Puppies, Unicorns, and Crisis Communications

Quick disclaimer for loyal and first-time readers: this is a reflective post based mostly on my personal opinion. I will try to steer clear of a full-out rant…

A lot has been said about the Susan G. Komen public relations and social media spiral that occurred last week.

If you are knee-deep in the PR biz, or just a social media junkie like me, then you know what I’m talking about when I say that.

If not, there have been several analytic posts about this particular case and what it means for crisis communications.

Gini Dietrich, as always, had a good take on it. So did Shonali Burke and Mike Shaffer. And a former colleague who’s back in the blogging business Michael Parks had a great recap of the whole series of events before suggesting key takeaways.

But this all got me thinking that of that old expression “hindsight is 20/20.”

Of course, it’s easy for all of us to sit back, fold our arms, and talk about what we would or wouldn’t do in the Komen case.

But that’s just our opinion based in our own experiences.

We were not in that room with the Komen leaders when the decisions were made. We didn’t have to write their announcement, and we didn’t have to respond to the horror show as it unfolded on social media.

For me, this whole situation reminds me that, especially in PR, but in communications work in general, it’s not always about puppies and unicorns.

As much as we want to do good work and do well by our companies and clients, there is that underlying possibility that things aren’t going to be as rosy as we want them to be.

It’s going to happen that leadership makes a poor decision about funding like Komen did.

And it might happen that your company does something horrible to the environment.

Or it might go down that your company runs a poorly advised ad that angers an influential population.

In the worst-case scenario, your client/company ends up a textbook case study in crisis communications for the future PR and communications students to study.

What a crappy legacy, right?

So what do we do as communicators, with no puppies or unicorns? Do we cry ourselves into a corner?

Heck no—we need to be stronger and smarter than that.

Another expression that always sticks in my mind is how Vince McMahon explains how professional wrestling really is as rough and tumble as it looks, much to critics who claim it is fake.

He always says, “it (wrestling) ain’t ballet,” which I’ve always interpreted to mean that as polished and practiced as those huge wrestlers are, they’re going to take hits and get hurt no matter what.

And that’s not to put down ballet dancers, who clearly put their bodies through just as much duress as a professional wrestler. But I digress…

Communications is not an easy profession all of the time.

Not every company or client we represent is going to have a clean slate and not be vulnerable to mistakes.

I’ve even learned in alumni relations that as much as I want the warm and fuzzy feel of good alumni programs (read: puppies and unicorns), that doesn’t help when the governor of Pennsylvania cuts education funding, which will have a direct effect on my institution.

The key is to go through these experiences, take a few bumps, roll with the punches but always, always be learning how to do better and to never make the same mistake twice.

What’s your take on the Komen case? Any silver lining to crisis communications situations you’ve been in?

And just to prove that I still have a soul, here for your viewing pleasure is a cute puppy falling asleep (sorry, there were no “cute unicorns falling asleep” videos)

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February 8, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , . communications, public relations.

9 Comments

  1. Joshua Brett replied:

    Krista, you make a very good point that we seldom work in the ideal, regardless of what we do for a living. Very often we simply are trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

    As for the Susan G. Komen debacle, where I think they screwed up the most was indecisiveness. An organization is certainly welcome to make strategic decisions based on the vision of its leadership. But you need to do it in a clear, decisive matter, especially when it requires wading into a very divisive political issue in the middle of an election year. You can’t be perceived as making such an important strategic decision by sticking your finger up in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing.

    • Krista replied:

      That’s a good point, Josh, and one lots of communications folks picked up on. It only adds to the unfortunate black mark on the Komen Foundation’s reputation unfortunately.

  2. Michael Parks replied:

    Nice post, Krista! One thing you said that struck home for me is that nobody, except those in “the room”, know or understand the discussions that led Komen to the decision they made. It’s so true. I have been in “the room” for many discussions like that and let’s just say logic doesn’t always prevail!

    • Krista replied:

      Hi Michael– thanks for stopping by! I figured given your experience, you know what it’s like in “that room.” What a shame that what sometimes comes out of that room is not always logical.

  3. Shonali Burke replied:

    I actually think what we do is fairly difficult, because so much of the time we are fighting an uphill battle (“no, that’s not a good idea for a press release,” “no, the media will not want to cover that,” “no, that’s not the smart way to build a community”).

    I’ve already had my say (and thank you for the link!), so I won’t re-hash it. I’ve been pretty fortunate in that when I had to deal with crisis situations, I had the ear of the CEO & senior management. So they really did let Communications take the wheel, as it were. No one outside of Komen really knows what’s going on inside Komen… and my opinion is that there is a lot that needs to be fixed internally from a communication point of view (I’m not going into the policy issue). Hopefully their Comms team is going to/will be able to take the lead on that.

    • Krista replied:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Shonali! It may be an uphill battle, but I’ll still insist on wearing cute shoes ;)

  4. Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich) replied:

    I personally don’t believe SGK brought their crisis/issues firm in on time. I think they hired them for a specific thing (stem cell research issues management) and didn’t even consider asking them for help in messaging this whole thing. Like Joshua said, if they had, they never would have seemed as indecisive as they did.

    That said, there are plenty of times when a client just won’t listen to your counsel. I remember being very young and sitting in a meeting with Bridgestone/Firestone when the partner of our practice advised them to come clean and do a recall. They refused. We resigned the business and they, well, they went out of business.

    The crisis/issues firm is the same one as for Planned Parenthood, which wasn’t a conflict until last week. If they were both our clients, I’d take the SGK issue as a reason to resign their business. No way I would want my agency’s name associated with that mess.

    • Krista replied:

      It’s really too bad when clients don’t consider the counsel of the agencies they hired for counsel. It really makes you wonder what’s the purpose if they brought on an outside agency in the first place! Oh well, I like Shonali’s analogy that it’s an uphill battle sometimes, but luckily, there are smart folks like you, Ms. Gini, helping fight those battles :)

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