A PR Crisis is a Rite of Passage. Here’s How to Deal With It.

We’re used to living with natural disasters in the Bay Area – and as PR people here, we see our share of PR disasters. Everywhere you look, companies are scrambling to attend to the latest employee misstep, leaked memo, tone deaf Tweet or corporate policy gone Uber wrong.

 

Over the last 15 years, we’ve guided my clients through every imaginable kind of crisis – from Senate inquiries and sexual harassment claims, to defective products, management shuffles and layoffs, leaked acquisition talks, broken product embargoes and even government bans.

 

Every successful business encounters a crisis (or several). If you’re faced with one, you’ll want experts and multiple confidantes to provide guidance through every step. The key to winning in a crisis revolves around a few key steps: preparation, speed of response, empathy towards those impacted by the crisis, transparency and business corrections.

But there’s one thing to make absolutely clear: PR Crisis equals Business Crisis. Whether small or explosive, they’re often simplified by the outside world as ‘PR problems,’ but that’s bullshit. They are business problems that need to be solved with business changes not PR responses.

 

An incredible PR team can definitely help you navigate a crisis, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue. If the business, company culture or technology don’t evolve or create a more transparent environment, then you’re in for a long road.

So what happens when you do find yourself in one of those crisis scenarios. First, assess the damage….what threat level are you operating at?:

 

Level 1 – A few customer complaints have come through via email and/or social.

 

  • Action: Deal with the issue as quickly as possible. Either remedy the problem, refund the customer, or explain that you’re working on the issue…and then work on it!

    Show contrition. Fix the problem quickly.

Level 2 – The media has started asking questions about a particular problem.

 

  • Action: Assess the situation. Figure out how you will communicate what you are doing to fix the issue or clarify the situation.

    Don’t ignore the press. Ignoring means you have something to hide.

Level 3 – Media is now publishing stories about the issue.

  • Action: Analyze the press coverage. Check into the facts and understand if the problem is real. Deal with the problem – and then deal with the media.

    If the problem is fixed or being fixed, immediately contact the journalist or outlet and explain the situation and what is being done to fix it. If more than two days go by and the journalist or their boss (the editors) don’t respond, leave a comment in the comment section of the article.

Inform your stakeholders and employees. Let them know what’s going on before they tell you.  And tell them what your plan is to solve it.

Level 4– Viral spread of your crisis.

  • Action: Issue an official statement – one from the company to the press, and then a personal one that is distributed across relevant channels.Note that if you are a consumer product, and the crisis is a back-end business issue such as an employee lawsuit, there is no need to inform end consumers via social media. However you should issue a statement to all media covering the situation.

Level 5 – Extreme external pressure from investors, government inquiries and calls for regime change

 

  • Action: Interestingly enough, in the highest pressure situations, there is almost a sense of calm that comes over a good crisis expert. Almost an excitement of knowing what’s about to happen and predict it as it unfolds.It’s a time when I hear the lyrics of Sound of Silence overtake me with the word ‘Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gFnCwVqbWs 

A good Level 5 requires a few things:

  • Daily communication with your Board of Directors and PR counsel
  • Having a positive and welcoming disposition with government bodies or authorities (if they’re involved)The good news: depending on the severity of the issue, after the initial PR splash, governments often move slow. Authorities may make a lot of noise when they investigate an issue, but like a bad health diagnosis – they’ll freak out initially, but then get used to the new reality.
  • External monitoring of velocity of movements like #DeleteUber

Your final step, when the storm has passed, is to learn from your experience and do a post-crisis evaluation. Ask yourself what the company learned from this? What processes could have been put in place to avert or minimize it? How can the company fix its problems to avoid such a crisis in the future. If you expect ongoing crisis as a result of just the business you are in, you must accept the new reality and prepare your stakeholders for this as your business continues to grow.

