What’s in the Air? (United Airlines Image Crisis)

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By now, we’ve probably all seen the video – a man forcibly being dragged from his seat and off a United Airlines flight. To say the video was disturbing would be an understatement and naturally, it immediately sparked a huge backlash against the airline company. The incident occurred less than a month after the airline found itself at the center of a Twitter backlash, after Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, tweeted that the two gate agents for the airline would not let two young girls board a flight, because they were wearing leggings.

While public opinion of the latter incident was a bit divisive, especially when it was explained that the two girls were pass customers and not paying customers, the double whammy of that incident and this latest one has made for a very negative and P.R. nightmare for the airline company. As this past week came to a close, the airline saw its stock fall by 4 percent. However, what made this recent incident particularly damaging for United Airlines is the very tone deaf response of its CEO Oscar Munoz.

Ironically, just a little over a month prior to this incident, Munoz was named Communicator of the Year by PR Week for, according to editors, being “An excellent leader who understands the value of PR”. Munoz’ response to the airline’s current PR crisis certainly makes one call the former statement into question.

I have written quite a bit about crisis communication on this blog, always reiterating the four key steps of crisis management that all organizations and businesses must adhere to in the face of any PR crisis. No matter the incident or issue, an organization should always remember to 1) do not hide, 2) be timely in response, 3) avoid being defensive and 4) explain why it won’t happen again. While United and Munoz did two of these things correctly – namely not hiding and being timely in their response, they failed at one of the most important rules, i.e. avoid being defensive. More importantly, they made one of the biggest follies of crisis management – dismissing or blaming the victim and not offering a sincere apology.

The first comment on the matter from the airline came in the form of a tweet, which stated, “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave”. Naturally, this outraged many, as it seemed to suggest that the individual being dragged off the plane was at fault.

Next, Munoz made his first statement on the matter, which was also posted on the airline’s official twitter page. In the statement, the CEO referred to the situation as upsetting and stated that the company was reaching out to the passenger. However, it’s Munoz’ apology for having to “re-accommodate these customers” that sparked outrage from some individuals. Many commented that the sentence read as dismissive of the gravity of the situation and that instead, the whole incident was merely an inconvenience to some customers.

The greatest backlash came when an internal letter sent by Munoz to United employees, went public. In the letter, Munoz is quoted as saying, “As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Once again, to many, the statement read as blaming the victim and that the CEO was essentially saying that violently and forcibly dragging a paying customer off their plane was completely within their right to do so. Naturally, this did not sit well with many and the public outcry against the airline intensified.

Since then, Munoz has put out two more statements, each more conciliatory than the previous one and the airline has now vowed to change crew flight policy. However, the damage has been done and it may take a little while for the bleeding to stop.

This was a horrible situation in many ways but Munoz and the company’s initial response is another compelling study of why the first few hours of any crisis are the most important and why those initial public responses are so crucial. United was faced with a very damaging situation, particularly because there was visual evidence. The public reading about a man being forcibly removed from a plane is no way as damaging as the visual of a bespectacled, middle-aged man being dragged violently, as he’s screaming and bleeding, off a plane.

That visual alone should have alerted the airline company to the fact that this was a very delicate issue that they needed to navigate cautiously and with as much sensitivity and empathy as possible.  However, they didn’t do that. Rather, their first reaction was to go on the defensive and point the finger at the victim.

Not many individuals are going to initially side with a billion-dollar company over a vulnerable looking man seemingly being violently dragged. And United and Munoz should have been perceptive enough to realize this. The good news for United is that so far, tickets for the airline have not declined. That may change of course but as of right now, I’m sure any positive news is a great thing for the company. Still, the damage to the airline’s reputation has been done and that damage may cost them a lot more in the long run.

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How Effectively Did The Academy Handle Oscars Mix-Up?

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It was the Oscar moment seen and heard around the world – La La Land was incorrectly announced as the winner of Best Picture, after presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were inexplicably handed the wrong envelope.  Social media immediately went crazy and the press was all over it in the days that followed.

