Extraordinarily Tone Deaf Twitter “Promo” from Vanderbilt Football

As a social media strategist or manager, it doesn’t take deep institutional memory of controversy or even a particularly sensitive ear to be a decent human being with some common sense.

Yet, here we are with another case study of common sense in short supply:

Vanderbilt University’s football twitter account has been hyping the 2015 season and today tweeted the above “promo.” Even if the team had a squeaky clean record, the language is cringe-inducing. The volume of the conversation on ending sexual violence on college campuses has increased nationwide and schools, departments, administrators and communication teams have to be listening.

However, Vanderbilt Football doesn’t have a squeaky clean record. Two of its football players were convicted of rape in January of this year.

So when the promo tweet went out, the reaction from social media was swift.

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Three minutes later it was deleted. Then the standard apology.

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Well, I think we all assumed you didn’t mean it to be about sexual assault…

Why do organizations of all shapes and sizes seem to not be able to see past the end of their noses and make mistakes like this?

My theory? No one is empowered to speak up and say, “that’s a bad idea.” Groupthink is a powerful force and if an individual feels like they’re in the minority, it can be hard to go against the flow and disrupt the perceived cohesiveness of the group.

Organizations have to foster a culture where the discussion about content includes asking and answering to, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

What does that take?

  • Creating a team that’s diverse and brings a variety of perspectives to the table. You can imagine a locker room talk scenario in the Vanderbilt social media team where this idea came up. As football “insiders,” they knew what they meant and didn’t have to explain it to each other. (Honestly, I’m not sure what they meant in a football context.)
  • Building time into the content approval process to think it through and consider the worst case scenario. I’ve been part of many teams where you’re moving so fast that it’s hard to find time to stop and think and it’s easy to make mistakes. That’s dangerous.
  • Leadership that’s committed to all of the above.

And, of course, a society that doesn’t condone and tolerate rape culture would be great, too.

A Year-Long Plan for Senior PR Undergrads

[Updated September 2014]

 “When should I start applying for that internship?”

“Where do I start with my job search?”

“Do I need to be sending my resumes out now?”

There’s a point of recognition where the senior public relations major realizes that yes, barring any major gaffes, chances are good that they’re going to graduate and need to find a job. And then the panic sets in.

Senior year both flies by in a blink and seems to drag on forever at the same time.  Benchmarking a few key activities may help you create your own plan for prepping for graduation.

A quick note: University of Oregon is on the quarter system – we start the last Monday of September and finish mid-June, so this calendar may vary based on your University.

Continue reading “A Year-Long Plan for Senior PR Undergrads”

What Applebee’s Should’ve Done: Armchair Quarterbacking a Social Media Crisis

The armchair quarterbacking as to how Applebee’s should’ve handled their total social media meltdown last week has begun. “They should’ve…”, “If they were smart, they’d…”, “Oh, you never do that!…”

First of all, if you’re not up-to-speed on the disaster that Applebee’s created, this is an excellent recap. You should read it.

As in most cases like this, the variables are hard to track and you’ll find speculation and rumors galore (not to mention rantings and rationalizations). So, for the sake of my argument, let’s start with a basic assumption: the server violated company policy by posting the image of the customer’s receipt.

With that in mind, here’s what I see as the problems with Applebee’s responses:

  • Firing people has a greater chance of making you look like a big, stinky jerk than not firing someone. This is especially true when the “facts” are in question and the violation is something that a lot of us have done (or can certainly understand why one would do so).
  • Not having a crisis plan with a social media component is stupid. Of course, not having either a crisis plan or a social media plan to start with is also stupid. Considering the shallow, promotional blather on the Applebee’s Facebook Page prior to this incident, I’m guessing it had neither.
  • The Applebee’s response on Facebook – from the contrite posts to the verbose comments to the time stamp of the responses (3 am? Drunk Facebooking anyone? This was an unfair comment based on time stamps reflecting time zone differences.) – violated social media management 101. But when you have no strategy and you don’t know how to talk to people, that’s what happens.

Awesome photo by Decoded Science, which has a nice recap, too. 

So, what should Applebee’s have done?

