Crisis Communications

By Julie Talenfeld, President

What if your company saw executives and employees departing – and in the process, publicly raising serious concerns about your management style? Should that matter to you or your business? It should, if you care about community relations and your company’s public persona.

I thought about this after reading the New York Times story about Jennifer J. Raab (pictured above with attorney and academic Anita Hill), president of the prestigious and successful Hunter College in New York City. Though she’s overseen record fundraising and growth at the school, some departing officials there – including top deans and executives – blasted her management style as one of “a culture of fear and mistrust.”

New York City may be 1,300 miles from South Florida. But the marketing communications and public relations message should be clear. Regardless of whether you own, run or manage a Fort Lauderdale medical practice, a Miami law firm or a Boca Raton retailer, your management style can polish – or blemish – your brand and leave you with a reputation management crisis.


Your Boca Raton business is targeted by a customer boycott or protest. Your Fort Lauderdale law firm is implicated in a lawsuit. Your Miami medical practice has been negatively profiled on a television news report.

How do you respond publicly? In most cases, you’d turn to a public relations firm versed in crisis communications. Yet today, many companies are turning to social media services like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to tell their side of the story.

Or are they? A recent study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers reveals that many companies are slow to leverage social media as a vital piece of their crisis communications and business continuity management efforts.


The Colorado massacre is one of the most horrific shootings our nation has seen — with so many innocent lives lost.   It’s hard for anyone to see this as anything other than a tragedy for the victims’ families, friends and the nation. But is also a full-fledged crisis for the movie theater and the Batman enterprise. The murders in Colorado may forever be known as the “Batman Murders”, the “Dark Knight Murders” or the “Theater Tragedy”, a terrible brand for a business.

A crisis of this magnitude is extremely difficult to overcome and the theater will most likely be facing lawsuits in the upcoming months aside from all the negative images in the public’s mind.  It’s the type of terrible event that could force the theater to close its doors permanently despite rebranding efforts.

But crises happen. In public relations, crisis communications teaches professionals to anticipate disasters and to plan their strategy and response in advance.

To help prepare:

  • Your company should have a crisis communications plan to fall back onto as a guide when a crisis strikes.
  • Determine who will be best to respond to the crisis, a spokesman or a top official. You’ll need team members who are good public speakers and can think quickly. Who will respond on a continuing basis as developments and questions arise?
  • Be sure that the company is open to any assistance possible and goes beyond basics to be supportive. Look at what longer term help the company can offer.

Having a communications plan may not prevent a crisis but it’s essential in helping a company put on the best face possible and prevent a business disaster.

Does LeBron James need a public reputation cost-benefit analysis? Do his haters?

Two years ago, James made a very public display about “The Decision.” On a nationally televised broadcast, he announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” meaning he would choose the Miami Heat over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Heat fans were ecstatic. Cleveland seethed. Basketball fans everywhere – even those with no tie to either team – had an opinion. Few held James in high esteem.

Still, some thought James’ reputation would be repaired if or when he won a NBA title.

This week, the Miami Heat won the title.

And some people still hold a negative impression of James. Read CNBC’s take.


As a South Florida public relations, social media and marketing communications firm, we’re struck by the British Monarchy’s resilience. Just a few years ago, Prince Charles was chided by his countrymen and media worldwide for divorcing Princess Diana and marrying Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Brits were questioning the cost of maintaining the royal family – in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The once-proud royal family, sadly, was tabloid fodder.

Then this week, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne with thousands of adoring Brits and international spectators lining the streets of London.

All, it seems, was forgiven and forgotten. Pride has been restored.

It’s a compelling and striking statement about the resilience of timeless brands – and the willingness of people to cherish and embrace their traditions.

This hasn’t come by accident. The royal family has been relatively low-key – or at least not presented in an ill-light – of late. Prince Charles’ and the late Princess Diana’s sons have done the crown proud. Both William and Harry serve in the military; in fact, military duties forced both to miss early Jubilee ceremonies. William’s marriage in 2011 to Kate Middleton wowed audiences and followers worldwide.

The Queen, Camilla and Kate seem warm and family-like when appearing in public. And when Prince Philip was admitted to the hospital this week, the show and fanfare went on. One commentator noted how the Queen was smiling – even though her husband was ailing.

