Category Archives: Crisis Communications


May 2, 2014 | pwalotsky | Tagged , , , ,

Brilliance Behind the Scenes: The Quiet Victors in the Clippers Saga

The swift, appropriate, and authoritative action of the NBA – and particularly new Commissioner Adam Silver – has been widely praised by every crisis communications expert across America as a new high-watermark in execution. Certainly, Commissioner Silver and league officials deserve immense credit for not only doing the right thing, but doing it quickly and conducting a flawless press conference on Tuesday. The only flaw to pick at in the entire response predates the Silver era: the NBA long tolerated shameful Donald Sterling’s conduct prior to the new audio that triggered this immediate crisis. Specifically, Sterling was known as a virulent racist for the better part of a decade thanks to several discrimination lawsuits brought by tenants of his housing units and even NBA Hall of Famer and former Clippers General Manager, Elgin Baylor.

Still, despite the tremendous response by the NBA, it’s arguable that the best strategists in this instance were the players. It’s starting to emerge in the reporting that Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, current Mayor of Sacramento, and Chairman of the NBPA Search Committee, quietly articulated to Commissioner Silver on behalf of players that if anything short of a lifetime ban, maximum fine, and pursuit of a forced sale was recommended by the league, players from all six teams playing that evening would boycott the games. If carried out, a boycott – which could go on indefinitely – would be crippling to Silver and the league’s reputation, encourage reporters to dig deeper into indiscretions of Sterling and other NBA owners, and create a deep divide on race between a new white Commissioner and its majority of African-American players. In the pursuing standoff, the league would have been forced to walk-back its position or cancel the remainder of the playoffs, both indescribably bad options.

While one likes to think that Commissioner Silver and the NBA would have chosen the path they did regardless of this pressure by players – and there’s absolutely no reason or indication to think otherwise – this behind-the-scenes strategy of the players and tactical execution of quiet protests in advance of the Tuesday press conference were brilliant tactical moves. More so, it achieved their goals, didn’t distract their attention from the challenging games ahead, and allowed Silver to take credit for the victory. This strengthened Silver and the league in the eyes of fans, created a deep well of goodwill between the players and Commissioner’s office, and resulted in Donald Sterling’s inevitable removal by other owners.

The players have taught communications strategists an important lesson: when you have a pocket ace and you know you’re going to win, sometimes its best to let others take credit. You still get the outcome you want, and you build a deep reservoir of trust and favor with the partners you helped.

But aside from the victory by Commissioner Silver, the NBA and players, there’s a deeper lesson particularly for executives of public corporations. Whether Sterling’s horrific comments or the recent, more controversial example of Brandon Eich at Mozilla, leaders have been served notice that there is a difference between free speech and consequence-free speech. What these examples have clearly demonstrated are the extent to which our public and private lives have combined. If you’re not prepared to defend your remarks, donations, relationships, or other private actions years from now, you should think twice because private lives are fair game.

April 8, 2014 | jzeitz |

Litigation PR Lessons From The Brigadier General Sinclair Trial

Admin’s Note: This post originally appeared on The Holmes Report

In late 2012, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a highly decorated combat veteran and deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was charged with sexual assault. Initial media coverage was toxic; he was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion before the case even went to trial.

Friends and supporters approached MWW’s crisis communications group and asked if we could help set the record straight. We perform a wide range of services for corporate clients, including crisis plan development; media monitoring and analysis; press relations; and war-room setup and staffing. While litigation support is well within our wheel house, we had never worked on a military court martial. But we agreed to take the assignment when we looked at the evidence.

The evidence showed that General Sinclair made a number of bad personal decisions, but he didn’t assault anyone. He had an extramarital affair with a junior officer, and when that officer came to realize that he didn’t intend to leave his wife, she understandably became angry and reported the relationship. As the second party to an adulterous relationship, the accuser also faced legal exposure. She soon amended her account, claiming that on two occasions she was forced to engage in sexual activity.

If convicted, the general faced life in prison. His accuser was granted immunity from adultery charges.

MWW’s team spent several days reading through evidence. The accuser’s own contemporaneous diaries, emails, and texts sharply contradicted her sworn statements and pre-trial testimony.

In today’s hyper-charged political environment, the general became a national poster child for sexual assault in the military – a very real problem in which this case got entangled. Our mandate was to level the playing field before trial. We consciously targeted our message to a military audience, as that stakeholder group was immediately relevant to securing a fair trial.