  • Not fired the server. I’m sure the company panicked, was trying to “set an example” and any number of knee jerk responses. Likely the action was taken by the franchisee and not the company (indicating the franchisee experience with social media and access to it is totally divorced from the corporate presence), adding a layer of complexity. But not firing the server would’ve saved a lot of headache. 
  • Issued an update early (as early as possible!) that said something like, “We value our relationships with our employees and our guests. We wouldn’t be here without them. We feel compelled to share our view on the photo shared by one of our servers. At Applebee’s, we’re committed to doing the right thing for everyone involved. We have apologized to the guest. In addition, we will immediately begin social media training with all our employees across every Applebee’s franchise, starting with the one in St. Louis where this occurred. We want our employees to be smart about risks not only to our business, but to their customers and to themselves. We also want employees who are empowered to share.”
  • Created a social media policy, which could be shared on social media channels.
  • Been transparent, authentic and, yes, human, in all its interactions.
  • Followed up with social  media training and demonstrated the company’s commitment in tangible, visible ways. Like maybe sharing photos featuring and taken by employees?

By responding quickly and framing of the discussion, rather than letting it get completely out of control, Applebee’s gets to come out looking like the good guy instead of the big, stinky jerk. By treating everyone involved – the server, the guest, the Facebook fans – like people, the conversation would’ve stayed civil and “on topic.”

Taking a longer-term view, Applebee’s clearly had no social media policy that was relevant to employees, had very little strategy in place (how many photos of food & promotional nonsense can you post?) and does not appear to have a crisis communications plan that included social media.

As with most things like this, there were a lot of things Applebee’s should’ve been doing well in advance of any incident occurring to build goodwill and provide a culture in which something like this wouldn’t have happened (because employees understood their role) or if it did the company could’ve activated a plan to minimize damage and maintain relationships.

Come sit in the armchair with me and do a little quarterbacking. What would your advice to Applebee’s be?

Being Professional: The “Hot Mic” Edition

ESPN writes a check – a big one – for the right to broadcast the Rose Bowl.

Heather Cox was ESPN repoter the on-the-field reporter entitled to the (always riveting…insert eye roll…) post-game interview.

Some dude with the Rose Bowl (possibly part of the Rose Bowl’s PR team) was attempting to usher Standford’s Coach Shaw to the trophy presentation and, apparently, wasn’t aware of the post-game interview expectation.

The interview, part one, was a mess. Coach Shaw was being pulled in several directions. Cox looked like an amateur trying to control the situation and get her god d*mn interview (“Can we finish here…?”). Then as Shaw was pulled away, Cox’s mic was still on as she exclaimed, “Are you kidding me?!” It wasn’t clear who Cox was talking to – Coach Shaw? (rude) Herself? (understandable, I suppose) Her production team? The Rose Bowl dude? The American people?

Brent Musberger was left trying to explain, and cover for, Cox’s actions and attitude.

I appreciate that Cox was trying to do her job in a frustrating and chaotic situation. I appreciate that the Rose Bowl dude was not doing his job.

However, people don’t like to watch sausage being made. The viewer doesn’t care if there was a miscommunication (and honestly, probably doesn’t care if there’s a postgame interview). And, while pretty amusing, Cox’s outburst turned her interview into the story. In PR and Journalism, we don’t want to BE the story.

The interview, part two, reminded everyone of how boring post-game interviews are.

See the video at Bleacher Report.

What do you think?

Not Covered? Find Other Ways to Be Part of the Discussion

The day comes in every PRo’s life when you open the paper to an article, read the magazine story, or catch a talk show episode that would’ve been the perfect fit for your company or client. They should’ve been part of that story! You know it… and they know it.

So if you’ve missed a big opportunity, what do you do?

Clients/managers will often ask you to pitch a follow-up. Not super effective. In a recent Bad Pitch Blog post, Kevin explains why pitching the journalist to extend the article in and of itself is not terribly useful – chances are they aren’t going to write about the same topic. But you can use it as an opportunity to contact the journalist.

Clay, a commentor on the BPB post offers some additional suggestions that I’d like to expand on.

It’s still possible to participate in the discussion and use social media channels to your advantage.

