Another week, another case of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford taking his rhetoric too far, to the detriment of his broader credibility. First, he dismissed city council’s vote in favour of LRT over subways as “irrelevant.” Then, the study on which mode would be better for Sheppard Avenue was deemed “hogwash.” Now, with council having voted firmly in favour of the LRT plan over full-bore subway construction, Ford says “I’m not going to support the LRTs, I’ll tell you that right now. I’m going to do everything in my power to try to stop it. This is an election issue. Obviously the campaign starts now. I’m willing to take anyone on to fight streetcars against subways in the next election, and I can’t wait for that.” I have given Ford points for his message consistency throughout this debate, but there comes a time to move on. His intransigence on this issue is now being widely reported as a crisis in leadership overall, and residents are saying enough already – just make the decision and move forward. Ford’s communications efforts are no longer helping – they’re making the bigger problem worse.
It’s the National Football League’s equivalent of the NHL’s “headshots” controversy, and there can be no doubt that the NFL is taking it very seriously. Earlier this month, results were revealed of a league investigation that found dozens of defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, along with assistant coach Gregg Williams, had, from 2009-2011 run a “bounty” system on opponents’ star players – that is, injure an opponent and win a prize. This week, the hammer came down on the Saints, and hard. The NFL suspended coach Sean Payton for a year and general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games (without pay, by the way); Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. On top of that, the Saints were fined half a million bucks and lost two draft picks in 2012 and 2013. That’s the kind of punishment that sends a definite message in itself, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell backed it up with a strongly worded statement: “Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so.” I love those first four words – “Let me be clear” – because in both word and deed the NFL actually did send a clear message, something many organizations fail to do when faced with a crisis. There are three things crucial to effective crisis communications, and the NFL has communicated all three: they get it, they care about it, and they’re doing something to fix it.
I know they’re frustrated. Air Canada workers want a new contract, and they were prevented from striking. But staging a wildcat job action that cancels almost 100 flights in Canada’s busiest air corridor – over a couple of workers being penalized for getting cheeky with the federal labour minister – carries with it communications repercussions that can only be called a Fumble. Passengers have no role in the dispute between employees and employer. They don’t have a say, and don’t get a vote. So to punish by inconvenience the very customers upon whom your employer’s business and, by extension, your own livelihood depends, sends a very powerful – and very negative – message: “We don’t really care about you.” Air Canada’s workforce would be wise to look at the marketing communications efforts of their competitors, namely WestJet and Porter (who are exceptionally good at it), which at every turn underscore their commitment to the travelling public in what they say and what they do.
Rogers Wireless used a sponsored hashtag (#Rogers1Number) to promote one of its newer services, hoping to get people talking about it on Twitter today. They started talking, all right – with many using the hashtag to bury the company rather than praise it. Numerous messages of dissatisfaction with Rogers’ rates, offerings, customer service, you name it were posted, all linked together by the hashtag. While probably not a communications crisis, it was definitely not what the company was hoping would play out in the Twitterverse. So kudos to Rogers’ VP of Social Media (and a former member of the team here at Veritas), Keith McArthur, who rolled with the punches in response. “There’s a risk, but the benefit is also that we do get feedback that we can action, that we can pass on to different parts of the business and make our products and services better,” McArthur told the Toronto Star. “Some people are choosing to use this as an opportunity to talk about things they like or don’t like about the brand. That not new to us: we’ve been listening and responding to that kind of thing before most other brands, so, we’re okay with it.” McArthur’s comments not only show that the company understands the risks of trying to spark discussion in the wide-open cyberspace of social media, but that they’re willing to accept and respond to any negative comments that result from it. A good example for all social media marketers.
