McDonald’s is a huge, established company, but it’s still making public relations mistakes that you would expect from a start-up business. The latest is its internal website for employees, where several posts talked about the negative effects of fast food, the same kind of food that McDonald’s has been selling for years. If the company had been paying attention to what it was communicating, it probably wouldn’t have let those posts be written. But NBC News says they were created by an outside vendor, so McDonald’s wasn’t carefully supervising who they hired.
Before that leaked out, there was another publicity gaff that also came from an internal employee site.The company gave advice for tipping au pairs, pool cleaners, housekeepers, dog walkers, and personal trainers. What it failed to notice was a lot of McDonald’s employees earn minimum wage, which is what they’ve been protesting about this year. Again, the advice was written by a third party, which shows a sloppy communication plan and a lack of quality control.
Whether you’re hiring an outside company or you’re handling your own publicity, it’s important to pay attention to your internal and external communication. The two are connected, and you never know what disgruntled employees will leak to the press. Make sure your message is consistent, because if you present a public image that doesn’t match your in-house one, your reputation will be damaged, and you’ll have to be even more creative with your crisis communication plan.
Recently, prominent Pittsburgh defense lawyer James Ecker passed away. Usually attorneys don’t get so much media coverage, especially if they’re just known locally. However, Ecker had a long relationship with the media because of the way he communicated with reporters and how he described his high-profile clients who were accused of horrible crimes.
He was effective in presenting interesting visuals for television, such as walking with his clients into police stations and out of courtrooms, and he chose his words carefully. To defend such clients, he had to be a good storyteller, to paint a picture that helped reduce their sentences, which made him even more notorious. His law partner said he “‘was the ringmaster’ in many high-profile cases.”
Ecker was effective inside and outside the courtroom, but many attorneys are not effective in both areas. However, when communicating with the non-legal media, attorneys should be good storytellers and be able to use effective metaphors. Even scientists have discovered that using metaphors causes the brain to work differently. Salon features an article by Tori Rodriguez from Scientific American about a study that described crime in two different ways. People’s decisions on how to fight crime were influenced by the metaphors used.
One metaphor I’ll never forget is from my fourth grade language arts class. The teacher told us there are different ways we can talk about something. For instance, you can call a sandwich you eat a hamburger, which for beef eaters is a pleasant experience. You could also say it’s ground-up cow on a bun, which groups such as PETA could use to criticize people who eat meat.
Therefore, if you’re talking to a reporter, think about if you’re telling a story or “painting a picture” that will influence those receiving your message as you intended.
McDonald’s doesn’t always get a break. It’s been criticized, mocked, and has had its share of controversy, especially when it was featured in the documentary film Super Size Me, which followed Morgan Spurlock’s failing health as he only ate fast food every day.
Well they seem to be doing a good job trying to counter the negativity because recently, they gave away children’s books in their Happy Meals. It sounds like a good idea, but Bruce Horovitz wrote in USA Todaythat when they announced they were planning to do it, they were criticized because the books featured McDonald’s animated animals.
McDonald’s tried to help kids eat right through the messages in those books, and helped kids learn to read, but the company still got stung.
However, it teaches a great publicity lesson. McDonald’s partnered with Reading Is Fundamental, a literacy non-profit, which boosted their image. After all, McDonald’s is a huge for-profit company, and working with a non-profit helped to soften their reputation.
That kind of co-branding is what every company should consider. Like McDonald’s, think around corners. What organization can you partner with to do something positive in your community? By working with someone else, you can create a kind of safeguard so that you don’t have to defend yourself against critics.
The legal website Above the Lawcan make lawyers laugh about their stories or cry if they’re in there when they get bad coverage. The site got my attention when I saw “Red Bull Gives You…Cardiac Arrest?”because of the title and what appeared to be an absurd lawsuit. A man drank a Red Bull then died of a heart attack while playing basketball, and his family is suing for $85 million. It seems like a frivolous lawsuit, and they’re asking for what seems like an outrageous amount of money, but in every cloud there’s a silver lining.
In a case like this, there’s a potential liability both legally and from a PR point of view. There’s the risk of losing the case, and the attorney representing the plaintiff could say something that supports the apparent absurdity of the law suit. Also, third-party attorneys commenting on the case could also negatively affect their reputations if they make comments that are “laughably” too serious or poke fun where a death is involved.
