All in Crisis Communication

Newcastle United FC is a storied franchise in English football and 'my club' in the sense that I was born a Geordie (the name used to describe people from the northeast of England) and therefore am genetically predisposed to being a member of The Toon Army, as frustrating as that can be. My father (long deceased) was a friend of one of the team's legends, Jackie Milburn ('Wor Jackie' as he is known), from when they both lived in Ashington in the 1940s.

This past season was a disaster for the club, with managers changing three times during a 38-game season and poor performances on the field by highly paid "stars'. The result is an ignominious demotion to the Coca-Cola Championship from the Barclays Premier League (where such other well-known franchises as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool play).

The owner -- Mike Ashley, who has been problematic, if not a disaster, from the beginning according to most reports -- has been trying to sell the club since at least the last day of the Premiership season. It is now being coached by an interim manager.The players are furious and many of the first string players are asking for transfers. Even Ashley admits he has made a mess of things: “It has been catastrophic for everybody. I’ve lost my money and I’ve made terrible decisions. Now I want to sell it as soon as I can."

I have watched the public relations calamity unfold online on an almost daily basis through news reports from British newspapers and the NUFC's website (which tends to report absolutely zilch about what is going on). The extraordinary thing is that management appears to be saying naught. News reports are based almost exclusively on comments by players or "sources' close to the club.

From what I can tell, management has said nothing to reassure the city of Newcastle nor the club's extraordinarily devoted fans that the coming season in the lower division will be nothing short of a debacle. No reassurances are being given; no sympathy expressed; no plans outlined; no time frames given; no deadlines offered . . . in other words, completely counter to basic crisis communications principles.

Okay, maybe management doesn't see the situation as a crisis. Maybe management's solicitors or investment bankers have said it must say nothing. Maybe it is sending out news updates that no news outlet is picking up. Maybe it has a social network, YouTube channel, blog or Twitter presence which I just haven't been able to find. Or maybe management simply doesn't recognize the damage that is being done to its reputation.

The supporters will be there for the players on the pitch when the dust settles: but when Geordies are called on to support an NUFC management business initiative, when the city is asked for a concession or a tax, or when the club's history is written, who will be there to defend management's interest and its "license to operate" the Geordies' club?

Lots of juicy factoids and information today that add a little more to my thinking on new communication memes:

  • Twitter_logo_header Of the many striking statistics in a report called 'Inside Twitter' out of Canada's Sysomos people, this one stands out for evidence of the sheer stupidity of the hordes who now call themselves  'social media consultants': "Of people who identify themselves as social media marketers, 65.5% have never posted an update (on Twitter)."  I guess they just can't be bothered . . . or don't have time?
  • To be filed under the tab 'Public Relations Through the Rear View Mirror', according to an article today in the Ottawa Citizen Canada's National Defence HQ has a new 'conduit' approach to public relations (in which all media questions are funneled through public affairs staff, with the journalist never allowed to speak to a subject matter expert directly) that the writer calls the 24 DAY news cycle: "Into this brave new world of hyper-speed news gathering, NDHQ has rolled out what I’ve termed, the “24-day news cycle. Yes, 24 days…..That’s about the length of time I figure that it takes NDHQ to answer a question from the news media…..if it is answered at all."

  • Bear with me on this one. Those who follow me on Twitter will know that as a native 'Geordie' I am an ardent -- and frustrated, some would say foolish -- supporter of the Newcastle United football club, formerly of the English Premier League now relegated to tier two football as a result of an abysmal season this past year. Thankfully, the owner has put the club up for sale (at 0,,10278~3488677,00 about US$200 million). Before he did so, he published a statement in which he said "I'm sorry" about four or five times. Frankly, it sounded hollow given Ashley's unwillingness to invest in the club and his lack of commitment to its success in spite of having one of the most loyal fan bases of any football club. The lesson here is simple . . . saying 'Im sorry' in a crisis is not enough. An apology has to be backed up by action to resolve the underlying problem. In this case, the owner getting out is the right move, although that is not counsel I would give to many CEOs.

