Demystifying Public Relations

Exploring the changes occurring in the public relations industry.

What is Public Relations?

It’s a huge industry with thousands of firms nationwide. It’s often brought up when discussing communications and media in classrooms. With context clues, one could assume it has something to do with relating communications to the public. But what exactly does it mean to work in public relations?

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines it as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” It’s all about connecting the business to the public, anticipating and interpreting public opinion and attitudes that could negatively or positively impact the organization. Public relations analyzes how the public would view a plan or action and how it could affect the company.

Not only does the job entail communicating and advising the business, but it also deals with presenting a certain image to the public. The challenge lies in providing people with necessary information while gaining the public’s understanding to further the organization’s aims. This can include: marketing, financial work, fundraising, employee, community or government relations, and other programs.

Forbes lists the essential tools of public relations people:

  • Write and distribute press releases
  • Speech writing
  • Write pitches (less formal than press releases) about a firm and send them directly to journalists
  • Create and execute special events designed for public outreach and media relations
  • Conduct market research on the firm or the firm’s messaging
  • Expansion of business contacts via personal networking or attendance and sponsoring at events
  • Writing and blogging for the web (internal or external sites)
  • Crisis public relations strategies
  • Social media promotions and responses to negative opinions online

Through all of these actions, public relations creates the image for the company and secures its place within the media. Good publicity is key for maintaining favor with the public. Entrepreneur upholds that “the key to securing publicity is identifying your target market and developing a well-thought-out public relations campaign.” Essentially, it’s crafting the face and voice of the company.

Nancy Brenner, who does public relations for Fortune 500 companies, likened the job to working in emergency rooms in an interview for The Guardian: “There’s always a new project, and you need to do triage and assess which ones need instant attention.” She constantly has to network, taking people out to dinner or shows, and keeps up with current news to stay on top of trends and stories that may have a connection for her clients.

So it’s a busy occupation. You have to constantly stay aware of what’s happening in the media, make sure clients are happy, and bolster the image of the business you’re working for. As it’s been starkly shown through our current media and society, keeping the public happy isn’t easy. But for public relations personnel, it’s all just part of the job.

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United Being Dragged by the Public

United is facing a major PR disaster as video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a flight continues to circle the Internet. The video shows a man—now identified as practicing physician Dr. David Dao—being dragged out of his seat and down the narrow aircraft aisle by Chicago Aviation Security Officers for not giving up his seat when asked. The image is shocking: Dao is limp, shirt riding up and glasses sliding down, blood covering his mouth. The full story behind the incident was quickly revealed. As the Huffington Post reported, “Dr. Dao by was on flight 3411 from Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY, and the airline had no more vacant seats. However, after passengers boarded the plane United needed four seats to accommodate its employees that needed to commute to work to service another flight scheduled to depart from Louisville, KY.” They asked people to give up their seat, offering $400, then $800, and finally $1000. When no willing volunteers came forward, they used a computer to pick randomly. Three other people were chosen and had to leave the plane, their seats taken by employees. They were given travel vouchers and were rebooked on another flight. Dr. Dao, however, refused to leave when he was chosen. He was traveling with his wife and didn’t want to leave her alone, and also stated he had patients he had to see the next morning. Rather than offer the maximum amount they could of $1300 or move on, security was called and the result was the circulating video.

Since the incident, United, specifically the company’s chief executive Oscar Munoz, has been criticized for mishandling the situation, promoting the New York Times to create an outline of the apologies from United. The event became public Sunday. On Monday morning, United made a statement, saying, “We apologize for the overbook situation,” but made no reference to Dr. Dao or the video. Later on Monday, Munoz released a statement: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” The term “re-accommodate” had many incensed, leading to countless memes and online jokes. And then to further fan the flames, a letter Munoz had sent internally in the company was made public. In it, he said he stood behind the employees and that they handled the situation correctly. He also gave a rundown of the situation and said, “He [Dao] was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.”

This led to more outrage, as the video did not seem to show a belligerent Dao, and it also contradicted his tone in his public statement. As calls for investigation grew, Munoz released another statement on Tuesday: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” He said it’s never too late to do the right thing and that United takes full responsibility, also stating that company policies would be reviewed. Wednesday morning Munoz appeared on “Good Morning, America” giving another apology, and later Wednesday United said it would offer a full refund to every passenger on the flight. On Thursday, Munoz spoke again, stating, “We continue to express our sincerest apology to Dr. Dao…We’ll communicate the results of our review and the actions we will take by April 30.”