That’s where the silver lining comes in: in cases like this where it’s tempting to say something dismissive or too critical, it’s important to balance it out with a comment that offers a fresh view of the situation. For instance, an attorney can do research to see if there’s validity to the lawsuit by citing precedents. Elie Mystal, who wrote that post at Above the Law, mentions side effects of the drink that could give the lawsuit validity. That’s an example of showing credible opinions in a peculiar legal matter.
So if you’re asked to comment on a case that seems silly and wasteful, share your opinions when you can offer comments that add value. Or just stay away from anything that’s “bull.”
You never know who’s going to be brought into the blame game. Earlier this month, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which was responsible for promoting Michael Jackson’s concerts, was found not liable for hisdeath, according to Hannah Karp and Eric Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal. AEG hired Doctor Conrad Murray as Jackson’s personal doctor, and even though he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter a couple of years ago, that guilty verdict didn’t affect them. They’re probably relieved though the family didn’t get the money they sued for (over one billion dollars).
Michael Jackson’s death has gone from being a tragic event to a growing conspiracy, almost like he’s the new John F. Kennedy. They died in different ways, but the public’s fascination with what happened is strong, and so is the family’s anger. We still don’t know the complete truth, though it was proven in court that the doctor wasn’t found incompetent, which cleared AEG from any wrongdoing.
It just goes to show how a story can become a public relations crisis,creating a net that scoops up various people, even if they weren’t directly involved. This could happen to you, too, even if you’re not working with a celebrity. You just have to be careful about what is reported and if people will be able to find out the truth. You might think you or your company is far enough away from a situation to not be affected, but a crisis can still occur. You may have done nothing wrong, but an employee could have, and you might be implicated in what they’ve done. It’s best to be prepared, such as deciding who the spokesperson will be, what your message is, and how you develop relationships with the media. I’ve talked in the past about crisis communications (see the slides here)
and also did a presentation about what to do right after something bad happens.
If you’ve had to deal with a crisis, feel free to share tips in the comments below.
Attorneys tend to be very careful, scrutinize information and documents, and try to not make mistakes because they can be costly and have negative affects on the case they’re working on, their clients, and their own reputation. That’s usually true, except when it comes to one of the most famous authors in the world. Apparently one of J.K. Rowling’s attorneys slipped up and ended up making a big public relations blunder. The New York Times reported the embarrassing mistake in Julie Bosman’s article, “Another Rowling Mystery Solved: Behind theTweet That Identified Her”. Basically, her own law firm didn’t pay attention to the attorney-client privilege when one of the partners told his wife’s friend that Rowling wrote a book using a pseudonym. The friend posted the information on Twitter, and Rowling was angry that the law firm she had trusted couldn’t keep a secret.
I’m sure if Rowling weren’t so famous, there wouldn’t have been much damage, though it still would have been wrong to reveal her identity. Lawyers have to remember that even a seemingly innocent conversation can cause an avalanche of publicity problems, which Rowling’s law firm experienced. There need to be filters in place, and a solid plan has to be developed when you’re dealing with a big client, and everyone should remember that social media can be dangerous as much as it is helpful. After all, you should avoid creating a situation that you will have to fix or that could cause you to lose clients. The best publicity is for successes, not for mistakes.
Even though the Miley Cyrus “twerking” incident occurred last month, people are still talking about it. One recent article is in Time magazine called, “The People vs. Miley Cyrus: FCC Complaints Aired” by Noah Rayman, in which he lists some of the complaints sent in to the FCC after Cyrus’ and Robin Thicke’s performance aired on MTV. There’s no doubt that there have been a lot of negative reactions, but it’s also gotten her a lot of attention, and she seems to really enjoy it.
Miley is certainly very different than her dad. He recorded country and Christian music, starred in a wholesome TV show, and generally has a clean-cut reputation. She’s obviously the opposite and doesn’t care what people think. After the MTV performance first aired, Billy Ray said, “She’s still my little girl and I’m still her Dad regardless how this circus we call show business plays out. I love her unconditionally and that will never change.” Even though it seems like he didn’t know how to respond at first because he cancelled a TV appearance, he ended up taking the high road and continues to now that her new video is out.
While I’m sure there are a lot of parents out there who think he should show his disapproval of her actions, his reputation overall hasn’t been damaged.