Some additional resources when faced with a crisis:

 

Your first steps are the most critical

Regardless of the crisis, there are some universal steps to take. Media intelligence company Meltwater includes some of these best practices in their 10 Steps to Managing a PR Crisis:

 

  • Assemble & brief your Crisis Team: these are the execs, PR and social media leads, and customer-facing employees who will be on the front lines. Give them the status along with timelines and next steps on how/if/when they should communicate externally.
  • Get the full story: don’t react until you know those details. Ask a ton of questions. Determine how your response will impact your overall business.
  • Listen and watch: monitor social channels, your online community and the news media. What’s the noise level? You’ll be able to gauge how significant the crisis is by the size of the conversation.
  • Decide on your channels: depending on the situation and messaging you’ve created, figure out which medium(s) will be your best bet for delivery – company blog, social, press release distributed over a newswire, via a select reporter or a group of them, etc.

Your social gameplan

 

Thinking through your social media communication plan specifically is critical. Social monitoring company Hootsuite recommends to:

 

“Outline the exact steps everyone should take on social media—from top executives to the most junior employees. Include a list of who should be contacted at each stage of a potential crisis, and provide guidelines for how all employees are expected to communicate on social media.”

 

And they advise to act fast:

 

“Not using the real-time nature of social media to your advantage is where many companies stumble in a crisis. Social media offers a public forum to immediately acknowledge the situation while you work on fine tuning more in-depth communication… A simple message from a company acknowledging the issue and letting people know that more information is coming soon can help contain the negative sentiment around an issue and prevent it from spiraling out of control.”

 

Another bright light here: social media movements lose steam. They’ll trend for a day and two and then most likely, people will be on to the next crisis. Why? People have short attention spans.

 

This is why two of the most important groups to cater to are your Board and your team. Most companies and leaders understand issues will occur and are more interested in your response and your open line of communication.

 

According to Fortune: “Don’t forget about your employees. In a crisis, it’s common to focus on brand and trying to make sure that not too much external damage is done. But that crisis also has a huge impact on your own people—many of whom have had their faith shaken in their company’s values and are afraid for their own livelihoods.”

 

Meanwhile, be careful what you email your teams. Those memos are often leaked. Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want to see published in Techcrunch.

VSC Swipes Right for the Biggest Startup App Launch of 2016 for MightyTV

We live in a platinum age of television: never before have there been so many high-quality TV shows to choose from. With abundance, however, comes the paradox of choice, and today’s viewers are more overwhelmed and frustrated than ever. The process of discovery is an especially huge problem for a new generation of cord cutters and cord nevers who have no way to get quality recommendations and find something good across all their favorite streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Hulu, and iTunes. “Netflix and chill” has increasingly become “Netflix, Hulu, HBO overkill.”

 

Everyone understands the problem but no one has fundamentally solved it. In the past few years, there have been hundreds of attempts at video discovery from recommendation and video services, creating a crowded market of more than 20 apps in the category, with little to no differentiation between products.

 

Oversaturation of video discovery apps has created fatigue for journalists who cover the space, resulting in scant media coverage and low awareness among consumers, with recent video discovery app launches averaging roughly 2.3 original earned media placements per launch.

 

In order to rise above a sea of mediocre discovery apps, MightyTV partnered with VSC to launch the company and achieve two strategic goals: 1) differentiate from competitors, and 2) draw media awareness to help drive downloads and user engagement.

 

Strategy

VSC determined that any new product in the space needed to stand out from anything that came before it.

 

With this in mind, VSC immediately embarked on an audit of the industry, where we recognized that competitive apps weren’t great at solving for individual discovery, and those that focused around discovery weren’t good at solving for social.

 

VSC therefore recommended a launch strategy that MightyTV should wait until it had some aspects of social figured out that we could showcase to press, which would allow us to carefully craft product messaging that addressed two notable market deficiencies.

 

With sights set on a mid-April launch date, VSC conducted an aggressive national outreach campaign to pre-brief media to demonstrate why the app is truly a must-have for anyone who loves watching TV and movies.