“She puts on a brave face” said another commentator.

The lesson is clear: Crises come and go. Behave poorly, and people may turn against you, your company or your brand. But behave well, and personas, brands and corporate identities can be restored – if you’re resilient and patient.

Media savvy business owners versed in public relations often have taken the time and effort to set up a media “chain of command,” designating whom is to speak if reporters or the media come calling. With some South Florida businesses – and those nationally, only the owner or most senior executive is licensed to speak.

For good reason. By establishing a “single voice” for the organization, it’s easier to ensure that the comments and information flow is consistent. What’s more, with comments coming from the president, the CEO or the chairman, the organization – by virtue of the comments themselves – gets positioned in the best light.

Follow the tips below to ensure your organization handles public comments wisely by finding the right partner, staffer or executive to speak publicly…

Decide who takes calls from the media. Is this the CEO or managing partner? Is it the president? If an organization has “co-leaders,” are both versed in the company line and appropriate to handle media calls? Decide before the call comes.

Set a media “chain of command” for when a reporter calls and asks, “Can I speak with someone who handles calls from the media.” Receptionist, admins or anyone answering the phones should know to never offer any commentary; instead, the caller should be transferred or directed to the one individual designated to take such calls (even if the person is not a quotable source, for example, a marketing director or publicist, who will facilitate the call).

If the “spokesperson” is not available, establish guidelines regarding who can represent the company and speak to the media instead. This should be a very select group – possibly only the most senior executives, and then, only after getting sample questions and after preparing for the interview.

Prepare before – and during – crises. Bad things can happen to good companies. Plan for a crisis. Have a game plan – who will answer calls, and how your crisis communications public relations team will help. If you don’t know a crisis communications firm, ask around your peer groups for a few recommendations and do some preliminary interviews – before you need them. “Preparing” includes media training. Knowing what – or what not – to say to the media doesn’t come naturally to all people. Sometimes, working with a public relations firm in advance on media training – that is, role-playing to discover what questions you might encounter and how to answer them – can help make executives comfortable being interviewed.

Avoid saying, “No comment” in response to a reporter’s question. It may appear the company is hiding information or avoiding the issue. Instead, say “We’re still looking into this matter and will gladly respond once we’ve learned more.”

This is not to say that a law firm with 75 attorneys wouldn’t be very well served by letting a department chair comment on a case or a specific topic when contacted by a reporter. Same goes for a business with vice presidents or managers highly knowledgeable in areas of interest to reporters. We’ll discuss this in our next blog: “When Expert Employees Must Be Released to Serve as Spokespeople.”

After the shooting of Trayvon Martin in late February, the public was in an uproar as to how the case was being handled. Crisis communications executives with public relations firms from South Florida and across the nation shuddered at the seemingly bungled events that followed, whether by the Sanford (Florida) Police Department or the local district attorney. From TV news shows to social media outlets, the case continues to be watched closely.

For business owners and executives, it offers a valuable lesson in crisis communications management.

After seven weeks, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot Martin, 17, was charged with second degree murder. Yet, from a public relations standpoint, the reputation of the Sanford Police Department suffered. Many believe the department could have done more to avoid the public scrutiny it faces today.

From the beginning, Chief Bill Lee appeared dismissive when asked about the investigation. He could have released statements that focus on what his department was doing to help with the investigation; instead he focused on how there was nothing to rebut Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.

Then, on March 22, Lee “temporarily” stepped down from his post.

His lack of communication with the media and the public may have potentially lost him his job.

Less than a week later, the department released a statement warning members of the media to “refrain from approaching, phoning or emailing city employees when they are in their roles as private citizens…Law enforcement officials will not hesitate to make an arrest for stalking.” Crisis communication professionals balked. Threatening the media with arrest, except in situations where their presence could cause harm, generally is ill-advised. Sure enough, a day later, Sanford Police issued another statement rescinding the previous statement.

But the Sanford Police Department did manage to do one thing right. When a group of local students demonstrated outside the department, the police made no arrests. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, the police allowed the public to exercise its First Amendment rights. In the end, the students got their message across, and the police department earned some credibility for treating them respectfully.

