Mission Statement:

I will give excellence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Blue Bell

At the end of 2016 the wife and I took a trip to Houston to see Kansas State play Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl. We're both big KSU fans, and we had a great time hanging out in the team hotel.

One gentleman we met was a cousin of a friend of ours. He is a member of the bowl committee and also an executive with Blue Bell Ice Cream. Our friend asked him how the recall was going, and he said they were just getting their product back out on store shelves at 100%. My thought was that this was in reference to the listeria outbreak of 2015 in which three people died. I didn't need any real clarification.

I've seen a couple of things since then. Blue Bell's largest plant, in Brenham, Texas reopened in November of 2016. It was a pretty rough time for the company, as they laid off over 1,400 full-time and part-time workers, or about 37% of the workforce. Another 1,400 were furloughed. A second thing is that there was a second though smaller recall in late summer 2016. They're just now getting things back up to speed and getting their product back into store freezers.

I've also seen a writeup from the Arthur Page Society that indicates the lack of a clear crisis communications plan as well as the lack of a Chief Communication Officer. This gets into Excellence Theory, specifically where they talk about the lack of a communications professional in the C-Suite. It seems simple to a PR type such as myself, but many times a company's crisis situation is made worse by executives with no PR backgrounds.

The Arthur Page report says Blue Bell hired a PR firm after the listeria outbreak, and seemed to have very little in the way of active PR at the time of the outbreak. Blue Bell chose to make their website the primary point of contact. Their Facebook account suddenly saw more activity once the outbreak was common knowledge and they created a Twitter account to help communicate during the time of crisis.

The more points of contact you have, the better, though it sounds to me that their concern had more to do with company protocols and not public relations, though the PR activity/response needed help.

Dr. Grunig, originator of Excellence Theory, has a good point in that if a PR pro has a respected voice in the boardroom, this may have gone differently. But Blue Bell is a Texas thing, and Texans have a heaping dose of state pride. That is, they really like being Texan. That and Blue Bell has been around for over 100 years, so they had a bit of a reputation. So statewide the damage might not have been so bad from an image restoration perspective. It might be a slightly different matter nationally.

Blue Bell's real work is in progress-- gaining back their reputation after the three deaths, personnel layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, lost revenue, as well as suppliers further down the food chain that needed Blue Bell's business. Lots of people were adversely affected by this, and it'll take time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ezekiel Elliott and the Red Kettle

By now you've certainly heard of Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys leaping into the Salvation Army's red kettle after scoring a touchdown Sunday night against Tampa Bay. His jump led to a major increase in donations to the charitable organization in the hours and days that followed, vastly outperforming the same time periods last week and even last year.

Money going to a charitable cause such as this is a good thing.

The red kettles beyond each end zone aren't new. The two organizations have been holiday partners since 1997. The Salvation Army's National Red Kettle Campaign has been a staple for over 125 years. Charlotte Jones Anderson, daughter of the boss, is Executive Vice President/Chief Brand Officer of the team and a past Chairman of the Salvation Army's National Advisory Board, serving in that role from 2010-2014.

Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett talked about how "Lambeau Leaps" at Packers games are legal but how his team got a 15-yard penalty for Elliott's jump. Team owner and General Manager Jerry Jones dared the NFL to fine him, saying he'd take it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hashtag #kettlehop is still getting attention on Twitter. Many people contributed $21, corresponding to Elliott's jersey number. I've even seen t-shirts made.

These signs all point to the Salvation Army and what they're trying to do, and they lead me to believe that this was an orchestrated public relations/fundraising effort. I feel like whomever scored first, whether it was Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, or Dak Prescott, had instructions to jump into the kettle, stand next to it or whatever. At some point during the game someone was going to call attention to the campaign.

I'm not criticizing the move-- the money that's raised goes toward feeding people and keeping them warm. It just has elements of a good PR campaign put together by people who knew what they were doing.

A tip of the cap to the Cowboys and the Salvation Army for coming together.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Chobani and Recalls

Hamdi Ulukaya bought an abandoned factory in New York in 2005 and started Chobani yogurt two years later, figuring he could make a better product than what the American companies were cranking out.

Ulukaya grew things to where he was moving well over a million cases of yogurt per week out of his New York warehouse, getting a solid foothold in the market, and even fielding calls with buyout offers.

So things were going very well.

But in 2013 things took a bad turn. The year started out well enough, as Chobani opened a second facility in Idaho to keep up with demand as well as to gain access to western markets. However the dairy inputs (different cows from a different part of the country) used in Idaho were different than what was used in New York, so the resulting yogurt was different, forcing them to adjust the proportions of the ingredients used. This led to delays and then in September a mold contamination problem at the Idaho plant.

