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Problems, Lessons, and Solutions

Every time I turn on the news or flip to a website, I seem to find yet another PR problem unfolding. Luckily, I find lessons and possible solutions in most situations.

The Problem: “Mission: Impossible III (“MI3″),” the new movie starring Tom Cruise, took top box office honors last week, but its gross was as much as -20% lower than most analyst and industry watchers estimated. News reports and commentators are saying that the poorer-than-expected opening weekend was the result of negative press related to Cruise’s recent behavior.

The Lesson: When someone is as powerful as Cruise is, it’s difficult for any PR person to rein him in, and Cruise reportedly did not heed the advice of his now former PR people on a number of occasions. What’s sad is that Cruise not only hurt himself with his behavior, but hurt others who are in his economic food chain, including theater owners and workers, and others who worked directly on the movie. One wonders if anyone bothered to bring this to Cruise’s attention. Regardless, the lesson here is obvious: If you show the world your true colors, and they don’t like what they see, you’re going to suffer. Consider that before allowing someone to reveal too much in the media.

The Solution: Because we’re dealing with an individual who is really only accountable to himself, the only solution here was for Cruise to not behave strangely in the first person. Disregarding that possibility, Cruise could have at least attempted a mea culpa, and used the attention of MI3 not to ignore his behavior, but to address and spin it in a way that people could better understand.

The Problem: Controversial slugger Barry Bonds is on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth and taking second place on Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list. A book released earlier this year accuses Bonds of using steroids to enhance his performance, and Bonds’ legendary distaste for the media has been more apparent than usual lately. Fans outside of Bonds’ hometown of San Francisco generally boo the star.

The Lesson: When your organization allows illegal, or at least distasteful, activity to flourish unchecked, you invite a world of trouble. MLB’s lack of drug-testing oversight and a costly player’s strike, which all but guaranteed that home run-hitting sluggers would be needed to attract fans back to the game, created an atmosphere perfect for cheating. Few people inside or outside of baseball probably thought the cheating would be so widespread, and that it will shake the very integrity of the game to its core.

The Solution: Pray for a lot of rain or for scientists to come up with the power to resurrect Babe Ruth and de-age Henry Aaron. Honestly, we’re beyond a solution at this point. It’s all about watching yet another MLB PR disaster unfold.

The Problem: Tony Snow, a journalist-turned-speechwriter- turned-journalist, takes the job as White House Press Secretary. The job is generally considered one of the most difficult public relations positions in the world.

The Lesson: Want a job in PR? Bash the person or company who you want to work for, and wait for them to call (Snow once said, “George Bush has become something of an embarrassment,” and “Bush, for all his personal appeal, ultimately bolstered his detractors’ claims that he didn’t have the drive and work ethic to succeed.”). I was offered three very good PR jobs when I was a journalist, and all were by companies who I raked over the coals on a somewhat regular basis.

The Solution: OK, there is something more than a lesson in how to get a job here, and the lesson comes from John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and State Department spokesman.

“You can’t be an effective spokesman without access. [Secretary of State George] Shultz said I could be in on any meeting of his, whether in Washington or abroad, perhaps with the exception of a particularly sensitive one-on-one meeting with a foreign dignitary. I could read his classified cables. I also made a point of making Shultz the last person I spoke to before heading out to give the daily noon briefing,” Hughes wrote.

The Problem: The Securities and Exchange Commission has subpoenaed your company seeking a wealth of information. The agency is already investigating other parties, enemies of yours. Instead of simply acknowledging the subpoena, you put out a press release containing the following statement: “I may be the first CEO in history to celebrate receiving an SEC subpoena. Some of the requests suggest the whispering of the blackguards, but I remain unconcerned about their hokum.”

The Lesson: First of all, never use the word “hokum” in a press release. In fact, never use it in conversation. Second, the glee expressed is not consistent with the news that is being reported. I don’t care who you are, no one likes to be subpoenaed, and if you wanted to be, you would have been working with investigators in the first place.

The Solution: Issue a press release that addresses the issue in a professional manner. The company in question, by the way, is Overstock.com, not surprisingly.

The Problem: WUSA, a CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C., reported yesterday that a sanitation worker found a White House staff schedule for President George W. Bush’s trip trip to Florida. The worker, an ex-con, found the document before the President went on the trip. The Secret Service declined comment, except to say it was a White House document. A spokesperson for the President said the White House is looking into the matter.

The Lesson: When a story begins, “How much do you think Osama bin Laden would pay to know exactly when and where the President was traveling, and who was with him? Turns out, he wouldn’t have had to pay a dime. All he had to do was go through the trash early Tuesday morning,” you know you’re in trouble. Physical document control is an important part of not just security, but public relations. The leaking of sensitive information is often the cause of PR problems for companies and organizations, and PR people need to play a role in ensuring that employees are well aware of the consequences – to the individual and the business – of letting this material loose.

The Solution: The White House employs “burn bags” and shredders to discard of documents, and many companies use the latter. An even better solution is to have employees sign out sensitive documents so that someone internally is aware of exactly who has the material. If a document turns up missing, and then found, employees who signed out the document would be asked to return them, and the culprit could easily be figured out.

The Problem: A few years ago, an employee at Sprint sent me an internal PowerPoint presentation that shed light on some strategic changes at the company. Much to the dismay of Sprint, I published the document on my website.

The Lesson: Electronic documents are more difficult to control than physical documents, but once again, their release can cause havoc and PR problems.

The Solution: Instead of distributing electronic documents via email, post them on a secure and encrypted website. You’ll be able to track who accesses the document and there’s less of a chance that the document will escape outside of the company.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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