More importantly, it was an extremely embarrassing moment for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and possibly one of the most embarrassing in the show’s 80 plus year history. And while host Jimmy Kimmel was right that at the end of the day, it’s just an award, for the filmmakers who work in the industry, the Oscars is one of the highest achievements they can receive.

And the mix-up not only robbed the winners of their winning moment but falsely made the producers of La La Land believe they’d achieved something that they hadn’t. In those moments they went from joy and pride to disappointment. The moment was the definition of a P.R. nightmare for The Academy.

The reality is no organization, no matter how profitable and effectively managed, is immune to experiencing a crisis situation at some point. The key is in how the organization manages and responds to said crisis. There are a few important steps any organization should practice, in order to weather any crisis as best as possible, including one, don’t hide, two, have a timely response, three, avoid being defensive and four, ensure and explain how it won’t happen again.

So how well did The Academy handle this recent crisis, based on these four key steps? In my opinion, they handled it fairly well and definitely get a passing grade. Regarding the four steps:

  1. Don’t Hide – The Academy did not ignore the moment and hope that in a few days everyone would forget about it and move on. They issued an immediate apology to the producers of both films, as well as the presenters and later issued a more detailed apology from the president of The Academy.

 

  1. Timely Response – Piggy-backing off the first point, not hiding also means being timely in the organization’s response to said crisis. In this case, The Academy issued a first statement hours after the incident, early Monday morning. The second statement from Academy president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs came four days later and the president addressed the time taken for her statement by acknowledging that they wanted all the facts to be properly gathered and assessed.

 

  1. Avoid Being Defensive – While those identified as being responsible for the mix-up were quite publicly reprimanded by The Academy president in her statement, the tone of both statements were for the most part contrite and chastened. There was no attempt to make light of the situation or dismiss its importance and seriousness.

 

  1. Explain Why It Won’t Happen Again – As wonderful as it is for an organization to admit their error and apologize, it is little comfort if they can’t explain how they will ensure that it won’t happen again. In this case, The Academy explained that not only would the accountants responsible for the error not be allowed to ever work the show again but that they were implementing new guidelines and reviewing the protocols of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the accounting firm that has handled the Oscars ballots for years. The statement also made clear that a future working relationship with the accounting firm was still under review. Rather than a vague promise that the incident would never happen again, the president, in her statement, made sure to explain how they would try to ensure it didn’t.

Oscars Controversy

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The Oscar nominations were announced a few weeks ago and as was the case last year, it came with some controversy, as once again all the nominees in the acting categories were white. However, unlike last year, the backlash has been loud enough and significant enough to create widespread media attention and a very vocal reaction from the entertainment industry, including many high profile actors.

I am not going to say what my personal opinions are about the issue (and trust me, I have a few) but rather would like to focus on the response by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the body that governs and votes for The Academy Awards, to the controversy. After all, this is a public relations blog and this is without question a P.R. crisis for The Academy.

If I were to award a grade in terms of how well I think the organization has handled and responded to the controversy and the issue in general, I’d say they are at a solid B. There are many things that they have done right when it comes to the rules of successfully weathering an organizational crisis.

  1. Respond in a Timely Manner – One of the first rules of good crisis communication is to never hide and simply hope that the crisis goes away on its own. While it is important to take some time to construct an intelligent, well thought out and relevant response, because you certainly don’t want to make a situation worse by rushing and saying the wrong thing, it is important that the organization delivers some kind of response as quickly as possible. It helps the public know where the organization stands on the issue and helps in trying to gain control of the story, as well as the narrative. The Academy did this, with President Cheryl Boone Isaacs releasing an official statement about the controversy four days after the nominations were announced.
  1. Avoid Being Defensive – It is never a good idea for an organization to respond to a crisis by being angry, defensive or belligerent towards the media and the public. The best approach is to simply acknowledge the issue, accept and acknowledge the organization’s failure and/or culpability, whatever that may be, and be sympathetic and understanding to the public. And The Academy did that, with President Isaacs expressing sadness and disappointment at the lack of diversity among the year’s nominees and admitting that things do need to change.
  1. Be Clear and Concise – While it is good to acknowledge an organization’s mistake or mistakes and to make promises to do better, providing a clear and concise statement on how the organization plans to make these changes and fix things is also very essential. Doing so adds credibility to the organization’s response and makes the public less skeptical, as it shows that the former has given real thought to the issue and to creating real and tangible solutions. The Academy did exactly this, when on the heels of President Isaacs’ official statement, the Board of Governors took a vote a few days later that resulted in a number of specific and detailed changes to The Academy’s membership and voting polices. The six specific changes were made public in a statement.