We do a lot of work on employee and recruiting communications here at Veritas, and one of the rules of the game is that organizations have to acknowledge and respect the fact that their best ambassadors are employees. You have to work at it. Building employee loyalty depends on nurturing robust lines of communication between the corner office and the shop floor. More fundamentally, it also depends on having a corporate culture you want your staff to talk about, and then being able to articulate that corporate culture effectively. And so we turn to this week’s Goldman Sachs saga, in which executive director Greg Smith published a “Dear John” op-ed in The New York Times that tore a strip off his employer for having lost its moral compass – and for putting profits ahead of its customers’ interests. Smith resigned on the same day the op-ed appeared, and touched off a firestorm of criticism, along with some defences, of the powerhouse Wall Street investment bank. (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended Goldman as “a great firm.”) Now, I’m in no position to gauge the truth of Smith’s allegations, and it’s worth pointing out that nowhere does he claim to have raised his concerns with senior leadership – something I think he had a duty to do before launching the PR/HR equivalent of an atomic bomb. But Goldman Sachs still dropped the ball in the way it responded. While other employees were anonymously confirming Smith’s gripes in the media, the firm issued an internal memo that it didn’t share with key clients until the next day – that’s too late. And the memo itself, penned by CEO Lloyd Blankfein and COO Gary D. Cohn, didn’t convincingly answer the two big questions, which are: Shouldn’t someone at Goldman have known Smith felt this way and done something about it before he went public? And if the culture at Goldman isn’t what Smith says it is, then what is it? Instead, it begins with a blanket denial, and only sort-of addresses the first question by implying that in a company with 30,000 employees, there was no practical way of knowing this lone wolf harbored such resentment. (Against that, one of Smith’s roles at Goldman was interviewing job candidates, which you might think would require some regular check-ins on how he’s feeling about the company.) But the memo’s main defence is that in employee surveys, a majority of staff say they believe Goldman delivers exceptional customer service. Well, that’s a proof point, I guess, but hardly the most pertinent one, and citing it seems to suggest that survey numbers are the only way higher-ups know what employees are thinking. But here’s the real miss: the heart of Smith’s criticisms was the alleged change in the culture at Goldman – “The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college,” he wrote, “that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.” Blankfein and Cohn skirted the issue, hiding behind survey data, and so missed an opportunity. For senior leadership to say Smith is wrong is not enough. What they should have done is state, in no uncertain terms, what exactly Goldman Sachs’ culture is, and how it works for both employees and clients. The fact that they didn’t suggests either that they don’t know, or that Smith’s bombshell was more on-target than they care to admit. Fumble.
Rob Ford supports new subways for Toronto. You heard it here first, folks. Actually, you heard it first when Ford was running for mayor, and he has held consistently to that message since being elected – and, in communications terms, that’s a good thing. However, the Mayor is doing himself no favours by dismissing official processes out of hand, as he did once again yesterday. In February, I gave Ford a Fumble for declaring a special city council vote (which rejected his subways-only proposal) as “irrelevant,” even though Queen’s Park had said all along it would respect the will of council regarding exactly how to spend the $8.4 billion the province has promised for Toronto transit expansion. This week, on the eve of the release of the report of the expert panel on light rail vs. a subway line on Sheppard Avenue, Ford again dismissed its findings-in-advance as “hogwash.” Now, Ford is no doubt sharing the anger of Gordon Chong, his representative on the panel, over the fact that an appendix demonstrating the superiority of the subway plan was cut from the final report. But by making a habit of bluntly rejecting the results of official city hall processes – even before they are officially released – I think he undermines his own message. Denounce the LRT plan all you want and stick to your guns on subways – that’s important message consistency – but don’t write-off the process of a council debate and vote, or the official report that flowed from it before it is even made public.
Thousands of newspaper articles have been written about Ugandan fugitive warlord Joseph Kony in the past decades but none had the impact of the Kony 2012 viral video this week. Invisible Children, a small nonprofit group describing itself as “storytellers, activists and everyday people who use the power of media to inspire young people to help end the longest running armed conflict in Africa”, started a campaign that took the plight of child soldiers away from the politics pages of the traditional media and onto YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media places where people nowadays consume and debate the news on their terms. Whether it is a clever way of “branding” an important cause or, as critics argue, an oversimplification of a complex issue to generate donations for Invisible Children, Kony 2012 clearly capitalized on the closely intertwined mechanisms of social and traditional media. And, they wisely learned a lesson from the unfocused message of the Occupy movement, concentrating instead on highlighting one bad guy and a call for action to stop him. Once social media discussion started, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey tweeted about it, and video views skyrocketed to more than 50 million within two days. Based on the momentum, traditional media outlets started reporting it and further amplified its reach. Within a week, Kony 2012 has made millions of people aware of an issue and is turning Joseph Kony from an obscure African warlord into a household name. While many people question the true intentions behind the video, it created the opportunity for many others to gain a better understanding of the issue and voice their perspective. And purely from a social media marketing perspective, how many other viral campaigns have been acknowledged in a congratulatory video by President Obama’s White House?
