As this very article is being written, Pennsylvania State University is dealing with the fallout of a historic, tragic scandal of unprecedented proportions. The revelation that former football coach Jerry Sandusky might have been molesting children for years without intervention, and more recently his conviction of said crimes in court, shocked the nation to its core so deeply that the incident may forever be a chain around the university’s neck.
Penn State, of course, anticipated this; in April, they hired two public relations firms for $2.5 million to handle communications on the scandal and the aftermath of the court case. Even with hired help, however, the university has quite the hill to climb to win back the people’s respect, and could easily slip backwards into another PR pitfall if they aren’t careful.
With that in mind, let us examine three other PR crises that have taken place in the last year or so for a reference on what (and what not) to do to manage such a catastrophe. So here they are: the good, the bad and the ugly of public relations, and how the struggling Penn State can learn from them.
THE GOOD: Red Cross
The relatively recent integration of social media into marketing is great for businesses overall, but it does have its drawbacks. One such drawback, for example, would be a scenario in which content meant for the “casual and friendly fun” side of social media crosses over into the “business” side, the Internet equivalent of “having the wrong number.” This was a reality Red Cross faced head-on in early 2011, when someone at the volunteer-led organization accidentally posted a message intended for their private account to the organization’s official Twitter account, where it went untouched for nearly an hour. Well, that’s hardly a big deal, right? What personal message could ever have the possible effect of tarnishing the reputation of such a humanitarian organiza-…
“Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”
Nonetheless, the clean-up to the incident was simple and effective. When the Red Cross’ social media director got wind of what was going on, she not only deleted the crude tweet and apologized for it, but also sent out a humorous follow-up tweet: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”
Here’s where it gets truly great, though: Dogfish Head, the brand of beer mentioned in the rogue tweet, started promoting donations to the Red Cross and asking their followers to tweet the hashtag #gettingslizzerd. It was a show of quick thinking and good-natured playfulness from everyone involved, and miraculously managed to result in greater public interest in each organization.
LESSON LEARNED: Obviously, something as minor as a Twitter slip-up can’t compare to the utter PR nightmare that Penn State is going through. And unless you can think of a way to make light of child molestation (hint: DON’T) then the Red Cross’ comedic approach to handling their business faux pas cannot be applied.
Still, there are elements to the Red Cross blunder and its solution that can apply well to almost any PR crisis. Their response to the situation was quick, apologetic and acknowledged the problem at hand. Dogfish Head’s involvement also proves that good PR doesn’t have to come from within the organization itself. Penn State should be leaning on its remaining supporters for all they’ve got, encouraging them to spread the word that the university still has legs to stand on.
What the handling of the Red Cross best illustrates, though, is the value in being human. Your shortcomings will stand out all the greater if your response to them is to behave like a faceless, soulless conglomerate; face your PR obstacles naturally and with a level head, and you can potentially earn not just the people’s forgiveness, but their respect as well.
THE BAD: Netflix / Qwikster
You may know Netflix as the premier provider of Internet streaming media (namely, movies). But did you know that Netflix alone accounted for nearly 32.7% of peak U.S. bandwidth usage and had over 26 million worldwide users in late 2011? Those are impressive figures, but they get even more impressive when you learn exactly was going on in their PR department during that time.
In mid-summer of that year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced plans to divide the existing pay model – which covered both streaming services and mail-order DVDs – into two separate services, resulting into a higher price point for those who wanted to keep both options. This understandably upset a large fraction of Netflix’s subscribers, but the Hasting’s “fix” for the situation only converted that anger into confusion: a month later, he announced he would split the entire company in two, creating a new business named Qwikster specifically for DVDs. Not only would the much-protested price hike remain, but now you would have to sign up for an entirely new account to keep the same service! Investors and consumers alike were befuddled by these changes, and the lack of clear and calming PR gave the impression that the company didn’t or couldn’t care for their needs any longer.