Our over-arching strategy was to impose transparency on normally secretive military proceedings. We helped the general’s supporters create a defense website that laid out the story behind the charges and invited readers to read dozens of pages of documentary evidence. Within just five days of going live, the site attracted 11,000 unique visitors and 47,000 page views. But numbers alone don’t tell the story. Analytics showed that we were speaking to the audience we needed to reach in these early weeks: persons on U.S. military bases and at the Pentagon.

The novelty of this approach also garnered national coverage and helped journalists see past vague but sensationalistic charges. In turn, they contributed balanced and nuanced reporting.

Critically, we were mindful of the need to explain why the main charges were non-credible without creating an environment that dissuaded sexual assault victims from coming forward and reporting. It was the greatest challenge in this case, and it was important personally to the team members. We kept the spotlight on the Army, rather than the general’s accuser, whose anonymity we scrupulously protected.

That task grew easier in early 2013 when General Sinclair brought on a civilian law firm, Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, to manage his defense.

Led by Richard Scheff, a former federal prosecutor, the lawyers unearthed compelling evidence that several top Army lawyers considered the accuser non-credible but nevertheless pressed ahead with the most serious charges. The immediate objectives of the lawyers (get the worst charges dropped) and the PR professionals (correct misinformation) dovetailed perfectly. We agreed that that transparency would trump secrecy.

In the weeks before trial, the legal and communications teams worked with the New York Times to develop a series of dramatic, game-changing stories revealing that the lead prosecutor had resigned over concerns that the accuser lied to him and committed perjury at a pre-trial hearing. Other national outlets soon followed with equally compelling and rigorously-reported coverage.

At Fort Bragg, we ran a textbook media operation, including twice-daily press availabilities with defense attorneys, regular briefings, and document sharing and analysis. While the Army remained opaque, we were fully forthcoming with information. Journalists appreciated our transparency and covered the trial fairly.

For the MWW team, the crowning moment came in the opening days of the trial, when the NYT ran a front-page article entitled, “How a Military Sexual Assault Case Foundered.” The moment of great relief came when the government dropped the assault charges against General Sinclair and allowed him to plead to a series of lesser offenses, most of which are not considered criminal in the civilian world.

This wasn’t just any litigation support assignment. When a high-profile individual or institution is involved, the usual rules of engagement don’t necessarily apply. In this case, the lawyers and PR professionals agreed early on a strategy and stuck to it. In so doing, we helped a war hero clear his name of false charges.


mary barra

April 2, 2014 | lmahler | Tagged ,

Grading Mary Barra – How the New General Motors CEO Performed before Congress

Anyone who follows the political comings and goings of Capitol Hill knows that congressional hearings around hot-button issues are often tense, difficult moments for those called to testify. Such events attract widespread media scrutiny and can be a make-or-break moment for corporate leaders. It’s not just the corporation’s reputation on the line; it’s the CEO’s personal brand at stake.

We’re seeing this dynamic play out this week in the case of General Motors (GM), which has recalled 2.6 million vehicles over safety issues that led to a documented 13 deaths. Recently uncovered documents indicate that GM employees knew of the defects years ago and chose not to fix them, citing cost concerns.

It is against this backdrop that new GM CEO Mary Barra appeared before Congress this week. Here, we take a look at the strongest and weakest parts of her performance:

Issuing an Apology: A+

When your company has done harm to its customers, the first step is to issue an apology – preferably before you’re asked for one. In this case, Barra started her testimony with a heartfelt “I am deeply sorry.” This acknowledges to your stakeholders that you are aware of your organization’s shortcomings.

Showing Compassion to Those Impacted: B+

Despite being cleared of legal liabilities for accidents that occurred prior to the 2009 bankruptcy deal, Barra said “We do understand we have civic responsibilities as well as legal responsibilities,” and announced the hiring of Kenneth Feinberg, a well-respected expert with extensive experience in victims’ compensation issues. Barra wouldn’t commit, however, to providing compensation, citing Feinberg’s 30-60 day window for evaluating the situation. We understand that she has a legal obligation to protect shareholders and employees, so it may very well be impossible for anyone in this situation to earn an A.

Announcing Plan to Prevent a Repeat: A

As the story unfolds, it is becoming clearer that cost concerns were at the heart of GM’s decision to ignore faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade. To move past this image, Barra repeatedly emphasized that the new GM had moved from a cost-focused company to a consumer-focused company. She also announced the hiring of former U.S. attorney Tony Valukas to conduct a full-access investigation into what went wrong, who was responsible and whether internal policy changes are needed to prevent this from happening again.

