time. When we think of crisis communication, we usually think about bad things. Good news can also put communicators into crisis mode and the best time to prepare for it is before the good news happens.
  • Remember who you represent. Like it or not, everyday people in your organization can be thrust into the limelight quickly. It’s fortunate for VCU that everyday people like Shaka Smart, Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen take seriously their roles as the face of VCU to millions of basketball fans around the country. The entire team has handled their sudden stardom with grace and humility.
  • Nothing works like teamwork. It’s fascinating to watch the Rams work together during a game. Rodriguez shows true leadership, directing his teammates when he’s supposed to and setting them up for successful plays at the most unexpected times. Rodriguez especially is a selfless player who puts the team’s success above his own. The team’s ability to come together and pool their talents when the chips are down is one reason they’re headed for Houston.
  • The stories you tell can be powerful. Amid all the stories about how VCU didn’t belong in the tournament and how each team they’ve met so far was going to be their last, these guys listened to a different story from their coach. Over and over, Smart has told the story of a team that is capable, confident, prepared and skilled enough to win each game. What story are you telling employees about your organization?

That’s all I’ve got. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the celebrating.

Snow as a Diversionary PR Tactic

Everyone in my hometown of Richmond, Va., is buzzing about the sale of Ukrop’s Super Markets, Inc. — a local, family owned business — to the U.S. unit of Denmark’s Royal Ahold NV.

Meanwhile, we here in Richmond are awaiting the arrival of a winter storm that might dump 10 inches of snow on us.

Given Richmonders’ propensity for rushing Ukrop’s to stock up on milk and bread at the very mention of a snow flurry, I’m wondering if Ukrop’s public relations consultants — who are friends and professional colleagues of mine — didn’t orchestrate this snowstorm to cast Ukrop’s in a more positive light.

Hey, it could happen. The Ukrop brothers have a lot of pull in this town.

Trouble on Aisle 1

Having a great reputation in the community and being a local legend among businesses don’t protect you from the ravages of the rumor mill. Just ask the Ukrop family of Richmond, Va.

Ukrop’s is a family-owned grocery store chain with an ardent following. For loyal patrons, shopping there is not so much a household chore as it is a social event. The company is deeply embedded in the community, sponsoring a number of civic and cultural events. It has been recognized nationally as a great place to work. For many years, Ukrop’s staved off major regional and national grocery chains to remain the top food seller in the Richmond market. And it did so despite being closed on Sundays and refusing to sell alcoholic beverages — counter-intuitive decisions rooted in the Ukrop family’s beliefs and values.

The most recent rankings of grocers’ market shares, however, revealed trouble on Aisle 1. Ukrop’s fell to the #2 position. Then, just a few days later, a local blog reported that the Ukrop family was looking for someone to buy the business. The rumor made the rounds on local social-media outlets and even made it into the newspaper, although the reporter was careful to note the speculative nature of the information. Ukrop’s offered no public comment.

After the story appeared in the newspaper, company president Bobby Ukrop sent a short note to employees in an attempt to restore calm and dispel the rumors. The newspaper posted the note on its website. Comments on blogs and on the newspaper’s website dismissed the note and speculation continues to run rampant.

As of this writing, a cornerstone of the Richmond business community is showing some cracks. It’s an interesting real-time case study in public relations that already offers some valuable lessons:

  • “No comment” doesn’t work in the age of social media. In fact, “no comment” didn’t work very well in the age of traditional media, but it really fails today. Early on, at the first rumblings of rumors, Ukrop’s should have decided how it would engage the community and the media — including local bloggers. Engagement does not allow for “no comment.” You can engage without saying much: “We’re aware of the speculation out there concerning the future of our business. We don’t respond to rumors. We choose instead to focus on serving our customers.”
  • Be careful what you say. Many commenters on local media outlets are calling for Ukrop’s to say something — either to deny the rumors of its pending sale outright or to acknowledge that it might happen. From a business management standpoint, there is probably good reason for Ukrop’s not to say anything of substance. If the company is engaged in negotiations, public comments could negatively affect the deal. The company has nothing to gain by denying or confirming rumors at this point and there are ways to engage the public and employees without adversely affecting a possible business transaction.
  • Let your fans do the talking. Loyal Ukrop’s customers and employees are just as active on blogs and news websites as critics. Of course, they don’t officially represent the company, nor do they claim to, but they jump to the company’s defense against critics. Creating a devoted following is one thing Ukrop’s has done well over the years through great customer service and by nurturing a generally positive work culture. Now those practices are paying off.
  • Say something to employees. Bobby Ukrop tried to calm employees and dismiss the rumors in a memo to employees. It is not exactly a shining example of employee communications. He acknowledges that rumors are swirling, but then makes a huge misstep: “Anything I say at this point would just add fuel to fire. For example, I could say that, yes, other companies are interested in buying Ukrop’s. But, the truth is that there have always been companies interested in buying us, so there’s nothing new here. So, I’m not going to comment on rumors…” Well, he just did. Instead, Ukrop should have simply acknowledged the existence of rumors and then immediately refocused attention on the company’s priorities. On the positive side, Ukrop commits to informing employees first if there is anything to say about the company’s direction.
  • Don’t expect to control the message. Business leaders want to try to control information, which is one of the reasons so few embrace social media. The truth is, however, that they never had control of information and never will. In the age of social media, the name of the game is engagement. Engage in the conversations about your company where it makes sense. Assess the risks and benefits of saying something publicly, even if you really say nothing at all. At some point, however, accept that the conversation will take place whether or not you are part of it. The rumor mill is as old as time — and time marches on in spite of it.