Tom Garrity

Archive for the ‘Crisis Communication’ Category

Some #PR insight for my second cousin, James Comey

In Crisis Communication, Life, Messaging, Reputation, Uncategorized on May 19, 2017 at 6:26 pm

 

The second most polarizing figure in America today is the former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey.  Yes, at one point, he was number one, no doubt.

Mr. Comey’s grandmother on his mom’s side and my grandmother on my dad’s side are sisters.  I always knew his grandmother as Aunt Irene.  Mary and Irene Broderick grew up in New York and got along tremendously well. Ensuring that future generations were connected was not on their watch, just a casualty of the nuclear family.

Despite the distance, I am proud of the bloodline that connects our lineage. Yes, I had thought about giving him a call at the office; the potential thought of discussing public relation approaches with my second cousin sounded kind of cool. But in lieu of the awkward telephone handoffs of explaining the family relation for a dozen or so times with federal agents, only to leave a message with a very capable civilian, I opted to put a few of my thoughts on this blog.

As a public relations practitioner for the past 24 years, what insight could I possibly someone who has “been there and done that” in the gauntlet of public opinion?

First, I’d give former FBI Director three quick recaps:

  • The New Yorker story and 60 minutes interview resulted in solid media coverage to share who you are as a person. This is key to creating credibility and likeability.
  • The multiple news announcements about the Clinton e-mail server could have been handled better. While I am convinced that in your mind you were doing the right thing, it came across as disjointed and politically motivated.
  • Conducting an overview briefing to discuss the process for the respective Flynn and Trump/Russia investigations would have helped to shape future media coverage and conversations without giving away any of the investigative findings.

Then I’d ask, “ok, what’s next for you?”  And follow some of these questions (which would surely spur other questions):

  1. What does a win look like? Why?
  2. Where do you want to be professionally three years from now?
  3. How do you want the news headlines to read six months from now, or a year (if you care)?
  4. Are there any pressing issues or public activities taking place within the next 48-72 hours? List them and explain how they might impact the responses to any of the first three questions.

Based on his answers, we’d develop message and a strategy. As a result of that conversation, some exclusive one on one media interviews would be proposed unique to print (New York Times), radio (Michael Smerconish) and television (60 minutes).

Last question that I would ask: tell me about Aunt Irene!

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A Butterfly, an Ostrich and Transparency?

In Crisis Communication, Education, Reputation on July 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm

The High Desert Investment Corporation (HDIC) and its parent the Albuquerque Academy (New Mexico’s academic leader for independent and public education), have a financial problem that has spiraled into a crisis which threatens its reputation as a trusted institution.

The Albuquerque Journal has an excellent overview of the situation in today’s publication by Rosalie Rayburn and Richard Metcalf.

The Readers Digest version: The Albuquerque Academy’s HDIC is pulling out of its most recent residential development, Mariposa (which means Butterfly).  Homeowners in the high-end community are now faced with the potential of staggering increases to their property taxes.

Aside from making a board member available to media, the Albuquerque Academy is in a communication “ostrich mode”; not communicating with Mariposa residents, parents of students and the community at large.

Opportunities to communicate the issue through social media are non-existent.  Mariposa’s website, facebook and twitter feed (run by HDIC marketing) are silent on nearly everything, including the issues facing its community.

The factors driving the HDIC decision are complex; annual bond payments of $1.2 million are the root cause.  Those complexities should be the motivators for the Albuquerque Academy communication efforts.

Getting consistent information from the Albuquerque Academy is difficult.  Their website is silent on the Mariposa issue as well as the current status of its endowment.  Reported to be $298 million in 2008 by the Albuquerque Journal, the New York Times reported its value at $180 million a year later.

Transparency and consistency of message are two approaches that the Albuquerque Academy can use to start addressing this communication abyss manifested by the Mariposa pull out.  Whether it will be enough to salvage the brand of a New Mexico education icon; that depends how its leadership addresses short-term communication efforts.

Disclosure: My firm, The Garrity Group, provided public relation assistance to HDIC on Mariposa issues unrelated to the current situation.  The work was completed two years ago.

Go Frogs!

In Crisis Communication on February 17, 2012 at 12:44 am

Football in the State of Texas is a religion all its own. My college denomination is TCU, that’s right the Horned Frogs.

In recent years, Frog Football has helped to reconcile the ghosts of past coaches. Today a different issue haunts the campus as a police sting nabbed scores of students including four football starters who sold drugs to undercover officers.

Gone are the moral victories of being David versus Goliath. As Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway wrote “But gone forever is that one element that always had separated TCU from most of the rest. The clean image has been stained. No matter what else, it’s a stain that remains.”

