The recent firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod over her suspected racist comments clearly demonstrates the dangers of going into crisis mode before understanding all the facts.

It looked like damning evidence.  A video of Ms. Sherrod delivering a speech at an NAACP banquet, telling a story about her time at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago when she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have.  “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land,” Sherrod said in her speech. “So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”

If the story had stopped there, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would have been correct in letting her go and the NAACP would have been right to denounce her behavior.  But further context revealed the truth was not as sinister as it appeared.  In fact, Sherrod ended up helping the farmer, and it was that episode that made her realize that there “is no difference between us” and the point was to help people in need of opportunity, regardless of race.  The farmer and his wife even call Sherrod a “friend for life.”

It’s the height of bitter irony that the story that got Sherrod fired was the one that taught her race doesn’t matter.  Secretary Vilsack, at the behest of President Obama, is reconsidering the case and a larger investigation is being conducted.  But is it too late?

There are no winners in this story.  Only an elementary lesson that we seemingly have to learn over and over again.  Obtain and understand ALL the facts.

In Ms. Sherrod’s case, the Agriculture Department failed to do that.  Instead, this incident has become one of those sad stories that reminds us that racial tensions are all but gone.  I won’t address the larger implications of that narrative because, frankly, it’s above my pay grade.  But I will note that there are very real consequences to poor communication.

It is a challenging communications world.  With citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media reporting, stories unfold in real time.  When the plane landed in the Hudson, US Air was criticized for taking 11 minutes to respond.  But it wouldn’t have taken that long to listen to Sherrod’s story and understand its full scope; it may have even been sufficient to put out a statement that the Administration was investigating the incident.

The (well, a) moral of the story: in a crisis, correct always trumps quick.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

As a long-time iPod and recent iPad owner, as well as an iMac and iPhone admirer (maybe someday…), I’ve always experienced satisfaction with the Apple products I’ve owned. The rare technological glitches I’ve encountered over the years have been immediately rectified by the incredibly qualified staff in the Apple stores. Best of all, I find myself frequently awing an audience with a “watch this!” iPad party trick. Quite frankly, the products are nothing short of phenomenal. Apple products are cool and they make me feel cool.

(Note: Apple’s advertisers, who are without question reading this post, please contact me for my address as you will no doubt wish to send me a free Mac Book Pro to thank me for the plug.)

The newest version of the super-company’s iPhone was championed as a tremendous technological success. Among other cool features, the phone boasts antennae built into the sides of the phone to make room for the battery. Well, that feature was cool, that is until users started to lose reception if they held their phone too tightly or hit a certain spot on the side panels. Lefties had an especially hard time keeping calls (life is so hard for us lefties sometimes).

Enter Apple’s claim that reception issues were the result of “faulty software” which displayed two more signal-service bars than there actually were. While my conspiracy theory cynicism has a hard time digesting this claim, users nonetheless found that the problem is not an AT&T service issue, but a flaw with the iPhone itself. The problem is fixable by covering the antenna outlet with a strip of duct tape. Who wouldn’t want their brand-new iPhone 4 covered in duct tape?

So Apple screwed up. It happens. Any practical observer could guarantee that tried-and-true crisis management techniques could have quickly and efficiently put the issue to bed, and in part, Apple did just that. However, Apple is not a company used to being wrong. And, boy, did it show.

After consumer complaints started to hit the Internet airwaves, Apple went on the defensive. They quickly pulled down negative comments. Users trying to reach Apple message boards found them deleted. I’d liken this to the rarely effective “duck and cover” method of crisis management.

Last Friday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage to address the iPhone “Anntenagate” scandal. While ensuring that the no-questions-asked return policy would continue until the end of September and offering all iPhone 4 users a phone case (hopefully more aesthetically-pleasing than the duct tape) Jobs utilized a “give it with one hand and take it back with the other” apology.

Jobs stated that the problem was not unique to the iPhone and cited HTC and RIM (I’m sorry, who?) as smartphones that experience similar malfunctions. While the PR panel on the stage adeptly dodged hardware malfunction questions, Jobs asked rhetorically if we’ve learned to trust Apple after 34 years. He ended by saying, rather petulantly, “I guess it’s just human nature. When you see someone get successful you just want to tear it down.”

I’m sorry, Apple. You may be putting it down, but I ain’t picking it up. You screwed up. But you know what? It could have been okay. Companies make mistakes. After 34 years Apple does have loyal consumers who do trust it and its products. But if you sold a faulty product, step up and take responsibility. Say you’re sorry, fix it, and then be quiet and continue to do what you do so well. This mistake is yours and not the consumers who are trying to “tear you down.” There’s a big lesson in crisis management here, and unfortunately it’s more of a “what not to do.”

