Posts filed under ‘Crisis Communications’

Steve Jobs, Apple and Alfred E. Neuman: “What, Me Worry?”

By Chris Scott

apple_jobsIf you’ve never had a front-row seat at a corporate communications debacle, just Google “apple jobs illness” and pull up a chair for a lesson on how not to work the media when it comes to a serious health issue with a company CEO.

The results page generates everything from “Do shareholders have a right to know?” to “It’s a nutrition problem” to “SEC review under consideration.” Is this the image that Apple, or Jobs, wants to dominate headlines versus continued trumpeting of the success of the new iPhone 3G S?

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs has persevered in various health issues: a cancerous tumor in his pancreas diagnosed in 2004; a speech at Apple’s 2006 Worldwide Developers Conference that raised serious questions about his unusually gaunt frame; and this year’s “hormone imbalance” that prompted a six-month leave of absence ending this month. Finally, there was the disclosure of a liver transplant in April that took several days to confirm.

There’s also no doubt that Jobs deserves a certain amount of privacy when it comes to dealing with these serious medical issues. But the wunderkind who founded Apple in 1976 — and spearheaded its stunning comeback upon his return to the top spot two decades later — appears to be following the standard script for Apple when it comes to disclosure. And the Securities and Exchange Commission has definite regulations on disclosing situations that could affect the company’s financial health.

Apple’s legendary secrecy about products and new developments, of course, make sense. (The company has no problem quickly firing employees who blab about new products in development and even successfully shut down the Web site http://www.thinksecret.com over its leaks of what Apple considered proprietary information.) But investors, the media and federal regulators are correctly questioning why Apple has repeatedly failed to provide accurate, timely information on the status of the person who is often hailed as being personally responsible for driving the computer maker to its current successful state.

SEC rules prompted Coca-Cola to report in 1997 that its then-CEO, Robert Goizueta, was suffering from lung cancer, the disease that killed him that October. And following the sudden death of McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo of a heart attack in 2004, successor CEO Charlie Bell decided to resign less than a year later before he died of colon cancer. Tragically, Bell was forced to have surgery a little more than two weeks after taking over as CEO, a fact that was prominently, but appropriately disclosed by McDonald’s at the time.

These multinational companies were able to meet federal requirements while protecting the privacy of the individuals involved. The evasive nature of Apple’s corporate responses to inquiries into its CEO’s health could be attributed to a corporate culture that is used to keeping secrets. It also might be part of the orders from the top that Jobs’ medical condition is his and his alone to be concerned about.

But Jobs decided to come back to work and that complicates the already troubled public relations effort. (Some reports put him on the campus of One Infinite Loop in Cupertino last week, before his officially scheduled return on Monday, June 29.) If he had decided to retire, his medical condition and prognosis would have no public component unless he decided to divulge their status himself. Unfortunately, his corporate communications team continues to work between a rock and a hard place with a sick CEO who sees no reason to adhere to SEC rules and Wall Street investors who rightfully contend that disclosure from Apple is appropriate and long overdue.

Alfred E. Neuman, clearly, has nothing on the keepers of Apple’s current public gates.

June 30, 2009 at 5:18 pm 1 comment

Blagojevich: Nobody’s buying this decimated brand any longer

By Sally Saville Hodge

“I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong.”

Such heroic words. From just about anyone else, they would be inspirational. Send a shiver up your spine for their passion. Make you raise a fist in the air in support.

But these are, in fact, the defiant words uttered by Illinois’ own Rod Blagojevich, the governor who was hoist by his own petard – caught on tape trying to sell the president-elect’s Senate seat, shake down the Chicago Tribune, and hold up the CEO of a leading Chicago children’s hospital for a big campaign contribution.

The man is totally clueless as to the damage he’s done to his personal brand, not just through his most recent actions, but pretty much throughout his tenure as Illinois governor. His denials of culpability last week only served to denigrate his brand even further – though with an approval rating of 8 percent, it’s hard to imagine it could be more tarnished.

You read a lot about brand these days, but most people tend to think of it as a business buzzword, associated with products (Sony, Starbucks, Apple) or a broader experience (Disney, Google, Amazon). But the principles that are behind an effective business brand management strategy are just applicable to a personal brand strategy. Both must be carefully managed, because a brand is very difficult to repair once damaged.

It’s regrettably easy to compromise a brand. Ask Elliot Spitzer. The jarring disconnect between his public persona as a crusader against corruption (including prostitution) and his private choice to utilize the services of a high-priced call girl destroyed his credibility.

It takes a lot to rebuild one – and sometimes that only occurs with unforeseen outside assistance. Prior to 9/11, Rudy Giuliani’s brand was probably on par with Spitzer’s today, though not sunk by the nearly same weight of negative equities that mark Rod Blagojevich’s. His stunningly impressive seizing of the leadership reins in the minutes, hours and days after 9/11 attacks renewed his brand enough to ultimately make a presidential run possible, just not strongly enough to make it successful.

Credibility. Authenticity. Quality. Integrity. Leadership. These are among the aspects that combine to uphold the strongest brands, providing that’s the way the public experiences them. At this stage, Blagojevich’s protests are just as empty as his promises. Nobody’s buying this brand anymore. It’s time to give it up.

December 23, 2008 at 5:36 am 2 comments

Crisis communications: Have a plan, don’t panic, be smart

Chris Scott

Let’s face it: There’s a reason why “crisis communications” is a PR specialty that not every firm offers.

You see clients at their worst since responses are, as a rule, hasty, reactionary and dissected by all. It’s a pressure cooker for the agency charged with managing the situation because of the need to respond quickly and smartly – often in circumstances where the client is disinclined to follow its advice. And in addition to traditional media scrutiny, there are customers to consider, who have increasing word-of-mouth clout making them even more difficult to manage than the press.

But helping companies deal with the PR maelstrom created by recalls, product tampering or embarrassing behavior by top executives is part of an extremely important job, one that most companies are smart enough to not handle on their own.

Just ask officials at Wendy’s, who in 2005 had to deal with a customer claiming that she bit into a human finger in a bowl of chili. While the woman was eventually convicted of attempted grand theft and conspiracy in the fraudulent claim, the chain reportedly lost $2.5 million in sales thanks to the bad publicity. In essence, even proper handling of the incident still hammered Wendy’s reputation and its bottom line.

So what’s a smart company to do? The worst response, obviously, is to bury one’s head in the sand and hope the crisis will just go away. It’s also not a good idea to test the public’s (or the media’s) sense of trust when addressing the situation. Did absolutely no one at Mattell – anywhere – know that a manufacturing plant in China was using lead paint on Dora the Explorer and her buddies? And tread lightly with “dark blogs,” which are designed to be activated when a crisis happens. Their credibility is questionable since they often come off looking pre-packaged and not necessarily a direct response to the issue at hand.

A better idea is to consider crisis communications like your relationship with the dentist: Brushing and flossing every day will make you better prepared in the event a tooth unexpectedly chips or breaks. Likewise, having a concrete plan in place and not panicking once the crisis erupts can prevent the situation from becoming a catastrophe.

February 15, 2008 at 7:12 pm Leave a comment


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