Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Your brand is every word, deed and action.  For the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, its current brand perception tinkers on hypocrite and blasphemous.

On the former, Mother Jones revealed yesterday the perceived leading champion in women’s cancer awareness, research and advocacy – the one that had cut ties with Planned Parenthood – is funding cancer research at Penn State’s medical center.  The rub?  Penn State is under federal investigation for failing to report crimes on campus (Google “Sandusky”), and that violates Komen’s policy on grant making. That’s the reason Komen gave Planned Parenthood, which uses the funds to provide breast health exams in underserved communities, because an apparent Congressional adversary to Planned Parenthood opened an investigation as to whether the nonprofit group uses federal funds to pay costs related to abortions.

Not only should Komen have anticipated the emotional backlash – amplified online, in traditional media, by advocacy groups and in political circles – but also done a little due diligence to make sure the Pink Ribbon wasn’t talking out of both sides of its mouth.  A few hours of homework on those fronts could have staved off what must be the worst week in Komen’s history.  First, cooler heads would have realized cutting ties to Planned Parenthood runs counter to the collective effort in advancing women’s access to healthcare – mission critical to both organizations; the blasphemous part  – and the response would be less than stunned silence.  Second, what you say and what you do can’t be out of alignment.  Saying you’re cutting ties to one group because of an investigation and not taking the same action against another is akin to political waffling on issues, and Komen tried to do that on MSNBC.

It’s hard to believe an organization the size and scale of Komen didn’t have a plan to anticipate where this action would lead.  Without one, a crisis can quickly escalate beyond control, leaving it to others (breast-cancer survivors and their families, media, advocacy groups, politicians, and so on) to shape perceptions.

For the Pink Ribbon, that perception isn’t as shiny or heart-warming as it used to be, but it took steps today to try bring back its luster.  It’ll be interesting to see if years of good will keep the tarnish off its image and supporters and angered cancer survivors will forgive the organization, or if Komen will find itself forced to revise or initiate a reputation management strategy to win back favor.

Inoculate Your Reputation Against Negative Situations

Inoculate Your Reputation Against Negative Situations.

Inoculate Your Reputation Against Negative Situations

A key element of crisis planning is anticipating vulnerabilities before the storm clouds roll in.

Any organization – nonprofit groups, consumer products, professional services, government agencies, you name it – is at risk of losing confidence from stakeholders.  From mismanagement to product recalls, malpractice to malfeasance and so on, any number of events can impact an ability to conduct business and negatively affect reputation.

Without a plan in place, a crisis can quickly escalate beyond control, leaving it to others (consumers, media, regulators, advocacy groups, plaintiffs’ attorneys) to shape perceptions.  In looking at events in 2011 that impacted the food industry, for example, organizations can learn how to build or modify their crisis plans, as described recently in a guest opinion column in The Packer.

Coaches, Leaders Failed in Going the Extra Distance

Main entrance of Old Main, at Penn State Unive...

Main entrance at Penn State University (Image via Wikipedia)

Happy Valley has a frown on its face – a sad and ashamed Nittany Lion.

In an earlier post, I touched upon how a poisoned corporate culture can paralyze an organization.  In the midst of crisis, that culture comes bubbling to the surface, defining true character that will guide or topple any organization experiencing turmoil.

The apparent culture at Penn State University is to tuck issues under the rug, get by with doing the bare minimum and CYA.  And that’s what broke the moral compass at PSU. Without a complete gutting of those in the know of the horrific acts that occurred on campus, the long-storied state university – “Success With Honor” – will be vilified in historic proportions.

At the onset of any potential crisis, doing what’s right is paramount – regardless of repercussions – and that includes going the extra distance.  What did you know, when did you know and what actions did you take?  These are tenets of crisis management.

If it was fourth and one with the game on the, Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary would have gone for it; with children’s safety on the line, the two coaches and the university punted.

Of Trust and Corporate Culture

Terry Francona

Image via Wikipedia

What’s the worst that could happen?  That simple question sets the stage in crisis planning – analyzing an organization’s risks and vulnerabilities to its ability to conduct business.  In BlackBerry’s case, an interruption in service surely had to be on the top-five list, somewhere close to declining stock and competitive pressure from iPhone and Droid.

Some 48 hours’ worth of interrupted services to BlackBerry users in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and most of North America could likely send long-lasting ripple effects to Research in Motion’s reputation.  Repairing that is no simple feat, and a discount on services is a nice gesture for the short term.  Earning back trust, as RIM founder and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis noted as a prime objective in the closing of a well-scripted video update on the crisis, is a more long-term endeavor.  While discounts will win favor among some consumers, that good will last only as long as it takes for BlackBerry to encounter and manage another crisis.

As forgiving as they are, consumers impart their trust on products and services that have a long history of exceptional service and performance.  For BlackBerry, whose entry in the tablet market is struggling and is also facing pressure from Apple’s foray into the messaging space, ensuring uninterrupted service is but one task to accomplish in regaining trust in the consumer marketplace.  The stakes are now even higher for BlackBerry to regain market share.  If it hasn’t already, BlackBerry would be wise to think of re-engineering its brand – R&D, platforms, feature sets, software, hardware, customer service – to one the evokes passionate customer experiences.  Doing so helps establish trust before a crisis occurs.  It’s a lot easier to bank on that than after a crisis happens.

