Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to Successfully Deal With a Surprise Visit by Reporters

We have choices when it comes to dealing with the media. We can drive away quickly and flash a we're-number-1 with our finger. Or we can behave like professionals and respond in a way that's beneficial to our organization. See the post below for examples of the wrong way to handle reporters.

Let's say you come out of work or someplace where you ate lunch and next to your car find a reporter with camera rolling. That's what happened to Kids Wish Network as described below. The reporter starts shooting questions at you that you are not prepared to answer. One effective way to handle the situation is to shake the reporter's hand, smile, and say, "I would like to talk to you but I have a meeting I need to go to. If you will come to my office at 4:00 (give yourself a couple hours or however long it will take you to plan your comments) I will be happy to provide whatever information I can on the subject."

Say nothing more and drive away. Avoid the temptation to run over the reporter. If the TV station wants to run something on whatever the subject is, they can show you being pleasant and promising your cooperation. Meanwhile, you're back at the office assembling your staff and anyone else you need to decide what to say about the topic.

Let's say there's a reporter in your visitors' lobby or gatehouse or whatever entrance. A camera is running and they are looking for someone to talk to about some subject. Politely say that you or the right person isn't available right now. "If you will make an appointment, we will be glad to provide whatever information we can."

Then get busy on your response. Note that you should say "We'll provide whatever information we can." Don't say, "We'll answer all your questions" because there may be some questions you can't answer for legal reasons or because you don't know. Don't do as Kids Wish Network did below and say on camera, "Turn that camera off," or "you can come in but keep the camera out." Both ways you come off as being secretive.

A problem I hope you never have that would plague Kids Wish Network: really doing something wrong. Kids Wish executives were drawing inappropriate salaries for nonprofit leaders and using less than 3% of donations to help kids with cancer. Paid solicitors claimed not to be solicitors but really were working for the organization.

What do you tell the reporter then? About all you can do is say something like, "We are aware of the situation and are looking into it. When we decide if any changes are required, we will issue a news release. This may take up to a month." Then do the right thing as soon as possible -- say one month, then take one week  -- and talk about it. A lot. Otherwise, in the case of a nonprofit, your potential donors may not trust you. In a for-profit company, customers may go elsewhere.

Better yet would have been to recognize that putting such a small amount of donations toward the cause is a smoldering crisis. Then fix the problem yourself. When a reporter sticks a camera in your face, you can say, "You are using old information. We have made changes. Let me give you the most recent figures."

Just because you don't want the media to run certain stories, tough luck. The less you want the news out there the greater the chances that it will be. You can either look helpful and cooperative or sneaky and crooked.

For more tips on dealing with reporters and other key stakeholders, consider attending the Institute for Crisis Management's two-day Certification Training. See

Friday, June 14, 2013

Charity Ducks Reporters and Evades the Facts

It seems like nonprofits have even more crises than corporate America. The Boy and Girl Scouts come to mind immediately.

Sometimes nonprofits bring on their own crises because of greed. Stan Curtis, founder of Kentucky/USA Harvest, is waiting trial for allegedly stealing $183,000 from the organization he led. (

CNN ran an in-depth story worth taking a look at about a chain of nonprofits led by a single family . ( "Every year, Kids Wish Network raises millions of dollars in donations in the name of dying children and their families. Every year, it spends less than 3 cents on the dollar helping kids. Most of the rest gets diverted to enrich the charity's operators and the for-profit companies Kids Wish hires to drum up donations.... In the past decade alone, Kids Wish has channeled nearly $110 million donated for sick children to its corporate solicitors. An additional $4.8 million has gone to pay the charity's founder and his own consulting firms."

I want to examine the fine examples of how not to deal with reporters, which even includes driving away with a finger in the air while cameras are rolling. The CNN piece features Kids Wish Network, a video treasure of horrible media relations. Take a look at the video. It's hard to believe, but it's not the first time or the last.

1.   Don't put up your hand and say, "Don't turn the camera on me."

2.   Don't get in your truck and get caught "escaping" while a reporter and camera are chasing you and knocking on your vehicle.

3.   Don't hide by sending an untrained assistant to the door to say neither she nor the CEO will answer any questions. The Children's Cancer Fund of America instead offered to answer questions by email. The emailed response from CEO Rose Perkins claimed, it "has a clear conscience because we feel we are making a good difference in people's lives." With  3% of donations reaching children?

