Teach C-levels to be as natural and effective as a 20-year-old at the Masters

For many sports fans and probably all golf fans, the Masters is a four-day love affair with the gorgeous spring green of Georgia, which has not yet crept North, but promises to.

It’s a series of unbelievable shots, the best of which are the bad ones hit by the world’s most-talented golfers on to greens the composition of lumpy pool tables.

It’s the world’s most prestigious golf tournament, that in the end confers a wildly out-of-date green blazer that some people would value above the British crown.

Among the many lessons offered last weekend, there was a singular one for crisis and media training: You can learn a lot from Jordan Spieth, and not just from his golf game.

The 20-year-old phenom, who may or may not be the next Tiger Woods, played superior golf, finishing tied for second and playing the last round with the eventual winner, Bubba Watson. But it was how Spieth acted and spoke that demonstrated the lessons in this vein.

Here’s an insightful take on Spieth from Grantland’s Shane Ryan:

The reason for our collective fascination, though, goes beyond the simple fact that he’s young and plays golf at a high level. That’s remarkable, but what sets Spieth apart from the legions of talented young golfers is the total, unflinching composure he shows in public. This is usually described as maturity, but to me, Spieth is more like an ultra-polished golfing Übermensch dreamed up at a PR think tank. He’s the kind of player who never says the words “Nicklaus” or “Palmer” without attaching a reverent “Mr.” at the front, and who, in the rare moments when he shows his youth, apologizes immediately afterward.

He’s not boring, though; he can be witty, very insightful. He’s religious enough that he attends the PGA Tour Bible study meetings with players like Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, but he doesn’t speak about it on camera. Like many golfers, he lightly despises the media, but conceals it with patience and charm. The diligence with which his team protects him is totally unnecessary; this isn’t a player like Tiger Woods who will get caught making a racy joke, swearing profusely on camera, or, heaven forbid, frolicking with strange women. He gives you just enough to write your story, and then disappears.

Spieth displays good timing and a sense of humor. On Saturday when discussing which players he called “Mr.,” he suggested he’d use that with Watson Sunday.

“Yeah, Mr. Watson, for sure,” Spieth said, smiling. “Just because it’ll mess with him.”

As was reported over the weekend in SFGate:

Some of Spieth’s old-soul poise traces to his relationship with his 12-year-old sister, Ellie, who was born with a neurological disorder and attends school with other special-needs children back home in Texas. Spieth often volunteered in Ellie’s classrooms when she was younger, and he has said her daily struggle makes him stronger.

So what lessons may we learn? Even under pressure and in crisis, it’s good to be calm and natural; even when you can talk about leading the Masters and losing it, be gracious about the competition; smile when you talk; don’t practice what you’re going to say to such an extent that you appear robotic, but practice what you want to say; smile when you talk; use a little humor if the situation warrants it; self-deprecating can be self-supporting; you control the interview, because you have the information the media want.

If you watched Spieth — not to mention the what-you-see-is-what-you-get, down-to-earth Watson, over the four days, you saw a good model of how to handle the media, compete at the highest level of your profession and turn a second-place finish into a win.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

 

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Rutgers athletics kicks self in the butt after mastering foot in mouth

For those of you cheering the UConn men and women for winning the NCAA basketball championships this week, you probably missed the continuing fireworks and flagellation coming out of Rutgers University. But my colleague Meredith Dropkin caught them.

This is the same athletic department that lost its basketball coach and then its athletic director because the coach thought he was Bear Bryant and this was 1962. His abusing of his athletes got him fired. Then the new AD, one Julie Hermann, came up from Louisville and was promptly accused of ignoring similar complaints about a coach when she was AD there.

AD Hermann made news again this week when she declared public disdain for the Newark Star-Ledger, right around the time 167 people working there lost their jobs. Oops. Or not. She declined to apologize when given the chance by one of the paper’s columnists.

She apparently told a journalism ethics class [did she stop to think her comments might get reported out?] that:

“If they’re not writing headlines that are getting our attention, they’re not selling ads – and they die,” Hermann told the Media Ethics and Law class. “And the Ledger almost died in June, right?”

“They might die again next month,” a student said.

“That would be great,” she replied. “I’m going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive.”

We’re not hear to argue for commuting the death sentences most newspapers presumably face. But the insensitivity and basic misunderstanding of a journalist’s responsibility is, frankly, shocking in someone in as high a position as she.

