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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

NBC's Pledge Gaffe

Any reporter and editor has been there before – letting something slip through on the air or in print that came back to bite them. But NBC did it in spades this past weekend – its editorial processes failing twice – in its coverage of the U.S. Open Golf Championship at the Congressional Country Club in suburban Washington, DC.

A pre-taped "open" to the network's tournament coverage featured the taped recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by a group of elementary school children. The problem came about after-the-fact when someone at NBC edited out "under God" and "indivisible" from the pledge. The emotional and music-filled segment included a video tribute to America's soldiers and to the nation's capital as the pledge was being recited following host Bob Costas' dramatic introduction to the tournament's final day. The resulting firestorm of protest on Twitter and other social media platforms after the pledge segment aired prompted an on-air apology from NBC later in the broadcast.

Interestingly, the wording of the apology itself prompted more protest. At CommCore, we advise our crisis response clients to be extra careful not to add fuel to a fire when issuing an explanation or apology when admitting a mistake. Part of the NBC statement read as follows: "[The editing] was not done to upset anyone, and we'd like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it." Several commentators and bloggers responded that the implication was that NBC intentionally removed the words specifically to placate what they called its liberal-leaning audience.

That the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and did not appear in the original Pledge as written in the 19th Century, is not really the issue here. What's at issue is the judgment and credibility of a broadcast network. The program was a sporting event, not a program about government and religion. The personal views of the editor or producer, or NBC's corporate views (if any) on the legitimate but contentious constitutional debate over the separation of church and state, should not have entered into the taped lead-in to a sporting event. And the wording of the apology only made matters worse.

What do you think of NBC's decision to edit the Pledge? What communications lessons can you draw from the incident, as well as from the wording of NBC's apology?

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Weiner and Gottfried and Johnson...Oh My!

Though ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner is the limelight star right now, let us not forget a few notable others who committed social media faux pas that handicapped their images and careers. Gilbert Gottfried, Larry Johnson, and Ashley Payne, among others, made mashable.com's "10 People Who Lost Their Job Over Social Media Mistakes".
Everyone is familiar with Aflac Insurance's famous spokesman-the Aflac duck. Gilbert Gottfried was that famous voice until his use of social media put him out of a job. After tweeting a couple of insensitive and poorly-timed jokes about Japan after the tsunami, he was given the opportunity to vacate his position as the Aflac duck.

Remember Larry Johnson, running back for the Kansas City Chiefs? He used social media during the peak of his frustration, after a loss, to insult his head coach; this beginning led him down a slippery slope of exchanges ultimately leading to his release from the team.

While on vacation in Europe, school teacher Ashley Payne did what any travelling adult would do-tasted the local food and drinks of the places she visited, and posted pictures online. Though Payne was well over 21 years old at the time, after seeing the teacher with alcohol in hand, the Barrow County school's supervisor immediately called her into his office and asked for her resignation.

The lesson to take away from these social media gaffes: stop, think, think again, and then post, or maybe even not. At CommCore, that lesson is one we drill into all our clients regardless of their media platform or communications challenge.

In today's interactive real-time media world, one ill-advised click of the mouse and you could see your career in your rearview mirror.

What recent social media lessons have you or your clients learned?

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jokes Are Risky – Even With the Dalai Lama. Just Ask Karl Stefanovic

As media and communication coaches, we often warn that telling a joke in a presentation or interview is like a forward pass in (American) football – there are only three possible outcomes, and two of them are bad! There are plenty of examples on the Internet these days of jokes that backfired, but a unique one just made embarrassing headlines from the other side of the big blue marble.

When TV anchor Karl Stefonovic interviewed the Dalai Lama on Australia’s version of the Today Show, he tried to break the ice with a joke. See it here (and about a million other places on the Internet!)

So, back to the football pass analogy – the one good outcome is a completed pass. That’s the equivalent of a joke is that it is received well, the speaker is rewarded with laughter and builds a good rapport. But the dropped ball equivalent is when the joke falls flat. The worst outcome is that the ball is intercepted and you lose possession altogether – the joke offends and now your audience turns against the speaker.