Providing Information: C

It may just be a simple matter of timing, but beyond announcements about internal investigations and potential assistance to victims, Barra didn’t bring a lot of new information to the table. Committee members demanded specificity, and by repeatedly deferring such specifics through reference of ongoing investigations, she only seemed to stoke their frustration.

Overall Grade: A-

In her first two appearances before Congressional panels, GM CEO Mary Barra performed admirably. Her even-keeled manner came across as professional and dependable, and she proactively spoke to the steps GM has taken to resolve the issue. Particularly for a new CEO, she exuded a command of mistakes that may not have occurred on her watch, but for which she accepted full responsibility.

April 1, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged

Malaysia Airlines Nails the Crisis Communications Checklist but Falls Short on Execution

There is a reason that an effective aviation accident response is considered the pinnacle of crisis management – accidents occur suddenly and without warning. They are massive in scale – both in terms of the physical scene, and the potential to cause a very significant loss of life. And they are followed by a who-dunnit style investigation where every move is scrutinized. Add in episodes of completely tone deaf responses – from the infamous text messages from Malaysia Airlines to Thai Airways’ painting over its logo on the tail of the aircraft last year, and you’ve got a documentary-style drama better than anything on TV.

Unfortunately, these events play out quickly and in a very public way, providing fertile ground for others to learn from the inevitable missteps that come in such high-stake, high-pressure situations. The recent tragedy surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370 provides ample “lessons learned” for crisis response, many of which also apply across other industries.

This is a case where the airline seemingly fulfilled the crisis plan’s checklist – it had a microsite up quickly and pulled all of its promotional content (both in terms of advertising and use of its social channels). The CEO issued a statement. And yet, they still find themselves taking a reputational beating. Whenever you put an airplane somewhere it shouldn’t be, you can’t win – you can only minimize the loss. I suppose this is doubly true when you don’t bring the aircraft to its destination, and can’t quite say where you lost it. Does this mean that the “rules” of crisis management no longer apply? Or is it something bigger?

Some of the rules are hopelessly ineffective. Notions that were developed in the era of the overnight news cycle – you had to update the story once a day – clearly won’t hold up in an environment where citizen journalists can use social platforms to reach mass audiences in an instant. But in other cases, it isn’t an issue of what you do – but how you do it – that makes the difference.

The following is MWW’s take on the lessons learned from Malaysia Air Flight 370:

  1. Don’t substitute a checklist for good judgment. A crisis plan’s checklist is designed to remind you of important steps, but it doesn’t ensure that you’ll do them well, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t say or do anything that’s not on the list. Too often, the checklist becomes a crutch that dissuades actors from thinking critically in key moments. What is your company’s core belief in how a crisis should be handled? How do you prioritize stakeholders’ needs in the heat of the event – because they can’t all be equal. Who is empowered to make decisions? Who has authority to veto a decision? The checklist is rarely the problem; more often, it is failure to execute action items that the stale checklist hasn’t anticipated and doesn’t include.
  2. When you hear hoof beats, don’t think zebra. More than half of aircraft accidents involve some sort of human error either by the pilot or others tasked with keeping an airplane safe and in the air. Yet the drumbeat of conspiracy theories, particularly the rampant speculation over potential terrorist ties, assumed epic proportions. It proved a distraction for the airline, investigators, and even search and rescue teams. This is the legacy of 9/11, but the reality is that acts of terrorism or sabotage are less likely than human error, manufacturing issues or mechanical problems.
  3. Lose your ego. And if you are in charge, be in charge. The government and companies’ responses to the Malaysia Air tragedy make the Keystone Cops look efficient, organized, and in control. When accidents occur in the United States, there is a clear protocol, with defined roles. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is in charge. Other actors understand that they are permitted on the scene at the discretion of the NTSB, and they act accordingly. It was clear early on that the Malaysian government wasn’t prepared to launch a major search and rescue mission, yet they deferred outside assistance for fear of appearing weak. Unfortunately, this posturing had search and rescue teams searching for a proverbial needle in the wrong haystack for weeks. Moreover, being in charge requires being responsible for coordination between the parties. Like the changes to safety screenings that followed on the heels of 9/11, this event may prompt a formalized method for how commercial and government entities share radar and satellite data, and spur improvements to the overall coordination of information in international incidents.
  4. Choosing between being right and being quick is no longer an option. You need to be both. TWA Flight 800 (or more accurately, Mayor Giuliani) is credited with changing the perspective on this issue with speed of information, especially to families. But they weren’t alone. We all remember the Miracle on the Hudson, where the airline could “not yet confirm” that their aircraft had landed in the Hudson River, while CNN was leading with photos of the aircraft in the river via social media. It’s time for airlines to change their definition of speedy – the traditional “first hour” for response is far too long in a social media driven, 24/7 news environment. How fast is fast enough? It depends. And for certain kinds of information – such as revealing a manifest – it is paramount to have 100 percent accuracy. Companies have to use the facts to keep accurate information flowing.
  5. Beware of the dangers of groupthink. The insensitivity of sending a text message to passengers’ families has a lot of people scratching their heads. But I will admit that I can envision how it happened. An exhausted team, hopped up on caffeine and weary of the criticism that the airline is too slow and can’t figure out what is going on, decided to follow the rule that families need to hear things from the airline first, not the media. In this spirit, someone decided sending a text to families informing them that their loved ones had perished seemed like a good idea. It is fast and efficient, ensuring that families hear from the airline first. This is the time when someone needs to be the self-appointed “cringe tester” – if a response follows all the rules (there is that darn checklist again!), but still makes you cringe, don’t do it.

