Repairing a reputation: Interview on KVAL News

I was interviewed by KVAL news about reputation management and crisis communication this week. Our Duck athletes have been having some trouble staying out of trouble and the reporter wanted to talk to me about what they should do. I declined to comment specifically on the story – I don’t have enough “inside” information and because I both teach and have clients at the University of Oregon, I wanted to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.

But I did agree to talk generally about how an organization in a tough spot might respond and think about repairing. This is the short version of the story. If the longer version gets posted, I’ll update.

What Makes a “Good” Apology?

bart simpson writing i am sorry on the blackboard

“I’m sorry.”

Apologies seem to be a dime-a-dozen lately. Kanye, Serena, LaGarrette, Coach Kelly, LaGarrette again, Rep. Joe “You Lie!” Wilson (R-S. Carolina), Letterman…In fact, do a Google News search for “apologize” and get more than 13,000 results just from the last week.

We all make mistakes, bad decisions and yes, sometimes we even simply change our minds. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and business leaders are no different. But when it happens to people in the public eye, the apology can be a very important part of the public relations and communications effort required to move forward.

I do not talk about apologies as PR to minimize their importance and suggest that apologies are in any way “spin” or crafted in a way to only appear sincere. In fact, just the opposite. It’s hard to apologize and do so in a way that communicates your sincerity and intent. PR can help the individual (or organization) get their words and actions in line – and sometimes that means helping said individual or organization change their actions.

But what makes a good apology? In crisis communications, the mantra is to “tell it first, tell it fast, tell them what you’re going to do about it.” Because apologies are often given in the aftermath of a crisis, this advice holds true.

A Web site called The Perfect Apology gives a formula for crafting, well, the perfect apology. I think the formula works really well.

An effective apology should:

  • Include a specific reference to the situation you’re apologizing for. This may seem simple, but situations can get conflated and issues confused.
  • Acknowledge the hurt or damage done.
  • Take responsibility and recognize your role in the situation.
  • State your regret. Tell your audience how you feel about what’s happened.
  • Include what you’re going to do about it. What are your next steps to make sure this situation won’t occur again?

Kanye got many of these points right with his apology on Leno and (to me) seemed very sincere.

“I’m just ashamed that [I] caused someone else’s hurt…And I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong…Period. But I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life, how I’m going to improve.”

Serena’s specific acknowledgment of her role model status was an important (and effective) part of her eventual apology:

I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to act — win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner. I like to lead by example. We all learn from experiences both good and bad, I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.”

For an apology to stick, you must follow-through. When actions contradict what words – any goodwill you have will evaporate and can compound the damage done.

George Schroeder had a terrific opinion piece in the Register-Guard about Chip Kelly’s decision to (maybe) allow LaGarrette Blount play again this season. In it he talks about the apparent conflict between Kelly’s words and actions. Actions, my friends, always speak louder than words. An excerpt (emphasis in bold is mine):

Since that night in Boise, [Kelly]’s been praised for his decision on Blount, for refunding expenses to a disgruntled fan, for sticking with a faltering quarterback, and also for leading a resurgence on the field.

This unravels much of that.

Never mind what Kelly says, people don’t see a kid who needs a goal. They see a football coach who wants a star tailback in the lineup. They think Nebraska, and Lawrence Phillips, no matter how strained the comparison.

Suspicious minds will figure Kelly had at least an inkling — even as he said there was no way Blount would play again for Oregon — that Blount would play again for Oregon.

Discussing with students some of the events of the summer, it was amazing how many examples that came up involved an apology… and even more telling that when I asked if the apologies seemed sincere, almost universally, the answer was no (or more accurately, the answer was groans of “yeah, right.”).

What do you think? What makes an apology “sincere”? Who has done a good job of apologizing recently?

What About the “Ick” Factor?

The California Supreme Court has banned the sale of Adidas soccer cleats and other products made of kangaroo leather.

Adidas is the biggest commercial buyer of kangaroo leather, which is considered lighter and more flexible than cowhide.