We could probably hit every NCAA school from Alabama to Yale and not find a coach or AD who loves their hometown media. But that doesn’t mean they ignore the symbiotic relationship. That doesn’t mean they publicly wish their business fails. That doesn’t make you a smarter AD to show such insensitivity to out-of-work parents.

Wrote columnist Steve Politi:

Hermann is the public face of Rutgers athletics now. This is why, in the months following her mishandling of the Jevon Tyree bullying allegations, school officials did everything but hide her in a storage room at the Rutgers Athletics Center to keep her from putting her foot in her mouth again.

She survived that controversy, thanks to an independent investigation that didn’t even try to answer the one question … that mattered.

But you knew that wouldn’t be the end of it. Hermann has been a human P.R. nightmare since taking the job, and the response from Rutgers officials has been to dig in deeper in their support.

Maybe that’s why Hermann is rooting for reporters and editorial writers to lose their jobs – they are the only ones who seem to be holding her accountable.

Or maybe ripping The Star-Ledger is part of a plan to win over the Rutgers community, because a misguided faction of its fan base that blames the media for every problem in Piscataway will no doubt cheer her on.

But I’m betting more will see her comments as what they are: Unbefitting a person in a high-profile position at a major university, at a time when Rutgers needs a leader for its transition into the Big Ten.

Rutgers continues, more than a year later, to demonstrate facile ability to maintain a negative, crisis-based, focus on the screwups in its athletic department. It remains in crisis.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

 

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In the end, how did Mary T. Barra do containing GM’s crisis?

GM CEO Mary T. Barra received a lot of notice last week for her two-day testimony before Congressional committees about the automaker’s ignition switch problems and the resulting deaths and delays in making the issue public.

PR Week compiled a few views. And The New York Times concluded that GM realized it needed outside crisis management help.

As is too often the case, those realizations emerge after the bird doo splattered the car, not before. We have this saying: You can pay us now, or you can pay us three or four times as much later. This is not to be glib or fresh. The fact is that planning for and coping with a crisis early is far superior to trying to do so after positions have hardened, public opinion has weighed in, and your CEO is hauled before Congress for a thankless and humiliating round of “I know you screwed up.”

And, if this YouTube video of Barra’s testimony is any indication, she really needs those outside experts. One of our basic crisis management tenets is that 90 percent of what you convey is visual. Someone involved in GM PR or crisis management needed to hand Barra a statement to read whose text was in 24 or 30 point type so she didn’t have to wear her glasses to read it.

At the angle she uses them, her eyes were opaque reflections of TV lights, sapping all sincerity and distracting viewers in the extreme. While they were at it, her high-paid handlers should have removed the MS. BARRA sign that covers her lower half at the testimony table. It’s distracting and diminishes the opportunity to listen to her words.

Note that as soon as she finished reading her opening testimony, she removed the glasses.

In the end, the best view of her work before Congress was that she did it. She came, she got roughed up and she went home. She apologized, took responsibility and pledged an independent investigation of what went wrong. All those elements were part of the narrative before she went before the lights, but Congress people still like their time in the spotlight.

GM has a long way to go, both in getting past this crisis, and managing it.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

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What Mary T. Barra should say to Congress about GM and its recalls

First, unlike her Big Auto predecessors did in 2008, let’s hope that GM CEO Mary T. Barra flew commercial to D.C. this morning for her hot-seat testimony before Congress.

Barra is easily the highest-ranking woman this side of a major national leader and her company has thrown everything negative it could find at her. FDR had it easier in his First Hundred Days.

GM currently practically has more individual recalls in the works than it has models. Its biggest, over ignition failures blamed for a dozen deaths over more than 10 years, is really bad. Overall, GM is rounding up 2.3 million vehicles for various repairs.

GM released in advance some of what Barra plans to say to a Congressional subcommittee today on the recalls, and lack thereof. This is a smart crisis-management move, designed to set the tone publicly and before members of Congress get all fired up to give Barra a hard time.

She plans to apologize, again. And, she will promise a thorough, third-party investigation. While she came from within GM, there’s no evidence that she was directly responsible for GM’s inaction on the ignition failures. She’s also going to take responsibility, which is another plus.