In Mr. Stefanovic’s case, I’d say it was the lesser of the two bad outcomes – that the joke simply fell flat. But it was still indeed a bad outcome. And, the poor guy will never live it down.

This lesson always seems obvious when you look in the rearview mirror – yet people refuse to learn from it!

Perhaps another lesson here may be a bit more subtle – know your audience! Whenever anyone is preparing to address an audience, they need to think of an open or a connection they can make. But they have to consider it from the point of view of the listener, interviewee or audience. And added consideration is required when you are speaking with someone for whom your language is not their native language. What will translate well? What won’t? What about cultural or religious sensibilities?

Mr. Stefonovic may have briefly considered the risk when he acknowledged afterward, “I knew that wouldn’t work.” If so, then why did he do it? A question I’m sure he is asking himself over and over!

What is your take? Was there any chance this joke could’ve worked in your opinion? Is there such a thing as a ‘safe joke’? Got any examples?

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Scott Van Camp, editor of PR News, recently posted a blog by a former Bausch + Lomb communications executive on empowering line communications staff by ceding control of some communications to them. He said it was an essential part of fostering leadership qualities and professional growth in a communications team.

He noted how an understanding CEO was essential to such a program's success. A commitment to leadership development as a corporate philosophy that includes the freedom to act independently starts at the top and pushes down. Ideally it becomes part of the corporate brand as well as the organization's DNA. Such organizations usually do well in internal and external perception: the policy helps attract, nurture and keep the best talent, and it presents a marketable and legitimate employee-friendly face to customers and stakeholders.

But a successful commitment to ceding control, especially to communicators with internal and external audiences, also requires limiting the risks when individuals have freedom to act. A communications department with several independent message pathways and spokespeople can undo the benefits of empowerment by confusing audiences unless the entire communications team is working from the same playbook, and is in sync with the CEO.

Some of CommCore's tips in that regard:

• The CEO is the most visible spokesperson for the brand. Make sure all empowered communications staff know exactly what he or she is saying publicly at all times.

• The wider the delegation of communications authority within an organization, the more important ongoing communications training and refreshers become. It ensures consistency in the substance and tone of messaging when a large team of communicators interacts with media and internal and external stakeholders.

• Crisis response planning and simulation (including clear grants of authority) may be the exception to the policy of  "empowerment." Crisis response requires a different discipline and planning, so team members need to have their antennae up for different responses in an emergency. This is particularly important when communications functions are delegated widely across business units, product lines, and geographical areas.

Does your organization, or a client of yours, delegate communications authority? How has it worked? What have the benefits and costs? Any lessons learned, positive or negative?

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Ten-Hut! There’s a Soldier on Board…

Apparently, Delta did not at first hear that announcement. This week, news (via YouTube) broke that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and other deployments were charged for bags when checking in on Delta airlines – up to $200 for their fourth bag. Immediately, advocates, politicians and others called for a refund or a boycott or both. In a short timeframe there were 250k hits on this YouTube video. Delta quickly responded with an apology, changed their policy to allow 4 or 5 bags and promised to refund the $2,800 worth of such fees they collected from America’s finest. That’s the power and the equalizing effect of the internet!

Soldiers risk their lives for us and generally every American citizen applauds any special consideration they get in return. At CommCore, we’re frequent fliers and it is always gratifying to hear about one of our consultants coughing up his/her upgraded seat to a soldier they spot in the waiting area before boarding.

So, it is understandable that Delta was given a very short leash to respond when they were caught treating our soldiers unfairly. In fact, many comments have been posted saying that as quick as Delta responded, it wasn’t quick enough. You can’t satisfy everyone.

This example illustrates what we have been preaching for 25 years – if a misstep was made, nothing reverses a reputation down-spiral better than speedy, decisive action. This will indeed tarnish Delta’s image in the short-term, but it would have gotten exponentially worse if they hadn’t immediately owned up to it and corrected their mistake. One often wonders why some politicians don’t see the lesson this provides!