The machine at Chobani swung into action, first recalling their product by contacting individual stores for a week or so before issuing the formal recall.

Public relations-wise, several positive steps were taken. They were active on social media, issuing an apology via Facebook that had the yogurt's defective code as well as a head shot of Ulukaya. They also reached out on Twitter and posted an apology letter to their website's homepage. The letter is well-written and thought out, and leads me to believe they had a template in place in order to be prepared for an event like this.

The homepage also had links to the FDA's report and the customer call center.

So Chobani's troubles (and $15 million loss in 2013) seem to connect more with growing pains and not with bad public relations, since they made wise choices to try and keep the public's trust after the mold contamination.

The company seems to have righted the ship, and now their problems have more to do with competition as well as a slowing of the market.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Good vs. Bad

           I think most of us know what bad PR looks like. A bigwig from a major oil company whining about wanting his life back while his product is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is a bad look on several different levels. 11 people died, and there is also the effect on wildlife, gas prices, and tourism, with the ensuing effect on merchants, fishermen, and more.

            My wife and I went to Orange Beach/Gulf Shores for our first anniversary in June 2010 and it was amazing how empty the beach was during what should have been a very busy time of year.

            This oil company had slashed their PR budget, meaning the boss was listening to people who lacked experience. These PR pros/consultants let him walk the beaches in a starched white shirt. A bit of a head scratcher, to say the least.

            That’s what bad PR looks like.

            On Veteran’s Day, Chili’s restaurant wanted to thank America’s military veterans by offering them a free meal, and they served over 200,000 of them. But one event in Cedar Hill, Texas (a DFW suburb) went horribly wrong. From Ian James Wright’s story for www.prnewsonline.com:

           "The apparent chain of events: Army veteran Ernest Walker, who is black, went to a Chili's in Cedar Hill, Texas, to claim his free meal, with his service dog in tow. An older white man (wearing a Trump shirt) questioned the veracity of his military service, saying that he had been in Germany during World War 2 and "they would not allow blacks." Soon thereafter, a manager approached Walker at the behest of guests who were saying he was "not a real soldier." The manager also questioned whether the dog, which was wearing its service vest and certified tags, was a real service dog. Walker produced military identification and discharge papers, but the manager still took away his food and asked him to leave. Walker recorded some video of the encounter and posted it to Facebook.

           So this got going very quickly on Twitter, as you might expect. Chili’s, to their credit, knew they had to get out in front of this and quickly. They personally apologized to Mr. Walker, fired the manager, sent out a press release apologizing for the event, and are working with Mr. Walker to further the resolution. Plus they did not make excuses—they owned their mistake and fixed it. This is what solid damage control PR looks like.


            I am a military veteran, and my wife and I on November 11 went to a major chain that offered 20% off an entrée. I took my discharge paper with me, because I don’t like putting people in a position of having to take my word for it. Nobody asked to see it, which I appreciated.

            It seems like this was more of a random act. Poor communication seems like the biggest flaw, but Chili’s got this right 200,000 other times. Perhaps they should have given people the benefit of the doubt and to err on the side of caution on whether a patron served in the armed forces. It’s just not worth it. Either this was not part of the discussion from the higher ups, or it was somehow not clear. As a result, the Facebook video cost them a ton of good publicity for doing something positive. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wells Fargo

By now surely you've heard of the Wells Fargo accounts scandal, where between 2011 and 2015 about 1.5 million checking and savings accounts, as well as 500,000 credit cards were created/issued without customer consent. Employees were told to have a goal of eight accounts per customer, oftentimes using aggressive selling tactics if necessary.

This scandal made the news in early September when we learned the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined the bank $185 million. It's chump change when an article I saw from 2015 said the bank's value was nearing $300 billion. Billion. With a B.

We've seen the Wells Fargo damage control PR machine at work. CEO John Stumpf saying the best thing he can do for the company is to stay and lead it. Chief Operating Officer Tim Sloan and other WF executives made the rounds on Capitol Hill trying to mitigate the damage, and Sloan himself has apologized repeatedly for the missteps. Money has been set aside for customer refunds. We heard the expected talk about restoring tarnished reputations. The program itself ends at the end of 2016.

These words and actions ring pretty hollow when you consider Carrie Tolstedt, who ran the community banking division where this happened, retired in July of this year with a golden parachute valued at nearly $125 million. Who knows how much cash they made on fees and whatnot from those unwanted accounts. The $185 million fine is probably their cost of doing business, a drop in the bucket when you consider that amount is less than 0.1% of an estimated value that nears $300 billion.

