In recent weeks, social media titans Facebook and Twitter have been at odds publicly over Twitter’s handling of tweets the company feels are misleading. When Twitter’s new policy was announced, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company would maintain a different policy. This statement was almost immediately tested by President Donald Trump, who stepped away from Twitter a bit to post some things on Facebook that some users found “controversial.”
After Facebook did nothing to censor or fact-check the President, some Facebook employees chose to stage a public protest. Since many are working from home anyway, they staged a “virtual” walkout, opting not to do any work on a certain day. As a result, media reports that Facebook told department managers to take no retaliatory action against these employees, nor were they to require these employees to use their paid time off.
The ongoing topic of race and its place in public life is raging in the United States, and that discussion is spilling over into Canada as well. While most of the country is discussing how to talk about race and race relations and protests continue to rage in many American cities, one company is taking the conversation in another direction.
Uber Eats recently announced the release of a feature on its platform that allows users to specifically find and support black-owned businesses in the United States and Canada. According to media reports about the release, users will not have to pay delivery fees for orders made from participating black-owned restaurants.
One of the biggest questions that Disney fans have been asking has been answered: “When will the parks reopen, and will they be safe when they do?” Recently, Disney announced that Disney World in Florida will open some parks for business on July 11 and others on July 15. This will be the first time any parks have invited guests since closing in mid-March due to concerns about COVID-19.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek sat down with CNN to discuss how the parks are working to keep guests safe, a very important message for both his company and fans who have missed visiting the parks. Chapek said guests would definitely experience new guidelines, though he said safety was paramount.
As some in sports media have begun to talk about baseball and hockey coming back this year, there are others who are openly wondering if football will start on time. At present, most teams have not made any kind of announcement for or against the idea. Some have opted to cancel offseason workouts, however, and the New Orleans Saints are one of the latest.
The Saints made the announcement that their offseason program would not be happening, and that players would be expected to workout at home and come to camp ready, whenever camp might be. Both GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton told the players to expect their coaching staff to maintain “regular communication” with players through spring and summer.
Part of that communication was a positive and empathetic message from Payton to his players: “Pay attention to your family. Pay attention to keeping yourself and your family safe. Abide by the orders of each of the states that you’re in. We’ll handle the rest of it… Get yourself in shape, and then, when we’re able to get together, we’ll move on and have a great training camp and a great season…”
With this message, Payton was able to get his key message across, that he expected the players to be ready to go when called upon, while still defining priorities for the team and the brand. Take care of yourselves and your families.
Looking at that message, we see a leader who is on message, as well as speaking in a way that draws people in and creates buy-in. In a time of crisis, there is a risk of losing loyalty if a message tells people what they should do rather than addresses their feelings or concerns. Payton knows his team won’t make any kind of run if there’s mistrust and division. He also knows that players won’t play for a coach they don’t believe in.
This principle has some relevance to nearly every brand or organization. People, whether they are members of a team, an audience, or a market cohort, want to be connected and appreciated, not taken for granted. Leaders and marketers can do a lot of heavy lifting with short, simple communication that is primarily connective.
Case in point, Payton didn’t have to say a lot to say what he needed to say in a way that connected with his players and their families at a time when many people are worried, scared, and wondering what might happen next. Once they were connected with his message, Payton offered clear expectations, as well as a long-term vision everyone on the team could get behind.
Media outlets across the world are working out how to cover the COVID-19 outbreak, and they’re learning on the job. Where is the line between accuracy and hype, between reporting the current facts on the ground and waiting for further details or testing? And where is the line between factually reporting government decisions and taking the risk of deteriorating the confidence of citizens looking to their government for action and answers?
These questions are playing out in real time in London, UK, as even media outlets who are typically sympathetic to the ruling government have been strongly criticizing leaders’ decisions in recent days. Headlines have criticized a perceived “confusion” and “lack of clarity” from government messaging, while others are screaming for a better, faster plan to roll out virus testing.