While this is a set back, it is also an opportunity.

TCU did well in establishing a culture of transparency and consistency of message.  Calling a news conference within hours of the arrests; the communications team posted a letter from the University’s leadership and openly discussed the issue on social and new media throughout the day.

But the heavy lifting will continue at a marathon pace. These are the critical weeks for all universities as high school seniors are making decisions about their post-graduation schooling. While nearly every university has some kind of drug problem, getting national negative attention during decision week is not necessarily in the playbook.

TCU needs to continue its path of transparency and consistency of message.

The first 24-48 hours of crisis communications management focuses on replacing speculation, accusation and clues with facts. TCU has done this through effective statements and even releasing the number of football players that failed drug tests.

Just as TCU set a new standard in football, the university leadership can now set a similar standard in the processes it will use to win back the trust of students, faculty, parents, alumni, opinion leaders and fans. The focus of the discussion shouldn’t dwell on the arrests and failures; there has been enough self flagellation. The leadership needs to shape the discussion towards solutions and processes to remain focused on providing a successful college experience.

The Cure for Komen

In Crisis Communication, Reputation on February 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I’ve been in those board meetings.  A policy change is presented, and in accordance with Roberts Rules of Order, a “second” is sought.  Like Ferris Buhler’s name being called for attendance, the words are uttered “does anyone want to second this motion?  Anyone… anyone…”

Reluctantly, a second comes and discussion moves forward… the rest takes its own unique course.

I am not sure if that is what happened with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but somewhere a policy was presented.  It was approved by the foundation board and in that moment, funding would be restricted or denied for organizations under federal investigation.

Properly define what constitutes an investigation and, on face value, that kind of approach makes sense.

But, in politically charged environments where accusations are made and investigations launched as common place, additional filters need to be in place to try and separate the rhetoric from reality.

Planned Parenthood was the subject of an investigation, launched in a political arena, and didn’t pass the litmus test established by the Komen Foundation.  As a result the pink ribbon was engulfed in its own political firestorm.

Its critics branded this as an issue over mammograms and abortion.  In reality, The Susan G. Komen Foundation is in a public quagmire over policy.

In the midst of intense media and public scrutiny, the local chapters initially felt the pressure.  Then, a chapter in Colorado was granted an “exemption” from the policy.

Within 24 hours the national organization cried uncle and rescinded the policy.  In its wake, the organization left its supporters questioning the national leadership and looking for new avenues of charitable giving.

The greatest harm to the Komen Foundation is not in the policy controversy.  It is in the fact that policy is the focus of media attention instead of the compassion for victims of breast cancer.

Can the “cure” recover?  Only time will tell.

The organization’s focus for the next six months needs to be on the basics.  Focus on showing compassion to the victims.  Continue to put different faces on this issue and sharing the human element.  Use success stories to show how the organization is meeting and exceeding the needs of those who are, or are potentially, impacted by cancer.

Good policy fosters good public relations.  And for nonprofit organizations, compassion is always good policy even when the board and its leadership get in the way.

Garduno Effort Falters

In Crisis Communication on March 3, 2010 at 3:06 am

Garduno’s has had it share of problems lately.  The Albuquerque Mexican restaurant has had issues with tax payments to the State of New Mexico, lost its lease on a location at Balloon Fiesta Park and has had very public issues with an alleged embezzlement by a former employee.

On Sunday, the news stories started that the eatery was going to restructure.  On Monday, they announced three of their five stores would close and that the company was going to seek protection from creditors by declaring bankruptcy.  In the wake of the announcement, 100 jobs, uninformed employees and bewildered customers.

This was a text book case of how not to make this kind of announcement.  Here is a quick overview:

The announcement was leaked on Sunday, announced Monday.  It is Tuesday evening now and the news media is still talking about Garduno’s problems.  Want an example of how bad this media play was?  Look at the ABQ Journal Headlines, Monday: Garduño’s To File for Bankruptcy; Tuesday: Bankruptcy Fallout.  Lesson: If you want to give a story legs, announce this kind of information on Monday… they will be talking about it all week long.  Announce it on a Friday, the story will likely stall on over the weekend.

The announcement was made at a news conference.  This is great for media outlets because they get to pick apart everything they say.. and they did.  It allows the media to shape the discussion instead of Garduno’s.  Lesson: Celebrate good news in public and share bad news one-on-one.

And the third great mistake, their employees and customers were the last to know.  According to Monday’s media reports, Garduno’s was planning to have a staff meeting on Tuesday to talk about the issue.  They left their customers out to dry, their website http://www.gardunosrestaurants.com/ still lists all locations as opened and there is no word of the reorganization.  Lesson: The level of compassion you show to your victims will determine how successful you will be surviving the crisis.

