16 August 2018

What is the key to an effective crisis communications response?

At various times in our personal and professional lives we’ve all said, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” That’s fine if you’re talking about an unexpected play in a baseball game, or a surprising revelation about a celebrity on the national stage.

When it’s notOK to be surprised or taken off guard is  at a time there’s potential for a crisis in your organization. We see examples every day of companies, businesses, individuals – even highly respected universities – that did not adequately anticipate a major reputational crisis.

As a result, they are caught flat-footed, and their initial comments to the press or on social media are weak, ineffective or totally “tone deaf.” Three recent examples immediately come to mind.

A major U.S. airlines dragged a passenger off one of their planes when the flight was overbooked. The video of the doctor – bloodied, screaming, and distraught — was captured on passenger smart phones and replayed thousands of times on social media and news websites.

The airlines’ initial response: they had the right within their existing policies to “re-accommodate” the passenger on an overbooked flight.  While I never spoke personally to the doctor, who was traveling to perform surgery the next day,  I suspect he did not feel particularly “re-accommodated” as he was being dragged feet-first down the center of the cabin by air marshals.

Then there was the incident in Philadelphia at a major coffee chain where two African American men were arrested by city police because they did not immediately make a purchase and were viewed by company employees as “loitering” or “trespassing.”

I don’t know about you, but as a business owner I’ve waited for friends or potential clients in this coffee chain on numerous occasions before I actually ordered myself a fancy latte’. And no one ever called the police about me. I think we can all speculate as to why.

As video of the arrest – everything these days is captured on smart phone video – spread to social media, and instantly became international news, the coffee chain’s first response out of the gate was to say they were “disappointed” that the incident led to an arrest. Disappointed?  I’m “disappointed” when my fancy coffee shop drink is a little lukewarm.

Fortunately, the company quickly assessed how weak and ineffective that initial social media statement was and “righted the ship” within 48 hours. The CEO’s heartfelt apology on the chain’s website was praised by many communications professionals for hitting all the right notes.

But by then, the damage to their corporate brand and their reputation had already been done.

Closer to home, a major university’s football program was recently the subject of a scathing report from a well-respected national media outlet. The shocking ESPN story centered primarily on a 19-year-old football player who died after falling ill on the practice field this past June, and the “culture” within the football program that may have contributed to that horrific tragedy.

From the outside, it would appear that the university’s public reaction to the player’s entirely preventable death was tepid and lacking in empathy, from June up until the ESPN expose’ broke in mid-August. Within days after the story broke, the university launched a very public, seemingly heartfelt and apologetic statement and promised a full, thorough investigation into the “toxic culture” that some believe characterizes the football program.

Once again, unfortunately, the crisis communications response was a case of “too little, much too late.” And it may very well cost the head coach his job.

In each of these instances, the institutions involved may have said, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” Who possibly could have predicted a doctor being dragged off a plane, two men being arrested inside a coffee shop, or a college football player collapsing and dying on the field?

To suggest that the institutions involved could not have foreseen those scenarios is a crisis communications 101 failure.

Proactive preparation is the key to effective crisis communications, not execution. But how can you possibly prepare for an event that hasn’t happened yet?

Feldmann Communications Strategies can help you answer that question, and many others. Don’t wait until you’re confronted with a crisis to map out a course of action. In the 24/7 media and social media world in which we now live, you don’t have the luxury to thoughtfully strategize when it hits the fan.

Want to learn more? Visit our www.FCStrategies.comwebsite or email me at ray@fcstrategies.comto set up a free, initial crisis communications consultation. Who knows, we might even decide to grab a cup of coffee at a well-known national chain to start our collaboration!


Ray Feldmann is President and CEO of Feldmann Communications Strategies LLC, a public relations and communications firm based in Annapolis, Maryland.

6 August 2018

I did what Wendi would have wanted

I had heard about the anti-gun violence rally earlier in the week. But as the Saturday approached, the weather forecast was ominous. The app on my phone said 100% chance of rain. Even taking into account the unreliability of weather apps, precipitation seemed inevitable. Would I attend the rally, even in the pouring rain, I wondered?

