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Learn lessons from others’ media mishaps

Nationally recognized communications coach Steve Adubato examines 22 controversial and complex public relations and media mishaps, many of which were played out in the public, in his book “What Were They Thinking?” He also shares tips on having a strategic communications crisis plan. An excerpt. IntroductionMy personal introduction to crisis communication is burned in my memory of events I wou
/ Source: TODAY books

Nationally recognized communications coach Steve Adubato examines 22 controversial and complex public relations and media mishaps, many of which were played out in the public, in his book “What Were They Thinking?” He also shares tips on having a strategic communications crisis plan. An excerpt.


My personal introduction to crisis communication is burned in my memory of events I would like to forget. In 1984, I was a 26-year-old New Jersey state legislator who had quickly learned how to use the media to my advantage. But I was naïve and unprepared for my first public relations crisis. During my second year in office, I found my photo on the front page of the Herald News with a caption and a few lines that made it clear that Steve Adubato not only made laws in the Statehouse, but apparently broke them when it suited him.

That’s what you get when you’re stupid enough to park your car — with official government plates bearing your initials SA with the gold seal of the state — in a parking space reserved for handicapped drivers. (I said it was stupid.) What was I thinking? I wasn’t. I was running late to deliver a brief speech to a local community group, and there was no parking spot available. I knew I would be in and out in just a few minutes. That’s my lame rationalization.

The fallout was embarrassing and humiliating. Angry calls flooded into my legislative office. I deserved all the criticism I got and more, but I didn’t know what to do. When would it stop? Was my political career over so soon after it had just begun? I started to feel sorry for myself, which is of no use when facing a crisis or embarrassing event. This was about public perception, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that a state legislator with official government plates parking in a handicapped spot clearly identified by a very large blue sign would be perceived as dumb and insensitive.

I needed a crisis communication strategy. Should I ignore the bad press? Respond to it? Defend my actions? Take the blame? Blame somebody else? No matter what I did, I was sure that some who would vote in the next election would, no doubt, remember that picture of my car in that parking space. But whether or not I got their vote would depend entirely on how I communicated to the public in this crisis.

Every crisis offers a lesson

That’s what crisis communication is all about. It’s a strategy or plan that helps you respond to an out-of-the-norm problem, event, or situation that can not be handled through standard operating procedures, smart management and commonsense leadership. It is a strategic method of response that allows you to reach out to key stakeholders — customers, clients, sponsors, stockholders, and the general public — to inform, reassure, and ultimately cement their loyalty and support, or at least get the benefit of the doubt.

Some corporations spend millions of dollars on crisis communication plans. Others ignore the subject entirely because when they think “crisis” they think stop-the-world catastrophic incidents that are not a part of their business — the 1996 TWA Airline crash, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker fiasco in Alaska, and the events surrounding 9/11.

But as too many business, organizational, and political leaders find out the hard way, a crisis can happen any time, anywhere, and to anyone. It can happen to the guilty or the innocent, a “victim” or a “villain.” It can happen to people (Don Imus, Alberto Gonzales, Christie Whitman), or to organizations (CBS, Jet Blue, Virginia Tech University), or to both. When it does happen, crisis communication is largely about public perception, which many in this media-driven world confuse with objective, factual reality.

That’s why we’re all open to potential communication and PR crises or scandals. We’re talking organizational mergers or downsizing of a workforce; a CEO involved in some salacious sexual or financial scandal that jeopardizes stock price, organizational reputation and internal morale; union strikes; violent employees or students; bankruptcy or other financial problems; an inflammatory e-mail that inadvertently finds its way to cyberspace and the media. Any of these circumstances and so many others can produce a crisis that is then made worse by the lack of preparation and poor execution of a response on the part of those involved.

The cases in “What Were They Thinking?” represent a cross-section of experiences involving organizations and individuals. Some you will recognize from national headlines, while others will be less well-known but no less powerful in the lessons they teach us. In the following pages, we’ll explore a variety of cases — the good, the bad, and the clueless — in which organizations and individuals faced some sort of challenge or crisis that required them to communicate to a variety of critical audiences in an articulate, effective, and timely fashion.

We’ll also study the communication plans of some who got it right. The way CEO James Burke of Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol tampering case in 1982 continues to be the gold standard in crisis communication, and the 2004 case of CEO Art Ryan at Prudential Financial gives us insight into how modern technology can be effectively used to support crisis communication. We’ll also look at the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s masterful handling of several high-profile scandals in the world of pro football. Ironically, FOX News talking-head Bill O’Reilly got it right by “shutting up.” The problem, however, is that such examples are few and far between.

You will find that in most cases presented in this book, the communication fell woefully short and sometimes terribly flat. To name just a few, we’ll talk about individuals such as Rudy Giuliani and Jon Corzine who made the mistake of thinking that the problems in their private lives did not require the same level of crisis communication skills as those in their business/public lives (yet in the chapters on Giuliani and Corzine, we also explore how both public officials handled other crises extremely well). We’ll analyze the Duke lacrosse team rape fiasco, in which Prosecutor Mike Nifong and the Duke University administrators and faculty mistakenly thought they could gain public support by rushing to judgment and pandering to public opinion. In our study of crisis communication plans, we’ll also look at organizations such as the Major League Baseball Association who tried to ignore and then deny dangerous and unethical practices by their employees for their own economic gain. Of course, we’ll dissect stories of less-than-forthright public figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who made the crisis involving the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman worse through a combination of arrogance and stupidity.

