April 19, 2016
It’s been a bad month for the Arizona state Department of Corrections. According to the Associated Press, separate investigations into two inmate suicides at Arizona prisons have led to the firing of 13 corrections officers and sergeants. Six others have been “disciplined”. That’s a whole lot of fallout … but why?
According to information that is still coming out, various correctional officers and other employees failed to conduct security checks and perform other duties. Neglect, ethics violations, and duty failures were also reported. But it gets worse, reports have also surfaced that records were falsified, and misconduct was either not reported or investigated.
From a PR perspective, while this case involves specific employees of a specific prison system, it reflects poorly on the entire Arizona DOC and the state as a whole. That creates a widespread and nuanced public relations crisis across multiple departments. Heads will roll, and that’s just the beginning.
In any situation like this, the general public will demand accountability. That may or may not stop with the firings and discipline of the various DOC officers and employees. It might extend to elected or appointed officials further up the food chain. That is if this issue continues to stay in the headlines for extended periods.
On a national scale, the state and those in danger are benefitting from a hotly contested presidential election stealing most, if not all, of the airtime and column inches. However, at a local and state level, the problems are just beginning. Everyone from activist groups to prison reform organizations will look at this case as a touchstone, an opportunity to drum up support for their cause.
This sort of multilayered administrative failure can be a very attractive situation for those seeking to advance various agendas critical of both the police in general and the prison system in particular. When people are dead, and officers apparently created a situation that allows it, the environment is ripe for hyperbole and broad brush statements.
State, local, and law enforcement PR specialists must understand this and act quickly, or they risk losing control of this narrative and becoming the go-to example of every problem or issue these systems face.
April 13, 2016
American Idol is done, and there is no doubt the program changed the way we do TV in modern America. Back in 2002, the reality TV craze was just gaining real steam, but Fox has something new and exciting up its sleeve. A twist on the familiar talent show shtick that would allow viewers to determine the fate of the contestants. We could all be Caesar with our thumbs up or down.
At the end of season one, Kelly Clarkson edged Justin Guarini to take the title. She went on to global superstardom and was remembered fondly in an episode earlier this season in which she served as a guest judge and mentor for the contestants.
This time around, it was another male-female finale. Trent Harmon beat La’Porsha Renae to take the title and the recording contract that comes with it. After 15 seasons, American Idol was done.
In its heyday, AI was as “must see” as TV has been in the 20th Century. Huge numbers of people watched and voted and voted and voted. The show drew big name sponsors and made household names out of DJ Ryan Seacrest, acerbic producer Simon Cowell and offered new chances at fame for musicians like Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.
In later years, viewership waned, and, finally realizing it was the judges and not the singers who were the stars of the show, producers brought in actual music superstars to be the judges. After a few interesting seasons – remember Steven Tyler – the show found the right group in Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. The trio brought together most popular genres as well as collective decades of professional experience.
But, despite its evolution through 15 seasons, the show returned to its roots for the finale. Clarkson appeared in a pre-taped segment, and the curtain fell with Seacrest joined onstage by Jackson, Abdul, and Cowell.
The finale didn’t lack for contestant nostalgia either, bringing back Scotty McCreery, Taylor Hicks, Diana DeGarmo, Jennifer Hudson, David Cook, Fantasia, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks and Kimberley Locke … and, of course, megastar Carrie Underwood, the undisputed queen of Idol alumni, who sang a duet with Urban.
Even President Obama made an appearance, in a pretaped segment. When POTUS shows up on your finale, you know you’ve made a cultural impact. Now some are asking if there will be another show as impactful as Idol. Skeptics abound. They argue viewership is changing. Folks are too splintered, too distracted to connect in the same way. Then again, there were a lot of people, way back in 2002, that said talent shows were dead too.
March 29, 2016
Any time you are a member of a club, and one of the founding members drops a very public hammer on that club, things get rough from a public relations perspective. Accusations fly, and massive counter programming campaigns begin from various factions.
Such is the case with the Rockefeller family’s recent parting of the ways with Big Oil. The patriarch of the family, commonly thought of as one of the first American business tycoons, John D. Rockefeller, founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870.