But a great deal is at stake here, and the factors that caused this mess could preoccupy Barra and her team for the next five years, repeatedly distracting the company from growth and innovation at a key time in its history. As USA Today described it:

The exposure for GM — its resurgent post-bankruptcy reputation and profitability at risk — and for Barra, is far greater. Lawyers are beginning to line up to file class actions and liability suits, testing whether GM’s bankruptcy shied from pre-2009 claims will hold.

The additional key for Barra is to speak in specifics. If she gets into vague promises and lofty commitments, she’ll anger some already pretty irked Congress men and women. What will GM do, specifically, and what has it done to fix this problem? How can we be sure this won’t happen again? And by that they’ll mean the lack of reporting, the lack of accountability, and the failure to connect the proverbial dots between people dying and the improper ignition shut offs.

When a company as large as GM faces a crisis as debilitating and potentially paralyzing as this, a CEO in particular has the opportunity to step up. If Barra can convince Congress that she’s firmly at the helm, that heads are going to roll and that GM will be better for it, she can attain what we call “transformative leadership.” She can convince the world that she’s a caring, trustworthy and action-oriented CEO who will do a lot more than fix what ails 2.3 million vehicles.

If she can, GM will weather this crisis.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

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NCAA, permanently in the crisis business, looks at its coming apocaplyse

The NCAA has more crises on its plate than Malaysian Airlines.

And after a ruling in Chicago this week by a regional National Labor Relations Board arbitrator, it’s staring into an abyss similar to the uncharted depths of the southern Indian Ocean.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association faces multiple threats, including overly powerful leagues, like the SEC in football and the ACC in basketball. It must face the reality that most college athletes in major sports graduate at abysmal rates. It overreached and overreacted from a position of insecurity on its recent discipline cases, notably with Penn State after the Sandusky scandal and Ohio State after its tatoo issues. And it must contend with the realities that television, Nike, Under Armour, the NFL, NBA and NHL rule college sports more than the NCAA.

So it had to be hearing a gallows being built in the background as its officials read the NLRB decision. Athletes at Northwestern University won the right to organize in a union, as employees, not students. The exploited gained power against the exploiter.

Symbolically this was an athletic Emancipation Proclamation.

While colleges and universities reap tens of millions of dollars a year from the major sports, athletes receive a pittance by percentage. Yes, there is value in a $100,000 college education, even if it’s a $250,000 education paid at some universities’ tuition, room and board rates. But even multiplied by 53 football players or 15 basketball players, the compensation is a negligible and negligent.

But as Juliet Macur wrote in The New York Times:

…it’s not all about money, said Georges Niang, a sophomore forward at Iowa State. It’s about athletes’ voices “being heard.” It’s about being more than just a powerless commodity. 

In our history, Americans have exploited numerous powerless commodities — immigrant labor; women paid less than men; single parents scraping by for their children; the under-educated; veterans; people with disabilities. The littany is as rich as it is sad.

That’s why this ruling gives so much hope. It will be appealed, and a handful of years from now will probably reach the U.S. Supreme Court in some form. If the athletes win at that level, how the NCAA’s billions are spread will likely become more equitable.

How is the NCAA reacting to this crisis? As it usually does, pushing surrogates out front, pretending it’s business as usual, when everyone else can see the rioters at the NCAA’s gates.

In what now seems like quaint times, tennis players who for generations had lived as scam amateurs, forced the “open” era, being paid for playing as entertainers and competitors. Olympic athletes soon followed. I had friends in college who competed in the Olympics before the “open” Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. They were paid, just not with a paycheck. They received four bicycles for training, so they could sell two or three; they received three stereo systems from a sponsor for their relaxation hours, so they could do the same. The hypocrisy was clear.

The NCAA would do well to start working toward a solution that might save it. Transparency, taking responsibility for its shortcomings, mistakes and outright failures should replace the arrogance of power. The NCAA is the modern version of a sweatshop operator or coal mine owner trying to fight inevitable organizing by exploited employees.

The writing is on the proverbial wall, in a 29-page NLRB decision. It’s not a Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence or the real Emancipation Proclamation. But for college athletes, it might as well be.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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How does reputation management company handle its own crisis?

The test of any company or organization is how it follows its own preachings. That’s why the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, BP,  and others get slammed. Hypocrisy. What’s good for others must be good for you as well.

So it was reinforcing and affirming that Reputation.com CEO Michael Fertik did a Q&A published yesterday in The New York Times. His instructions to his clients were precisely what he made sure his company did when it faced a crisis, a hacking.