Much remains to be done before the Trayvon Martin case comes to the close. From this point forward, though, it’s advisable for the Sanford Police Department to be responsive and transparent, to stick to the facts, and never to dismiss the chance to communicate openly and honestly with the media and the public. Such an approach certainly would have saved face for the department, and could well have saved one chief’s job.

Florida’s strong Cuban community is gung-ho for two things quintessentially American — the first, of course, capitalism, and the second, baseball. So when Time Magazine quoted Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen saying, “I love Fidel Castro” this past weekend, things got a little fishy.

The Cuban community has made their voices loud and clear on this one, demanding that Guillen be fired from his post. The comment is not only insanely offensive, but it comes after the inauguration of the brand new Marlins stadium built in Little Havana this year. Who’s tax money do you think helped get that job done?

Today, Guillen inaugurated a crisis communications plan in attempt to make up for his hurtful words. “This is the biggest mistake of my life,” he said to a press conference. “When you make a mistake this big…I will learn from it.”

But honestly, Guillen is going to do have to do a tad bit better than that to win back the respect of the Latino and South Florida community at large. Suspended for five games, Guillen will have some time away from the ballpark to hopefully enact a smarter plan of action.

Guillen needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. He should take pause to truly educate himself on why it was that his words were so painful and ignorant, and share his reflections with the public. In his return on April 17th — ironically, the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion — hopefully Guillen will address us with wise words on the day. He should look at this coincidental date as a public relations miracle, and correctly preparing for it may be the best way  to recover from the scandal.

As a South Florida public relations firm, we’ve seen the damage that the absence of a crisis communications plan can cause to any organization. The most recent example on the national stage came earlier this month when Susan G. Komen for the Cure cut funding from Planned Parenthood. Now, Komen — the largest national breast cancer non-profit — has a new mandate: To reel in the pink ribbions it’s been threading all over the media and take corrective action.

Reversing its plans to deny funding to Planned Parenthood on Friday, Komen has some serious damage control ahead to combat the 72-hour media storm it created.

Komen found itself inundated with criticism when it publically announced it would no longer provide funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast exam and educational activities geared toward low-income women. The premise for the cut: Komen would not support organizations under “investigation.” Planned Parenthood was facing a questionable inquiry by Republican lawmakers. It didn’t help Komen that a vice president was an ardent and vocal right-to-life supporter.

It’s no surprise that the move resulted in a national backlash against an otherwise highly respected organization. People withdrew support. Some women’s advocates cried foul. Even its California offices issued a statement decrying the decision.

Huffington Post described the move as “one of the most boneheaded political miscalculations that will have serious ramifications for Komen: supporters won’t forget this for years to come.”

First, Komen president Nancy Goodman Brinker hit the web with a video supporting its decision. Then days later and facing the backlash from supporters and women’s groups, Komen amended its statements to only cut funding to groups under investigations that are “criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.”

This is no way to fight a national P.R. fiasco.

Komen needs to enact a simple but effective crisis communications plan to clarify that it’s an organization that helps women. Like any organization, it must consider the potential publicity and negative ramifications of its actions before making moves or statements.

If it seeks to cut funding to various organizations it has supported in the past – a move that’s completely within its right – it must make sure the cuts don’t reek of politics or frivolous, agenda-motivated policy.

We give Komen kudos for recognizing its egregious error and taking action to right its course. But it now needs to stress that its mission as an organization is in tandem with that of Planned Parenthood – two organizations striving to better women’s health.

Then, it should get a crisis communications plan in place.

“Micky Arison should take ownership and get in front of the story,” said Boardroom’s president, Julie Talenfeld, in response to how Costa and Carnival should have responded to the Jan. 13th deadly accident. The current PR approach has both Costa and Carnival’s Doral headquarters under fire – especially after reports of the company offering shipwreck survivors a 30% discount on their next cruise. Media around the world has picked up the story – giving Carnival yet another crisis. CBS Morning show expressed amazement at the offer and the New York Post branded it as “tactless.”

The Miami Hearld reached out to our very own, Julie Talenfeld, for her expert advice and was quoted in today’s article, “Carnival Cruise Lines faces a hostile PR tide.” Click here to read full article.

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