Somewhere down the line, John’s progeny, who all benefited wildly from the fossil fuel industry, founded the Rockefeller Family Fund, a charity created to support environmental causes, economic justice and other related issues. Now that charity, run by Rockefeller’s direct family line, is pulling its assets out of oil companies, including major holdings in Exxon Mobil.
Fund representatives told CBS News, “While the global community works to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, it makes little sense — financially or ethically — to continue holding investments in these companies. There is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons.”
That statement, even more than the funding transfer, rang out like a shot directly aimed at the oil industry. It was a personal statement. After all, Exxon was one of the companies spun off from Standard Oil when President Roosevelt went trust busting at the turn of the 20th Century.
That may have been enough to start a war of words between the representatives of the various parties involved, but the attacks didn’t end there.
“Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded,” spokesmen representing the fund said.
This is not the first time the family has confronted the oil industry head-on. Senator Jay Rockefeller once accused Exxon of directly funding climate change deniers.
Now the gloves are off. CBS News reported a response received from Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers: “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”
The “he said/she said” tactic was just the beginning of Exxon’s response. They have repeatedly argued the science on climate change is inconclusive, and now they are trying to paint the Rockefellers as climate extremists on a crusade against business.
How the public responds to this exchange depends both on preconceived ideas as well as which side does a better job of counter programming PR. Should be interesting to watch.
March 21, 2016
Starbucks managed to slide through the Red Christmas Cup “Nontroversy” with ease, as most consumers and coffee fans realized it was cup ado about nothing. But now there’s news that has Starbucks fans legitimately upset.
The company recently announced it would be changing its rewards program, a move that has its caffeinated fans in a tizzy. Until April, patrons in the program receive one “star” per visit. Now, patrons will receive two stars for each dollar spent. Sounds great, right … especially since each visit likely earns you, at least, four stars.
Well, here’s where the other shoe drops. Starbucks is changing how the points or perks are tabulated. Before the change customers received “gold” status once they earned 30 stars. Basically, go to S-bux 30 times and you’re, at least in this respect, golden.
What’s so special about that? Well, gold members get free stuff after they earn 12 more stars. So, go to Starbucks 30 times plus 12 and you get free stuff. Simple right?
Well, not anymore. Now customers will need a whopping 300 stars ($150 in spending) to reach gold status. To actually achieve anything with that status, customers will have to spend another $60 or more for EACH FREE ITEM.
For folks who drop $5 each visit, they can go 30 times and still get paid. Well, qualify to earn the opportunity to get free stuff, anyway. Customers who just come by for a quick cup of Joe will have to come A LOT more often to earn the chance to begin working toward free stuff.
Doesn’t sound like much of a rewards program now, does it? Nope. And customers agree. Just ask Twitter. The tweet rage has been phenomenal. Folks REALLY hate the new rules, and they’re not at all shy about letting Starbucks know all about their feelings on the matter.
In response, Starbucks doubled down, telling aggrieved customers the decision was based on their requests for a spending-based incentive plan. In effect, Starbucks is telling their customers: You’re unhappy? Well, be careful what you wish for … because we’ll give it to you.
March 7, 2016
Pasta is good for you. That’s the message Italian pasta maker Barilla hopes to deliver convincingly to an American public fast becoming distrustful of all things bread. From carb counters to gluten-fearing consumers, American eaters are moving away from bread-based diets at a fast rate.
Meanwhile, the so-called Mediterranean diet is all the rage, a dichotomy Barilla CEO Guido Barilla can’t quite square. Thin and undoubtedly in shape, Barilla says he eats pasta daily, sometimes twice, and calls it the basis of the real Mediterranean diet.
While the company adjusts its sauce products to suit American tastes – more spices and sugar – if they can’t get folks to eat pasta, their efforts are all in vain.
So, the uphill battle faced by Barilla is two-fold. They must simultaneously kowtow to American preferences while also somehow convincing Americans that their ideas about food are wrong. It’s the latter that Barilla takes on most directly. In CNN reports, the CEO has plainly stated American consumers don’t “know the facts.” He argues that Americans think they know what’s good for them, but are simply buying into propaganda.