As positively as The Academy has handled the current controversy, the reason I gave them a B grade is because of the fact that this even happened at all. As noted above, it was just one year ago that the organization faced heavy backlash on social media when all the acting nominees and majority of nominees were white. Many were particularly upset about actor David Oyelowo not receiving a Best Actor nomination for the film Selma, as well as its director Ava DuVernay not receiving a Best Director nomination, although the film did receive a Best Picture nomination.

At the time, Academy President Isaacs made a statement insisting that the Academy was “committed to seeking out diversity of voice and opinion”. And yet, a year later, virtually nothing had changed within the organization and its voting body. Therefore, I consider it a public relations failure on The Academy’s part that despite being aware of the public’s response, reaction and discontent, they chose to simply ride out the controversy and continue with business as usual, only to have this become an issue again. It is hardly surprising that this time the backlash and outcry was a lot worse.

The key lesson here is that as an organization, you must listen to your public and take the necessary steps to minimize a crisis as much as possible. Trying to ignore it and hope it just goes away is never the answer, as it is likely to only grow into something bigger and much more complicated.

The Year In P.R.

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As 2015 comes to a close, it seems more than fitting to take a quick look back at the year and what may come in 2016. After all, as the classic saying goes, “we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been.”  So with that mind, here is my summation of the 2015 year in public relations.

Most Notable Crises

Crisis management continued to be a cornerstone of the industry, as 2015 saw its fair share of major crises. There are way too many to list, so I have chosen to focus on the ones I felt dominated much of the year or had a very significant impact on an organization and/or individual.

Subway/Jared Fogle – In probably one of the most shocking and upsetting crisis no one saw coming at the start of the year, Subway’s once very popular spokesman Jared Fogle was indicted and subsequently prosecuted on child pornography charges. Subway quickly distanced itself from Fogle and cut all professional ties. Some have debated the fast food chain’s response to the crisis, including me, in this post. However, Subway’s response aside, perhaps the greatest lesson drawn from this crisis was the reminder of the inherent risk involved in tying a company brand so closely to an individual spokesperson.

Bill Cosby – Celebrity scandals, sadly, are rarely ever unexpected. Still, it was shocking for many to witness the dramatic downfall of a once beloved television icon. Much of the first half of the year saw woman after woman come forward with accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby. Cosby has and continues to deny the allegations and as the year comes to a close, he has filed a defamation suit against seven of his accusers. Whatever side of the issue you stand on – whether you believe Cosby is guilty or innocent, the damage is done. It seems highly unlikely that Cosby, who built his career and success on the image of being the warm, lovable pseudo-dad, loving uncle type, can recover from this. The lingering questions and doubts and suspicions will always remain.

Volkswagen Recall – Car manufacturer crises are nothing new. Recalls, accusations and allegations of companies circumventing responsibility to cut corners and save money are constant. And this year was more of the same, when U.S. regulators accused Volkswagen of cheating on emission tests. While the German manufacturer company responded quickly with a public statement admitting wrongdoing and later followed that by then-CEO Martin Winterkorn publicly apologizing to the public at a press conference, things still fell apart for the company. Their stocks and sales tumbled, Winterkorn later resigned and at year’s end, the company’s stocks and sales, as well as its public image are all still on a downswing.