I wish Mr. Garduno the best of luck to survive this downturn. I hear he is a class act, a down to earth guy, it is just too bad that the “spin” didn’t reflect his good character.

Toyota, Tiger and Tylenol

In Crisis Communication on February 23, 2010 at 2:27 am

Toyota, Tiger and Tylenol… I can’t get these images out of my head.  They sit there like a Mount Rushmore of triumph and tragedy.

The triumph, they were the best at their respective crafts, had the best reputations.  The tragedy, all crashed with such velocity that they make the Exxon Valdez public relations fiasco appear to be a communications masterpiece (which it was not).

Toyota perfected Lean Manufacturing to the point that others were mimicked their approach.  But in the name of profit and pride they hung their dealers and customers out to dry over faulty computer programs, brakes and in spite of United States safety regulations.

Tiger was one of the best to ever play sport and business of golf.  His ability to earn trust for his brands was truly unparalleled.  His fault is not in being human, it is for ceding responsibility for his brand to people who didn’t have his well being in mind.  The handling of the mea culpa infomercial was on par with a Bachelor “rose ceremony” and go down in the annals of PR as contrived, staged and just bad theatre.

And Tylenol once set the mark for how to handle crisis communications.  Their handling of the infamous immediate recall, that followed the deaths of seven people from cyanide-laced capsules in 1982, set the industry standard on such events.  Someone must have misplaced the manual because it took the 20-months to make similar recall (granted the situations between 1982 and 2010 are different).

Toyota, Tiger and Tylenol are in some ways like the infamous Jessica Rabbit (from who framed Roger Rabbit)… she wasn’t bad, she was just drawn that way.  Only they weren’t bad, they are now perceived that way because of some gaffs in their checks and balances.

UNM’s Ostrich Mode Backfires

In Crisis Communication, Uncategorized on September 28, 2009 at 1:57 am

UNM Lobo LogoThe University of New Mexico is in the national sports headlines, but it isn’t for the football program being 0-4 and losing to in-state rival New Mexico State on Saturday night.

The latest headlines are generating a buzz because of a police report claiming that the UNM Football Coach punched out one of his assistant coaches at a post-game meeting.

Once reporters uncovered the police report Monday morning, the University put together an afternoon statement saying that they do not “condone” the head coach’s behavior.  The University has since tried to end the discussion by not commenting on it any further.

After taking a quick a look at this disastrous crisis communications response, I’ll provide an indicator as to why we shouldn’t expect any further comment from the University.

I am sure as soon as word got out internally that this altercation had occurred, there were more than a few expletives proclaimed at every level of the Athletics and President’s office.  Then, someone thought, “hey, maybe nobody will notice the police report and we can just focus on the attention on this week’s contest against Texas Tech.”  Whoever suggested that strategy should be fired and sent to denial school for a fresh dose of reality.

The University of New Mexico had a chance to be proactive and appear to be taking the high road.  As soon as the Albuquerque Police Department showed up, communicators should have started planning their Monday morning news conference to provide full disclosure of the situation, express their regret and perhaps even talk about a penalty for the head coach losing his cool.  Unfortunately, UNM went into “Ostrich Mode”, stuck its head in the sand and hoped nobody would notice the police report.  As a result, UNM appears to be hiding from another embarrassment.

Those who are hoping that UNM President David Schmidly will intervene and overrule the Athletic Director will have better luck hoping the football program doesn’t go winless.  The UNM President has made his position known, indirectly, regarding his thoughts on firm handed coaching techniques.  While he was President of Texas Tech he was the key negotiator that brought fired Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight to Lubbock.

How can the President comment on the football coach without bringing in his past hiring decisions involving the basketball coach?  That will be the key question mulled over by the public relation practitioners in the coming hours and days as the fallout over punch-out gains more momentum.

Transparency and Accountability

In Crisis Communication on July 15, 2009 at 1:40 am

transpaccessYou are accused of wrong doing.  You are named in an indictment.  Your name shows up in a “tell all book” about steroids in sports.  What do you do?

Building/maintaining trust is a three part approach.

The first key to building/maintaining trust is to be truthful.  Shortly after South Carolina’s Governor was caught-up in lies over his schedule and personal relationships, reporters around the country started asking for the schedules of various public officials.  Access to public schedules is peeling back the first layer of the onion.  Providing access to private schedules and commentary about the activities only increases the level of transparency.