  • Finally, this about philanthropic giving . . . "Today, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) shares a first-look at results from its annual philanthropy survey of nearly 140 leading companies, revealing that 53% of companies increased their total philanthropic donations in 2008, and 27% increased their giving by more than 10% year-over-year." So things are not as bad as the CR critics would have us believe.

Maple Leaf Foods (not a client) today launched a blog in response to the 2008 Listeria deaths caused by eating its deli meats and, as with much of how the company handled the crisis, it is a very good model for the language and tone of effective messaging . . . frank, honest and contrite. (Although its design is quite lackluster.)

The first post is by CEO Michael McCain and here is how it begins: "Since August 2008 twenty-one Canadians have died after eating Maple Leaf deli meats contaminated with Listeria.  We all watched in horror as the worst food safety crisis in modern Canadian history rolled across the country." Now that's frank and the antithesis of how many companies begin apologies after serious events.

Later in the post Mr. McCain writes "This was by far the most awful event in the one hundred year history of our company.  I can’t properly describe the overwhelming sense of grief and responsibility we all felt … I felt, personally (emphasis added).  You may remember seeing me on television back then, apologizing for the tragedy and vowing to develop the most comprehensive anti-Listeria program of any food company in Canada." He then goes on to outline in details the changes Maple Leaf has made to reduce Listeria findings in its plants.

Even more significant he actually raises three subsequent issues related to Maple Leaf Foods' safety performance that most people had likely forgotten.

Textbook . . .

Since I have such respect for the quality of writing and ideas (although not always the politics) in the British magazine The Spectator, I am always delighted when the point of view of an editor or writer corresponds to my own. (I am not foolish enough to think there is any correlation between the two other than coincidence).

So imagine my contentment in reading the February 14th number when both the lead editorial and a column by Sarah Standing echoed comments I have posted here and here over the past few weeks.

Sarah Standing on saying sorry:

" 'Sorry' has lost its mojo for me, it's gone mainstream. It's one of those words that began life as a covetable Chanel handbag only to end up as a worthless flake flogged on eBay . . . I no longer believe in all these force-fed public apologies. They're starting to sound very hollow . . . I'm old school and from where I stand a true apology should come from the heart."

And not, I would add, because a crisis communications or political consultant has said it is necessary to apologize when harm has been caused. Without sincerity an apology is nothing more than gamesmanship. 

The editorial 'Bonus Points' calls out many British bankers for the damage caused by the huge payouts they received, which lead as the editors conclude to the wrong balancing of risk and reward

"Bankers must face reality and bring about changes themselves, rather than trying to face down public disgust with a last-ditch defence of the status quo. Their profession has to revert to being dull but respectable, decently but not lavishly paid, transparent in its accounting practices and the way it measures profits, intelligently regulated, and by nature risk-averse. And if that means talented people drift away from the banking sector, so be it: there are plenty of other parts of the economy that urgently need them".

Better said than by me, but at least my ideas are in line with some top notch writers.

LogoLaw Times (which keeps "keeps Ontario's busy lawyers and corporate counsel up-to-date with developments and trends in Ontario's legal scene") associate editor Robert Todd interviewed me about the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis crisis.

While I usually refrain from commenting on how crises are being managed by companies with which I am not involved, and I respect the confidentiality of those clients with whom I am working on a crisis or major issue, in this case I felt it was okay to comment since I only had positive things to say about Maple Leaf Foods.   

The article is fair and accurate and provides a good summary of my point of view on the role of legal counsel in a crisis.

There are a million "stories" online, and some of them say a lot about the different attributes that now constitute reputation:

Relentless PR, which I guess is a competitor of sorts, each month thanks people who have contributed to the 'conversation' on its collective blog. Because it features a former colleague, Leo Bottary, I have paid more attention to it than I might otherwise . . . and have even commented on posts. But the very fact that my name is included in the list boosts my willingness to put in more time on the blog.