Brian Williams – Despite all the talk in recent years of traditional news media dying and being replaced by online news sources and social media, there is still an appreciation and respect for the traditional news source. And by that token, there is still a certain standard of quality and credibility expected of journalists; a fact NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams learned this year, after reports surfaced that he had fabricated and exaggerated parts of his experience in a military helicopter during the Iraq War. What followed were awkward, fumbling apologies from Williams and a six-month suspension without pay, after NBC officials did their own investigation of the allegations. Williams has since been transferred to MSNBC and was officially replaced by Lester Holt as NBC News Nightly anchor.

Chipotle – It has been a rough year for fast-casual restaurant giant, Chipotle. First, there was a salmonella outbreak in Minnesota, found to be tied to the tomatoes being used at the locations. Then there was a foodborne virus called Norovirus, which affected a total of 100 customers and employees combined, at a Ventura County restaurant. But the restaurant chain’s biggest crisis came when more than 30 cases of E. Coli in Washington and Oregon caused them to temporarily shut down 43 restaurants across the two states. While many have praised Chipotle’s handling of the crisis – including, timely and consistent updates to the public, taking full responsibility, cooperating fully with government officials and agencies – these incidents still remain a significant blow to the popular restaurant chain. As I began writing this, news of five new cases of E. Coli from other locations of the restaurant, broke. You do have to start wondering how many more crises of this nature Chipotle can survive, before customers begin walking away for good.

Ashley Madison – How does a company that is largely built on the privacy of its customers survive a major hack that threatened that very privacy? In the case of Ashley Madison, the website for married individuals looking to cheat on their spouse, I’m not sure it can. I commented on the scandal back in August when it happened and questioned then whether or not the company could recover. As of October, some members of the site were still reporting getting emails from hackers trying to extort money from them in exchange for silence about their being a member of the site and very recently, some members claimed to have blackmail letters sent directly to their homes. The company also still faces numerous lawsuits from its members.

Race – It’s been over fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal “I Have A Dream” speech and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Supposedly we now live in a post-racial world and yet, as 2015 comes to a close, that notion seems highly unlikely. Race, discrimination and treatment of minorities took center stage for much of this year.  From the University of Alabama’s fraternity scandal back in March that saw members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter chanting a racially offensive song to the University of Missouri, which saw walkouts and protests from faculty, students and the football team in response to the university’s poor handling of a series of racial incidents. The situation culminated in the resignation of the university’s president and later chancellor. However, the most notable issue of racial tension throughout the year included the multiple allegations of police misconduct in connection with the arrests and deaths of African Americans. The situation escalated to a series of protest and riots around the US and spawned the #blacklivesmatter movement. Many city and state officials opened investigations into the conduct of the police force but with a very tense presidential year coming up, it remains to be seen if things will get better or worse.

Key Industry Trends

Use of Video – Being visual is always an excellent tool to grab and maintain your audience’s attention and to increase the chances of their remembering your message well after it’s over. Visual elements, such as infographics, charts and videos and more, have always been a big appeal to individuals. And this year saw more of this, especially with the emergence of live video streaming. Video streaming became a big part of the industry’s conversation with the introduction of the apps Meerkat and Periscope, the latter which has quickly amassed a significant number of followers. I broke down the pros and cons of live video streaming in this post and it remains to be seen how truly dominant it will become in the industry. However, the use of video is definitely not only going to stay but also continue to expand and evolve.

Rise of Instagram – Social media continued to be a focal point of the industry, as is likely to be the case for years to come. What was particularly interesting this year with regard to social media, was the growing influence and importance of Instagram. According to statista.com, as of November 2015, the photo and video sharing network had a total of 400 million active users, ranking it seventh on the global chart of most popular social networks and just above Twitter. According to the social network itself, there were 14 million active UK users, while research conducted by Ipsos in August 2015, showed that 19% of internet users in Ireland used Instagram. eMarketer.com reported 11% of internet users in Japan and 55% in Canada were using Instagram and Adweek reported 22% of the population in the Middle East/Africa region are on Instagram. Organizations and brands started paying attention, and if your organization’s audience is teens and young adults, then you really needed to be paying attention as the platform has surged far ahead in popularity within that demographic.