Despite being awarded Communicator of the Year by PR Week last month, the publication has said that if they were choosing the award now, Munoz would not be the recipient. And for obvious reasons. These responses were dismissive, then contradictory, then appeared disingenuous. He didn’t actually acknowledge Dao until he was caught saying one thing in public and then another in private. Outcry also went global, as many Chinese customers accused United for racism. “People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, scolded United for initially failing to condemn the man’s treatment,” stated the New York Times. The Thursday response came right after Dao’s daughter made a statement saying United hadn’t reached out to apologize. It has also been announced that Dao is going to sue due to serious injuries, Dao’s lawyer Tom Demetrio said during a press conference Thursday. Business Insider reported, “Demetrio said Dao, 69, lost two front teeth, broke his nose, and suffered a concussion as a result of being dragged off a plane by police officers. He [Demetrio] said Dao would need reconstructive surgery for his injuries.”

Many have already analyzed the issue. “Public relations experts say the CEO should have quickly offered an unreserved apology,” says CNN. It interviewed Ed Zitron, a PR expert and the author of “This Is How You Pitch,” who thought United was not offering a full apology because of fears over a potential lawsuit. However that’s not an effective strategy. “Had United shown compassion and intent to make things right, they could have come out of this at the very least looking like an airline that cares,” Zitron said. “Instead they’ve just made it even worse.” Forbes also said this is a lesson for companies; with social media, everyone is watching and nothing is hidden. Incidents like this can’t just be swept under the rug, and a genuine response is crucial, as Munoz has now learned.

Pepsi’s PR Problem

Pepsi has discovered that following the “trend” is not always a prosperous decision after pulling their newest commercial. The ad drew on imagery relating to recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, showing relatively attractive younger people of all races marching with peace signs. The climax of the commercial was when Kendall Jenner, a white woman, hands a police officer a can of Pepsi and he happily takes it.

The Internet exploded. Activists felt the ad trivialized their experiences with police brutality. As the New York Times reported, “Elle Hearns, the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and formerly an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the ad ‘plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.’” People have also compared the image of Jenner approaching the line of officers to a widely shared photo of Ieshia Evans, “a black woman who stood firm while being charged by riot police during a protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, La., in July.”

After pulling the ad, Pepsi released a statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Besides the negative reactions from social media, the media in general has taken the opportunity to analyze the event. The Washington Post focused on the fact that Pepsi apologized to Jenner despite the fact that she was paid for the ad and made the decision herself to sign on. The Post interviewed Brooke Duffy, a Cornell professor who focuses on media and gender, who said by apologizing to Jenner, the brand was falling back on the an old sexist notion that “young women don’t actually know what they’re doing.” Duffy stated in the interview, “She has an incredible amount of clout and brand power… They’re giving her no agency when she clearly willingly participated.” Instead, the apology should have been directed towards protesters and the movement itself.

There are people making the claim that this is good for Jenner, while others say this is actually positive for Pepsi. Patrick Hanlon wrote an article for Forbes arguing that no, Kendall Jenner did not just “blow up her brand.” He claims, “The Kardashian brand is about outrageous provocation intended to create controversy and clicks,” and that Kendall Jenner is now the most talked-about individual in her family of talked-about individuals. He states that this is a problem for Pepsi, “which is suffering its worst public relations moment since Michael Jackson set his hair on fire.” Not everyone agrees with him, however. The Atlantic published an article boldly stating, “Pepsi’s new ad is a total success.” In essence, it takes the stance that no PR is bad PR, asserting, “It’s possible to understand the Pepsi protest as a march for the power of Pepsi branding instead of social justice.” Pepsi was placing the consumer in a more important role than the citizen. Instead, the purpose is to “position Pepsi as a facilitator in the utopian dream of pure, color-blind consumerism that might someday replace politics entirely.”