Politeness evidently builds reputation.

The Chicago Tribune featured a piece on Monday about the use of Twitter and other social media tools during Hurricane Gustav. (Hat tip to Mark Shadle for this.) According to the Tribune, "Bloggers said their fascination with the possibilities of using online networks to track the storm and help others was fueled by new technology available to them as well as lingering frustration over the response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago."

People trust those with whom they share social networks, even if they are not "friends" as traditionally understood.

Gerald Barron at Crisisblogger points to a top notch analysis of the impact of social media on corporate reputation and customer behaviour. Michael Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomson Nelson Publishers, blogs about how quickly a brand can be damaged through viral criticism online. In particular, Hyatt talks about how Twitter was used to spread a specific example of poor customer service and uses that as a jumping of point for offering seven lessons for defending a company's reputation and brand in our digital age. The lessons are commonplace (no offence meant Mr. Hyatt.) But the fact they are coming from a CEO might cause others in the C-suite to pause as they consider reputation management strategies.Two lessons that stand out: Respond quickly and admit your mistakes.

As Gerald Barron observes,"The old Chinese proverb needs to be updated: 'It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, a single tweet to destroy it.' "

And below is a nice image from a post (no attribution of the image is given) by Jay Thompson that captures it all:


Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods (not a client), in the midst of a full recall of the food products made in its Bator Road facility at a news conference yesterday as quoted in The Globe and Mail:

"Going through the crisis there are two advisers I've paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It's not about money or legal liability, this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food."

Maple Leaf Foods full page "open letter" in today's The Globe and Mail:

"This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain."

Daniel Diermeier, a professor of regulation and competitive practice at Chicago's Kellogg School of Management has this to say today in The Globe and Mail about Maple Leaf Foods Inc.'s reaction to its meat product recall:

"They face a very, very difficult challenge here and it's very important that they have stepped forward and accepted responsibility. They have chosen to protect their brand, rather than protecting their legal liability. This is correct. They can deal with legal issues later, after they have rescued the brand . . . Crisis management should never be delegated to a legal department or corporate counsel."

Couldn't have said it better myself.


It is hard to take Twitter seriously with a name like that . . . but I do, and can think of a number of serious (as opposed to 'fun' or 'social') applications of a micro-blogging platform.

Last year there were some useful posts about various uses for Twitter. A couple of the more complete lists were:

But this post was prompted specifically by a John Dickerson article in Slate addressed to journalists called "Don't Fear Twitter".  Chief political correspondent for Slate, Dickerson addresses the idea that with the traditional "space" for journalism shrinking (read fewer publications, reduced lineage, serious writing replaced by celebrity gossip and other trashy amusements) no journalist would want to take up a medium restricted to 140 characters.

On the contrary, says Dickerson . . .  

"If written the right way, Twitter entries build a community of readers who find their way to longer articles because they are lured by these moment-by-moment observations. As a reader, I've found that I'm exposed to a wider variety of news because I read articles suggested to me by the wide variety of people I follow on Twitter. I'm also exposed to some keen political observers and sharp writers who have never practiced journalism."

So here three personal reasons for tweeting on and off throughout the day, all of which suggest uses for Twitter in a corporate context:

  1. Similar to Dickerson, I get exposed quickly and without much editorializing to a variety of links -- some worthwhile, others trivial -- from people whose ideas I generally respect and whose knowledge adds to mine. Since I "follow" people who share an interest in social media, politics, public relations, literature and film, the tweets are nearly always 'productive'.
  2. Similar to reason one, Twitter democratizes the sharing of ideas. There are no inferred hierarchies, only that derived from the value to me of the content posted. The focus is content and point of view, not position or role.
  3. The possibilities of Twitter as a form of instant, broad communication to different groupings and 'classes' of people are made manifest each time a subject is picked and pursued. Twitter reveals the potential for quick discussion, concept sharing or action by cohorts of people sharing common cause. I can see activists creating dedicated Twitter groups to synchronize action, or companies constructing Twitter crisis management teams for coordinating emergency response.