Others who got it wrong under pressure include the executives and top editors at The New York Times who tried to ignore the Jayson Blair “problem” until it blew up in their face. One of the scandals that I was personally and profoundly impacted by, which is examined in the book, is the pathetic and hypocritical response of the Catholic Church to its pedophilia crisis involving numerous dangerous priests who preyed on innocent children — in some cases for decades.

Some cases in this book explore self-inflicted wounds and crises such as Dick Cheney’s ridiculous mishandling of his accidental shooting of long-time friend Harry Whittington on a Texas hunting trip. Other cases examine how organizations and individuals deal with what happens to them. Among these are the Virginia Tech University mass murder spree that took place on April 16, 2007, and Rudy Giuliani’s extraordinary leadership in New York City in the days and weeks immediately following September 11.

While most of the cases in this book involve high-profile people involved in much-publicized controversies, a few explore people whose names you may not recognize. One of those people is Rose McCaffery, the superintendent of the Glen Ridge New Jersey Pubic Schools. In 1989, the small, suburban and wealthy community of Glen Ridge was confronted with the horrific and violent rape of a 16-year-old retarded girl by a number of admired school athletes. The case of Rose McCaffery graphically demonstrates how a nationally publicized scandal or crisis can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. As you will see, Superintendent McCaffery was in no way prepared for what she and the tiny town of Glen Ridge were about to face. From these and many others we will learn how not to communicate in a crisis.


That is my role as a communication coach. Through my firm, Stand & Deliver, I have tried to help organizations and executives proactively develop strategic communication plans that anticipate a crisis or a problem and then I help them execute that plan when needed. This work with some of the finest organizations and corporations in the country has taught me a great deal about this challenging and often complex process. I’ve learned, for example, that effective crisis communication isn’t about winning or about turning a bad situation into a good one. Rather, it is about knowing what, how, and when to respond to a problem so that major constituents (be they employees, stockholders, customers, organization members, or even one’s own spouse) feel we are being truthful, forthright, and contrite. Crisis communication is sometimes about minimizing the damage or the “hit” you are sometimes going to take.

right/MSNBC/Sections/TVNews/Today show/Today Books/TodayBooksHISTORYANDPOLITICS/2009/adubatocover 02 07 08.jpg21644254300right#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.comWhat Were They Thinking 3 1PfalsefalseThe Clinton effect

Speaking of “taking a hit,” let’s talk about the “Clinton effect.” In writing this book, there were numerous friends, colleagues and others who, when they heard that I was writing about handling a crisis or a scandal, suggested I write about one case or another. Among the many cases suggested were former New Jersey Governor (“I am a Gay American”) Jim McGreevey, Merck/Vioxx, former Utah U.S. Senator Larry Craig and his bathroom sex scandal, former Evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, Martha Stewart, CBS and Dan Rather, the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, the NSA illegal wire taping controversy, Enron, author James Frey and his tearful apology to Oprah, New Orleans Mayer Ray Nagin, Rush Limbaugh’s incredibly insensitive mocking of Michael J. Fox, publisher Judith Regan and the O.J. mess, to name just a few. All these cases were potentially interesting and informative, but the 22 cases that were ultimately selected for inclusion in "What Were They Thinking?" hopefully represent the most diverse and relevant cases for any professional who may face a serious challenge or problem, and in turn a potential crisis.

However, one case that was suggested more than any other was the Bill Clinton – Monica Lewinsky scandal. I thought a lot about it and did extensive research on this highly publicized and significant event in presidential and American history. I’m not talking about the actual “sexual relations” between Clinton and Lewinsky (that never really interested me), but rather the aftermath. Then it hit me — the irony of the Clinton/Lewinsky episode is that in so many ways Bill Clinton broke virtually every rule and contradicted every “lesson” that I espouse in this book and, as of 2008, he still comes out smelling like a rose.

Think about it. I’m not saying everyone likes Bill Clinton. In fact he has many detractors, including many conservatives and others who really dislike him. But we’re talking about a guy who can still raise more money (particularly for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and the Clinton Global Initiative) and gets paid more money to deliver a one-hour speech than any president in American history or probably any human being on the face of the earth. It’s uncanny.

In this book I argue that it’s important to proactively disclose your mistakes and not try to deny, stonewall, or cover up. But that’s exactly what Bill Clinton did as it relates his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton lied to everyone. Not just his wife and his family, but to the media, a federal grand jury and ultimately the American public. In this book I describe strong leaders as those who do not “lawyer up” and use legal jargon to parse the meaning of words. Yet, Bill Clinton is the guy who made famous the expression: “It depends on what the definition of is is.” He was anything but candid and forthright in his public comments. He often lost his cool, showed his anger and most importantly, avoided taking responsibility for his actions.

I have said that the best way to handle a crisis is to get out in front of it and deal directly with the media. Instead, Clinton had his wife Hilary go on the Today show to defend him (with no knowledge that the Lewinsky story was actually true) and blame the “vast right wing conspiracy” for going after her husband. I’ve said that blaming others for your actions is a stupid and dangerous approach to crisis communication that is bound to come back to hurt you. Yet, that is exactly what Bill Clinton did, but he didn’t have the guts to do it himself; rather had his wife do it on national television. Pretty low, huh?