The second key to building/maintaining trust is found in communicating directly with your audience.   Be accessible.  Communicate in a timely manner directly with them.  The Governor of Alaska is taking this to an extreme.  In announcing her resignation from office, she announced through the general media then pushed her comments through to her “friends” on FaceBook, providing her message direct and unfiltered.

The third key is timing.  Timing is everything.  You can be transparent and accessible, but if it is after the fact, your efforts are disingenuous.  Case and point, let’s take a quick look at Roger Clemens.  The baseball great was named in a “tell all” book where he was accused of taking steroids.  His immediate criticism of the claims was to be expected, but he didn’t provide anything to support to his innocence.  He used an attorney to speak on his behalf and then tried to use his star power on Capitol Hill to try and divert attention prior to his testimony before a Senate subcommittee.  He could have helped his case by releasing his calendar and personal medical records (even just blood tests) to refute claims of where he was and what he was doing.  That suggested approach is extreme but, if he had nothing to hide, it would have helped to turn the tide more than using attorneys and ‘he said she said” defenses.

Being truthful/transparent, accessible and timely in your positioning and response will help determine how long you will find yourself in the midst of the public spotlight.

Rules of Engagement

In Crisis Communication on July 11, 2009 at 1:26 am

Political pundits in New Mexico indicate this is “the” week that indictments will be handed down from a grand jury impaneled to hear claims of pay-to-play.  Of course, “this” has been the week ever since a prominent New Mexican withdrew his name as the Cabinet Secretary nominee for the United States Department of Commerce.  Whether it is or isn’t the week, I’ll be posting a few items to consider in the event you or someone you know is on the receiving end of a federal indictment.

There is a courtroom of public opinion and a courtroom of law.  You need professionals in both arenas to make sure you can survive and have some resemblance of a life when the dust settles.  Since I am not an attorney, my insight only focuses on shaping public opinion.

One of my favorite public service announcements of all time was produced for the Partnership for a Drug Free America, it and aired during the Reagan era.  It showed a hot skillet with an egg being fried broken and fried with the words, “This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs.”  It is timeless because of its simplicity.

With that in mind, surviving a life changing event like an indictment is also timeless.  If you are guilty of the accusations then you should repent and come clean.  If you are innocent of the accusations, you should fight aggressively.

What we see time and time again are people thinking they can work out of their situation by mixing these two basic truths. 

The result, often those who are guilty of the accusations fight aggressively to prove their innocence.  We saw this play out over the last several years with former State Senator Manny Aragon pleading his innocence, only to later plead guilty to many of the same federal charges.

The rules of engagement are simple; the situations that got you to this point are complex.  How do you share this information with credibility?  We’ll address that in tomorrow’s installment “Developing Your Approach”.

Lessons from a Military Jet Crash

In Crisis Communication on March 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm
09crash_650A Marine pilot navigating his military jet on a routine training runs over the San Diego area encounters an issue forcing him to shut down one engine. 
Then, another engine shows low fuel. 
The route his air traffic controllers have chosen takes the jet fighter over a populated part of Southern California.
His aircraft nosing into the ground, the pilot waits until the last possible moment to eject. F/A-18 Hornet crashes into a neighborhood killing four people on the ground. All of the victims are related.
The lone survivor of the family offered forgiveness in the midst of an unthinkable grief.
The Marines promised a full inquiry. Cynical onlookers thought it would be a private investigation never to “fully” see the light of day.
However, as Peggy Noonan wrote in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the Marines did an about face on past protocol and showed tremendous transparency in their promised follow-up:
They could not have been tougher, or more damning. The crash, said Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles, the assistant wing commander for the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, was “clearly avoidable,” the result of “a chain of wrong decisions.” Mechanics had known since July of a glitch in the jet’s fuel-transfer system; the Hornet should have been removed from service and fixed, and was not. The young pilot failed to read the safety checklist. He relied on guidance from Marines at Miramar who did not have complete knowledge or understanding of his situation. He should have been ordered to land at North Island. He took an unusual approach to Miramar, taking a long left loop instead of a shorter turn to the right, which ate up time and fuel. Twelve Marines were disciplined; four senior officers, including the squadron commander, were removed from duty. Their military careers are, essentially, over. The pilot is grounded while a board reviews his future.
In a crisis, there are always four audiences that need to be addressed: victims, employees, customers and the media. The level of compassion an organization shows to the victims will help to determine how successful they will be in weathering the storm of public opinion.
The Marines didn’t pull any punches. Their transparency showed compassion to victims in an immeasurable way.  Accidents will occur again. However, when it happens, the victims can point to a new level of openness that will help answer their plaguing question of “why?”