Tactics

1. Brand Association – We advised the team to capitalize on heightened media attention and the popularity of social and dating app, Tinder, where MightyTV uses a similar swipe interface to hook you up with videos you’ll love, fast.

 

2. Product Messaging – Focus messaging around a new type of AI app for video that delivers hyper-personalized and intelligent recommendations based on you and your friends’ tastes so you’ll never have to waste time again trying to find something good to watch.

 

3. Pedigree – Leverage founder’s background as a technologist and entrepreneur who sold his last startup to Google for $400M and is now launching a startup that aims to put an end to your search for what to binge watch next.

 

4. Media Relations – Set up ‘sneak peek’ in-person product demos in SF and NY where key members of the press had a chance to try out the product first-hand to see how the service is approaching discovery in a way that has never been attempted before.

Execution

We overachieved all coverage goals, with 50+ pieces of coverage worldwide in top-tier outlets.

 

Here are a few of the major placements:

 

Wired: MightyTV Is Like Tinder, Only It Sets You Up With Movies: A new app called MightyTV (iOS-only for now, Android soon) aims to solve this problem using a unique concoction of Tinder-style swiping, machine learning, and a collaborative personalization mechanism that can not only find something for you to watch right now, but can account for the tastes of everyone on the couch and find something you’ll all love. The app is out today, it’s super slick, and it might have a chance to do what so many have tried and failed to pull off.

 

MightyTV is the invention of a team led by Brian Adams, an entrepreneur who spent much of his career working in ads. He sold his company, AdMeld, to Google in 2011, and then spent the next few years working on Google’s money-printing Doubleclick ad system. In February of 2015, he quit his job and started poking around things like local search before landing on video.

 

TechCrunch: MightyTV uses a Tinder-style interface to offer personal tips on what to watch next: To determine that taste, MightyTV presents users with a stack of movie recommendations that you can go through quickly, Tinder-style, saying whether you like, love or dislike each one — or if you just want to add it to your watch list. Over time, the recommendations should get smarter, based on what the app learns about your taste and about the taste of similar users.

 

Even better, if you’re watching with someone else, MightyTV can recommend programming that sits at the overlap between your taste and that of your friend/spouse/family member/whomever.

 

Mashable: Tinder-esque app Mighty TV wants to find your perfect streaming match: Now there’s a way to swipe right on what to stream. MightyTV — a new app launched by an ex-Google employee on Wednesday —  is a personalized video discovery app that gives consumers the ability to “swipe away the frustration of what to watch next.”

 

Using algorithms, the app helps users match with new content to stream based on their personal taste, as well as their friends’ tastes.

Evaluation

The launch of MightyTV was an instant success and one of the biggest startup app launches in 2016 based on media coverage and total audience reach.

 

After the press launch, MightyTV was twice featured in Apple’s app store, in the ‘Best News Apps Section’ on April 22, as well as ‘Apps That We Love’ in the Entertainment section on May 6th.

 

The launch was a global success appearing in 50+ publications and resulting in downloads in 60+ countries and the active users averaging 290 swipes per session.

Within the first two days of launch, MightyTV reached 290.9K accounts on Twitter and made 373.7K impressions.

 

The total reach of the earned media campaign within the first month including written, video, and broadcast coverage was 573M people.

 

Coverage included a wide range of business, entertainment / tech, and consumer / lifestyle press like Fox TV-New York, NY1, the front page of Wired.com, App of the week for GeekWire, E! Online, WSJ, Yahoo, MSN, Seventeen, Self, Mashable, TechCrunch, Engadget, TechHive / PCWorld, Lifehacker, NY Post / Decider, Daily Mail, Slate, Thrillist, Refinery29, Motherboard, Brit & Co, Consumer Affairs and a host of other influential media outlets and blogs.

Flywheel dominates taxi-hailing app competition

VSC was selected to help reinvigorate Flywheel, a three-year old mobile taxi-hailing app platform bringing on-demand technology to the millions of taxis already on the streets of the world. Our goal was to become the definitive taxi-hailing application among competitors such as Taxi Magic, Way2Ride and Arro.