In the aftermath, CNET looked at “what to do when social media roasts your ad.” They asked SparkCentral, which has helped companies like Delta and Nordstrom after social media debacles, what to do in this situation. “‘It’s important to get ahead of the problem,’ said Anaal Patel, SparkCentral’s vice president of marketing. ‘The earlier you can address it and have a strategy for how your company will respond to it, the better.’” Because Pepsi took over 24 hours to respond, there were by that time plenty of critical tweets and memes circulating. It’s also important to not send “canned responses” because it will color any kind of response as disingenuous.

Pepsi isn’t the first company to attempt to engage in politics through ads, nor will it be the last. With the current turbulent atmosphere, there is almost an expectation for companies to make a political statement and engage in “advertising activism.” However, Pepsi’s struggle proves that the possible public relations backlash is very real and very sizeable. It begs the question of whether or not it is worth the risk of appearing tone-deaf in order to create a potentially topical ad.

Thinx SHE-eo’s Downfall

Thinx founder Miki Agrawal has been in the spotlight recently for a slew of negative public relations disasters. Agrawal created Thinx, a company that makes period underwear and promotes itself as a feminist brand, breaking past the taboo that often comes with speaking about menstruation. MarketWatch interviewed Thinx customers to discover why they were drawn to New York City-based Thinx: “its innovative product, which they said was easier, more comfortable, environmentally-friendly and even more cost-effective than traditional pads and tampons.” It was seen as a forward-thinking company run by a strong woman CEO. However, the image of Thinx soured as reports of a poor office environment and allegations about sexual harassment emerged.

An interesting note from MarketWatch is that “some said that because of the good work Thinx was doing, critics were reluctant to speak their grievances.” Its brash and outspoken campaigns couldn’t save it forever, however, as cases of sexual harassment in the office surfaced. While Agrawal has stated that she enjoys talking about “taboo subjects,” NYMAG reported that a former employee—Chelsea Leibow, the former head of public relations—filed a complaint that such topics inappropriately entered the workplace. According to Leibow, topics included “the size and shape of her employees’ breasts, an employee’s nipple piercings, her own sexual exploits, her desire to experiment with polyamory, her interest in entering a sexual relationship with one of her employees, and the exact means by which she was brought to female ejaculation.” The unsuitable behavior was apparently also physical. Agrawal “touched an employee’s breasts and asked her to expose them, routinely changed clothes in front of employees, and conducted meetings via videoconference while in bed, apparently unclothed.” There are reports that women who worked there had substandard benefits and felt exploited by low pay.

None of this is exactly image boosting, especially for a company branding itself as a feminist leader. In wake of these allegations, Agrawal did step down as “SHE-eo.” She wrote a blog post regarding her decision. In it, she says she believes she did the best she could as a start-up, stating, “Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes along the way but I can proudly say that our company has grown from an idea in my head to an innovation that is worn by millions of satisfied women globally in a few short years.”

She did admit to one crucial mistake: not hiring HR personal. “It was hard to rationalize hiring an HR person at the time with only 15 employees and then all of a sudden we were 30 people,” she says. With everything moving and growing as fast as it did, HR was on the bottom of the things-to-do list. That is, until maternity leave, benefits, and health insurance became issues. It was with this that she claims she realized being a CEO was not what she wanted to do, and so she stepped down. After allegations arose, she added an update to the post: “To be crystal clear, I know I’m passionate and oft unruly in my ways (as a taboo breaker must be), but I have never, ever crossed the line in the inflammatory ways described. This is all I am going to say on this matter.”

This ordeal, as well as everything going on with Uber, has brought up some questions about brash start-ups. Quartz highlighted two major points one can learn from the situation. The first was “Your office is not a tent in the desert,” meaning that one has to be careful about taking a playful work environment too far, and HR personnel are certainly a necessity. The second said, “The hype is no longer enough,” detailing that the “slippery slope of a ‘casual’ startup culture is finally being scrutinized in ways it hasn’t before due to a shifting of the scales in the employer-employee relationship.” Maintaining clear boundaries is in fact incredibly important. Fortune echoes similar lessons. It also stresses the importance of HR in order to not have PR issues boiling over. It recommends not to ignore culture: “Company culture is the foundation for everything you do now and in the future: how you build your product, win customers, make business decisions, and treat people. HR doesn’t dictate culture, but it does help maintain its integrity.”