Will this define Apple’s reputation?  Of course not. Life is about learning lessons and it looks like Apple learned this one the hard way. So buck up and take it in stride, Apple. After all, I still think you’re pretty cool.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.20.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

If you’re not one of the 10 million people who watched LeBron James’ announcement special last week you’ve still undoubtedly heard the hoopla surrounding it. The one-hour decision decree, aired on ESPN, was made possible by paid advertisement. Albeit most proceeds went to charity, the program netted nearly 6 million dollars in ad revenue. It should be noted that sponsors like Vitamin Water, McDonalds, State Farm and Microsoft’s Bing all have preexisting endorsement deals with the self-anointed King.

Manufactured primarily by “Lebrontourage” and agent Ari Emmanuel, the decision to air James’ move to the Miami Heat as a television special yields a back story that resembles the making of a Hollywood movie. Whether you champion James’ move to the Heat or were one of many Cavs fans setting his jersey ablaze, the question at the heart of this story remains did ESPN sell out?

The blurring of journalistic lines here is pretty significant. It seems clear that the desire for ratings was placed above news-reporting. Do people care about LeBron’s decision? Absolutely. Is it newsworthy? Of course. Does the production surrounding the announcement further mar the reputation of ESPN as a legitimate sports journalism outlet? Well…yeah. Did ESPN compromise its journalistic integrity while fueling the massive ego of a sports celebrity? (I’ll let you answer that one on your own).

I’ll admit I’m not much of a sport fan. So I’ll leave it to other bloggers to scrutinize the intent behind ESPN’s decision. Regardless of the motivation, the bigger picture leaves one wondering about the future of all journalistic reporting. Is advertiser-fueled programming the wave of the future? According to a recent study published by Ball State University, Americans get only 50% of their information from traditional media. While the world moves increasingly online, are traditional media sources grasping at straws to stay afloat? The line is getting pretty blurry. One can hardly read an actual newspaper without being inundated with advertisements that are run alongside content. What’s next? The State of the Union address with the Golden Arches prominently displayed behind the leader of the free world?

No matter your feelings with regard to LeBron James or ESPN, it’s hard to deny the blatant success it yielded for advertisers everywhere. It’ll be interesting to see what this decision means for the future (and no, I’m not talking about a possible championship win) of advertising’s role in traditional media. Like the Lebron announcement, I guess we’ll all be witnesses.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.14.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Making messages resonate starts with understanding your audience.  Experience has taught me that people like to see a reflection of themselves – their interests, their lives, their aspirations.  The last one is exceptionally powerful, because it implies the future.

I’ll apply this thesis to something I understand considerably better – television.  Looking specifically at AMC’s Mad Men, there are takeaways that explain why its messages resonate so strongly with viewers.

Frank Rich hit the nail on the head about what makes Mad Men so relevant.  “…it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change.  Mad Men is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn.  And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.”

Uncertainty and worry have marked the news of the day.  In just the last decade, we’ve been rocked by changes, from 9/11 to the recession, and it is clear that moving forward, America will be markedly different.  Watching the Mad Men generation approach a period of significant change, there is something comfortable, sensible and satisfying about knowing the outcome.  The writers have perfectly defined their audience’s psyche and have tapped into it brilliantly.

But before you decide that all messages should involve fedoras, afternoon gimlets and infidelity, beware of audience fatigue and cultural shift (Wall Street 2 isn’t going to be about the hedonistic lives of bankers) and always be looking ahead of trends (no, not vampires).

After all, as Don Draper said, “Nostalgia is delicate, but potent.”

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

I’m a teacher working on my Master’s degree and happen to spend my summers as a marketing assistant. This means two things: first, I’m a busy girl. Second, when it comes to shopping, I’m looking for a deal (graduate school does not, despite many inquiries on my part, pay for itself). But as someone who spends her career investing in the future by educating children, I’d also like to know I’m investing my money in companies, brands and products that are making the world a better place. Finding a deal has to do with cost, sure, but also knowing my money is being used for good.

During the height of the Gulf Coast oil spill news coverage, P&G re-launched a cause marketing campaign to promote the role of Dawn dish soap to help preserve wildlife. Aside from the images of helplessly adorable animals being saved by the product (works every time), a bottle of Dawn dish soap with the image of an otter now sits beneath my sink for another reason. I saw a horrible environmental tragedy unfolding hundreds of miles away and wanted to help. Lack of time and funds truncated my immediate and emotionally-fueled decision to head down there and take care of things myself, but P&G’s campaign offered me that opportunity in a quick, easy and affordable way. By purchasing some Dawn dish soap I felt good and knew they were doing some good- isn’t that what cause marketing is all about?

