Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Value of Bad News and Negative Feedback

Justin Bieber has a tattoo of his mother's birthday (1975) to show how much he loves her. How sweet.

The tat, which he got in January, 2013, joined 15 others, including a crown, an Indian head (his high school mascot) and an owl, a Jesus portrait, along with LOVE spelled out on his knuckles. How bad-ass of the boy.

But there's a tiny problem with his inky tribute.

The tattoo reads: "I IX VII V" which is NOT the year 1975, but simply "1, 9, 7, 5" - a mere list of numbers. The year 1975 in Roman Numerals is ACTUALLY rendered "MCMLXXV." M = 1000, CM = 900 (or 1000-100) LXX = 70 (50 + two 10s) and V = five.

So, yeah, that was unfortunate. And it received heavy and snarky coverage online when he first revealed it. (see here, and here, and here.)

This raises a couple of questions. Who got this wrong - was it the tattoo artist? Unlikely. Even an artist who's been in business for a week would have known better.

Or did he come up with it himself? Well, that's possible. He might have looked in a book and seen the numbers, and put this together himself, presenting it to his friends and then to a tattoo artist.

But the most important question is: If he showed this list of Roman Numerals to others and to an experienced tattoo artist, why didn't someone tell him it was not a rendering of the year?

If he did show others, it's entirely possible that they simply were too afraid to tell him it was wrong - a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes," in which no one will tell the emperor that he's not wearing an invisible cloak, but is simply naked - out of fear of offending the emperor.

In the case of Bieber, is he surrounded by sycophants who were afraid to say "no, you're plan is wrong" to the Star who may send them packing for scuttling his poorly laid out plans?

If this is true, he’s not alone. Business owners and political leaders are often presented with “bad news,” by their advisers, including their public relations consultants. 

Sure, negative feedback is not always welcome, and not always fun to hear. It also should be offered tactfully and presented gracefully.

But it must be presented, and should be welcomed. 

To demand that, “We want only positive feedback here,” is a remarkably bad policy, which can lead to something far worse than a tattoo, which can in most cases be fixed.

As Elon Musk said recently, "I think it's important to take as much feedback as you can from as many people as you can about whatever idea you have. You should seek negative feedback, especially from friends." This is a lesson Justin Beiber needs to heed, as do we all.

What those in business and politics (as well as the arts, the military and any other institution) can take from Bieber’s tattoo flub is that it pays to listen to your consultants in good faith. They are not simply paid to be “yes men” and sycophants, but to give honest and frank advice designed to both avoid reputation-damaging mistakes and help to claw your way back when you make them.

Another problem is that often, consultants are not included in major decision-making meetings, and are left out of the loop. That’s a huge mistake, because they are there to prevent major screw ups and poor ethical decisions that can quickly come back to haunt them — like Bieber’s tattoo.

Sadly, either no one has told young Mr. Bieber that he made an error or he didn't care, because a recent photo shows the same erroneous numerals on his chest.

Don't likewise ignore the good advice of your PR professional when it's offered. Even if it's "negative."

Monday, September 30, 2013

Martha Stewart's latest misstep (and how to fix it)

Martha actually has been in an Apple Store, back in 2010.
On Thursday, Sept. 26, Martha Stewart, apparently distraught at breaking her iPad, went on a tirade against the Apple Corporation and risked damaging her brand and her own public reputation and image.

As Business Insider (and many others) reported, Stewart dropped the iPad - which was given to her personally by the late Steve Jobs - and the glass shattered.

Her tweet, "I just dropped my iPad on the ground and shattered two glass corners. What to do?does one call Apple to come and pick it up or do I take it?" made her come off as completely detached from the millions of average Joes and Joans who have to get off their butts and go to the Apple Store to have it fixed or replaced.

She noted, in a clearly exasperated tone even detectable on twitter, "i cannot believe that Apple Public Relations is mad at me for tweeting about my Ipad and how to get it fixed! steve jobs gave it to me!"

She later explained it was a "silly joke" but the following day, was still at it, noting that "Let's now talk turkey: Ipads addictive,awesome,expensive. Glass should /could be unbreakable. That the iPad works with cracked corners-great. ... But the cracked glass is sharp and can cut. I was just upset that I(someone)was clumsy and let the iPad fall out of the car. To fix is time..."

Leaving aside the fact that the billionaire Stewart has many assistants who could have not only explained this to her or could have taken it themselves (or, God forbid, that could easily have quietly bought another iPad!)

She continued to rant and rave about it on twitter until, apparently, Apple’s PR department stepped into tell her to stop talking about it. And yet, because they didn’t solve the problem, she continued to rant about the incident and Apple’s failure to act, making the perception of her detachment even worse — even though her atrocious spelling does bring her a bit down to earth a bit.

Stewart is no stranger to either controversy or potential career-ending moves. In 2004, Stewart was convicted of charges related to the ImClone insider trading affair and there was speculation that the incident would effectively end her media empire.