Further complicating the tenuous relationship is the recent change in venue for communication. Where daily reports were, until recently, made in person, now reporters are getting them over video chat. While the technology is decent for communication, the audio can get choppy when various people want to ask questions at once, and it’s difficult to interrupt, challenge, or ask follow up questions. And, with Boris Johnson now undergoing treatment for the virus, the narratives have only gotten pricklier. Formerly supportive journalists have described the current communications as “pathetic” and a “complete waste of time.”
In the meantime, other members of the media are still demanding further clarity and consensus from government officials, lamenting “answers without questions.”
So, what can this scenario teach us about PR communication in the time of COVID-19? Plenty, actually.
First and foremost, do not allow changes in how messages are getting out to increase message confusion. When venues or mediums for communication shift, the nature of the message delivery needs to shift to accommodate these changes, and more time should be dedicated to establishing and ensuring clarity of message.
Secondly, understand that people don’t like and will resist change. This may seem basic, but many brands, personalities, and entities are not practicing this “common sense,” leading to frustration for their audiences. Any kind of change to any routine can cause upset, distraction, and distance. Communicators must adjust by leaning in, offering concessions and education to minimize frustration, not just continuing business as usual.
Thirdly, accept that everyone is under additional stress, pressure, and worry. We are living through something unprecedented, and that has everyone on edge. Add to this baseline the frustration of quarantine and the worry that comes with waiting, wondering, and not getting clear answers, and people are much less receptive to messages, because of all those negative emotions. Effective communicators will account for this in their PR, shifting or revamping their approach in a way that is aware of the current situation without making everything about that. People need a break. They need something positive and authentic that is clearly communicated, whether it’s coming from the government, the media, or their favorite consumer brands.
Recently, the New England Patriots were the big headline in the essentially closed world of professional sports. Their biggest name, the man some consider the best to ever play the game, quarterback Tom Brady, was headed out of New England to Tampa. Brady was a Buccaneer, and Pats fans were aghast. It was a headline many in New England, especially die-hard Patriots fans could hardly wrap their heads around. No more QB12?
Now, though, much of the nation, both in and out of New England, has a reason to cheer for the Patriots. With reports of personal protective equipment shortages at many hospitals across the country, especially in New York, millions of Americans are wondering if their local medical facilities will have what they need if they or a loved one gets sick.
Enter the Patriots. Owner Robert Kraft worked with Patriots president Jonathan Kraft and the state to buy 1.4 million N95 masks for Massachusetts. The Kraft family also purchased another 300,000 masks for New York state.
The shipment of masks arrived on a Patriots team aircraft, part of a logistical challenge Kraft called “probably the most challenging operation our organization and team ever had to do…”
Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker took to social media to express his appreciation, posting, “Tonight’s arrival of a major shipment of N95 masks on the Patriots’ plane was a significant step in our work to get frontline workers the equipment they need… it’s an example of how collaboration and partnership can lead to real solutions during these challenging times…”
Everyone involved called this a challenging project but also a “team effort” and vowed to continue doing what they could to help.
This “challenging” project illustrates how brands that may not be receiving the earned media they would be under normal circumstances can shift their efforts to meet current needs in order to continue their PR efforts while doing some tangible good.
Brands that take advantage of these opportunities will be remembered for what they did, as well as how they make people feel, just as others will be remembered for what they didn’t do during this unprecedented time. That’s not to say every brand has to do something as massive as this. Many don’t have the resources, but there are other opportunities or digital PR options they could work toward as part of their efforts to stay connected to customers and fans in this time.
The key idea is to remember that relationship building is a significant aspect of consumer PR in this digital age. People want a reason to connect to something they’re proud of, and that makes positive brand reputation vital to any awareness campaign.
The global calamity that is the COVID-19 pandemic has ground some businesses and industries to a halt. However, there are some brands that are in a key position to step in and act heroically to help in this time of crisis. If they take the opportunity, and they manage the messaging correctly, this could be a major positive PR move in a sea of bad news.
Early on in the news reports about the spread of the novel coronavirus, one specific piece of medical equipment became a kind of shorthand for the resources available to fight the pandemic: the N95 respirator. Headline after headline urged consumers not to purchase the masks, to save them for medical professionals, even as others lamented the lack of supply, especially in harder hit areas.