Animal rights groups are protesting the use of the leather, and heralding this ruling as a good step in the right direction.

According to USA Today, activists say the problem with kangaroo leather is:

“…hunters mistakenly shoot endangered species. They also say abundant kangaroo species are killed cruelly – sometimes shot during night hunting parties, and sometimes clubbed to death as babies.”

The Predator cleats by Adidas – made of kangaroo leather since their introduction to the market several years ago – have been popularized by none other than superstar David Beckham. Even Beckham, though, is distancing himself from this controversy. His spokesperson responded very tersely to this ruling by saying, “David wears synthetic Predator boots so this ruling has no relevance to us.”

The Australian government is siding with Adidas (of course) saying that hunting kangaroos is good wildlife management and that the country has more than 25 million of the animals – hardly endangered.

Other manufacturers use kangaroo leather. But many manufacturers are using very high end synthetics in their soccer cleats and users seem to like it just as well, if not better.

There seem to be some genuine benefits to kangaroo leather, and I suppose demand prevails as soccer takes over the world. But, as a PR manager for Adidas, you have to be smart about the markets where you sell your products. Seems, based on the coverage in the American press, Adidas should be considering the “ick” factor. American consumers, for the most part, are saying “ick.” (And this certainly doesn’t help me like, or understand, soccer any more…)

What do you think?

Sprint Should Do the Right Thing

Sprint is skeptical. A Tacoma family insists that their phones are being hijacked. They are getting death threats, someone is watching them through the cell phone camera and leaving terrifying voicemails on both cell and home lines. You can see the Today Show story here.

I’ve heard the story on a couple of news outlets, most recently on NPR. The NPR host characterized Sprint’s response as saying it was not possible to do what the family says was being done.

From the Tacoma News-Tribune: Complaints to their phone companies do no good – the families say they’ve been told what the stalkers are doing is impossible.

From KIRO-TV: “We are unaware of technology that would enable the activity portrayed in this story to occur, and we will support law enforcement as appropriate on investigating the issue,” Caroline Semerdijian with Sprint Nextel said.

Media have trotted out a series of experts that say, yeah, it’s possible. In fact, not only is it possible, it’s relatively easy (like teen-prank-easy).

According to James M. Atkinson, a Massachusetts-based expert in counterintelligence who has advised the U.S. Congress on security issues, it’s not that hard to take remote control of a wireless phone. “You do not have to have a strong technical background for someone to do this,” he said Tuesday. “They probably have a technically gifted kid who probably is in their neighborhood.”

An old story on MSNBC even has Sprint saying it’s possible to hack into a phone. So, it’s possible that Paris Hilton’s phone would get hacked, but not this regular person from Tacoma?

Others disagree, saying is possible, but very very unlikely. Many fingers seem to point at someone the family knows as behind this. And some are even pointing at the 16-year-old daughter.

The family matriarch was interviewed saying that they were going to take a break from cell phones for a while. She’d just received her disconnection notice from Sprint and told them she had no intention to pay the bill.

This is an opportunity for Sprint to step up and do the right thing – even if Sprint thinks the family is full of crap. The family is working with local law enforcement, the FBI and even Homeland Security. Clearly the threat is real to each of them.

Sprint should:

  • Provide new cell phones. New phones, new accounts, new numbers. They should ensure that the numbers are secure, locked, blocked and as anonymous as possible.
  • Comp the family’s service until this is worked out.
  • Be visibly cooperative with law enforcement.
  • Start and lead a new industry-wide “cell phone security” campaign to educate people and work to develop protections for its customers.

Sprint should not:

  • Discredit the experiences or feelings of customers. Any customers, much less those who are getting national media attention.
  • Make any kind of absolute statements saying this hijacking just isn’t possible.
  • Avoid commenting on any media story (you can tell Sprint is NOT doing the right thing because they are avoiding the spotlight. If they were being good corporate citizens, they would be talking.)

Any potential financial loss that Sprint would take here is going to be returned 100-fold in enhanced reputation. The wireless industry is cutthroat and if I were a Sprint customer, I’d be thinking twice about renewing my contract with them.