A start-up can’t afford to make things up as it goes along. Doing so can lead to huge PR problems in the future, with employees feeling consumed by the workplace or unfairly pressured by the boss. Workers can be a company’s best asset when conditions are right. This also shows how HR and PR are closely related. A good HR system will help catch or even prevent future PR hassles. It’s okay to be friendly with your workers…just not too friendly.

Former Trump Aide Hires Crisis Manager

President Trump and his cabinet have been steeped in alleged Russian scandals since before he was elected. People have called for investigations, and the FBI has finally agreed to investigate Russian ties to his administration. Amongst this turmoil, former Trump aide Paul Manafort is hiring a crisis manger to deal with the media flocking to him.

Manafort is under fire for “ possible ties to Russia centered on his past consulting work for officials in Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russia government,” The Hill reported. In order to combat much of the allegations being reported by the media, Manafort hired crisis manager Jason Maloni, a former senior vice president and chair of the litigation practice at Levick who formed his own firm, called JadeRoq, late last year. “‘Paul retained me recently because he was getting a lot of media inquiries. Having some support in this area allows folks like you to get your answers faster and allows him to focus on other matters,’” Maloni told The Hill in an email.

With suspicions flying, a crisis manager will be helpful in interacting with the media and fielding the questions that are to come. FBI Director James Comey recently made the public announcement that law enforcement had started investigating possible ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia. Unfortunately for Manafort, he is believed by many to be one of the targets of that investigation. The Associated Press made the claim they learned he “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with a plan to ‘greatly benefit the Putin Government.’” They stated he proposed a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that said he would influence politics in favor of Putin. He eventually “signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006” with “aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort.” According to someone close to the work, they maintained a business relationship until 2009.

As much as these allegations are hurting Manafort, they also hit the White House at a time when many are already being suspected of Russian ties. Sean Spicer acknowledged the suspicions surrounding Manafort and said, “President Trump had not been aware of Manafort’s work on behalf of Deripaska.” The Washington Post in an article “Fresh evidence Trump’s Russia headaches are not going away” noted the White House was not only trying to distance itself from Manafort, but also handle a plethora of other internal issues. For example, according to the Post, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R) accused U.S. spy agencies of “‘abusing’ their surveillance powers by gathering and sharing information about Trump’s transition team – an unproven accusation that stunned observers and threatened to derail his committee’s probe of Russian interference in the presidential race.” Nunes’ statement backfired with the lack of tact in which he reported it. He publicly discussed FISA-approved surveillance as well as attributed his information to an unnamed source, something the Trump Administration as been berating media outlets for. Just like Manafort needs a crisis manager to aid in interacting with the media, it looks like the White House could use a few to manage them as well.

Hamburglar Hacks McDonald’s

President Donald Trump has a turbulent history with companies, from Nordstrom to the New York Times. He is becoming infamous for insulting businesses over Twitter. But what happens when the tables turn? The fast food chain McDonald’s tweeted on March 16th, “@realDonaldTrump You are actually a disgusting excuse of a President and we would love to have @BarackObama back, also you have tiny hands.” While there are many who would be happy at this development, and of course plenty of others enraged, it appears McDonald’s is not suddenly professing an anti-Trump stance. The tweet was deleted and a few hours later, the official McDonald’s account released another tweet: “Twitter notified us that our account was compromised. We deleted the tweet, secured our account and are now investigating this.” And then later on in the day they said, “Based on our investigation, we have determined that our Twitter account was hacked by an external source. We took swift action to secure it, and we apologize this tweet was sent through our corporate McDonald’s account.”

Repercussions for the brand are already occurring. Even though a hacker caused the tweet, plenty of people are still blaming the company. The tweet coming from the corporate account is certainly not helping matters. As USA Today reported, “The tweets came from the McDonald’s corporate account, @McDonaldsCorp, which is separate from the company’s main account, @McDonalds. The corporate account is verified and has 151,000 followers.” The Kansas City Star showed a variety of tweets both humorous and negative in response. Some are calling for a boycott of the restaurant, like @RightWingIsland: “#boycottmcdonald’s @McDonaldsCorp Shameful POTUS slam, can your brand take this kind of hit? NOT a smart corporate move.” Other are blaming the Hamburglar.