But she launched a rather successful comeback campaign in 2005 - begun when she deplaned from the flight from her prison wearing the now-famous poncho that was made for her by her fellow prisoners - and her company returned to profitability in 2006. She rejoined the board of directors of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in 2011 and became chairman of the company again in 2012. [wikipedia]

But this misstep, while seemingly small compared to insider trading, reignites the image that she is a privileged, out-of-touch multimillionaire who doesn't, and can't, relate to readers and viewers of her online, print and television productions.

I don't really believe that's true, frankly, but the perception is clearly driven home by the tweets, which are bound to be retweeted many, many times and - if the writers at SNL are still on the ball - will surely be the subject of a rather nasty, and even possibly funny, skit.

Were I her PR consultant (and call me, Martha! I’ll even come to your house!) I’d advise her to come clean and admit that she was clearly distraught over the situation and tweeted without considering her next steps to make the situation right. This means she abandons her first reaction, which was to claim the entire thing was a “joke” which wasn’t the case, clearly. The fact that she was distraught over losing a precious memento is understandable. We can all relate.

Then I’d find a way to make “iPad” and “Martha Stewart” more than a punchline when they are Googled together. (Hint: Elementary schools need iPads, even in Connecticut. Perhaps not in wealthy neighborhoods, though.) While this seems crass — and gets PR people in trouble — if it is meant from the heart, and isn’t a ‘stunt,’ people will at least give her credit for honoring the legacy of Steve Jobs, and the intention of his gift to her.

Press photos (or even iPhone photos posted online by average Joes and Joans) of her standing in line at an Apple Store would also go a long way to repairing not only the damaged iPad but also her once-again tarnished image.

I have no doubt Martha Stewart will bounce back. She is a remarkably resilient woman and businessperson and she always seem to be able to do so. And that, of course, is a “good thing.”

Monday, June 03, 2013

Taco Bell "Shell Licking" PR Crisis Goes Away Only After Better Training

Taco Bell is facing yet another PR nightmare Monday after an employee was pictured brazenly licking a stack of taco shells and then uploaded the photo to Reddit and facebook, where it was duplicated and shared endlessly online. The story hit "old media" throughout the world (here and here and here) almost immediately and spread like a Western wildfire.

The company is just coming off a scandal about its meat's composition, and fast food giant Burger King had a similar incident last year with the employee standing in two pans of lettuce, which was exposed on 4chan.

The dangers of social media are on full display here, and it's another lesson teaching us that mishandling it can get you burned.

Usually a great tool used by customers to show off how they enjoy a company's products, dozens of the "licking" photo were being "tagged" by facebook users with Taco Bell's name, making the photo instantly and repeatedly show up under "Photos of Taco Bell" on the company's official facebook page.

The social media meltdown was being handled gingerly and cautiously by Taco Bell PR people who maintain the company's facebook page.

Typical responses on Monday were: "Hi Jen - We have spoken with the restaurant and confirmed that the shells were never served to customers. This is completely unacceptable and we are taking the appropriate action against everyone involved." and "Hi Kyle - We have 100% confirmed that the taco shells were never served to customers. Plain and simple, this is unacceptable and we are taking the appropriate action against everyone involved."

(Despite skepticism of these statements, they certainly CAN confirm this because these restaurants are completely covered in closed circuit cameras to discourage theft, and in some cases, build a case for firing. Obviously the case for firing makes itself in this situation.)

Both of these are good statements, the only kind a company can really make in such a crisis.

Clearly, there are "haters" online urging this crisis on - as they do with every crisis - posting the image repeatedly and saying they will NEVER eat at ANY Taco Bell again. That seems like overkill and piling on, but it's clear that this has an emotional kick to it that will put many people off Taco Bell and change their image of their product.

The fact is, franchises desperate to cut labor costs helped bring this on themselves. Companies seem far less likely to even bother to train lower-wage employees in basic ethics, due in part to high turnover. The same seems true of food-handling procedures, which is even more frightening. THIS is the result of that lack of training.

PR can never be used to cover up or "make the story go away" without something positive coming out of it. Customers are wise to a whitewash, and are incredibly savvy.

Any PR response MUST include corrective action not just with this franchise, but with the entire company. And it should be a wake-up call for other fast food outlets, too, that a crash course in ethical behavior must be taught to each and every employee, and that enjoying oneself on the job is one thing, but crossing the line with unsafe food handling can never be tolerated.

If I was the CEO of Taco Bell's parent company, I'd demand that all employees be huddled into a meeting THIS WEEK in each restaurant that would start a comprehensive review of ethics and food handling, and begin to stress the seriousness of the situation to each employee. Bad publicity hurts where it counts: In profits. A dip in sales from weeks of bad press will mean a cut in hours at every single restaurant around the country. Actions have immediate consequences.

With a renewed commitment to decent food handling practices, the company may actually do a great service to the industry. A "teaching moment," if you will. It's either that, or this becomes a story that tears down years of good image-building efforts with weeks of bad press. Your call, Taco Bell.