What are your thoughts?

Photo: Allison Yin/News Tribune

Guest Post: What Virginia Tech is Doing Right (and Wrong)

This post is a letter from my mentor, Leslie Habetler, to some of her crisis planning and management clients. With her permission, I’m reposting it here.

As I watch this unfold, I thought it might be helpful to point some things out that would be helpful if you ever face such a situation (in any scale). First it is obvious they have a crisis response plan and they are doing a lot right.

For those of you whom I have helped in this way, you can see what they are doing right in handling the media. The President has obviously had good media coaching and they are keeping a careful log of everything they are doing so the media knows they are acting in an
aggressively appropriate manner. The university media person is cranking out updates for him at a rapid pace and they are posting them on the website and on every medium available to keep rumor down. The police chief is not losing his cool but his exhaustion is clear and he is suffering from the trauma of what he has seen. He is being very very careful and doing a good job in the face of some extremely insistent media.

The problem as I see it is the media is in control of the conference and that must never happen. If you are ever in this situation, it is vital that you stay in control of these media briefings.

You must face the media but you get to set the rules…don’t ever let them think otherwise. Here is what I would do from the beginning: Set up the media conference time, make it clear that the president and the police chief will make an update statement and then open it up to questions. So far so good.

Here is what is not happening: The pr person is not setting adequate boundaries and rules. Most important is setting a time limit for the Q&A period and spelling out rules for asking questions. Such as: requiring them to raise their hand and be recognized in order to ask a question. (They are all shouting at him and he is exhausted) Also notice that the reporters are
asking the same questions over and over in slightly different ways to try to get the Chief to spill some previously unspilled ‘beans’. Learn to say, “I have answered that question” and recognize someone else. Or even “asked and answered” And then move on to another reporter.
Notice also that some reporters are trying to put words in his mouth. Learn to say, “Those are your words, not mine”. and move on to another reporter.

You must be in charge. At the end of the allotted Q&A time, your pr person must step up to the mike and say “we have time for one more question” and then step up again to thank them for coming, telling them when the next briefing is and direct them to the website where updates will be posted. (While he is doing this, someone is getting you off that stage and out of

You will probably never face anything of this magnitude but it is at least worth noting and thinking through with your employees.

Best regards to all of you, Leslie Habetler

Photo: Alan Kim, The Roanoke Times via Associated Press

OOPS! US News Ranking Mistake Puts PSU at the Top 10

The annual U.S. News & World Report College Ranking Guide always seems to create controversy. This year is no exception.

In the version sent to bookstores, Portland State University’s electrical engineering program was ranked #9 in the guide with such heavies as M.I.T., Stanford and UC-Berkley. In press release:

“We are proud that PSU represents Oregon in this prestigious national ranking,” said President Daniel O. Bernstine. “It illustrates how state investments in higher education can increase programmatic capacity and excellence.”

“It is very exciting to have our Electrical Engineering program and faculty recognized by national engineering peers,” said Robert Dryden, dean of the college. “This acknowledges the fundamental transformation of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science into a national and international academic and research institution.” Malgorzata Chrzanowska-Jeske, department chair, leads the Electrical and Computer Engineering program.

It turns out Portland State didn’t make the top 10, or even the top 70 for that matter. It wasn’t even ranked at a number that is typically listed in the printed directory.

So… what do you do?

The response from PSU (from Chronicle of Higher Education):

Portland State had to rush out an e-mail to its press list, advising recipients to ignore the earlier release and to contact Morse at U.S. News to find out why it happened.

Joan Barnes, assistant vice president for communications at Portland State, said that educators there were “disappointed at this unexpected turn of events,” but not discouraged. “We’re redoubling our efforts to serve Oregon with confidence that increased national recognition will follow our success.”

Seems like that’s about all you can do. U.S. News is notorious for screwing up the rankings and for the process being full of controversy. Plus… who knows, PSU might get some positive attention from prospective graduates who may take a second look at the program.

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