Yes . . . it is also fun to know that @leahjones in San Francisco is standing at the bus stop smelling cotton candy at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday morning (a tweet from five minutes ago) . . . someone who I have never met.

I have an article on corporate apologies in the latest issue of Ampersand, Hill & Knowlton's online "magazine". 

This is my third piece or post on the subject, and although the argument will have a long shelf-life, I suspect I should give it a rest. I will end (well maybe) with a quote from my H&K colleague Chris Gidez who takes a somewhat different approach to the issue in a post from earlier in the year: "But at the end of the day, such an expression (apology - my note) is nothing more than a Band-Aid.  It doesn't cure the ill."

If you come to the issue of corporate apologies from the perspective of ethics, can I also recommend you take a look at the article in the same issue by Stuart Smith and Carole Essex on the sustainable enterprise.

Another reminder to corporate executives and politicians there is no such thing as off the record when talking to journalists . . .

And in the spirit of Leslie Stahl's immortal words shortly after catching a CEO making a snide comment about an opponent supposedly in a camera break, "We're not your friends" . . .

Jesse Jackson gets caught whispering disparagingly about Barack Obama.


I didn't know it at the time of my post on apologies, but on March 25, 2008 the Ontario Bar Association (a branch of the Canadian Bar Association) sent a letter to the provincial government urging the Attorney General of Ontario to amend or enact legislation to "give effect to the provisions of the Uniform Apology Act" in the province.

Forgive the legal language, but here is what the central parts of the proposed Uniform Apology Act (also available on the OBA's website) have to recommend about the effect of an apology (corporate or personal) on liability.

Should such legislation be enacted, the benefit for companies (the legislation would apply to "all persons, natural and corporate") facing a crisis in which management recognizes it has done something worthy of apology is self-evident.

2 (1) An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter

(a) does not constitute an express of implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter,

(b) does not constitute [a confirmation of a cause of action or acknowledgment of a claim] in relation to that matter for the purposes of [appropriate section of the applicable limitation statute],

(c) does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance and despite any other enactment or law, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance coverage that is available, or that would, but for the apology, be available, to the person in connection with that matter, and

(d) may not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter.

Thanks to Will Hardie of Pinnacle PR, I am relieved of the task of blogging about the presentation I gave about 60 minutes ago at the International Public Relations Association Summit in London.

Will is live blogging the conference and doing a better job of reporting me than I could. I go on auto-pilot when I present and can't remember the detail of what I said. Conference presentations are performances.

So take a look here for my contribution . . . and you can link back to his digest of other presentations.

Doctor By coincidence given my post yesterday today's New York Times has an article called Doctors Start to Say 'I'm Sorry' Long Before 'See You in Court'.

Physicians and even malpractice lawyers in the US are becoming more willing to find a way to communicate regret when a patient is harmed in error:

"By promptly disclosing medical errors and offering earnest apologies and fair compensation, they hope to restore integrity to dealings with patients, make it easier to learn from mistakes and dilute anger that often fuels lawsuits.

Malpractice lawyers say that what often transforms a reasonable patient into an indignant plaintiff is less an error than its concealment, and the victim’s concern that it will happen again."

Images_2 Assuming approval by the editors of Hill & Knowlton's online journal Ampersand, the next issue will feature another piece by me.

This time its focus is on apologies and legal liability, a subject I started to explore a little while ago in another post. (My previous contribution was on what public relations professionals can learn from Shakespeare about communications strategies.)