4.   It's okay to make a camera stay outside sometimes. But don't say so on camera and then go on to say "no comment" anyway. This was the public relations manager who just happens to be married to the founder's son, James Reynolds Jr.

5.   "When our cameras found James Reynolds Jr., he made sure we got the message with a single finger." I Wouldn't recommend this approach.

In the wrap-up, Anderson Cooper observed, "The fact that they're running away like cockroaches from your cameras -- I mean that tells you all you need to know. If you're running a charity and asking for people's money, you have nothing to hide if you're not doing anything wrong."

Keep this story in mind if you are tempted to run like a cockroach when approached by a reporter. See the post above about how Kids Wish Network could have treated the reporters.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Louisiana Chemical Plant Explodes; Pro Communicators Required

I'm sensitive to crises in chemical plants because that industry is where I spent a good part of my career. So I'll be watching for news of the cause of an explosion at a Louisiana facility this morning.

The explosion and fire killed one and injured 30 at Williams Geismar olefins plant. One of the injured was reported to be in critical condition. The cause is unknown

Williams' website has one news release from noon and then a correction, but no further updates since. (It's 3:30 EDT) Williams' release said, in part, "We are currently focused on the safety and well-being of our employees, contractors and the local community who are responding to the situation. Emergency shut-down valves have been closed. The unit is isolated. Our emergency-response crews are thoroughly trained to respond to these types of incidents and are diligently performing their work with their first priority being the safety and well-being of people in and around the area."  (

If you are part of a small company and can't hire communications staff, you need a firm that can do it for you in a crisis. You need someone to oversee website updates, get word out to plant neighbors and political leaders, communicate with shareholders if you are publicly traded, with employees and families, and brief a spokesperson on how to reassure stakeholders via the news media.

And for goodness sake, have a crisis communications plan and train the people responsible.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down!

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
Jericho, Jericho,
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down!

I remember singing this song in Sunday school as a little kid. And I remember it after what happened in Philadelphia yesterday.

"As rescue crews continue to search underneath the rubble of a collapsed building in downtown Philadelphia that killed six people and injured more than a dozen others, new details are emerging about the contractor and crane operator who were hired to demolish the building. The 4-story building, located on 2136-2138 Market Street, is owned by the STB Investments Corporation. STB paid $385,894 for the nearly 4,200-square-foot property in 1994. The company Griffin-Campbell Construction was doing demolition work on the property."  (

So what does STB Investment Corporation have to say about the tragedy? Nothing on the web site. What website? I see nothing there.

 Mayor Michael Nutter promised a "wide-ranging" investigation into the collapse that killed six people when the four-story wall of a partially demolished building toppled onto a Salvation Army store.

Hepatitis A Cases Continue to Rise for Townsend Farms

Time for an update to my blog on June 1 about Townsend Farms, Costco, and hepatitis A.

According to the CDC, "As of June 12, 2013, we are investigating acute hepatitis A illnesses in 97 people in eight states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington."  (

The hepatitis has been linked to a fruit mix with contaminated ingredients sent to only Costco stores, said William E. Gaar, an attorney for Townsend Farms. Costco has removed the product from its shelves, he said. The outbreak has been traced to a type of pomegranate seeds from Turkey that are in the Townsend Farms fruit mix, Gaar said. The mix contains pomegranate seeds and other produce from Argentina, Chile and the United States, according to the label."

But more people in more states continue to get sick. That shows how people aren't tuned into the news. Or maybe the company or CDC hasn't communicated as well as
they should. Good luck in civil court, Townsend.

According to a Food Safety News letter to Townsend signed by an attorney, "The Marler Clark law firm represents over two dozen of these people, and their families, who are suffering from, or recovering from, their acute hepatitis A illnesses. Two individual personal injury lawsuits have been filed – in California and Arizona to date. We expect to file more.

"Costco indicates that it sold at least 330,000 bags of your product across the country.... Since the hepatitis A outbreak was announced on May 31, 2013, and the recall of your product was announced on June 3, 2013, it is likely that tens of thousands of individuals have either received blood tests to determine whether they were infected by hepatitis A, or received hepatitis A vaccination or immune globulin injections.

On behalf of several putative class representatives, Marler Clark has filed, or will file, class actions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Washington. These class actions seek to recover damages on behalf of people who have had blood testing, or received vaccinations or injections to prevent the onset of symptoms.  We intend to file a similar class action in Oregon, under theories including strict product liability, breach of express and implied warranties, negligence and negligence per se."(

Townsend has published one release about the recall and the disease on its website. Strangely, it was dated June 4 but apparently wasn't posted online until June 7.

