Public relations mistakes are bound to happen for any person or organization. The difference today is that social media can blow things up to an epic proportion in the blink of an eye. The end result of that is that a narrative is formed … quickly. The longer an organization takes to respond, the more firm the initial narrative becomes.
Part of my marketing work involves cleaning up public relations (PR) messes … they are seldom fun and leave their share of collateral damage. In the recent PR snafu involving the National Speakers Association (NSA) and their rebranding efforts, I can say that their PR damage control tactics are — believe it or not — pretty textbook.
Here are a few components of PR damage control you might want to be aware of in case you are ever on either side of the coin.
1. First, reaffirm … but ignore.
In the NSA’s case, social media went ablaze (my blog included) when they announced their rebrand, seen as a tread on blogger Michael Hyatt’s suite of Platform branded products and events.
The NSA eventually responded, essentially saying “we hear you.” This is pretty standard practice in PR damage control. In effect, it’s a doubling down of position. For those paying attention to this story, you’ll notice the NSA trying to remain civil, essentially saying “this is a misunderstanding.” Often this only incites the crowd more. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s bad.
2. Second, go dark and implement stealthy countermeasures.
This has two aims … first, it’s to see if the hubbub will die down on its own. If so, great. If reaffirming does the opposite (i.e. incite the crowd more), the other goal then becomes buying time to contact third parties to paint the opposition as a bunch of crazies. Employ other voices (under the radar) that can stand up for the brand.
I’m not saying the NSA is doing this, but it’s pretty standard PR protocol. An organization as large as the NSA may have some of their tribe do this without being asked. A few have commented on my blog, and essentially copied and pasted their comments on other blog posts covering this issue.
Either way the point of going dark is to create a buffer around the “core” of the organization, let the shock troops fight out on the frontlines (i.e. on blog comments) and read the lay of the PR landscape.
3. Third, offer a diversionary (fake) olive branch.
This can be as simple as a “Hey, we hear you and we will respond. In the meantime, why not download this free fill-in-the-blank?” People buy in to the shiny new object, and it deflates some of the tension from the initial outcry. The key here is to let people’s voices “be heard” (even if you don’t plan on doing anything with their comments) … WITHOUT agreeing to a compromise.
In the NSA’s case, they’ve followed this to a tee. In their first (and so far, only) response to the matter, they have given opportunity for voices to be heard but have NOT agreed to any sort of compromise. As a copywriter, this is vividly apparent to me:
Two years in the making, this launch is just an announcement. Over the next 12 months, we will continue to engage with you, the membership, as we finalize the roll-out of this new brand. In fact, we want to give you your own “platform” to be heard. Send comments, concerns and feedback directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notice they have said nothing about reneging (yet) on their brand rollout. It’s intentionally vague. Whether you agree or not, this is standard practice in PR damage control.
4. If the issue stays hot, decide what option is more financially viable.
Is it more cost-effective to do an about face, or to plow through despite the outcry? The most important here is the often fickle nature of the offended party. I can tell you firsthand from my PR experiences: when a story was hot, we would give it a few days to see if it would die down. Let’s say the commotion doesn’t relent. The bigger question then becomes whether you can actually profit from an about face. In the NSA’s case, can a rebrand of the new rebrand ultimately be monetized? If not, they might be more apt to plow through the controversy.
How social media has changed PR damage control.
I’ve seen both the business and nonprofit side of PR messes. The bunker strategy I’ve outlined here has, for the most part, been foolproof … forever! The major change nowadays is that social media has given every individual a voice, and if those individual voices have their own platforms (i.e. a blog) they can really stir up and extend the life of the story.
Think about PR outcries in the old days. Can you imagine how much work was necessary to amass, say even 10,000 protestors to an event or onto the front steps of a controversial organization? By the time the protest is organized, the hubbub will have died. People lose interest quickly, not to mention costs of time and money. The bunker strategy wins.
The internet has empowered the individual voice, which is why media-savvy protesters (either in this Hyatt / NSA case or for other issues) will simply do their best to push out content piece after content piece to keep the issue HOT. In my opinion, that’s great for the individual voice. The people should be heard. (Admittedly, it’s made some of the damage control work I’ve done infinitely harder.)
Is the NSA out of touch?
I don’t think the NSA is out of touch. These aren’t stupid people, despite what you think about their rebranding choice. They seem to be following textbook protocol, which is to essentially assess their options. Still, somewhere in the NSA think tank, PR teams, lawyers, and upper management are looking at NUMBERS more than comments because more often than not, that is the determining factor in a PR mess. They’ve already admitted to pouring half a million dollars into this rebrand. That is not an issue they will just sweep under the rug.
If you’re a Hyatt fan, the best thing you can probably do is to keep the story alive. Get others (even within the NSA tribe) speaking out about the issue. Put out a call to integrity on the part of the NSA. This issue has stirred a rabid response from Michael’s tribe … I’m one of them but I’ve tried to be more objective in my posts from a marketing standpoint.
If you’re an NSA fan, the best thing you can do is either portray Hyatt fans as a bunch of crazies, or try to soften the impact of the outcry by simply going silent. Essentially that creates a conversation vacuum and results in a bunch of people from the same side (Hyatt’s) saying the same thing. However, I don’t think this will work simply because the narrative has been formed, and in my humble opinion the NSA is the one that blundered on this, not Michael Hyatt.
Like it or not, this is textbook PR damage control. Granted, I do hope both of these organizations come out better for it. It’s definitely a wait and see, but I assure you this is an INTENTIONAL wait-and-see on the part of the NSA.
Question: What do you think about the damage control tactics laid out here … or the NSA’s in general?
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