Eventually, all eyes turned toward the brands that manufacture and distribute the masks or similar versions, including US industrial giant 3M Co. Questions began to fly in: “when will you have more?” and “will there ever be enough?” among others.
After doing the internal research and looking at supply chains and manufacturing capabilities, 3M released a statement with an answer: the company would begin to “double production” of the N95 respirators in an effort to keep up with demand. In addition, 3M promised to “expand global capacity” a significant amount over the next year in order to continue to meet demand as the virus continues to spread.
The announcement corresponds with news from the US Department of Health and Human Services, which revealed plans to buy “more than 500 million masks” to supplement the Strategic National Stockpile of pharmaceutical and medical supplies. President Trump offered a hand as well, saying he would take steps to help speed up production of ventilators and masks.
Another big US-based brand, General Electric (GE) said it would begin to increase its staff in an effort to manufacture more ventilators to help people hospitalized with COVID-19. This announcement comes alongside headlines that say US hospitals are doing what they can to prepare for an unprecedented surge in patients as the disease continues to spread.
The idea that the national medical infrastructure may soon be overwhelmed is a stressful and frightening potential for many. When a company steps up and promises to invest as they can to help where they can, it’s an opportunity to offer comfort and to come through by keeping their promise. Once through this, 3M and GE may stand as two of many American companies that stepped into the gap and helped where they were needed, much like Ford and General Motors during the run-up to US entry into World War II.
Streaming media continues to thrive, using its growing clout to siphon more ideas and more eyes away from traditional network television. Some of its most recent successes provide object lessons in the potential of applying effective consumer PR to transition a success in one area to a head start in another.
In less than a year, Netflix has launched three new reality TV programs, and the winners of those shows are leveraging digital PR and smart social media action to launch new careers.
The winner of Netflix’s design reality show, “Next in Fashion,” was Minju Kim, a 33-year-old fashion designer known for designing fashions for famous K-pop singers BTS. That resume was enough for notoriety heading into the competition, but it was the time on the show that allowed Minju Kim to skyrocket in fame. By partnering with a show sponsor, Net-a-Porter, the designer was able to turn good ratings into sales in a different market altogether.
Clothes designed by Kim and marketed by Net-a-Porter were featured on the show and cross-promoted on social media and other websites. The retail company helped Kim with pricing, marketing, and PR. Sales went big and went fast, and Kim told reporters many of her clothing selections were sold out in just a few months.
Another Netflix reality winner, Daniel Farris, won the rap contest program “Rhythm + Flow ” using the stage name “D Smoke.” While his bars and his ability to rap in both Spanish and English impressed the judges, D Smoke and the other contestants were told early on, the competition was about more than talent, it was about who could sell.
Speaking to CNN Business, D Smoke reflected on that lesson: “I’m not bubble gum. I’m not soda pop, but I’m a product as well…” And he played that role well, growing his Instagram following from 10,000 to 1.7 million during the course of the show. Now, since he still has recording freedom, D Smoke can leverage that big following into massive sales, especially for an independent artist.
The success of these reality shows, as well as the ability of their winners to transition into successes after the show through partnering with Netflix and targeted digital PR, is another example of how the streaming service is starting to compete directly with traditional network TV. While most networks have broadcast reality shows, many of the winners have failed to translate that success to success on the next level. There have been a few major standouts, but Netflix seems to have found a fan connection that works using key partnerships and targeted digital PR.
Deborah Dugan, the now-former president of the Recording Academy, has been fired after the organization which hosts The Grammys conducted what they called “two exhaustive, costly, independent investigations” into allegations made by Dugan.
Each investigation followed up on accusations made by Dugan about both the Academy’s culture and nomination process, as well as separate allegations made by Dugan that she was sexually harassed. Dugan insisted that the voting process for some top awards was “rigged,” insinuating that the process was unfair, casting aspersions on the winners of some of music’s most prestigious awards.