This incident also opens questions about the need for global coordination of radar, better (and faster) sharing of information between commercial and government sources, and the need to replace black boxes with a technology solution that transmits “black box” date in real time, regardless of the location of the aircraft (and can’t be disabled). These are issues where airlines can be powerful conveners and change agents, but they can’t actually provide the fix. That said, when it comes to the communications, airlines, you own it. And with every event, the industry gets better.


March 20, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , ,

How Social Media is Elevating Airline Crisis Communication

At MWW we say that 60 seconds is the new first hour (the traditional window for a company to respond to a crisis). Here is a great piece about social media and how it is changing crisis communications in the aviation industry, where the stakes are high, and the room for error is minimal.



February 25, 2014 | rtauberman | Tagged

Legal Sea Foods Turning a Tragedy into a Cause

Carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by what appears to be a fault in or failure of a flue pipe in a water heater, tragically took the life of Steve Nelson, the manager of a Legal Sea Foods restaurant at a mall in Long Island, NY last Saturday night. The Company responded quickly to the terrible news with postings on its Facebook page and a press release expressing its grief and focusing on the Legal Sea Foods family. CEO Roger Berkowitz traveled to Long Island to personally comfort staff and meet with reporters. As unfortunate as the incident is, it also showed an executive and communication team that was prepared and was on message with their response and having the CEO in the lead.

While the investigation continues, from local officials and the Federal OSHA, media reports are looking at the causes (if not potential blame) and what could have been done to prevent such an incident. The Town of Huntington, where the restaurant was located, has already issued a summons to Legal Sea Foods for defective equipment and the Mall owners have been quick to point out that the Mall was outfitted with carbon monoxide detectors. The Legal Sea Foods did not have a carbon monoxide detector but there are no local regulations requiring them in commercial properties.

Legal Sea Foods and Mr. Berkowitz issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday which led with a condemnation of the regulatory requirements for carbon monoxide detectors in commercial spaces, (surprisingly prior to his expressions of sympathy for the family of Mr. Nelson, praise of the manager and concerns for fellow associates). While one might quibble with the ordering of those paragraphs, Legal Sea Foods has admirably taken a very public stance on the need for carbon monoxide detectors in commercial buildings with Mr. Berkowitz vowing to be at the forefront or an effort to get stronger safety measure put in place.

From a crisis communications perspective, Legal Sea Foods did much right in getting out quickly in traditional and social media with messages of care and concern. Mr. Berkowitz also was very public in instructing his operations team to conduct an exhaustive safety check at all restaurants to ensure that they not just meet but exceed local codes. While the CEO’s calling out the Town of Huntington for lax building codes could raise tensions as the investigation continues and Legal Sea Foods faces a town summons (if not additional legal action from a number of parties), the action is a strong stake in the ground that will raise the public debate on building safety and likely spur new regulation/code requirements in Long Island and across the country.

In the end, this tragedy, like most crises has shown the brand essence of the company impacted and Legal Sea Foods is further using the incident to champion the cause of building worker safety, a noble effort. It also highlights the importance of having and executing well on a crisis communications plan with the right spokesman and the right message.

February 10, 2014 | admin | Tagged ,

The Top Crises of 2013

2013 had its share of reputation losers but there were also a number of crises that caused the companies involved to take a step back and rethink their strategies.

In Part 1 of The Holmes Report’s Top 12 Crises of 2013, Carreen Winters discusses where JPMorgan Chase went wrong with its misguided Twitter Q&A that was meant as an informative discussion and turned into another attack into the company’s reputation. JPMorgan’s reputation is one to watch in 2014 as it looks to reclaim its title as the best of the big banks.