I could pull at least a dozen postings from this blog alone that show how a failure co communicate swiftly and honestly ends up costing a company more money in the long run. The court of public opinion is as important as the court of law.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

...And It's One, One, One Strike You're Out at the Old Ball Game

I love baseball. That's why this latest crisis to strike the national pastime has me heartbroken.

I have a friend who is a major league scout. He told me years ago -- before the sports news media -- that a story was about to break regarding hormone abuse and the Giants and A's. A few months later and the accusations flew about Bonds, McGuire, and other Bay-area players.

And now, here we go again because of Major League Baseball, which promised to "expand its effort to fight performance enhancing drugs to include random blood tests for human growth hormone and other substances during the regular season, under the terms of an agreement with the players union that was first reported by The New York Times. 'This is a very proud day for baseball,' MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said" in January. (

Among those named are all-stars Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees and Ryan Braun of the Brewers. Both have denied using performance-enhancing drugs. I'm glad MLB is catching the cheaters. I'm just sorry for the sport, which made very clear its random drug-testing policy. Are these millionaires that arrogant or that stupid?

"Major League Baseball is set to suspend some 20 players in the coming weeks due to a scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs, according to an ESPN report. The network says it is potentially the worst drug abuse case in the history of baseball. The league declined to comment to CNN, but confirmed that an investigation is in the works

"The league may seek to double the possible suspension time for affected players by counting the doping itself as one infraction and lying about having taken the drugs as a second one, ESPN reported."  (

A Florida newspaper, The Miami New Times, first accused Rodriguez in January of buying the drugs from a Miami anti-aging clinic called Biogenesis, run by Anthony Bosch.
ESPN said Bosch has agreed to cooperate in the MLB investigation. "Records obtained by MLB name many players, but league investigators need Bosch to attest to their accuracy and confirm that players were doping, ESPN reported, citing unnamed sources. The league filed suit against Biogenesis in March for allegedly supplying PEDs to players and advising them on how to avoid detection during drug tests."

This is a crisis for the entire sport. If some of its stars are juicing, what about the wanna-be's like we watch here in AAA Louisville?

Next they'll be attacking hot dogs and apple pie. I will say good. They deserve it if they are cheating.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Townsend Farms Believes Silence Is Golden When Hepatitis Linked to Fruit Blend

A frozen fruit mix, Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend, has been linked with a hepatitis A outbreak in five western states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mix is commonly used in Smoothies. (

So far, 30 people have been infected, and nine of them have been hospitalized. The states with reported cases are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend is a mix of frozen berries and pomegranate seeds.

"Company records show that the fruit mix with contaminated ingredients was sent to only Costco stores, said William E. Gaar, an attorney for Townsend Farms. Costco has removed the product from its shelves, he said. The outbreak has been traced to a type of pomegranate seeds from Turkey that are in the Townsend Farms fruit mix, Gaar said. The mix contains pomegranate seeds and other produce from Argentina, Chile and the United States, according to the label."  (

CDC notified the company about the outbreak Thursday and sent  investigators to the Townsend Farms processing plant in Fairview, Oregon. The highly contagious infection inflames the liver and limits its ability to function.
When I read about the hepatitis, my first thought was to check the Townsend Farms website. I Googled, "Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend," hoping to find the company's site. What I found instead were 27 keystrokes on "next" before the vast majority of suggestions didn't involve hepatitis. I never got to the company until I widened the search to "Townsend Farms."
There I found the company website. (  But to my disappointment, I could find no mention of any hepatitis outbreak.  This was more than 48 hours after CDC notified Townsend Farms, and not even the website's "Food Safety" tab mentioned the problem. Yet some 27 pages worth of Google search had time to write an article or post about the hepatitis link to Townsend Farms.
Okay, how about Costco informing consumers. Nothing on its website but marketing and pretty pictures. ( The products were removed from Costco shelves, according to Townsend Farms' attorney, and the Smoothie machine emptied and cleaned I assume, but some people may have the blend in their home freezers. If they aren't avid readers or news junkies, they may not know about the contamination of Turkish pomegranate seeds.
I wrote about a similar let's-pretend strategy by Jimmy John's when it quietly removed sprouts from all its sandwich shops without even an explanation to its managers. I thought silence was a mistake for Jimmy John's and I think it's a mistake for Townsend Farms. If you are in a food production or processing business, you owe your customers an explanation when your product is contaminated and recalled.
Failure to be open can raise suspicion about other products you distribute. Quality questions can affect your business for a long time if consumers lose confidence and link your name to sickness. You should offer an explanation for contamination, and what you have done so it can never happen (the same way) again. In this case, Townsend Farms should be reassuring customers that only this one product in western Costco stores are at fault; all else is safe.
Cases like this should make clear to you the value of having a well-crafted crisis communications plan. If the CDC links contamination to one of your products, you don't have much time to react before word is out. Your internal investigations will take some time, but you need to be ready with a statement that expresses your regret, your promise to cooperate with health authorities, and your commitment to investigate to ensure such a thing never happens again.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Ohio State President's Jokes Insult Notre Dame, Catholics, U of L, U of K, and the Whole SEC