Mobile Marketing – As the pervasiveness of smartphones continued this year and by that token, mobile usage, mobile marketing continued to be a key trend in the industry. Research showed young and adult alike used their smartphones and other mobile devices for everything from shopping, surfing the internet, paying bills, etc. Naturally, brands and organizations paid attention and made continuous efforts to reach their current and new audiences through the medium.

Integrated Campaigns – With the worlds of public relations, advertising and marketing continuing to intertwine and overlap, integrated campaigns employing elements of each continued to be prevalent throughout the year and is likely to continue into the next year.

Emergence of African Markets – On the global level, 2015 saw the continued emergence of African markets in the public relations industry, which began a few years earlier. Global strategic communications firm Hill + Knowlton announced its launch of new operation in Nigeria back in March, making it the eighth African location in the firm’s operations, which already has locations in Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana.

Looking Ahead – Trends To Expect In 2016

Mobile – As noted, the use of mobile devices continued to dominate this year and it is unlikely that this will be changing any time soon. Thus, the industry is tasked with keeping up with this change and aligning its strategies accordingly. I noted the focus on mobile marketing above and while that is sure to continue in 2016, firms and brands are going to have to evolve and adapt even more to take full advantage of the medium. That includes having specific strategic plans focused solely on mobile, understanding the firm’s specific needs and goals with regard to the mobile world, establishing expertise in that specific area, etc. Mobile essentially needs to be treated in the manner that social media eventually has. It’s not enough to throw it in as a small part of a larger plan – it needs to be regarded at its own specific focus and medium.

Good Content Matters – You’ve probably all heard about the traditional press release being dead and with mobile and social media, everyone is always rushing off to the next thing and essentially has little time to read or care about anything longer than a paragraph or two. That may be (not sure I entirely agree), but even in the digital world, good content still matters which yes, means good writing still matters. In fact, in a way it matters even more. Because if you have a very little window of time to grab and hold a person’s attention, delivering poorly worded and badly written content is not going to accomplish that. New or traditional media, public relations is still a storytelling function and the best way to tell that story is still through well crafted, well written, clear and concise content.

PR & Marketing – The worlds of public relations and marketing will continue to merge and blur into each other in 2016. While the two industries are different in many key ways, they do share many similar elements, which often makes the intertwining so seamless and natural. Firms and brands now understand the importance of incorporating elements of public relations, marketing, advertising and new media into creating a successful large scale campaign and how all these industries essentially need each other.

Real Time Feedback – With the world going mobile and essentially having so much of their lives at their fingertips, firms are now able to get more immediate and timely feedback from consumers and the public. While in-depth research and measurement reports are still important, immediate reactions to a new product, an announcement, etc. can be very valuable and more firms are recognizing and embracing this.

Thought Leadership – One of the more recent growing focus in the industry, has been the role and importance of thought leaders and thought leadership, which I wrote about a few months ago. This focus continued to increase this year and is likely to continue in 2016, as many more firms and organizations continue to recognize its significance.

Weathering The Storm of Corporate Scandal

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It has been a busy last two weeks in the world of corporate/organization scandals and there are likely some very stressed and busy crisis PR teams, currently working overtime. Crisis Communications is an essential component of the public relations industry, and being able to successfully handle any crisis that arises, is a cornerstone of good PR.