  • If the story is available online, chances are you can comment on it. Be respectful, keep out the sales pitch and add value to the conversation. Go back to your key talking points. In most cases, the comment should come from company executives. After all, the PRo wouldn’t have been the source for the story in the first place. Let the CEO or Executive Director make the comment under his or her name. Transparency, people.
  • Use your own social media channels to discuss. Blog about it. And not, “we totally should’ve been part of this piece! wah!” Add value, bring a new perspective to the story. Tweet, Facebook or post on forums (wherever your community is talking) and link back to your blog. If the your traffic points to the story through your blog, you can share your perspective with
  • Tap into your champions and fans. By sharing your organization’s perspective, you can ensure your champions have the “ammunition” that they need to help tell your story, too. Do not, however, encourage them to swarm the site with positive comments about your company, however. It’ll look staged and potentially backfire. (And it should go without saying that employees, public relations team members, random family should not comment as genuine “fans” on a post.)

Outside of the social media activities, it’s always a best practice to make sure that your media list and contacts are up-to-date and targeted appropriately. The media landscape changes quickly. And while you can’t be in-the-know on every trend piece or industry round-up, a well-targeted media list and time spent building relationships with those on it will help you earn great coverage on an ongoing basis.

What advice would you add? What do you do when you miss “the” story?

Basic Ethics of Media Relations

Picture 1Public relations professionals are, I would argue, faced with ethical decisions every day. They might be small or they might be life or death. In this business, the “product” we have is our integrity and credibility. Doing things that breech either can damage your reputation and your ability to be effective and just do your job.

My best all-purpose advice is to develop a decision making process for yourself and to think through in advance, how you’ll handle difficult situations.

One of the trickiest areas of practice for PR professionals is dealing with the media. Spin, control and manipulation can not be part of your repertoire. Period. Some specific (and basic) tips for behaving ethically in a media relations function.

  • Don’t lie. People will find out. And in this day-and-age, they will find out more quickly and the backlash will be broader and more far reaching than ever before. You’d think that case after case of people who have been caught should teach others a lesson.
  • Be upfront with how much you can share. If you’re not able to share certain information about a situation, be upfront about how much you can share. Legal or privacy regulations (such as HIPPA in the healthcare communications arena) will keep you from being able to share everything all the time.
  • Be a resource, even if you don’t benefit directly. This might be more of a best practice than a tip for good ethics, but it all ties in together. If you have a relationship with the media, foster it by being a good resource and ensuring the reporters, editors or producers know that you understand what they need to do a good job.
  • You cannot control content (even if you don’t like it, or you think it’s wrong). The key benefit to getting media coverage (vs. buying an ad) is the third party credibility that it offers. The media gatekeepers get to decide how the story is covered and that doesn’t always mean that you get the exact quotes or even specific information that you wanted. Get over it. Do not demand information be changed, do not throw a fit if you don’t get the coverage you want. (If there’s a genuine error of fact, you can request a correction, but do this only when absolutely necessary.)
  • Don’t lie. This is important enough to mention twice. Don’t do it. People will find out and they will never forgive you.
  • Be fair. Reporters and editors and producers and people, too. And sometimes they aren’t very nice people. But it’s important that you be fair and give equal access to a story. If you’re holding a press conference or issuing a statement, don’t leave someone out of the announcement because you don’t like them. Be professional and do your job.
  • Disclose, disclose, disclose! Disclose who you represent and what the organization’s interest are. Don’t be manipulative or less than transparent on this. Again… people will find out and you will damage your reputation.
  • Let the media do its job. Don’t undercut or sabotage a story.

What do you think? I know there are tips you’d add to this list and I know you have some examples. Let’s hear them!

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes…The Importance of Empathy in Public Relations

It’s easy to think of cool ways to reach your peers, to identify strategies and tactics for and audiences made up of people who are like you. For most students, that means the temptation to focus on students and how to reach students is strong, even when it doesn’t make sense to include a student focus.

But more often than not, public relations campaigns must focus on audiences that are decidedly not like you. Understanding how to reach those audiences takes a skill (a trait?) I don’t think we talk about in public relations much, but I would rank high on the “must haves”: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and understand their feeling, emotions, motivations and values. Many argue it’s a core competency of emotional intelligence, widely seen as crucial to business and leadership success.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, to think beyond your life experience and to stretch as a communicator. It’s scary. And an imperfect practice. But it’s also exhilarating! And to be able to do so is powerful. Empathy is the glue that connects everything we do in public relations. At the core, PR is about building and maintaining relationships, right? That must take more than carefully crafted messages, well-designed material and expertly-delivered speeches. People connect with people, not messages and not talking points. Being an empathetic practitioner requires making human connections and making those connections scalable (one-to-one communication is not always an option).

