Category Archives: crisis communications

“Weiner”: Crisis as Tragi-comedy

weinerHere’s the best description I’ve read for the new documentary “Weiner,” from NPR’s David Edelstein:

“…a cross between ‘The War Room,’ in which resourceful operatives steer a scandal-ridden but confident candidate to victory, and ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ in which everyone runs around screaming and dies.”

The film, which follows the mayoral campaign of Anthony Weiner, could have been a comeback tale about a disgraced congressman who turned around his reputation to serve the city he loved. Instead, it’s about a disgraced congressman who is further disgraced…this time in front of cameras that he invited into his professional and personal life.

It’s also a lesson about why crisis communications, no matter how well it’s executed, can’t make up for dishonesty. In one scene that will be uncomfortable for any communications professional to watch, Weiner tries to determine how to answer a question from reporters — not by telling his communications director Barbara Morgan the answer, but by trying to remember what he has said in previous interviews. “I think we’ve got to answer the question,” he tells her. “The problem was that a series of interviews that I did when I got in the race were after this. And people asked is the number still the same? I think I said to…six…and then cleaned it up in subsequent interviews because I knew that was a problem. The question is do we answer it or not? I think we have to answer these questions.”

It’s as much a film about Weiner’s wife, Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin. She comes across as a strong and confident woman who deserves better, but in a situation that is out of her control. (If you ask me offline, I’ll tell you my Huma story, but I’ll just say that while I could somewhat enjoy watching Weiner’s downfall unfold on the screen, the movie is hard to watch knowing that it was Weiner, not her, who sought this cinematic attention.)

 

 

Ray Rice, NFL & Ravens: When is Your Reputation Beyond Management?

I’ve done my share of my share of crisis communications and reputation management, but the Ray Rice video — and the public reaction to it — makes me wonder if some reputations are beyond repair. Ray Rice’s career and reputation may already be ruined, but this story’s not over, and the NFL and Baltimore Ravens will be under scrutiny in the following days.

Back in May, when Rice spoke publicly about his alleged abuse of his then-fiancee, he said of his 2-year-old daughter, “One day she’s going to know the power of Google. Me having to explain that to her, what happened that night, that’s something I have to live with the rest of my life.” Well, with the release of the new video footage today, those Google searches just got a lot worse.

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March, the Ravens, eager to hold on to their Pro Bowl running back, brushed it off as a private incident. Coach John Harbaugh called Rice “a person of character,” saying “When you drink too much in public, those kind of things happen.” [Watch the elevator video and read that again: “…those kinds of things happen.”]

General Manager Ozzie Newsome added, “We respect the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be. That night was not typical of the Ray Rice we know and respect.” The team even took to Twitter to publicize the fact that Rice’s fiance addressed her own role in the dispute:

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That tweet was removed today, a few hours after the video was released by TMZ Sports. In a press conference tonight, Harbaugh said that he and other Ravens officials had seen the video this morning for the first time. The NFL also stated it had not seen the video. That raises a few questions:

1. If the NFL conducted a thorough investigation, how could they have been unable to obtain the video? This happened in a casino, where there is no shortage of cameras. If they wanted to know what happened in the elevator, they would have insisted on seeing the video, and clearly it was available. But the NFL said today: “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident, including the video from inside the elevator. That video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.”

2. If the NFL and Ravens are being truthful, and they saw the video for the first time today, what does the video change? They knew that when Rice and his fiance entered the elevator, she was conscious. When he dragged her out of the elevator, she was not. Hmmm. I wonder what happened?

Call me a cynic, but here’s what really changed — the public saw a graphic video and now the NFL and Ravens can no longer defend their efforts to explain this incident away. The message to NFL players? If you beat up your wife or girlfriend, don’t get caught on tape.

Paula Deen: Too Late to Recover from PR Missteps?

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After working in PR for a long time, I’m used to communications professionals coming forward after any scandal saying confidently, “Here’s what he/she could do to survive and get past this crisis.” It’s the PR equivalent of an ambulance-chasing lawyer — so-called “crisis experts” come forward to suggest that if only Paula or whoever would hire them, all their problems would (eventually) go away.

So I find it fascinating that so many of these commentators are saying Paula Deen is cooked (sorry), as suggested in this article from USA Today, “Paula Deen is Done, Experts Say.” Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com, says, “Paula Deen will survive but she will never be whole again. She will never make as much money, she will never have the respect that she once had, there are people that will never be in business with her again.” And Mark Pasetsky, CEO of public relations and marketing content firm Mark Allen & Co., says, “Her brand is now tainted beyond recourse….She will have a viable business, she will have a lot of fans and make a lot of money, but it’s never going to be the same.”

In many crisis situations, advisers often suggest that the charges seem worse than they are because of poor communications and PR missteps. But Pasetsky goes on to say the crisis was caused because “someone…so famous…cannot tell the difference between right and wrong.” In another article, I think Jonathan L. Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., hit the nail on the head when he commented, “She clearly didn’t understand that if you have done something in your past that you know is going to look bad, don’t try to defend it, and act apologetically if you must discuss the issue. Had Deen said in the deposition, ‘Yes, I did say those things, but I now realize they were inappropriate and hurtful,’ she may still have a job.”

I’ve had some interesting conversations with family and friends over this topic, and for me I think Deen has been unconvincing because she can’t seem to decide if a) she did nothing wrong and is being unfairly victimized or b) she made a mistake (or mistakes) that she now regrets, and she’s remorseful. By trying to say both, neither position is credible. In the deposition, she recalls using the N-word in describing the person involved in a bank robbery, and when asked “Have you used the word since?” she says, “I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.”

Fast forward to Deen’s “Today Show” interview with Matt Lauer, when he asks if she has ever used the word any time other than the bank robbery event:
DEEN: I have never. I never. They asked me in all of my 66 years on earth, had I ever used it.
LAUER: So, reports that you were asked in that deposition whether you had used the n-word on other occasions and said, “Probably,” or, “Of course” are inaccurate?
DEEN: No.  I answered the question truthfully.
LAUER: So, you have never used the n-word, other than that one occasion.
DEEN: No.  It’s just not…it’s just not a part of who we are.

This whole story is fascinating and sad from both a legal and communications perspective. After she received coaching from her lawyers and advisers, her story changed. Was she wrong in her deposition, or in her interview and other statements? Is she being advised to take a legal fall (by contradicting her sworn testimony) to try to repair her public reputation? Now Paula has fired her longtime agent and has hired the crisis expert who inspired the TV show “Scandal.” Sadly for Paula, I think it’s too little, too late. What do you think?

If you’re interested in this story and haven’t already, read the “Today Show” transcript and the deposition.