Of course, there were those who found the incident hilarious. CNET reported, “McDonald’s is trending on Twitter with more than 90,000 tweets about the company. People have been tweeting at McDonald’s, offering to buy 12 McGriddles or 100 McNuggets for the post to go back up.” People are pointing out that Trump is actually a lover of the brand. ABC noted, “Trump, who is an apparent fan of the fast-food giant, appeared in a McDonald’s commercial alongside one of the company’s mascots in 2002. He was also spotted chowing down on a McDonald’s burger and fries during the 2016 presidential campaign.” Conspiracy theories also arose. It was proposed that perhaps former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs who now heads McDonald’s global communications committed an inside job.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else McDonald’s can do to rectify the situation. They were both quick and accurate in their response. They identified the problem, deleted the offending tweet, acknowledged the issue, and promised they were trying to figure out the source of the hack. While they took all the necessary steps, the response shows that not everyone can be satisfied. It will be interesting to see if Trump or anyone on his public relations team decides to comment on the incident.

Uber’s Continual Public Relations Battle

Uber is not the shining paradigm of public relations. From its start, the company has been accused of aggressive tactics to gain business, from disregarding government regulations, predatory surge pricing, and poor treatment of driver’s complaints, to upsets caused by the CEO himself, Travis Kalanick.

The scandals have been piling. In 2014, the business was labeled as a brash startup and disruptive, adopting an expand-now, negotiate-later approach. They ran into problems when Portland, Oregon accused it of operating illegally. The New York Times reported that in December 2014, “despite protests from the mayor and the commissioner of the city’s transportation bureau,” Uber started offering services in Portland. Portland sued Uber in retaliation, claiming it was operating an “illegal, unregulated transportation service.” The city’s main issue with Uber, besides its disregard of their requests, is that it doesn’t follow rules on public health and safety that taxicab companies do. The city’s cabs pass an “annual vehicle test and are subject to a fare cap” and “20 percent of the permitted fleet must be equipped for people who need wheelchairs.” Uber widely broadcasted its defiance, even starting a petition against the city in support of itself. Uber has faced lawsuits in other cities as well, such as Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. It has not done well to gain the acceptance of other taxicab companies in cities.

Uber has also faced criticisms of its “predatory surge pricing.” In order to encourage more drivers to work for it, the company employs “surge pricing,” which raises fares during times of peak demand or short supply. During a snowstorm in New York City in 2013, rates tripled. “Surge pricing only kicks in in order to maximize the number of trips that happen and therefore reduce the number of people that are stranded,” Kalanick told WIRED. Vivek Wadhwa, an academic and columnist who writes frequently about the tech industry and inequality, took to Twitter to complain when “he found that an Uber ride from San Francisco International Airport to his home in Menlo Park would have cost nearly three times the usual rate,” says WIRED, even though it was just drizzling. The regular cab he took instead cost about $90, including a $10 tip. Another women was outraged that 12-mile ride home that normally cost her around $30 to $40 was now over nine times the average fare at $360.

Customers and cities aren’t the only ones to complain about Uber; it’s drivers do too. In 2014, there was a large strike of over 1,000 Uber drivers in New York City. Rather than being treated like partners and receiving better pay, as they were originally promised, they faced “rate cuts, mandatory fares, and underhanded corporate tactics,” according to BuzzFeed. The drivers argue that by “undercutting the costs of taxis and other car services, Uber is trying to monopolize the industry,” and if they do drivers would be stuck with “sub-taxi fares and no tips.” A recent protest also happened in November 2016. Uber drivers joined the “Fight For $15” with cashiers, hospital workers, fast food workers, and others in the strike action. Newsweek stated, “Uber drivers are expected to leave their cars sitting idle in high-profile locations, such as airports.”

