Mission Drives Action in Any Crisis

Some Thursday morning thoughts on crisis and issues management.

It’s right there in the first line of Penn State University’s history: “From agricultural college to world-class learning community – the story of The Pennsylvania State University is one of an expanding mission of teaching, research, and public service.”

Nowhere in the description of its mission does Penn State mention football, though some reports have noted that the university’s athletics program’s motto is “Success with Honor.”

This week, even the student protesters on the Penn State campus would be hard pressed to suggest that the university had lived up to its mission of education and public service or that the leaders of its football program understood the role of honor.

Colleges and universities have a special place in society, different from those of most other institutions and organizations. They are communities held together by common purpose and values, and they are meant to be sanctuaries where ideas are tested, thought is emboldened, and moral courage is strengthened. While the demographics of higher education in the United States have changed significantly in the past 65 years or so – from upper class to all classes, from mainly white to a broad spectrum of both Americans and people new to this country, from young to older – there is still a sense of purpose around providing a safe and protected setting where youth can find their path in life.

I think this ultimately is what guided trustees in their decision-making when they fired PSU’s President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno after learning that a number of athletic program and university officials had, according to reports, failed to act decisively on information that an adjunct member of the football program had allegedly abused young boys.

Many news reports have noted that university officials observed “the letter of the law,” following guidelines for reporting such incidents. But, their failure to understand the higher purpose of their community – to uphold the mission of the school and its athletic program – triggered the crisis and the trustees’ actions.

Whether you work for an institution, a brand or a corporation, your greatest vulnerability in any crisis is what people perceive as your core strength. Failure at the core will always cause more outcry among your public than an issue generated by an outside agent.

The lessons of this week for communicators are to be prepared (the old Scouts’ motto) for crises of mission or core capability and support efforts (perhaps by Human Resources, training, or as a topic for all-employee meetings) to reinforce organizational values, so that everyone understands how to make mission the driver in their day-to-day work.

Is Your Call Center Prepared?

Another issue that made the news this week was the seemingly minor matter of upgrading the Virgin America website, where many customers make, change and check on reservations. The resulting computer issues led to calls to Virgin’s 800-number to resolve reservation problems which resulted in some angry social media accounts of long hold times and hang-ups.

Since the topic for today is being prepared: If your call center was experiencing similar issues, do you know how to record updates on your phone system?

As communicators, we look for every avenue to message to our audiences during crises. We prepare talking points and FAQs and place them online and on Facebook and even YouTube. We update the message on our personal voicemails and the company’s news media line. We make sure every customer-facing employee has a copy and understands how to use them.

But, what if your audience is on hold?

Would your call center managers know how to access the system, remove Muzak or that awful recording of “Your call is important to us. Please hold for the next available operator”?

And what would they say if they could get into the system to record something for all those folks stranded on hold? A prepared statement may sound too canned to someone whose blood pressure is rising after 53 minutes on hold. A well-crafted, conversational message that acknowledges responsibility for the issue and what your company is doing to resolve it – and the long telephone wait times – may, in some cases, be all your audience needs. Even if it doesn’t completely resolve the customer’s issue, getting an update while on hold may put them in a better frame of mind when they do reach a live operator, so that the conversation isn’t full of invective.

Your call centers are important message points for your audience when issues arise. Messaging while on hold is another avenue for communicating issues and alleviating problems.

Why is the PR-Blogger Relationship So Fraught?

Why on Earth do public relations people keep blowing it with bloggers? It happened again last week, causing a massive social media backlash.

To recap: A vice president at BrandLink Communications (let’s shorten that to BLC) presumably received a forwarded email from an employee. The forwarded email was originally sent by The Bloggess, declining a BLC pitch. The decline was sharply worded, and used a few examples of language a lot of us would consider inappropriate in business transactions, but clearly intended as snark. The BLC VP tapped out some vulgar language to describe what he thought of the blogger. He intended to share the email with his employee, but hit Reply All instead, delivering the note to the blogger, too. When the blogger pointed out what he’d done, the VP aggravated the situation by typing a follow-up email that lacked any sense of accountability and piled on further demeaning statements about the blogger.

All this turned into a juicy blog post (includes language NSFW) for The Bloggess and ultimately a social media traffic jam for BLC.

Words about the Whys

This brought to mind some obvious questions:

  • Why does anyone still mistake the Reply All button for Reply in this day and age?
  • Why do PR people get so hot under the collar about declined pitches from bloggers?
  • Why can’t people apologize – quickly, simply, genuinely and without excuses – when they’ve done something wrong or hurt somebody?