Q. Your company had a data breach last year and got battered online. What did you do?

A. We decided to talk about it publicly very fast. The data breach was of a shape and size that only one state would have required us to notify residents in that state. Instead of just telling them, we told everybody. And it was painful for a company that does privacy to do that. We told everybody, we made it clear, and we said this is what we have to do, and this is what we offer you, free services and so forth. We owned the fact that it would be an unpleasant 48 hours. We didn’t tell the press first, we told our customers first and the press found out. And since, we’ve made radical changes to our security.

In seven lines, you can’t sum up crisis management any better. And, to Fertik’s and his team’s credit, they did what they tell others to do.

Facts fast is a credo we live by at EMA as well. And always communicate internally first. Your colleagues can be your best defenders if you arm them with all the facts. Those allow them to make decisions in your favor.

He also exhibited and documented a real, if rare, view of social media and how to handle it in a crisis context. Again, a refreshing approach we share:

Q. How much time should business owners invest in social media?

A. Social media is often a waste of their time. A rule of thumb: If you’re selling cupcakes, useful; if you’re selling power tools, not useful. So: pleasurable, joyful items? Probably yes. More female-facing? Probably yes. Power drinks? Sure. Orthopedics? No.

And:

Q. When should a business that has been attacked online in reviews or on social media sites respond?

A. The first thing you do is breathe. Some of this stuff is written for an audience of one: you. Unless it’s very visible, it’s not worth a response. If something that they are saying is unambiguously false, you do want to consider a response: “These people do not serve lasagna.” “They fired their key person who handles accounting.” Those are examples when it’s very easy to correct the record. In a very sanitized, polite way, you can say, “In fact, so-and-so still works here.”

Great answers.

This interview is a gold mine for anyone thinking about how to best handle crises, especially those that play out in social media.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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GM, in ignition crisis it managed so poorly, is at least reacting well to social media

General Motors will have its day in court, or in lawyers’ conference rooms where it will settle for hundreds of millions of dollars with victims of its ignition malfunctions. But in the court of public perception, GM is already guilty as charged.

Can the company ever hope to change that?

GM apparently delayed, denied and deceived, — what we call the ‘Death Strategy’ — in its crisis management. The ignition lock failure goes back more than a decade and is apparently the cause of 10 deaths. The New York Times today reports that GM officials misled victims families for almost five years on the company’s complicity and knowledge of the defect.

That will all sort itself out, but today we want to look more closely at how GM is managing the fallout on social media. Comments on its Facebook page, Twitter feeds and on blogs are receiving a lot of company attention. And at least for now, it appears GM is reacting effectively.

How far is GM willing to go? Here’s an example of its approach, from another Times story.

Lauren Munhoven, the mother of a 2-year-old in Ketchikan, Alaska, turned to Twitter after wasting an hour on the phone with G.M. trying to get help with her 2006 Saturn Ion. Those Ions, and five other models, were recalled in February because of a defective ignition switch that, if bumped or weighed down by a heavy key ring, could turn off, shutting down the engine and disabling the air bags.

She wrote in a public tweet:

After a series of private messages with a member of G.M.’s Twitter team, the company agreed to pay the $600 cost of a round-trip ferry to ship Ms. Munhoven’s car to the nearest dealer, about 300 miles away in Juneau, and pay for a rental car for the time she is without the Saturn.

She credited the public nature of Twitter complaints for getting G.M.’s attention. “Over Twitter, the service was a lot better,” she said. She was so pleased that she posted a public thank-you on Twitter.

Not every company has a “Twitter team,” but the sensitivity of companies to social media is evident. Customer Service was non-responsive, but public exposure via social media weighs heavily. [Thanks to my EMA colleague John Lacey for flagging the Times story.]

“This issue cannot define G.M. going forward,” said Dave Evans, vice president for social strategy at Lithium Technologies, a San Francisco firm that helps companies manage customer service on social networks. “They really have the opportunity to fundamentally redefine themselves as an open, transparent, listening organization.”

That transformation is, after all, the endgame for aggressive and successful crisis management. And that’s why GM is paying so much attention to social media — which is the vox populi of our modern world. If you can take a company that is perceived as negligent, unresponsive and responsible for customer deaths and recast it as open, responsive, helpful and safe, GM will come out of this hundreds of millions of dollars poorer, but richer in reputation.

That’s the goal anyway. But so was building safe cars.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mowerpr.com/crisisready . Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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