Undoubtedly, P&G is good at social responsibility. As a teacher and a consumer, that’s important to me. Starbucks, Chipolte, and Whole Foods are places that are also doing a lot of good- and making a lot of MY money. In today’s busy world, I want to know companies care. I want to know they’re committed to making a difference and I want to know there are people behind my brands. I may not be able to head down to the coast and lend a hand, but I may have actually found a way to heal the world by shopping. And that is a very good thing.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.7.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

So we all have our little guilty pleasures that we are embarrassed to discuss with others. Mine just happens to be The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise. Swallowing my embarrassment, I need to discuss the actions of one contestant from this past week’s episode.

In case you missed it, it was drama packed, and no, it didn’t occur with “the most dramatic rose ceremony yet.” It was uncovered that contestant Justin indeed had a girlfriend, a big “no no” in The Bachelorette world. While all the men were lounging in their hotel room, Bachelorette Ali entered and cornered Justin regarding these accusations. His response…he fled. There was no communication. He gathered his belongings and ran out the door. With Ali on his tail, he jumped bushes and leapt over fountains, all with a cast on his right foot. He looked ridiculous. Ali’s comment: “You’re going to regret this Justin.”  My interpretation… he’s not going to regret hurting Ali’s feelings or even coming on the show, but rather choices and behaviors during this “crisis.”

Why didn’t he have a speech in place? Did he not think he would be discovered? Why didn’t he know what to say or what to do when the inevitable occurred? Even worse, this is not the first instance of a coupled contestant. (Remember Wes from Bachelorette Jillian Harris’s season?)

Even from reality television, we can learn a few things about what and what not to do in the moment of a crisis. It is important to have a plan in place, even if there is no crisis on the horizon.  Knowing what to say and how to act in the heat of the moment will help your reputation in the long haul.

My comment? I hope Frank behaves more like a man and takes notes from Justin’s mistakes when he too allegedly reveals he has a girlfriend.

Posted by Amy Jones, Account Manager, 7.1.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

After six weeks of canned sound bites and verbal gaffes (courtesy of BP’s Tony Hayward) regarding the Gulf Coast oil spill, I’d like to extend a sincere thanks to President Obama for getting real in an interview with the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer.  Obama said he has been talking with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts about the spill because “they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

While I wouldn’t want a president to deliver the State of the Union laced with profanity, a little candor replaces decorum nicely in some situations.  This oil spill is an enormous mess with no end in sight and Obama’s comment effectively sums up the sentiments of the American people.  Sometimes, the most effective communications are those that legitimize feelings, even if they don’t solve problems.

However, there is a limit to how “real” a president should be: Exhibit A.  (Whoomp! There it is.)

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post (especially this post) are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Bottom of the ninth.  Two outs.  The stadium holds its collective breath waiting and hoping for a pitcher’s Holy Grail – the perfect game.

This was the scene in Detroit last night before umpire Jim Joyce blew the third-out call that relegated even Ken Griffey, Jr.’s retirement announcement to a postscript.  Joyce’s egregiously bad call stole a perfect game away from Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, there is no doubt about that, but it is the aftermath that interests me.

After reviewing the replay, a clearly distraught Joyce admitted that he screwed up – badly and irreversibly.  “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Joyce said simply.

Almost invariably, admitting a mistake and apologizing for it is the best crisis communications strategy.  But the trick is you have to mean it.  Joyce did.  He could have defended the indefensible or chosen not to comment at all, but instead, Joyce offered Galarraga the only thing he could – an honest apology and acknowledgement of his perfect game.

The right words can soften the blow of just about any mistake.  Sure, Joyce’s name will now be mentioned alongside Don Denkinger and Rich Garcia.  And yes, 500 anti-Joyce Facebook pages and the website www.firejimjoyce.com sprung up within minutes of the call.  But the way Joyce has owned his error is doing a lot to mitigate hatred.

To his credit, Galarraga was a class act, both during the game and after.  No one would have blamed him for pulling a Jimmy Dugan, but Galarraga had a remarkably mature perspective on the evening’s events.  “I got a perfect game.  Maybe it’s not in the book, but I’m going to show my son the CD.”  (Okay, he probably meant DVD, but give the guy a break – he was just robbed of a perfect game!)

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Sunrise over an oil-soaked beach on Grand Isle, Louisiana. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s been 45 days since the Gulf Coast oil spill, and I think it is safe to say things have gone from bad to worse. We’ve seen the failure of top hat, junk shot and top kill, and we are waiting, fingers crossed, to learn the outcome of saw and cap.  With each passing day and fix failure, I keep going back to the words in a post I wrote three weeks ago: Words have weight and the wrong ones can bring quick and easy ruin.