Then I read the letter-to-the-editor in The Capitalnewspaper.

Entitled, “Our mother would have been with students rallying against gun violence in Annapolis,” it was signed by Wendi Winters’ four children: Winters, Phoenix, Montana and Summerleigh.

“Our mother, Wendi Winters, would have supported the demonstration organized by students from St. Mary’s County calling for reforming gun laws being held Saturday in Annapolis,” the letter began. “Either she would have covered it, or shown up in solidarity. Instead, she was murdered by a coward on June 28 along with four other of your colleagues.”

Wendi Winters was murdered that horrible Thursday afternoon along with Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, and Rebecca Smith.  Those who survived that horrific Capitalattack credited Wendi with saving the lives of several of her colleagues by rushing the gunman as he opened fire. Who among us would have been able to demonstrate that type of courage and bravery if similarly confronted?

In my mind, I owed it to Wendi, Rob, John, Gerald, and Rebecca to attend that Saturday rally, which was organized by Students For A Safer Maryland. So, my wife Christine, our 10-year-old twins and I piled into our family SUV, drove downtown, parked in a nearby garage, and walked the short distance to Lawyer’s Mall, nestled between the State House and the governor’s mansion. It wasn’t just raining; it was a deluge.  Despite the torrential rain, a hearty group of young people and adults gathered under a sea of colorful umbrellas.

Almost immediately, I was grateful I came. I spotted Rachael Pacella, whom I’d first met when she was a reporter for the Towson Times, before she’d moved to The Capital. She had been injured in the June 28 rampage, and in the weeks since, had written with great emotion and passion about it. I hadn’t spoken with her since that fateful day, and seeing her at the rally brought a great sense of relief mixed with sadness. We hugged, and I clumsily fumbled for the right words to say to her.

A few minutes later, the first of several speakers began shouting into a megaphone. Among them was a young woman wearing a white summer dress and sandals. She introduced herself as Selene San Felice. I knew her byline. Like Rachael, Selene was a Capital newsroom survivor.

“I know a lot of you have felt loss and grief in your lives,” Selene said to the rapt audience. “I want you to try grieving for five different people at once. Try doing that when the last memory you have of them is their violent deaths.”

I tried to imagine what Selene was thinking and feeling at that very moment. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even pretend to.

About 45 minutes later the rally concluded, and the attendees slowly drifted away to resume the rest of their weekend.

As I write this, more than a month has elapsed since I watched with an overwhelming sense of dread as dozens of emergency vehicles rushed past my neighborhood along Bestgate Road, responding to a report of an active shooter at the offices of The Capitalnewspaper. Like so many others, I have struggled to put this senseless tragedy behind me, not only because it impacted my community, but because I, too, was once a journalist at a community newspaper. I feel a bond with the victims and survivors.

I told a friend recently, “I’ve always ascribed to the theory of wondering what people would say about you when you died.  So, live your life in such a way that you’d like what you heard” (realizing the fallacy of that line of thinking, of course).

I’ve thought about that theory a lot over the past three weeks.

Over dinner at Galway Bay recently with a friend who is a Capitalalum, we talked about finding the silver linings.

“What possible good can we find from this horrible incident and five deaths?” we asked each other through tears.

I’ve learned, from reading about Wendi and her four colleagues over the past several weeks, that my silver linings are about passion and purpose. About being your true, authentic self. About gratitude and taking nothing for granted. About caring and giving. About following your dreams, even when they seem scary. (Especially when they seem scary!) About stepping outside your comfort zone. About living your life to the fullest, not merely existing.

Sadly, I never knew Wendi Winters, but I believe she would have been standing beside me at that Saturday anti-gun violence rally, getting soaked to the skin, cheering loudly for the students, hugging survivors, and vowing to take action to help prevent another mass shooting.

“Either she would have covered it,” her children had written days before, “or shown up in solidarity.”

We can all learn something from the way Wendi lived her life.