But ultimately, Netflix listened, and ended up buckling down to vehemently strong consumer criticism (and a heavy loss to the subscriber base) and scrapped the entire plan. They remain strong, but their image (and their stock) has never been quite the same as before the fiasco.
LESSON LEARNED: Communication is key. That’s all you really need to know from this. Netflix might have been able to get away with their unpopular changes – which they certainly had reasons for implementing – if they had more effectively conveyed to consumers why they had to be made. Instead, they rapidly introduced two game-changing plans, one right after the other, without any more explanation than the simple basics, and purposefully skirting around the various ways the plans would screw over the common consumer. Their failure to communicate took what was already a controversial scheme and rendered it almost unworkable.
So, Penn State, are you still taking notes? You must open a dialogue with the people; you cannot shut them out, even when they are antagonizing you and opposing your positions and goals. In fact, those are the kind of people you want to talk to the most, because there’s a chance that a good explanation for your actions could make them change their mind. In short, public relations should be like a porous membrane – letting in the criticism and releasing out reasoned response – rather than a brick wall.
And when all else fails – as it did in the Netflix scenario – sometimes all you have to do to save face is compromise. Admit to your mistakes and promise to make a fresh start. Surely Penn State have done this (it's hard not to apologize for what happened under their management), but it is a sentiment worth repeating frequently and with sincerity.
THE UGLY: Ocean Marketing
The tale of Ocean Marketing will likely go down as one of history’s most baffling PR blunders. And what is most remarkable about it is that it began merely as an isolated exchange between two individuals, only to snowball into a skirmish engulfing the entire Internet.
It began with Dave, a customer of the Avenger Controller, a modified video gaming controller designed for disabled gamers in mind. In December of 2011, he sent an email to Ocean Marketing, which handled the marketing of the Avenger, to determine when his purchase would ship. He was met with the blunt and unhelpful response of one Paul Christoforo, the product’s PR lead, resulting in a back-and-forth of emails driving Dave to frustration.
The exact nature of Christoforo’s responses at that point has to be seen to be believed, but to make a long story short: what started as a simple question aimed at a supposedly qualified marketing representative was eventually met with a barrage of childish insults, insane delusions, and an anomalous number of run-on sentences. And the whole ordeal might have ended on that sour note, if Dave hadn’t sent the contents of the entire conversation to a certain someone: Mike Krahulik, artist for the popular web-comic Penny Arcade and co-founder of the Child’s Play charity. Before long, Krahulik had spread the word regarding Paul Christoforo’s…err, “abrasive” approach to public relations, and the net was soon ablaze with rage aimed squarely at Ocean Marketing.
Fortunately, N-Control, the company that produces the Avenger, was only barely scorched by the flames. People seemed more than capable of mentally separating one man’s antics from the product that he was supposed to be publicizing. Nonetheless, David Kotkin, the inventor of the Avenger Controller, drop-kicked Ocean Marketing to the curb, donated $10,000 to Child’s Play and announced that all pre-orders for the item would be given a $10 discount. Christoforo’s replacement, Moisés Chiullan denounced his predecessor, stating "there isn't a bus big enough for me to throw Paul Christoforo under." Ouch.
LESSON LEARNED: Well, for starters, there’s the important lesson that all it takes is one asshole to ruin an entire institution’s worth of value and support. Of course, Penn State should already know that one.
In all seriousness, though, this is more of cautionary tale for those who would enlist PR firms to do your dirty work: despite their job description, PR and marketing representatives are still human beings, very much capable of making mistakes. Thus, Penn State, take this to heart: if the fruit of one of your PR firms starts going sour, cut it from the branch as soon as possible. What exactly qualifies as “going sour” is up to you, but seeing one of your representatives tell a client that they “just got told” is probably a good indicator. The minute they realize they are being talked down to, even the most loyal apologist of Penn State could transform into their worst enemy.
Finally, the greatest lesson of all in PR crisis management can be found here. And that lesson is simple: don’t be like Paul Christoforo.