In addition to finding no substance to the allegations made by Dugan, the independent review stated that there was evidence of Dugan’s “consistent management deficiencies and failures…” though reports have said no specific examples were listed.
All of this touched off after Dugan was put on administrative leave early in 2020, after a complaint was lodged about her interactions with a longtime Academy employee. Dugan filed a discrimination complaint, adding an accusation that attorneys for the Academy “acted inappropriately” during a business meeting.
After the firing, Dugan’s representatives fired back with a prepared statement which read, in part: “The decision is despicable and, in due course, the Academy, its leadership and its attorneys will be held accountable…”
The response to this claim was scathing, with Academy officials sending out a clear message that Dugan would not be receiving any kind of settlement for her alleged grievances: “We could not reward her with a lucrative settlement and thereby set a precedent that behavior like hers has no consequence… Our members and employees, and the entire music industry deserve better than that…”
Given the sensitive nature of allegations such as those Dugan made, especially given the kinds of reactions music fans are likely to have on social media, this kind of emphatic negation and strong stance must be accompanied by a very clear message that the organization behind the accused did a thorough investigation, with clear indicators who is telling the truth.
This is especially key given the ongoing criticism of both the music industry and awards shows. Many fans already have strong opinions, making them liable to believe one side or the other, based on those views. These strong opinions often cause fans to provide digital megaphones for narratives, spreading them, loudly and enthusiastically, across social media and other digital platforms.
All parties involved should understand that, with digital PR, very few things are settled. Nearly everything is an ongoing conversation, even if all the facts are “out there” and readily available. People believe what they believe, and they will strongly defend that position. Parties involved in public disagreements that end up online should understand this going in and prepare their messages and counter-messages accordingly.
Ask the average baseball fan these days about the Houston Astros and, if they’re not in east Texas, expect a less than cordial response. Ask sports media, and many would say the 2017 World Series champions should be stripped of their title, because they effectively broke baseball, and those are the comments that are fit to print.
Others are being more direct and less tactful. Yankees superstar Giancarlo Stanton said if he was cheating like the Astros he “probably would have hit 80-plus home runs.” Stanton, along with his New York teammate Aaron Judge have been very vocal about their belief that the Astros should have their title rescinded, adding that he, like Judge, believes the cheating continued well into the 2019 season.
After an investigation, Major League Baseball concluded that the Astros cheated during both their World Series run as well as the follow up year, where they failed to defend their championship. Stanton told the media: “It was clear-cut, which means (the title) should be taken away. If you cheat, you (shouldn’t) even be in the playoffs…”
However, Houston is firing back through team owner Jim Crane, who held a news conference last week arguing that the sign stealing did not offer his team much of a discernible advantage. Sports media, fans, and other players pushed back, arguing that the results of those playoff series in 2017 show the results of cheating. The Astros beat the Yankees in seven games to win the ALCS, before edging the Dodgers in the Series.
When the cheating scandal was announced, Houston fired suspended manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow. This move indicates an understanding in Houston that MLB fans and others looking on don’t plan to let this go.
After MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who had his own PR issues last week, said he didn’t think Houston cheated last year, Stanton and other players fired back. Stanton said he didn’t think the Astros stopped cheating until they were caught, implying in his opinion that they cheated last year as well.
Stanton added his opinion – one echoed by many fans and sports media – that Astros players should have been punished, “I don’t think the penalties were harsh enough player-wise… At the end of the day, the (lack of punishment) gives more incentive (to cheat) if you’re not going to punish the players.”
Some Astros players, like former Houston pitcher Gerrit Cole, who now plays for Stanton’s Yankees, have said they were unaware that any cheating was happening while they played for Houston. Cole says he understands why some players are speaking out, and that it’s not his place to contradict their opinion: “People handle this the way they want to… I’m not going to tell anybody how to think…”
While many other players feel the same way, fans and media are less inclined to be so circumspect. MLB has a serious PR problem that isn’t going away, and officials don’t seem to have decided yet what to do about it. MLB should take a lesson from the NFL: inaction in the face of a growing PR crisis will not make the problem disappear.