I blogged two years ago about Ohio State's football violations, which many felt reflected the attitude of the entire university:

"Trustee Jerry Jurgensen observed, 'The cracks here weren't really cracks of rules, procedures, and policies, they were cracks in a value system. I think we have a lot to learn...of what is most important in the game of life....'"

Tony DeFazio, editor of Pittsburgh Sports Report: "It was all there in black and white; on the record, for anyone interested enough to open a newspaper. The lies. The insincerity. The holier-than-thou air of patronizing superiority....

"But if anyone so much as suggested something might be amiss, the school's administration — right on up to the athletic director — scoffed at the notion, painting those who dared to suggest impropriety as ignorant fools...."  (

A little harshness, a lot of truth.

Now Ohio State President Gordon Gee is under fire for making tasteless comments about Catholics, Notre Dame, the University of Louisville, and others. For some reason, those comments were recorded and kept, and then recovered by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

Gee insulted just about everyone except the Mormons. Oh, wait. Gee is Mormon. Here is a taste of what Gee apparently thought was humor.

  • The top goal of Big Ten presidents (the conference in which Ohio State plays) is to "make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity," Gee said. "So you won't see us adding Louisville," a member of the Big East conference that, like Notre Dame, is  joining the ACC.

  • "After a pause followed by laughter from the audience, Gee added that the Big Ten wouldn't add the University of Kentucky, either....

Gee apologized in a statement released to the AP. "The comments I made were just plain wrong, and in no way do they reflect what the university stands for. They were a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate."

Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said Gee apologized to Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who accepted the apology.

Big Ten commissioner James Delany distanced himself from the remarks, calling Gee's comments inappropriate and saying they don't represent the opinions of the conference.

Ohio State Board President Robert  Schottenstein  said, "These statements were inappropriate, were not presidential in nature, and do not comport with the core values of the University."

Schottenstein, Delany, and others must have an entire section in their crisis communications plans devoted to Gee alone. In November 2010, Gee boasted that Ohio State's football schedule didn't include teams on par with the Little Sisters of the Poor. Gee later apologized and sent a personal check to the real Little Sisters of the Poor in northwest Ohio.

Last year, Gee compared the problem of coordinating the school's many divisions to the Polish army, which a Polish-American group called a slanderous display of bigotry and ignorance. Gee again apologized.

So how much longer can Ohio State afford to keep Gee around? After all, he earns about $1.9 million annually in base pay, deferred and performance compensation, and retirement benefits.

"Gee has one of the highest-profile résumés of any college president in recent history.... He is a prolific fundraiser and is leading a $2.5 billion campaign at Ohio State. He is omnipresent on campus, attending everything from faculty awards events to dormitory pizza parties."

Boards of directors sometimes face a balancing challenge. How long do you stick with a guy who has outstanding performance based on his job description but is a social and political liability for the organization? Communicators preparing for a crisis under a top person whose mouth is a loose cannon need to be ready with the apologies as well as a statement to explain why his contract wasn't renewed.

That's what Ohio State needs as long as it has a whiz like Gee.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Has BSA Followed Its Own Motto: 'Be Prepared'?

I am confused by apparent hypocrisy in an ongoing controversy. The recent reversal of Boy Scouts of America to allow gay boys to join predictably has torched threats of secession by conservative groups and individual parents.

What puzzles me is why it's not okay for boys to risk association with gay boys in Scouts, but they spend all day in school with the same gay kids. Do schools have no gay kids or no kids from anti-gay families?