The Culture on Yawkey Way

Avid BoSox fans, including yours truly, grew up accustomed to the foibles of the local nine, whether on the field or in the front office.  That changed significantly over the last decade when new ownership came into town.  Winning miraculously changes everything.

The Red Sox’ historic collapse this season, however, just didn’t lead to two-time World Series manager Terry Francona leaving Fenway or hometown born and bred GM Theo Epstein heading off to resuscitate the Cubs.  It revealed the organization’s corporate culture – distrust.

Booze, fast-food and video games?  The former manager’s marital woes and pain-killer meds?  That’s not at the heart of what befuddled the team, but they’re convenient smokescreens for the handful playing Deep Throat with the Boston news media.  These anonymous sources, likely both players and management, are revealing more about what they’re not saying.  Neither the players, coaching staff or ownership trust each other.  They couldn’t get on the same page and back each other up during the September slide to oblivion.  And when Francona tried to take the high-road in announcing his bon voyage, players were mum on the record, but anonymous sources bloomed.  As Epstein was in talks with the Cubs, more anonymous sources foamed at the mouth.  Now we’re hearing of players wanting to leave and player v. player finger pointing ad nauseum.

A backstabbing culture of distrust will cripple any organization.  Fixing that starts at the top, well above the general manager.  If not, the culture will continue to infest what should be one of the most storied brands in all of professional sports.

Lingering Questions in Perception of Food Safety

While the timing may have been sensitive (it was just days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks), the LA Times’ “Food Poisoning: America’s Homegrown Threat” revisited a June

New York Times column comparing the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil to the number of annual deaths related to foodborne illnesses.

Both articles made particular note of improvements in preventing terrorist attacks here in the U.S. and noted little of the same in food safety.  Not emphasized in the columns are the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, a buyer-led initiative to improve food safety standards on the heels of the 2006-07 spinach E.coli outbreak that is being considered for federal adoption, the Reportable Food Registry or the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.  None of these initiatives is perfect, but they are intended improvements from where we were back in 2006 when the FDA advised consumers to avoid eating spinach.

What the LA Times and New York Times did accomplish was reinforce that there’s a real food safety problem here in the U.S.  An NPR/Thomson Reuters poll this summer gives affirmation to that: 57% of consumers polled have a concern about food safety.  While that’s down from 61 percent a year ago, concerns with produce grew to 30% from 23%.

Recent statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control show 1 in 6 Americans get sick annually from the food they eat and, as both the newspaper columns highlighted, just as many deaths annually as those who died from the terror attacks:

  • 48 million illnesses annually
  • 128,000 hospitalizations
  • 3,000 fatalities
  • 31 known pathogens (most notably listeria, E.coli and salmonella, which is the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths)
    • 9.4 million illnesses (norovirus is the leading cause)
    • 56,000 hospitalizations
    • 1,350 fatalities
  • Unknown agents
    • 38.4 million illnesses
    • 71,800 hospitalizations
    • 1,700 fatalities

While some leaders in the food industry, regulators, consumer advocates and government push for and enact change, recent events prove the newspapers have a valid point:

2011

  • Ground Turkey (salmonella): 111 illnesses – one fatality; 31 states; 36 million pounds of turkey (fresh and frozen) recalled; two current lawsuits; one on behalf of a 10-month-old child
  • Cantaloupe (listeria): more than 50 illnesses in seven states; eight confirmed deaths; 300,000 cases shipped to 18 states
  • Olive Garden (hepatitis A): One infected employee; class-action lawsuit representing more than 3,000

2010

  • Sally Jackson Cheese (E.coli and listeria): Federal warning not to consume any product; sickened eight people in four states; business shut down after 30 years of operation
  • Eggs (salmonella): More 50 million eggs nationwide; hundreds reported ill across multiple states; recall in 48 states
  • Romaine lettuce (E.coli): Bagged salads; recall in 23 states; 12 people hospitalized – three with life-threatening illnesses

2009

  • Peanuts: More than 700 illnesses in 43 states; 166 hospitalized; nine killed; 125 related products; FDA/Justice Department criminal investigation; one-dozen civil lawsuits; Peanut Corp. of America declared bankruptcy

The message is pretty clear to consumers: Food safety is a real – and sometimes dire – concern.  The message to companies, commodity boards and other food organizations is even clearer: Make sure you have a plan and, if you do, review and test it routinely.

Are you prepared to respond to a food safety crisis or issue?

  • Do you have a crisis preparedness and management plan, and when was the last time it was reviewed or tested?  Was it a soup-to-nuts test along the supply chain or limited to a few aspects? Did it include stakeholder engagement?  What did you learn and did you implement changes?
  • Where is it?  Is it part of the operations manual?
  • Does it include what keeps you up at night (your greatest risks)?
  • Who’s on the crisis team and what are their responsibilities?  Are they still working for the organization? In the same role?  Is there one, final decision-maker (a crisis lead) or is it by committee (pray it isn’t)?
  • Do you have current contacts who can help (e.g., science and academia, industry associations, regulators, government, regulators)?
  • Do you have an experienced crisis communications strategist to manage all points of stakeholder engagement?
  • Who are your spokespeople and are they trained for speaking with media in the most tense circumstances and scrutiny?
  • Are you equipped to handle a crisis unfolding online?  What platforms are you using?  Are you at risk for having your brand hijacked online?  Is your social media team trained for crisis situations?
  • Are you willing to ask for forgiveness and influence change?