And then another problem is Uber’s very own CEO, Travis Kalanick. He is known for his brash language and decisions, but a recent event caused even him to release a public apology. A video surfaced of Kalanick arguing and cursing at one of his own workers as he got a ride from him. It occurred in the car of Uber driver Fawzi Kamel, who turned the footage into Bloomberg. When Kalanick entered his car, Kamel took the opportunity to ask the CEO about falling fares. The conversation resulted in Kalanick saying, “You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own s***. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!” Kamel told NBC why he stood up to Kalanick: “‘Uber kept dropping prices every season to gain more ridership to satisfy their growth, and it didn’t matter to Uber if the driver is not even making minimum wage,’ he said. ‘And the worst part is, they call us partners, [but] they make the rules, set the price and they even choose the cars you can use.’” Once the footage went viral, Kalanick issued an apology where he stated, “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.” He gave a “profound apology” to Kamel, the driver and rider community, and the Uber team.

While it is unclear what “leadership help” he intends to pursue, it is clear from the string of lawsuits, complaints, and protests that he could certainly use some assistance in brand and image management. An “expand-now, negotiate-later” approach assumes there will be a “later,” and if most bridges have been burned, there may not be. Alienating cities and traditional taxicabs extinguishes any possible support from institutions that have existed long before Uber. And unhappy drivers causes a slew of problems, from unmotivated workers to unsatisfied customers. Kalanick needs to consider where his tactics and actions will get him in the long run and what kind of image he wants his company to have. A crisis manger might not be a bad idea, either.

SeaWorld’s Struggle

Tilikum, an icon of the controversy surrounding SeaWorld—the aquatic amusement park—passed away in early January 2017. He was estimated to be around 36, according to NPR. He apparently suffered from a “persistent and complicated bacterial lung infection,” the park states. NPR reports that Tilikum was 22 feet long, weighed more than 11,000 pounds, and was born off the waters of Iceland. He performed in captivity and sired 20 calves while there. He was also the source of the biggest public relations disaster in SeaWorld history. He gradually began to be known for his aggressive behavior and was implicated, in the deaths of two people in the 90’s: a trainer who drowned and a man who was found dead in his tank. And then in 2010, he killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a show, holding her underwater until she died of drowning and blunt force trauma. There was discussion surrounding whether or not he should be put down, but because of his important role in the social group of eight whales who live at Shamu Stadium, as he was the father of some of them, it was decided he would live.

While this was all of course damaging to the SeaWorld brand, the final nail in the coffin occurred when the documentary Blackfish came out in 2013, airing on CNN. It revealed the reality of orcas living in captivity and also suggested that Tilikum’s history of violence was due to being confined in a pool for life. SeaWorld denied any form of neglect, and though critics said the documentary was poorly researched and reported, the damage was done. Millions of people were outraged by what they had seen.

PETA leapt at the opportunity, “wreaking havoc on the Internet and staging protests at parks, parades, and SeaWorld executives’ homes,” says Fortune. Celebrities like Matt Damon, Willie Nelson, and Jessica Biel joined the fight, and longtime SeaWorld corporate partners walked away. Attendance dropped significantly and politicians in California started creating legislation to cease orca breeding.

And so began the endless public relations campaigns from SeaWorld in order to try and boost its suffering brand. They attempted to combat the accusations in the form of “counterprogramming videos,” Everything PR reports, “but these interviews, largely by current SeaWorld employees felt partisan and fell flat as an attempt to stop the juggernaut of anger spurred on by online rage.” Essentially, they tried to reason and debate at a time when people were emotional and wanted reassurance. Unfortunately for SeaWorld, it was something they overlooked. Below is a tweet they posted promoting their videos. In it, a SeaWorld employee calls Blackfish false.


CEO Jim Atchison resigned in December 2014 and Joel Manby stepped up in April 2015 to pick up the pieces. In his first 16 months on the job, he reorganized managerial ranks, vowed to put an end to the park’s theatrical orca shows, and laid out his strategy to make SeaWorld a purpose-driven company. His plan was to “reposition the company as an animal-conservation, rather than an animal-entertainment, brand,” Fortune stated, since they already did a lot of animal rescue work. But SeaWorld had already poured a lot of revenue into their “SeaWorld Cares” project before, and PETA had turned the venture on its head with “SeaWorld of Hurt.” Then, it was discovered that SeaWorld employees had entered PETA in an effort to spy on the organization. Manby was forced to admit to the scandal and even called in an elite law firm to investigate in an attempt to discover who had been involved.