The reality is no organization, no matter how successful, efficient, well-managed, etc., is completely immune to experiencing a crisis situation at some point. Much like how life can be very unpredictable and unforeseen events can change or alter the course of our lives, so too can organizations be hit with unexpected events that can lead to very bad publicity and public backlash. The following are four key steps organizations should practice, to weather any crisis as best as possible:

  1. Have a Plan – It is essential that every organization develop an effective, concise and detailed plan in anticipation for any crisis that may occur. It is simply unwise for any organization to try and develop a plan and think about what steps to take while in the midst of a crisis. This is likely to result in exasperating the crisis, based on poor decision-making, as leaders go into panic mode. Some individuals cannot think logically under pressure and without a road map for what to do as a crisis is occurring, the risk of everyone running around saying and doing the wrong thing is exponentially higher.
  1. Do Not Hide – The worse thing an organization can do in the midst of a crisis, is bury their heads in the sand and just hope it goes away. The latter is particularly unlikely in this digital/online age where news and gossip travels so fast and everyone can develop an opinion very quickly. The best approach is always the direct one. So be as open and honest and transparent as possible.
  1. Avoid Being Defensive – If the crisis involves something that is unquestionably the organization’s fault, then simply own it and apologize. Avoid being defensive, angry and belligerent in any way, either to a consumer(s) or the media. And if the crisis involves something that can be fixed, be as clear and concise as possible about how the organization intends to fix things and make it better. And be sure to deliver on those promises.
  1. Learn From Others – You can always learn from the past. It’s never a bad idea to study what your organization’s competitors or other firms in general have done in other similar situations or just how they handled any major crisis. You may learn what not to do from them or you may learn something you never thought of, about how best to handle a situation.

That said, it would be remiss of me to not directly address the current corporate/organization scandals. Without question, the three biggest stories of the past two weeks has been former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle being charged with child molestation and child pornography, the Ashley Madison hacking scandal and the New York Times’ scathing story on Amazon’s employee culture. I decided to analyze each scandal based on three factors – the organization’s response to the scandal, whether or not I think the organization can come back from the scandal and finally the lessons other organizations can learn from it.

Subway

Response – There has been some divisiveness about how Subway responded to this scandal. Almost immediately, in the wake of it being confirmed that Jared Fogle would plead guilty to child pornography and child molestation charges, the company tweeted out a statement that read “We no longer have a relationship with Jared and have no further comment.” Perhaps owing to the fact that some found the statement inefficient, the fast food chain added on twitter the following day, “Jared Fogle’s actions are inexcusable and do not represent our brand’s values. We had already ended our relationship with Jared.”

The positive in Subway’s response was that they were quick and decisive. As soon as the news of Jared’s guilt went public, they responded and made it absolutely clear that any ties they had with him was over. That said, I understand and somewhat agree with those who felt the response was a bit lacking. On one hand, I get it – I think Subway’s goal is to distance themselves as much as possible, understandably, from this scandal and so they have decided to employ a cold and detached approach.

That said, fair or not, they are unfortunately tied to this in the public’s consciousness. After all, Jared Fogle wasn’t a celebrity hired to be a spokesperson for Subway – he became a celebrity because Subway used his personal story and decided to make him a face of their brand. So unfortunately for the company, that connection in the public’s mind isn’t going to just go away. Therefore, I do think, based on the nature of the scandal that a more emotional and heartfelt statement should have been made.

Can They Come Back – I think so. The biggest factor working for Subway right now is that the company had started distancing itself from Jared Fogle long before the scandal. Fogle began appearing in a lot less of the company’s campaigns in the last few years, particularly when they made a shift towards their $5 dollar foot-long campaign and placed a greater emphasis on Subway representing an “eat fresh” choice. However, things will likely be messy for a little while longer. Also, a bigger concern for the company are the latest claims that two women have come forth and stated that years ago, they reported Fogle’s activities to Subway executives. If proven true in any way, that might be a death blow to the fast food chain. If not, I do believe with some time and distance, the organization will be fine.

Lessons Learned – Obviously the biggest lesson here for other companies is the risk of hiring celebrity/individual spokespersons and having them be so closely tied to their brand. The biggest risk for any organization in hiring a celebrity spokesperson is the issue of credibility. That individual has to be someone who can positively and credibly represent the brand because any negativity on their part, will unfortunately reflect badly on the company. As a result, it is imperative that every company think long and hard about using a celebrity spokesperson to represent their brand and that they do an extremely thorough job of vetting that individual.