I think empathy is complicated and multi-faceted. But you can start with the first step of any PR campaign, research.

When you start a project where you’ll be reaching a new (to you) audience, do your research! In addition to the standard instruments (surveys, focus groups, questionnaires), try more “informal” methods, too: talk to people and observe. Just talk to people – as many people as you can that might give you some insights and increase your understanding. And observe – look for opportunities to observe how your audiences interact, where they hang out, how they move through time and space. Listen more than you talk and think more than you react.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you consider yourself empathetic? How do you know? And how can you develop better skills?

Wheel of Shoes by Sarah and Mike …probably, via Flickr

Chris Brown & Rihanna Strike a Chord with Students


Reading through my students’ posts this week, I noticed that several picked up the Chris Brown/Rihanna story that I included in last week’s linky love to write about.

This is an interesting topic with lots of angles – not the least of which is that it’s raising awareness about domestic violence among an audience that probably doesn’t think about it as often as they should.

Chris Brown: Quick Dance Moves, Slow Response Time
from Maddy Hicks focuses on Brown’s lack of response for too many days following the allegations.

What’s Love Got to do With it?: Chris Brown and Rihanna Edition from Josh Damis focuses on the implications to each star’s career.

Rihanna: Navigating a Crisis from Ali Runyan talks about Rihanna’s response and likely effect on her career.

Dude, Where’s my PR? from Krista Berlincourt asks why the stars took so long to respond and offers some advice.

I’m sure they’d each love to hear what you think, too.

Ducklings Take the Plunge: Blogs from Advanced PR Writing Winter 2009

My advanced PR writing students have been blogging now for a couple of weeks, so it’s time to share their links and help them get connected to the wide, wide world.

Please take a look at their blogs, add them as friends on Twitter and encourage their plunge into social media.

In no particular order:

Maddy Hicks: blog, twitter
Daria Latysheva: blog, (update) twitter
Krista Berlincourt: blog, twitter
Amanda Ip: blog, twitter
Kristen Victory: blog, twitter
Melissa Erb: blog, twitter
Marissa Phillips: blog, twitter
Babe Hoffarber: blog, twitter
Laura Hedges: blog, twitter
Ali Runyan: blog, twitter
Marla Federman: blog, twitter
Gretchen Brandtjen: blog, twitter
Dara Jester: blog, twitter
Josh Damis: blog, twitter
Chris Miller: blog, (update) twitter
Ruth Hickock: blog, twitter

What Horses Have Taught Me About Being a Communicator

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that there’s been a little horse drama in my life. It’s a long, sordid tale (ok, maybe not that sordid) with the end result of needing to find a new home for my Thoroughbred mare, Journey. It turned out splendidly. The whole process had me thinking hard about what having horses has meant to me generally and specifically about what they’ve taught me about being a better communicator. Sometimes you can learn to be better at what you do in surprising places.

  • Honesty: A horse that offers few surprises with her intentions is called “honest.” You know what to expect because she tells you how she feels. And, by extension, you can trust her. That doesn’t mean she does exactly what you ask every time, but when she doesn’t, it’s not a surprise.
  • Authenticity: You have to be yourself with horses. No point in trying to fake expertise or skills – the horse will be confused and won’t be able to respond the way you (or she) wants to. She’ll know when you’re off balance, nervous or even upset (ever had a horse-hug?).
  • Patience: It may take try after try, day after day or even month after month to perfect a skill. Being patient about how quickly you can both learn new skills and translate that into perfect execution is important.
  • Clarity: Be clear about what you want your horse to do. You can’t send mixed signals and expect to get a positive result. If you’re clear about what you want, you can translate that into voice, leg and hand cues that will help her figure out what you need.
  • Humor: Owning horses is not terribly glamorous. You have to shovel their poop, for crying out loud. There is always room to laugh at yourself.

Horses are remarkable creatures and make you a better person. I’ve been very lucky to be involved with them for most of my life (although only an owner for about 6 years).

Are there unexpected places, things or people who have taught you about being a better communicator?

Picture: me with Journey in 2006

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