If that argument fails, Barilla is already working on a backup plan. Instead of just telling people they are wrong – a tough sell no matter what the subject is – his company is suggesting people explore the differences between carbs in white bread and donuts and the carbs in pasta.
This is an argument that may find more traction. People are much more willing to explore and learn than they are to believe they are just flat out wrong. Trying to get someone to just “believe” they have been duped is all but impossible. Just look at social media. Doesn’t matter the topic, any comment that says: “you’re wrong” is nearly always met with derision or outright profanity. People don’t like being told they are wrong.
Conversely, they really don’t mind being told one thing is different, even if only slightly, than something else. People love choosing one thing over another. The trick is for Barilla to make people think the choice is their idea. If he can do that, he’s really onto something.
February 29, 2016
If you were wondering how much of a political PR football this fight between Apple and the FBI is becoming, now you know. Maricopa County, Arizona, you know the place that always seems to find a way into the news when there’s a far right political issue in the press, has taken a hard line stand against Apple CEO Tim Cook’s refusal to create a backdoor into its iPhone.
According to a statement released to the media last week, Maricopa County officials declared they will no longer give Apple devices to employees. The message came directly from county attorney Bill Montgomery:
“I don’t expect my action to affect Apple’s stock price,” Montgomery said in a statement. “But I cannot in good conscience support doing business with an organization that chooses to thwart an active investigation into a terrorist attack that claimed the lives of fourteen fellow citizens. If Apple wants to be the official smartphone of terrorists and criminals, there will be a consequence.”
The county currently uses fewer than 400 iPhones, so the loss of this customer won’t even cause the company to blink. But the language could quickly be adopted by competitors looking for an edge in certain markets.
Think about what was said. An elected county official just accused an American company of actively supporting terrorists and criminals. Sure, he couched it in enough modifiers to be free from any legal action, but the intent bled through the thinly veiled accusations.
While some might dismiss this guy and his loudmouth, media-hungry county as just a bunch of no-count rabble rousers, many are not taking it that way. The language and the action used by the county attorney are sure to find their way onto talk radio and political websites, and may even end up in TV and print headlines.
Suddenly the accusations are playing out on a much bigger stage. While it’s likely that most people’s minds will not change on this issue, based on these comments, when they reach a certain point of saturation, Apple will be forced to respond. And that’s a tried and true tactic. It doesn’t matter what you say, get your opponent answering your accusations and suddenly everything you say appears to have more merit.
February 22, 2016
As SpaceX continues to surge ahead in the consumer race back into space, its competitor, Virgin Galactic is doing its best to get off the launch pad.
Virgin Galactic’s latest initiative – which should be revealed next week – is a second generation of its previous space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo. The rocket is the first to roll out since an accident in 2014, which destroyed its predecessor and killed the pilot.
It was a rough setback for the industry, and Virgin Galactic’s owner, Richard Branson, wisely pulled back out of the spotlight, going back to the drawing board and allowing SpaceX to get some – though not too much – of the positive press.
At the time, Branson told the press he was having second thoughts. “When we had the accident, for about 24 hours we were wondering whether it was worth continuing, whether we should call it a day.”
An investigation into the incident blamed pilot error on the mishap, and Branson said both astronauts and others made it clear that space travel is much too important a dream to abandon after one tragic accident.
Now Branson and Virgin Galactic are back to attempt wresting control of the modern space race away from its competitor. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry a crew of eight – two pilots and six passengers – and climb to an altitude of about 62 miles. It’s a suborbital flight, but will allow guests to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and get a higher than a bird’s eye view of earth.
The project is still in the testing phase and quite a ways from actually taking consumers into space … but Virgin is officially back in the space business.
Both major competitors have suffered losses in this process to date, and public perception remains hopeful. History proved that going into space the first time was not ever simple or easy, and even when shuttle flights had become relatively routine, accidents could occur.
At this point, though, the best way to re-establish full consumer confidence is to succeed – and succeed in a big way. That will take risk. A factor with which Branson is intimately familiar.