 Ashley Madison

Response – In the midst of possibly the worse scandal the company could face, Ashley Madison executives acted swiftly in putting out a statement that harshly and vehemently condemned the actions of the people responsible for the hack on their website. The positive is that the company acted quickly and addressed the scandal head on. Another positive was that the public statement made sure to stress that the situation is a violation of individuals’ rights to do as they please, as long as it is legal.

This is important, as Ashley Madison’s entire existence raises a moral debate among the public. Also, an impetus for the hack, as stated by the group responsible, is that they were disgusted by the website’s goal, which is essentially to help individuals discreetly have affairs. Turning the tables, so to speak, on the hackers by reminding the public that this is really an issue of violation of privacy could be significant for Ashley Madison, in gaining public support, even from individuals who may not agree with the brand’s goals and values.

That said, I thought a significant weakness of the company’s statement was the lack of specificity and clarity on what they would do in the future to ensure this situation never happened again. At the least there should have been some promise and/or statement to their consumers about their commitment to protecting their privacy and making sure the situation becomes an isolated event. Yes, the statement acknowledged that a criminal investigation is ongoing to find out those responsible for the hack, but I believe a personal reassurance to their consumers was imperative.

Can They Come Back – Piggybacking off my last sentence, the reason I believed some form of reassurance was necessary is because I actually think this situation may be a tough one for Ashley Madison to come back from. To put it frankly, this is a company that functions under a veil of secrecy and a promise to its customers that their actions on the site are completely private and discreet. Having that secrecy and privacy completely blown hurts the very foundation of the company. It seems highly unlikely that anyone would be willing to take the risk of signing up for the site after seeing how easily so many others were exposed.

Lessons Learned – The obvious lesson here is the importance of cyber security which realistically, any organization, particularly one that requires and receives large amounts of personal information from its consumers should already recognize. Unfortunately, the reality is nothing is ever really and truly secure on the internet which again is why this may be so hard for Ashley Madison to come back from.

Amazon

Response – On August 15, 2015, The New York Times published a scathing article about corporate giant Amazon’s work culture. Response to the article was immediate and the comments on the newspaper’s official site has since totaled over 5,000. Most of the reaction was not positive and as the story, as well as the reaction spread over social media and online, some current and past Amazon employees took to social media, particularly LinkedIn, to defend the company.  Eventually, CEO Jeff Bezos sent out an internal memo to the company’s over 100,000 employees, which was obtained by the website, GeekWire.

I found Bezos’ response quite timid and rather passive, not to mention unconvincing. I am okay with the company not making a full public statement to the media, because likely in their mind, it would only draw more public attention to the story. However, I do find it odd how tepid Bezos’ memo was. He never actually outright denies any of the claims in the New York Times article, but rather just kept insisting it is not the Amazon he knows.

Someone can infer from this that maybe he is simply not in tune with the employee/corporate culture of his own company. Bezos then goes on to simply say that he didn’t believe anyone would work for a company the Times described and again stated that he didn’t recognize this Amazon talked about and hoped the employees didn’t recognize it either.

What was glaringly missing from Bezos’ memo is an assertion of the Amazon he does know, an assertion of the values and culture he believes in and tries to foster every day and believes that every employee in their company embodies. What was missing from the statement was a declaration of what exactly Amazon truly is and stands for and how that contradicts the picture the New York Times article painted. I didn’t read that and frankly Bezos’ memo did little in my opinion, to convince others that the Times’ article was off base. Many found some of the defenses by employees and former employees online, more impassioned.

Can They Come Back – Without question – yes. The fact is as much attention as the article has gotten, it really has not become that pervasive and public backlash is not really that significant. I believe Amazon has stored up enough goodwill, to weather this storm with minimum damage.

Lessons Learned – The most significant lesson here is the importance of employee engagement in organizations. Assuming the New York Times’ claims are all true and assuming that Bezos is being honest in his ignorance of these claims and sentiments among the company’s employees, then it’s clear there is a disconnect between executives and the employees.