Here are four ideas that conclude the anticipated Ampersand contribution about how in-house or external public relations counselors can keep a company's business objectives in mind, and serve as more useful partners to legal teams especially during a crisis: Make clear to clients and legal counsel that an effective ‘apology’ can mean simply acknowledging that harm has occurred and an expressing sympathy about the consequences of the event on the affected people; Get to know the specific laws in your jurisdiction with respect to legal liability for statements of regret, distress, apology, concern, worry, anxiety; Ask legal counsel to specify: What are the legal consequences if your statement confirms that the company feels badly about what has happened? Ask legal counsel to provide a range of words that CAN be used with relative impunity to express remorse , distress, or regret depending on the particular circumstances of the crisis event.

Is that enough of a tickler to take a look at the article when it is published?

An interesting and spirited discussion taking place at my colleague Brendan Hodgson's blog on whether communications can take place in Canada's two official languages -- English and French -- during a disaster, accident or highly time sensitive crisis. As Gerald Baron at CrisisBlogger points out: "The determining factor for speed used to be 'how soon will the news helicopters arrive?' Now it is 'how soon will someone with a cellphone and cell camera convey it to the news media?' Instant news is now instant news."

I am not sure on which side I come down on in the debate. The question I would ask is this: If the chief communicator responsible for managing communications during the crisis is a francophone and is more comfortable writing clear messaging in French, should the organization wait until it is translated into English?  Communication in a crisis is never perfect, usually more ad hoc than we would like, and frequently stalled by over-cautious executives and legal counsel. You just do your best. 

Part of the solution, though, is to have as much back-up data and messaging in a crisis dark site -- pre-translated if that is a requirement under federal government regulations -- so that at least some core messaging and information is vetted and translated and ready to go in the event of a serious incident.

Peter Kurer, the new president of UBS, is right when, in a Financial Times cover story, he says that :

“We shouldn't fool ourselves. “We can’t pretend that there has been no reputational damage. Experience says it goes away after two or three years.”

That's probably about what it takes . . . but it depends on what you do, and how others see you. To start with, "goes away" is an imperfect way to describe what has to happen. And putting a time frame on reputation recovery (Ross suggests 3.5 years is closer to the norm) without having established the company's business renewal and communications plan is like trying to describe the length of piece of string.

Critical steps include creating internal stability, institutional investor tolerance (if not confidence) a clear business and market revitalization design and a communications strategy which incorporates employee and stakeholder trust building, evident commitment to responsible conduct and plans for use of effective digital strategies (including SEO?).

One wonders if UBS is starting on positive footing. It seems some investors including Luqman Arnold, UBS’s former president, don't think Mr. Kurer is the right man for the job given his background as the bank’s former general counsel. It might just take UBS a little longer.


Arguably the toughest part of managing the reputation of a company in a crisis is negotiating with legal counsel about what can and can't be said especially if the appropriate communication response is accepting responsibility or apologizing for misbehavior.

Lawyers/attorneys invariably counsel against saying anything in the belief that an apology increases the company's legal liability. CEOs are quick to believe this argument. They will sometimes shut down communication . . . at the expense of protecting the company's reputation and delaying reputation recovery.

Having provided crisis communications counsel for the past twenty years, I have had a hard time seeing how an apology constitutes an admission of guilt. But lawyers always win this argument in the C-suite frankly without ever having to provide evidence to support their point of view.

It seems I may not be so stupid after all. According to an abstract from an article by Ameeta Patel and Lamar Reinsch in Business Communication Quarterly from 2003 which I have just come across it would appear there is support for the idea that "a company can apologize to someone who has been injured by a product or an employee without creating a legal liability for the company."

While I try to get access to the complete article here is a summary of their argument:

"Discussions of corporate apologies frequently . . . imply that apologies create legal liabilities for the apologist and, therefore, that corporate attorneys routinely recommend against apologies. A review of formal ("block letter") and common law indicates that apologies generally do not constitute evidence of guilt and that, in fact, they sometimes have positive consequences for the apologist. Persons who practice (or teach) crisis communication should avoid the mistake of relying on an over-simplified and inaccurate understanding of the legal issues surrounding corporate apologies."

I can't wait to read the full paper, and take a close look at its references.