In order to address the comments that the tanks were inhumane, they undertook a huge project: creating tanks 50 feet deep, with fast currents that would let the whales swim against moving water. However, in order for the project to be approved, they would have to stop breeding orcas, a move that would eventually extinguish their orca program, one of their largest revenue outlets. After long debates, the park finally agreed in March 2016. Manby also worked with Richard Bloom, a California assemblyman who was proposing an anti-captivity law—which would have put an end to SeaWorld—to instead create the Orca Protection Act. It stated that orca breeding and shows in California were banned. SeaWorld championed the Act and shareholders were thrilled, sending the stock up 17% over the next two days. Manby also made the difficult decision to start phasing out its signature Shamu shows and replace them with events where trainers explain how whales behave in the wild in a “natural-looking setting.”

Of course, the issue hasn’t blown over completely, since SeaWorld’s whale shows will continue in San Diego until 2017 and for even longer in its two other marine parks. Dolphin-riding trainers and shows like “Sea Lion High” will continue on without sign of closure, and activists groups refuse to let up. Yet the positive changes made after years of constant public relations work has finally put SeaWorld in a better place than it was after the release of Blackfish. Rebranding was a heavy undertaking and is still a work in progress. Despite its rocky PR beginnings, SeaWorld might eventually climb it’s way back up to one of the world’s most loved theme parks as long as it continues this upward PR trend.

Crisis Managers

Steve Harvey’s had a rather rough time lately between his joke about Asians and his meeting with Donald Trump. His first blunder was on his TV show “Family Feud,” where he questioned whether or not Asian men were attractive to women outside of their own race. After saying outside of Trump Tower that the criticism of him over the joke was “for no reason,” he finally took to Twitter days later to apologize. In his statement, Harvey says, “I offer my humblest apology for offending anyone, particularly those in the Asian community, last week. It was not my intention and the humor was not meant with any malice or disrespect whatsoever.” Many fans were also displeased with his meeting in January with then-President elect Trump. In the midst of this turbulent January, it has been reported recently that he’s hiring crisis control manager Judy Smith in order to salvage his reputation.

So what exactly does a crisis manager do? Their job revolves around crisis communication, “fixing” an individual’s or organization’s public image when something goes wrong. The Institute for Public Relations defines crisis as “as a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly.” It goes on to explain, “A crisis can create three related threats: (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3) reputation loss.” In the case of Steve Harvey, the obvious threat is reputation loss, though financial loss is also a definite possibility. The way to handle a crisis is also separated into three phases: pre-crisis, crisis response, and post-crisis. In the pre-crisis phase, one focuses on prevention and preparation—the goal is to never face a crisis situation in the first place. The crisis response phase is when management actually responds to a crisis, dealing with consumers and media in real-time. The post-crisis phase looks for ways “to better prepare for the next crisis and fulfills commitments made during the crisis phase including follow-up information.”

The Institute for Public Relations and Bernstein Crisis Management both highlight being quick, accurate, and consistent when responding to a crisis. Bernstein Crisis Management emphasizes, “Reacting without adequate information is a classic ‘shoot first and ask questions afterwards’ situation in which you could be the primary victim.” Responding quickly but inaccurately could only serve to create more problems.

However, while correct information is important, the Boston Globe also stressed the importance of “coming clean ASAP.” With social media feeding controversy and suppositions, the longer you wait, the more time rumors have to fester. “‘You can’t afford to be asleep at the switch or be slow at reacting,’” celebrity crisis expert Allan Mayer, who has counseled big names like Eminem, Johnny Depp, Halle Berry, and Steven Spielberg, told the Boston Globe. “‘It used to be you could take a little time to gather your thoughts and figure out what you want to do. It’s a luxury none of us have anymore.’” PR experts say the best statements are sincere and showcase the person’s true feelings. The basic PR principles of “transparency” and “accepting responsibility” still apply, says Marlo Fogelman, principal of Marlo marketing/communications in Boston.

Of course, when a celebrity goes through relationship drama or otherwise tangles with the public, the businesses that endorse and work with them also have to undergo crisis management. In an article for Forbes, crisis manger Charles Koppelman discusses some tips for companies that might need to salvage their brands. His first piece of advice is to “stay true to your brand reputation and continue to deliver on your brand promises.” He states “people need to know that you will remain true to your brand reputation.” Another tip is “good news travels fast, bad news should travel faster.” He recommends being proactive and staying ahead of each development: “This means facing facts, and telling the truth about your situation before anybody else can tell it for you.” This allows you to manage and control the crisis and the information being spread.