What are your thoughts? Is speed always one of the most important factors in a crisis? Did Delta act correctly and quickly enough? Will they recover fully and quickly?

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Crises

Rep. Anthony Weiner's social media and telephone sexual innuendo escapades  were the major news issue on Monday, and remain in the headlines today.  It's one more example of public officials behaving badly, lying about their behavior and thinking that somehow in the "gotcha" world, no one will find out.  Whether constituents - not to mention his own party and the House leadership - forgive and forget Weiner remains to be seen.  Our take on this will come in discussions on how to prevent the next leader from doing something stupid.

The more important crisis this week involves RSA Security, one of the biggest players in our interconnected, web world of commerce and communication.  This is a case of a company and a CEO stepping up to responsibilities.

RSA, which makes SecurID - security tokens that allow "secure" access to computer networks - has been involved in a number of hacking episodes that date back to this March. The most recent hacking appeared to have impacted Lockheed Martin, so much so that Art Coviello, Executive Chairman of RSA, has offered to replace the security token for any customer who is concerned about their products. Coviello used the front page of the company web site to send an open letter to customers.  Sure there may be some culpability on the part of RSA, but its actions appear to be responsible and transparent.

So, if Art Coviello were to advise Rep. Weiner, here's what he might say:

  1. When you find out about a problem, let your customers (constituents) know what you know about it as soon as possible.
  2. Don't discuss more than you know or speculate.
  3. When you learn new information provide an update.
  4. Reputation is a very fragile commodity.  Once you lose that, your trust, customers and constituencies can go away very quickly.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Oprah’s Lessons Live On

Before ending last week after 25 years on the air, Oprah’s talk show made celebrity and newsmaker interviews a staple of afternoon TV fare. Her high-profile show not only provided entertainment and information to millions of viewers; it also offers up a number of stark lessons on preparing for an interview.

1.   Keep your composure
      Incident: Film superstar Tom Cruise had always been seen as a man with poise . . . until this interview which has become a YouTube classic. When Oprah asked about his relationship with then-girlfriend Katie Holmes, Cruise’s explosive and inexplicable on-air display of emotion altered the public perception of him to this day.

      CommCore Lesson: We remind our clients to be prepared for all types of questions – positive and negative.  Above all to maintain self control when talking with the media.

2.   Admitting to a lie
      Incident:  When Oprah heard that author James Frey’s book about his addictions, “A Million Little Pieces” -- a book she had added to her prestigious book club -- was not the pure non-fiction Frey had said it was on her show, she was less than pleased. She asked Frey back a second time to explain himself. Frey, to his credit, agreed. She scolded him on-air, saying that she felt “duped,” and forced him to walk through all his fabrications one-by-one. When Frey apologized for his actions and demonstrated real contrition, Oprah forgave him, famously saying, I appreciate you being here because I believe the truth can set you free. I realize this has been a difficult time for you ... maybe this is the beginning of another kind of truth for you.”

CommCore Lesson:  We tell clients that if they cannot counter damaging allegations with conviction and the facts to back it, they should acknowledge the criticism, show genuine contrition where appropriate, and explain how they will change their future actions. (Obviously if there is litigation exposure, there are limits to public comments.)

3.   Practice answering difficult questions
Incidents:  In 1993, before allegations of child abuse had become public, she asked Michael Jackson, “Are you a virgin?” In 2009, she conducted a two part interview with Whitney Houston, detailing her abusive relationship with Bobby Brown and heavy drug abuse. In the same year she interviewed MacKenzie Phillips, who admitted to an incestuous relationship with her father.

CommCore Lesson:
Though these are extreme examples involving celebrities, any subject to an interview should expect a reporter to ask the hard questions…the ones that make you uncomfortable and maybe even catch you off-guard. So when you are preparing, list out the questions you hope the interviewer won’t ask and practice answering them first.  Watch for your body language and eye contact. Also practice bridging the conversation back to the topic you want to focus on after acknowledging the question. Or else just decline to do the interview.
What lessons have you learned from Oprah’s 25 years of broadcast interviews?

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