February 16, 2016
It’s a constant controversy in today’s concussion-conscious environment: how young is too young for tackle football?
There are injuries, but even most doctors are fairly tolerant of the injuries kids sustain in what is, undeniably, a violent sport. While anti-football groups continue to challenge public opinion, the American Academy of Pediatrics proposed more adult supervision, not fewer youths playing tackle football.
Detractors argue this is more about public relations than actual medical evidence. Football is an American obsession, they argue. From the NFL on down to pee-wee league, adults invest huge amounts of time and energy in this game. They love it, give it their time and their treasure, so it stands to reason they also give it their children.
Proponents counter, of course, we love it. Football teaches discipline, competition, fair play and how to both win and lose gracefully. More so, football encourages kids to push their boundaries, to excel where they think they cannot. and earn rewards for tasks previously thought impossible.
Football insiders – coaches and veteran players – credit youth football with a better appreciation for and understanding of the game. They argue kids who start to learn the game early are less likely to be injured than those who take it up late, in high school or as adults.
Detractors fire back, pointing out that younger kids are more vulnerable to injuries, particularly of the head and neck, which can have lifetime consequences. They point to startling statistics: 13 percent of all injuries are head or neck injuries, and 11 high school players died playing football last year. Of course, these stats don’t point out HOW the kids died, which is a point tacitly pointed out by youth football proponents. At least some of the kids suffered injuries due to heat stroke, which could happen during any athletic activity.
Anti-football crusaders aren’t buying that argument. They want pro-football factions to acknowledge the risk and take steps to restrict youth football activities. It’s an unpopular position at the moment, partly because of the universal regard for football and due to the unsuccessful PR campaigns pushed by the opposition.
One popular pro-football initiative, the Heads Up program, encouraged coaches and youth leagues to require “heads up” football camps, clinics and training for all players. This step mollified parental fears and put another layer of protection between youth leagues and disgruntled critics. So far, the detractors have found no way to crack that wall of public sentiment.
February 8, 2016
These days most department stores are hemorrhaging cash. Macy’s was supposed to be one of the big holdouts. Strong, while JC Penney’s and Sears suffered (some by self-inflicted wounds) Macy’s stood strong on the strength of unimpeachable positive consumer PR. Everyone loved Macy’s thanks to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and Miracle on 34th Street. Consumers see Macy’s as more than a department store. It’s a part of Americana, as ubiquitous as shared holidays and apple pie.
Maybe not anymore. The company recently announced plans to shutter up to 40 stores nationwide. Not a huge number, but a significant one. The closures are seen as harbingers of the end of an era. America isn’t interested in malls anymore.
Once the go-to hangout for American teens and the go-to shopping destination for suburban moms, malls were all the rage. It was where you met your friends, where you browsed. Cultural groups defined themselves by where they shopped. Were you a “Sears” shopper or a “Macy’s” shopper? Foot Locker or Journeys? Chess King or Hot Topic?
Now, while many of the malls in question teeter on the brink, a Macy’s departure could be all she wrote. Consultants have already said replacing Macy’s could be “all but impossible.”
Now the malls in question have a big problem. What to do if and when Macy’s leaves. Some have said just give it up. Move on, because that’s what America is doing. The social aspect of hanging out at the mall can’t trump the loss in revenue when an anchor store leaves. Lose the anchor, the rest of the place begins to drift.
There’s no question that department stores are suffering. Pretty much the bottom of the barrel in retailing. Higher costs, negative growth, and plummeting customer base. Consumers are quickly pushing themselves into two categories – bargain shoppers and boutique shoppers.
Bargain hunters don’t want to go to perceived high-end retailers and boutique shoppers are looking for a specific item. They don’t want to sort through stacks and racks of Everything Else to get what they want.
Those who have fully embraced this potential reality have already begun looking for ways to convert mall space into different uses – offices, churches, that sort of thing.
Others are hoping for a different retail option. But answers are not readily obvious. It will take a totally new idea and a strong PR push to grab consumer attention and begin to influence their buying habits in a world where online shopping and specialty stores already cater to them like personal butlers.