The reason why I’m mentioning what Miley Cyrus did is because attorneys sometimes have clients who do something embarrassing, which can also damage your own reputation. I’ve seen attorneys turn on clients by dropping a case when their integrity has been compromised, and some have trashed their former clients, like Joel Brodsky did with Drew Peterson. Yet even when the other party makes a public spectacle, you should take the high road. Also, think about why you took the troubled client in the first place. You have to be prepared to respond in such a way that will make you look good. The best way to prepare is to not wait until a disaster happens but think about all the scenarios, good and bad, when you want to publicize your case. If you’re prepared, then you’ll be ready to respond when your client isn’t acting how you think he or she should. Basically, choose your words carefully and make sure your firm is consistent with its message.
By the way, I just learned what “twerking” is, and it’s certainly not what I want my daughters to learn in the future!
Here’s something that made news even though it doesn’t seem so exciting: a garage. Actually, it’s not that mundane because the garage that NBC Washington had a storyabout is where Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” and Bob Woodward, who reported the Watergate scandal, met. That garage is going to be torn down, and even though there’s no specific date set, it still got attention.
The story originally came from Arlnow.com but it’s been covered in media all over the world. Who would’ve thought that a garage would become a media star? I don’t think I’ve seen many, or any, garage stories on TV or in a newspaper, and I’ve been in plenty of garages that didn’t end up in the news. Yet because of the historical significance, this garage is special, and whoever decided to publicize the demolition knows how effective publicity works.
This is a great reminder of thinking outside the box when it comes to your own business. Is there something you’re doing that doesn’t seem so interesting but could become a story that journalists would want to cover? An example is the press coverage that the Art Institute of Chicago got. Rummana Hussain did a story in the Chicago Tribuneabout the lions being moved for a reconstruction project, and after that, Patrick Reardon wrote an articleabout the trash that was found there. Trash and lions don’t sound too exciting, right? However, the Art Institute found a way to make it news and also entertain readers.
So think about what you can promote that is unique and newsworthy. You never know when one man’s trash can become another man’s treasure.
I saw a story on NPR’s website called, “Who Knew? Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke Is A Funny Guy,” by Mark Memmott with a transcript of the Federal Reserve Chairman’s commencement address at Princeton. I was impressed that he could use humor, even though he seems like such a serious guy. He even quoted Lily Tomlin, which is the last thing I’d expect from him.
Bernanke’s approach can be a lesson for attorneys. Usually lawyers are careful when dealing with the media, which I totally understand, because they have to be very careful about what they say. However, because they have to be calculating about their words or actions, they might look cold or even inhuman to other people, which can affect their reputation and their client’s image.
That’s why I often advise attorneys to communicate some light-heartedness when speaking to the media or releasing press statements. Wherever you speak or issue a statement, you should think about your audience. At a conference with other attorneys, for example, you can be more serious and use more specialized language. However, there’s nothing wrong with sprinkling what you say with some humor, like Bernanke did.
On the other hand, when you speak to a more general audience who wouldn’t understand or appreciation legalese, you should find a way to connect with the public by avoiding being very intense or serious. You have to be careful about what you divulge, of course, so you have to decide beforehand what your boundaries are, but there’s nothing wrong with lightening up a little for the press. After all, if the Federal Reserve Chairman of the United States can do it, you can too.
Candice Choi’s article, “Dunkin’ Donuts adds doughnut bacon sandwich to menu”in the Chicago Sun-Times is a great public relations move. The sandwich consists of fried eggs and bacon on a glazed doughnut, so I don’t think I could eat it unless I extend my daily workout from one hour to five. However, what Dunkin’ Donuts is doing is newsworthy.
Everyone knows that fatty, sugary, salty foods aren’t good for you, so fast food restaurants, even McDonald’s, are offering salads and more healthy food. You’d think that since people are more health-conscious, they would want more healthy food, and even Choi says that sales have increased because of the healthier menus. However, Dunkin’ Donuts is giving people what they’re wired to crave, and it seems like a novelty. After all, PR-wise, healthy food doesn’t seem as exciting, but a crazy, caloric sandwich can make a splash.
It reminds me that what’s old is new again, because for years fast food restaurants didn’t offer healthy food, and Dunkin’ Donuts is returning to that approach. In that way, what Dunkin’ Donuts is doing seems contrarian in their publicity efforts. However, the company really scored because the sandwich will cause lots of conversations online and off. I bet people have even been posting photos online of them eating it just to show others how adventurous they can be.
After looking at what that company has done, think about what you can do that will be noticed and that people will talk about. Maybe you’re not a proponent of unhealthy food, but if you look at your business, there’s probably something you can find that’s noteworthy.
By the way, if you’ve tried the sandwich, let me know.