On Sunday, BP CEO Tony Hayward issued an apology that went awry:

“I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

I imagine that Mr. Hayward is very tired and under tremendous stress; however, his personal circumstances do not excuse that remark, especially not for the families of the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  The following day, Hayward issued an apology for his apology on Facebook:

I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment on Sunday when I said that ‘I wanted my life back.’  When I read that recently, I was appalled. I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy, and certainly don’t represent the hearts of the people of BP – many of whom live and work in the Gulf – who are doing everything they can to make things right. My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families – to restore their lives, not mine.”

Saying nothing about the time that lapsed before this statement was issued and its glaringly obvious observations, I have one real question.  Is Facebook the appropriate outlet for an apology?

In the case of Hayward, I would say absolutely not.  His initial comments were run on major news outlets like the Today Show and CNN; responding on Facebook comparatively trivializes his apology.

I’m not discounting the power of Facebook and its 400 million users, and if Hayward had initially said he wanted his life back on Facebook, then it might be the appropriate place for his apology.  But that isn’t the case.

I spent the last five days on the Gulf Coast wondering not if but when the oil would reach Florida’s shores.  This morning I woke up to the news that the oil’s spread to Pensacola is “imminent.”  The ill-advised sound bites and verbal blunders I’ve written about don’t matter when compared to cleaning up this mess.  I sincerely hope it’s soon.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

I was an avid viewer of LOST for six seasons (yes, even season three).  And for six seasons, I grappled with electromagnetism, smoke monsters and tropical polar bears in both fascination and frustration.   The day after a new episode, I read blogs and articles that attempted to explain, predict and understand the show (special thanks to Washington Post’s excellent dueling analysis).  I was patient, and, when the series finale came to a close, I was disappointed.

As has been well reported, answers to many of LOST’s questions went unanswered.  For years I had been relying on the wisdom of others to explain the show’s biblical, mythological and philosophical references and the scientific aspects, so I turned to those same sources to gain greater understanding of the finale.

My quest for information and resolution felt vaguely familiar.  As I scanned blogs, Twitter, and columns, it felt a lot like my search to understand social media.

Social media, like LOST, is a complex and mysterious island that reveals itself only incrementally.  To be meaningfully on this island, you have to want and try to get there.  Once you’re there, every breakthrough of understanding is confronted with new questions.  And, just when you think you’ve got it pegged, a new tool is introduced.

I was able to make peace with LOST (thanks in large part to Lauren J. Rivera’s insightful perspective).  But social media has no finale, and I accept and appreciate that it will be a continual learning process.

Much like LOST, the joy of social media is in the journey and, ultimately, that journey is about people.  I have become a part of countless communities, established connections that would have otherwise been impossible, and found “teachers” who help me with everything from professional development to a firm grasp of celebrity gossip.

My advice?  Become a Social Media Island castaway.  I promise, no smoke monsters.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

Social Media.jpgI was an avid viewer of LOST for six seasons (yes, even season three).  And for six seasons, I grappled with electromagnetism, smoke monsters and tropical polar bears in both fascination and frustration.   The day after a new episode, I read blogs and articles that attempted to explain, predict and understand the show (special thanks to Washington Post’s excellent dueling analysis).  I was patient, and, when the series finale came to a close, I was disappointed.

As has been well reported, answers to many of LOST’s questions went unanswered.  For years I had been relying on the wisdom of others to explain the show’s biblical, mythological and philosophical references and the scientific aspects, so I turned to those same sources to gain greater understanding of the finale.

My quest for information and resolution felt vaguely familiar.  As I scanned blogs, Twitter, and columns, it felt a lot like my search to understand social media.

Social media, like LOST, is a complex and mysterious island that reveals itself only incrementally.  To be meaningfully on this island, you have to want and try to get there.  Once you’re there, every breakthrough of understanding is confronted with new questions.  And, just when you think you’ve got it pegged, a new tool is introduced.

I was able to make peace with LOST (thanks in large part to Lauren J. Rivera’s insightful perspective).  But social media has no finale, and I accept and appreciate that it will be a continual learning process.

Much like LOST, the joy of social media is in the journey and, ultimately, that journey is about people.  I have become a part of countless communities, established connections that would have otherwise been impossible, and found “teachers” who help me with everything from professional development to a firm grasp of celebrity gossip.

My advice?  Become a Social Media Island castaway.  I promise, no smoke monsters.

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