And how about the churches that view homosexuality as a sin? Do they turn away openly gay people from membership? What about the closet gays? What about closeted members who come out? I'm not clear on this. Someone please explain to me how a Christian church drums out God's gay children.

Anyway, for the Boy Scouts, there was no way to evade this crisis. "Dismayed conservatives are already looking at alternative youth groups as they predict a mass exodus from the BSA—while gay-rights supporters have vowed to maintain pressure on the Scouts to end the still-in-place ban on gay adults serving as leaders."  (

BSA CEO Wayne Brock pleaded for the Scouting community to reunite after the divisive debate that led to last week's vote by the organization's National Council. "The proposal to lift the ban on openly gay youth—while keeping the ban on gay adults—was supported by about 60 percent of the council's 1,400 voting members, reports the news release by AP writer David Crary."

A rather close vote, especially on such a controversial issue, is bound to become a crisis that will continue for some time. Those advocating gay adult leaders will keep the controversy going and, just like the vote to allow gay scouts, any vote on gay leaders will splinter BSA still more.

Where did the idea come from that gay men can't resist young boys? There's a difference between being a gay and being a pedophile.

Baptist churches sponsor Scout units serving more than 100,000 of the 2.6 million youth members. Richard Land, a senior Southern Baptist Conference official, is one of many urging Southern Baptist churches to withdraw their support of Scout troops and consider affiliating with the Royal Ambassadors, an existing Southern Baptist youth program for boys that combines religious ministry with Scouting-like activities.

The Assemblies of God, which oversees units serving more than 2,000 Scouts, said it could no longer support such units and suggested its own Royal Rangers youth group as a positive alternative.

"John Stemberger, a conservative activist and former Scout from Florida who led a group opposing the policy change, said he and his allies would convene a meeting next month in Louisville, Ky., to discuss creation of a 'new character development organization for boys.'

"'We grieve today, not because we are faced with leaving Scouting, but because the Boy Scouts of America has left us,' Stemberger said."

Similar moves already have happened. American Heritage Girls was formed in 1995 as a Christian option to the Girl Scouts of the USA, and it now claims some 20,000 members.

BSA should have a plan in place by now or at least soon to communicate the many benefits of the organization. It needs to look at the financial impact of a large loss of members. It needs to recruit harder to make up for some of the losses. And it needs to find ways to lower the financial burden on Scouts' parents to be competitive with other groups that spring up.

What would you suggest BSA do?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Toronto Mayoral Crisis Off to Poor Start When He Calls Reporters 'Fly Larva'

I hope this blog's readers know better than to call the media "a bunch of maggots." Apparently Toronto Mayor Rob Ford doesn't. He could use some media relations help but, alas, two of his media people resigned after Ford's remark.

Reporters from The Toronto Star and an editor from the website Gawker claim two men approached them and tried to sell a video that showed Ford smoking crack with drug dealers. Price tag: $200,000. So far no offers have been made.

"'He was rambling and he seemed to be high. I mean there is just no other way to describe it other than to say the mayor was high,' said Toronto Star investigative reporter Kevin Donovan, one of the few who have seen the video."  (

The newspaper reports that the 90-second video allegedly shot last winter shows Ford "incoherent, trading jibes with an off-camera speaker who goads the clearly impaired mayor by raising topics including Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the high school football team Ford coaches." (

Ford was better off when he made himself largely unavailable to reporters. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, the mayor's closest political ally, told reporters he had not heard from the mayor (this was shortly after the news broke  in mid-May) and didn't know where he was.

Holyday has better sense than his boss when it comes to dealing with the media. "The mayor should address the accusations sooner than later," he said. "I would advise the mayor to speak to the media but I think he has to do it in a prepared way."
Ford later apologized for his maggots remark. "I'm sure you understand this has been a very stressful week for myself," Ford said. "But that doesn't justify using the terminology I did." (

The mayor fired his chief of staff and two top press aides quit after the maggots reference on the radio. Instead of believing transparency is the best way to deal with those maggots, Ford's strategy was to Tweet a picture of his birthday cake with the message "Thanks for all the support," then he passed out slices to reporters.

Ford in the past was accused of conflicts of interests, but he has remained popular with voters who like his common-man approach.
"CNN has been trying to interview the mayor for several months regarding the recommendation that Toronto create supervised injection centers for drug addicts. The mayor has declined all of CNN's requests."  (