Steve Harvey and any business working with him will have to scramble to bolster and repair their image. Not only did he wait to respond, but he also did not hire a crisis manger until after the incident, nor have a preemptive plan if a crisis did occur. His initial response of believing he was criticized “for no reason” only added to the problem. Because of multiple blunders, whether or not Harvey will continue to sink or manage to tread water is now in the hands of his crisis manager.


An Overview of Public Relations and Twitter

Social media creates a hotbed for sharing articles, posts, and even products. It’s not uncommon to see a company design its own Facebook or Twitter account to advertise and connect with consumers. Since social media has exploded, the public relations industry has sought to use these platforms to its advantage. While they can be used as an excellent branding tool, they can also provide complications and bad publicity when incorrectly used.

Robert Wynne discussed the best uses of Twitter to augment media relations on Forbes. He breaks down the three main reasons PR professionals would use Twitter: announcements, research, and networking. Announcements are important to keep the public informed, whether publicizing a new product or keeping the audience updated during an emergency. Twitter can also be useful to “find out what your competitors, clients, friends, media or influencers are tweeting about.” And of course, building a network is crucial in order to “meet new influencers… competitors or reporters and follow them and get them to follow you.”

Wynne also notes that the number of followers is not necessarily important; it’s the quality that counts. For example, out of the 18.4 million users following Kim Kardashian, seven million or 38% of her followers are fake, and another six million are inactive accounts. Only 5.3 million, or 29%, are authentic. To grow your brand, he recommends advice found on Twiends, like using Twitter’s services to advertise, run a contest, guest blogging or blogging about your twitter account—to give people an incentive to follow you—and include your Twitter handle if you get quoted in the media and the reporters allow it. On whether or not to approach journalists on Twitter, the response is mixed. Some would rather a tweet than the thousands of emails they receive, while others find it unprofessional and see social media as “social places” and not a place to pitch. Its best to do research on the individual you’re pitching to and find their preference.

Because I already went over a not-so-successful use of Twitter when analyzing Uber’s mistake, let’s look at an effective campaign: #Cheesepocalypse. It occurred in 2014, so close to the Super Bowl that it’s actually surprising it wasn’t just a publicity stunt. Kraft’s Velveeta cheese was experiencing a shortage, so they took to social media and dubbed it #Cheesepocalypse, explaining they were working on remedying the situation and thanking “fans” for supporting them in their hard time. Because of their fast and witty response—they even created a website where you could track the shortage, The Washington Post reported—sales actually increased during the Super Bowl.

However, despite its uses, there has been a decline in marketers focusing on Twitter. Digiday reports that whereas companies used to spend equal attention to Facebook and Twitter, there’s now three people working on Facebook to maybe half a person on Twitter. The numbers currently are just not in Twitter’s favor. “As a traffic driver, Twitter is abysmal,” Digiday says, “even topped by Yahoo. The typical publisher gets only 1.5 percent of its traffic from Twitter, compared to about 40 percent each from Facebook and Google, according to Parsely.” Only 16 percent of adults use Twitter compared to Facebook’s engagement of 67 percent. And Twitter’s live video feature was quickly overshadowed by the Facebook counterpart. For visual storytelling, which is rapidly becoming more practiced, it definitely is not the go-to.

Of course, many media outlets do still see it as a priority. Digiday assures, “Newsrooms like Bloomberg Media and CNN still consider it essential, variously, for disseminating news, newsgathering and to engage TV audiences following an event through a second screen.” USA Today Network also told Digiday that it’s much easier to monetize videos on Twitter compared to other social media platforms. Because of the swing in popularity of platforms, the recommendation is to never go all-in on one platform, instead making sure to diversify outreach programs.

Twitter is a great tool for PR professionals when used correctly. It fosters a casual atmosphere that allows you to have what feels like authentic interactions with your audience. It’s a tool for branding and communication, and has the potential to aid in what would be PR crisis, shown through #Cheesepocalypse. In order to make full use of the platform, a watchful eye and savvy tweets are necessary for any public relations personal in the current in the field.

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