Part 2 of The Holmes Report’s list is expected to publish later this week.


January 31, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

When Friendly Fire Cause a Crisis: Three Easy Ways to Avoid a Brand Scandal

I came across this slideshow about the biggest brand scandals, and its simplicity made the problems, and the solutions so clear. Here are three ways to avoid brand scandal:

1. Learn from the mistakes of others – Victoria’s Secret tried to launch a “sexy” line of underwear for tweens. Abercrombie did the same thing, and got hammered. 12-year-old girls don’t need thongs, and their parents won’t pay for them.

2. Remember that nothing is “only internal” – if you don’t want to say it on Twitter, or see it printed on the front page of The New York Times, don’t say it, and definitely don’t write it.

3. Include a sensitivity check in your final approval process – if the joke is at someone’s expense – or at the expense of an entire gender, ethnicity, religious group or other demographic, it isn’t funny. Don’t do it. Half of the brands that found themselves on this list earned their spot this way.

We are all existing in a complex environment where it is difficult to get attention. Where speed kills. But any attention is not good attention.


November 14, 2013 | cwinters | Tagged , , , ,

Will a new CEO be able to make Lemonade out of Lululemon?

Will a new CEO be able to make Lemonade out of Lululemon’s Reputation Free-fall? Or will The Gap win the Yoga Wars?

One of the occupational hazards of working in a PR firm is the way clients can sometimes fall in love with a PR stunt, program or idea that worked for another brand – and insist they have to have it for themselves. How many clients have we all had who insisted they need to be on Oprah’s holiday gift show (even after Oprah’s show went off the air)? “We need something viral” – subservient chicken anyone?

Normally, we encourage clients to avoid copycat programs and do something authentic. Today, I am going to contradict myself and offer this advice to Lululemon: copy someone. Anyone. (OK, maybe not anyone. Dove’s Real Women might be a better choice than Abercrombie, for example.) Because this idea that some women’s thighs just don’t work for your pants isn’t helping your reputation.

We’ve written here before about the value of an apology…did you catch the Lululemon non-apology? The one that apologized to the employees of Lululemon but didn’t actually apologize for the offensive comment about their customers? Instead he focused on the culture and the brand – without understanding that the consumers actually own the brand.

In my view, this apology was too little, too late. If there is good news in this equation, it is the fact that they are searching for a new CEO. Hopefully a new leader will bring a fresh narrative, and a fresh start to this popular yoga brand. Because we can all see through the founder’s “apology” as much as we can see through the defective pants.

But that new CEO will have to be identified quickly, and move even quicker. Because amidst this swirl, competitors are lining up to take market share from Lululemon. In particular, Gap’s Athleta is poised to gain from Lululemon’s misteps – their strategy here has been widely reported, and they notably cater to yoga-loving women of all sizes.

November 13, 2012 | rmarks | Tagged , , , ,

Communications During External Crises: Tone and Relevance Matter Most

During and after Super Storm Sandy, we witnessed a variety of commercial responses to the storm, from the selfless to the craven. There are those, like American Apparel and Ace Hardware, that have attempted “blow out” sales and earned jeers from the Twitterverse. There are those, like many local restaurants, that have selflessly donated food, supplies and labor to relief efforts. And those who have tread the delicate line of offering support while delivering a potent marketing message.

One example of a marketing effort done well was from State Farm Insurance which, when Gawker and its sister sites lost server support, sponsored the temporary Tumblr pages. This effort was helpful, not overtly promotional, relevant and non-intrusive. It’s a challenging balance to strike, but provides some useful signposts.

When considering communication during a crisis, ask the following questions:

  1. Is it necessary? Keep customers and employees informed of how you are affected and how you are serving them, if they are affected.
  2. Is it relevant? Does the standard “thoughts and prayers” message make sense and is it meaningful under the circumstances?
  3. Is it appropriate? During times of emergency, the dominant tone, especially in social media, shifts from snark to sincere. Misjudging tone is simply an unforced error.
  4. Is it helpful? If you are able to help, do so. The goodwill is always worth it. If you can help in a way that reinforces your brand, so much the better. JetBlue is among the companies that have harnessed the power of their customer base to give frequent flyer points to those contributing to the Red Cross. This is an ingenious way to drive contributions and forge closer bonds with customers.
  5. Is it over? Be judicious in determining when and how to return to business as usual. Expect a lingering somber tone as communities adjust to losses and new realities.

Navigating crises is never easy, but a sensitive approach can position companies well into the future, while missteps can inflict serious reputational damage. Think twice before putting your marketing hat on – think service, relevance and community.