Employee engagement is one of the elements of public relations that often gets ignored or at the least is not focused on nearly as much as other elements.  Which is unfortunate because it is very important. An organization lacking effective employee engagement risks many negative effects on the company at large, including, the possibility of low productivity, greater risk of disengaged and unmotivated employees, low employee retention, lack of company loyalty and more. Employees need to feel appreciated and acknowledged for their efforts and like they have a voice in the company they work for.

As evidenced by the above scandals, not all crises are the same but whatever the nature, an organization must have a comprehensive crisis plan to effectively weather the situation with as little collateral damage as possible.

Can College “Greek Life” Image Be Saved?

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College Greek organizations are once again coming under fire, in light of the current scandal surrounding the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter at the University of Oklahoma, which included video footage showing some members of the fraternity singing a racial chant that included use of the N-word and references to lynching blacks. This is just the latest in a long line of scandals for college sororities and fraternities which includes years of hazing stories, accusations of sexual assaults and misogyny against fraternities and accusations of racial and insensitive cultural appropriation behavior.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of issues including debates over the University of Alabama’s very open and public segregation of sororities and fraternities based on race, the reprimanding of an Arizona State University fraternity party dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. which featured costumes tastelessly parodying black culture and American University’s Epsilon Iota (EI) chapter’s date rape reputation being brought to light through a series of disturbing emails by members. And with this latest SAE scandal, many are once again questioning the benefits and even the need for the existence of Greek organizations on college campuses.

Naturally, numerous other Greek organizations and their multiple chapters nationwide are fighting back against the criticism, declaring it unfair to paint all the organizations with one broad stroke because of the bad behavior of a few. However, as noted, the proliferation and consistency of these incidents throughout the years have made it harder and harder for the public to view them as isolated incidents of one bad fraternity or sorority. Suffice to say, college Greek life is facing a major publicity crisis and one wonders if there is any way to come back from it.

One of the hardest crisis for any organization to combat is a negative public image. Because it largely means changing the public’s negative perception and that can be a very difficult thing to do as individuals often find it difficult to look past a negative impression and/or experience. And changing public perception is exactly what the college Greek organizations are facing. So how can they do this?

  1. Acknowledge the Problem – The only way to truly change public perception of Greek life is for the entire college Greek community to acknowledge that there is a problem. Because the reality is, fair or not, the actions of others are affecting the public’s view of all. So it does not help for other organizations and chapters to dismiss the issues on the basis of “well it’s not our fraternity/sorority, so it has nothing to do with us.” Until the organizations collectively as a whole come together and acknowledge the issues, scandals like these which negatively impact all, will keep happening.
  2. Address the Negative – It is not just enough for the college Greek community to acknowledge the problems surrounding the organizations, they need to also publicly address it. And this does not mean one statement by the national chapter of whichever sorority or fraternity is currently in trouble, but rather a public campaign talking about and addressing all of the negative elements of the community and the ways it needs to be changed and fixed.
  3. Remind Public of the Positive – As one community, the Greek organizations should consider investing in a national public campaign highlighting all the positive aspects of Greek life. So many often tout things like community service, scholarships, professional connections, lifelong friendships and more as benefits of being a part of a sorority and fraternity. Therefore, a campaign highlighting all of these factors which will remind the public of the good parts of the organizations, would be very beneficial in changing the currently dominant negative image and public perception.
  4. Actively Align With Social Groups – A consistent relationship/partnership with many advocacy and social groups would help in not only changing public perception but also the attitudes and mentality of the various organizations. A few leading organizations particularly relevant to the numerous scandals sororities and fraternities have faced include; Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR).

Ultimately, changing the negative perception of college Greek organizations would require a significant overhaul of the community culture. The truth is many of these organizations are more than a century old and many of the attitudes, beliefs, and mindset are carried over multiple generations. Many of the members come from legacies – that is, their great-grandparents, grand-parents and parents were members. And it is extremely difficult to change thoughts and attitudes that have been deeply embedded for years and years. But unless that’s done, the scandals will continue as will the public’s negative perception which will ultimately affect the organizations’ bottom line.