The social media ‘verse jumped on all three of those bandwagons last week. This week, these are the questions still pinging my brain:

  • Why is a vice president – or any manager, for that matter – expressing himself to an employee using foul language?
  • Why is this person in PR?

Strangely enough, this incident sent me back to my college textbook, Effective Public Relations. The very first thing authors Scott M. Cutlip and Allen H. Center have to say about the practice is this:

“Public relations is the planned effort to influence opinion through good character and responsible performance, based upon mutually satisfactory two-way communication.”

Reading that solidified everything that troubled me about the BLC-Bloggess episode (and all-too-similar incidents).

What shocked me is that this derived from the thoughts and actions of someone who’s risen to the role of vice president in the PR industry. Yes, it’s worth asking how someone gets to be a manager, much less a VP, if they think using vulgar language is appropriate in the workplace – when they feel so comfortable with it that they commit it to email, where it will live forever.

Many companies scan employee messaging for inappropriate language for the express reason that it creates an unpleasant and sometimes downright hostile work environment. Even if you’re tempted to use swear words at work, IT scanning is reason enough to hold back.

More to the point, if you’re managing people, you’re a role model. And, if you manage staff in the PR field, you’ve got a double role-modeling going on. Employees not only look to you to help them understand the kinds of behavior appropriate in the office, including civility and professionalism, but they’re picking up clues about how to interact with the client and with the media on the client’s behalf. I’m not clear where emailing a junior staffer a derogatory note about a blogger – even one meant as commiseration over not getting a hit – fits in. That email influences opinion among the people who report to you, but it doesn’t demonstrate good character or responsible performance. And the blogger who received it by accident clearly didn’t find the two-way communication mutually satisfactory.

A Passion for PR

PR is a profession for people with passion. We love what we do because we’re inspired by what our clients have achieved, and we want to tell the whole world (or various niche audiences) about it.

Sure, we get excited over media hits, but that shouldn’t necessarily translate to plummeting into despair when pitches fail. Or cursing reporters and bloggers. Is this really where you want your staff focused?

Let the excitement of your efforts carry you forward. Encourage your team to turn their attention to the next media outlet or blogger on the list. Remind them that every “no” gets them that much closer to the person who says “yes.” Better yet, have them talk with the reporter or blogger about why the pitch didn’t land, ask what would work in the future, and how she or he likes to receive information (you’d be surprised, a personal approach can even – sometimes – turn a “no” into a “yes,” but if it doesn’t, you still wind up with a better sense of how to be a hit with this person next time around).

Why Do Bloggers Enjoy the Special Ire of PR Pros?

In his second email – the one that was intentional – the BLC VP was quite clear that a blog was barely a blip on his impressions radar, so why the elevated blood pressure?

Have we drunk the Kool-Aid that suggests blogs in some magical way influence consumers more effectively and thus equal the Holy Grail of “engagement” in ways that mass media can’t?

Are we so desperate to prove we “get” social media? And, if we do understand it, why are we relating so rottenly with bloggers. Any PR person with a dash of social experience on the side could have predicted the social media fallout that resulted from refusing to apologize and suggesting that a blog was irrelevant.

Here’s the thing: bloggers can be influencers just as much as reporters. But, a pitch that gets picked up by a blog is an impression, just like any old media impression. If you want true engagement for your client, you need to help them establish their own relationships, whether B2B or B2C, and set up their own social experiences with the audiences they want to reach.

Why Work in PR?

The heart of the professional-behavior issue for me is this: As a PR person, we’re supposed to be hard-wired to understand that everything we say and send must be on behalf of the client and reflects on the client. It doesn’t matter whether our clients have B2B or B2C audiences, or if they’re internal business leaders and we’re helping them message to employees, board members or other stakeholders.

If we’re not acting on behalf of our clients, we’re in the wrong job. But, let’s say we forget every once in a while. We’re human, after all. Then, why aren’t we acting on behalf of the company? We’ve been in a lengthy period of recession; losing a client over something like this has repercussions for the agency and all the people who work there and would like to continue bringing home a paycheck.

When we lose a sense of joy – about this or any other profession – other things slip, too, in our practice. When that happens, perhaps it’s time for some reflection on what we’re doing and whether we still find passion in it.

The best PR practitioners lead with their hearts, their values and a clear understanding of and passion for the purpose of this work. They are happy to come to work every day and thrilled when they make things happen for their clients. It’s how they remain professional, ethical and effective in their communications amid even the most intense crises and why clients and media people (traditional and new) respect them.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Public relations defines itself by what it does.”
~ Cutlip and Center, Effective Public Relations