So put yourself in Peyton Manning‘s shoes. You’ve given your whole professional life to one team and one city (the Indianapolis Colts), and earned a reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. You’ve suffered injuries so severe that you had to sit out an entire NFL season – but you showed up every game anyway to cheer your guys on and be a leader, even as your team limped its way to a disastrous 2-14 record. Now, with your health still in question, you find out your team is dumping you, and by doing so saving $28 million in bonus payouts. What do you do? Many of us would be tempted to scream bloody murder. But if you’re Manning, you take the high road – and give pro athletes everywhere an object lesson in how to say goodbye. In a brief but gracious statement, he thanked the Colts organization, and then his team, declaring that he will always be a Colt wherever he plays in future (he was meeting with the Denver Broncos late this week). Then, with tears in his eyes, he turned his comments to Indianapolis’ fans, and there could be no doubt about his sincerity. “Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly enjoyed being your quarterback. Thank you.” By making his parting comments about the fans and not about him, Manning came across as a real class act. Touchdown, Peyton – we hope it’s not your last.
We have shown time and time again here at TD&F that, if you find yourself in a position where you should apologize for something you’ve publicly done or said, you’d better be prompt about it. And that proposition – or, more accurately, the failure to do so – is at the heart of this week’s Fumble by incendiary American broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh found himself under fire from pundits and activists on all sides of the political spectrum after he labeled a 30 year-old Georgetown University student a “slut” and a “prostitute,” because she was advocating health insurance coverage for contraceptives. He eventually apologized to Sandra Fluke: “I’ve always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program. Nevertheless, those two words were inappropriate. They were uncalled for. They distracted from the point that I was actually trying to make, and I again sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her. I do not think she is either of those two words. I did not think last week that she is either of those two words.” Good sentiment, but here’s the problem: the apology only came after major advertisers announced they were pulling their ads from Limbaugh’s show and when some radio stations talked about dumping the syndicated broadcast. In other words, once it became a revenue hit, Limbaugh was suddenly contrite – and it made his apology ring hollow. Ms. Fluke herself and many others consider it insufficient. It’s a Fumble.
It is a maxim in communications, as in life, that everyone makes mistakes. But in our work training people to speak on behalf of themselves or their organizations to the media, we often see that losing sight of this simple fact is a mistake in itself. Some folks are so worried about making a gaffe that they see media opportunities less as opportunities and more as the conversational equivalent of a trapdoor – one wrong move and you’re toast. Yet the truth is, even seasoned communicators screw up. What distinguishes the good ones from the bad is that the good ones know how to recover with some modicum of grace. The key is this: if the error isn’t fatal, don’t react as if it were. Like when President Barack Obama in Baltimore this week introduced Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as “Jack O’Malley” (which happens to be the governor’s son’s name) – Obama apologized and moved on, which is surely the least risky recovery mode. Then there’s Zac Efron, who before the premiere of The Lorax last week was caught on video inadvertently dropping a condom on the red carpet when he pulled his hands out of his pockets. Quizzed about it on The Today Show, Efron said, “I never really had a pocket-checking policy when I was going on the red carpet before, but now we’ve fully instated one.” And finally, there’s the case of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who – standing in front of a crowd of elementary schoolchildren – introduced his Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia as a “sex star” when he meant to say “rock star.” Later, Hickenlooper said to reporters: “As I say to my wife all the time, there’s always five feet between me and disaster. That’s the distance between my foot and my mouth.”