Additionally, 5,300 employees were fired and now have to find new jobs. No executives, unless you count John Stumpf, who finally resigned on October 12.

In my opinion, the PR steps Wells Fargo takes will be insufficient. It'll be a long time before they're able to repair their image. Perhaps if Stumpf had resigned last month the PR hit wouldn't have been quite as severe. Upping the amount set aside for customer refunds from $5 million to a much larger number would help, as would rehiring people who were axed. That is, assuming they'd want to come back in the first place.

Those are just a few of the things the bank could try to win back customer confidence. I look forward to reading the articles in public relations journals that talk about this scandal.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Missing Type

So yeah-- the PR professional who is working with Ryan Lochte kind of has her/his hands full these days. I think they tried their best to coach him for the interview with Matt Lauer, but when he didn't understand what was being asked, he hit the default button and went back to saying how sorry he was.

My two cents is that Lochte will get what he wants out of this. He needs a career outside of swimming and this will help generate enough buzz to convince an executive somewhere to put him back on a TV series of some sort. It doesn't matter that Lochte lied and ran, put his teammates in a bad spot, and was unconvincing in his apology. He'll get his.

Moving along...

I've seen the #missingtype hashtag in the news recently. NHS Blood and Transplant and London-based PR firm Engine Group have come together on this campaign during National Blood Week (August 16-21) to raise awareness of and increase blood donations worldwide. The campaign spanned 21 countries and involved 25 blood services.

Anyhow, many businesses such as Pizza Hut, Google, Microsoft and Xbox, as well as many English Premier League football teams, and various public establishments like museums have either darkened out or eliminated the letters A, B, and O from their names, as those three letters (and their variants) are the most common blood types.

It was a big success in 2015, with nearly 700 pieces of coverage. Social media also picked up on it, as the hashtags #NationalBloodWeek and #MissingType were trending. Close to a half million people engaged with the campaign on Facebook.

I can't stop thinking about what a wonderful idea this is, and how pleased I am that this is taking off. It reminds me of the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago and how much of a difference that made toward ALS research.

But the biggest success is that over 30,000 people registered to donate blood. Here's to hoping the trend continues this year and that folks continue to donate in the long term.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Delta Airlines

We've seen and heard a lot about Delta recently and not in a good way.

Delta of course dealt with a massive power outage that wreaked havoc on operations when backup systems didn't kick in as they should have, resulting in cancellations and disruptions all over the place. 1,700 flights were cancelled and 100,000 people had their lives disrupted-- and that number is conservative, since those are only Monday and Tuesday numbers, and Delta didn't resume a normal schedule until Friday. Business people missed meetings, families were late getting home from vacation, and lives were put on hold.

Not a good look for a company that has been running ads claiming that they've canceled cancellations.

Then when systems got back up and running, planes and crews were out of position, meaning the logjam was slow to clear itself up.

I'm not a frequent flier, so my experience with airline delays is limited. I've spent a morning and part of an afternoon at DFW because of summer weather delays, and I've waited a few hours at Hartsfield-Jackson for my wife's flight to come in after my own flight touched down. But nothing like camping out in an airport for a couple of days with nothing to do and nowhere to go, perhaps with restless kids or frustrated clients to deal with. Airports aren't designed to be a comfortable place, so the situation can be challenging all around.

Delta tried to get out in front of the situation, as CEO Ed Bastian personally apologized for the delay, then appeared in an additional video. The airline issued $200 vouchers early in the process and also waived rebooking fees. So their PR machine knew what to do.

But...

$200 doesn't sound like much when people may have been stuck for a couple of days. Airport food isn't cheap, and it may not be simple to make reservations for a nearby hotel, again to say nothing of the cost. This voucher was later extended to include Tuesday and Wednesday.

Delta initially said there was a power outage at their Atlanta headquarters, but Georgia Power denied it. The airline later owned the misstep.

Also when you're a company like Delta (and you're hanging your hat on 'no cancellations'), you'd better be sure your backup systems pick up if primary power is lost. Old technology, poor training, IT failure, it doesn't matter. Your computer systems need to run in order for planes/people/crews to get places and there had better be functioning secondary systems.

My thought is that the PR response is a bit mixed-- Delta took some positive, proactive steps, but also had some missteps and let a lot of people down. They've said they're sorry. If they mean it, they'll undergo a tech upgrade. They're a worldwide airline so they can't just shut things down while they switch things over. But that's why people get paid money-- to figure these things out and earn back some of the confidence that has been lost.