 

Flywheel Communications Strategy

Create a three horse race to stomp cockroaches.

 

Our strategy was to externally battle two horses, Uber and Lyft, while internally aiming to own mindshare specifically against other taxi-software companies (cockroaches) in order to win the massive business of 100m taxi rides a month compared to the 20m that Uber does.

 

Our analysis of relevant social media chatter showed that most of the negative sentiment around Uber focused on the perception of their company behavior, surge pricing, security, and regulations. We then focused on these areas.

 

Perception: We leveraged the anti-Uber sentiment, to position Flywheel as the “non a-hole” version of Uber. Uber was experiencing a round of negative publicity around their executive suggesting digging up dirt on journalists, launching an ad campaign in France implying that customers would be paired with “hot girl” drivers, and showing off their “God-view” functionality at an Uber event, breaching customer privacy.

 

Surge: In contrast to Uber, Flywheel never charges surge pricing, which consumers and media have been quick to criticize. For this reason, we were relentless about our “no surge pricing” and “surge free” messaging with the goal of consumers associating us as the fair, just alternative.

 

Security: Because Flywheel works with the existing taxi industry, each of their drivers comply to a high level of screening, while Uber drivers might be “slightly more checked out than the general population.” Several counts of rape, sexual assault, assault, kidnapping, DUI and even death have been filed against Uber drivers as well as cases of convicted felons passing their screening process.

 

Regulation: Uber has repeatedly faced issues with regulation because they launch service in cities prior to securing approval including San Francisco, New York, San Antonio, Vegas, Portland, etc. Flywheel, on the other hand, receives approval ahead of time.

 

Branding: In addition to leveraging Uber’s bad reputation, we attained something no other taxi-hailing app has. We partnered with San Francisco’s oldest taxi company, DeSoto Cab, painting visual representation of Flywheel across the city. DeSoto Cab, decided to ditch their name and brand entirely and rebrand themselves after Flywheel, covering all their SF cabs with the Flywheel logo.

 

Results

Flywheel has become the Taxi OS. Since our engagement, the company has grown 20% month over month as well as seen 300X downloads within 60 days of commencement.

 

We owned 70% of media coverage vs. our taxi-app competitors including 1,100+ pieces of original coverage, syndications and mentions over a 13-month period. We received national coverage highlighting Flywheel against Uber in several different lights, addressing each of our focus areas.

 

Perception: We highlighted the anti-Uber sentiment with the Flywheel CEO calling Uber an a-hole, which was published by TIME and several other top tier media outlets, generating 60+ articles and syndications on the topic. This round of coverage set the tone for 100s of other articles and mentions pouring in throughout the year. TIME Magazine: Taxi App CEO: Uber Is an ‘A–Hole’, “‘[Rakesh Mathur, Flywheel CEO]: I think the last couple of days have been pretty shocking, right? Where you’re not just being told, “Hey, I know how to violate your privacy. I do that all the time. But I’m even worse than the [National Security Agency]. I’m going to take that information and do bad things to you.” I think a–hole is probably a mild word.’”

 

Surge: On New Year’s Eve 2014-15, we launched a PR stunt entitled, #SurgeFreeNYE, which ended up being Flywheel’s single most successful day of business. Flywheel’s campaign offered $10 flat-rate rides in San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Sacramento, which stood in stark contrast to most services implementing surge pricing for the holiday, which ran up bills as high as $1,000 in years previous. This stunt generated 50+ articles and syndications between 12/20/14 – 1/5/15, and resulted in reviving the conversation again this past New Year’s Eve.

 

Security: The conversation about security and background checks carried out by the taxi industry vs Uber strengthened the argument for Flywheel in nearly every article since the beginning of our campaign with sound bytes like this, “Last year, Uber came under fire more than once for having let drivers with criminal records slip through its screenings, and questions arose about whether the company should do Live Scan fingerprinting and background checks, as the taxi industry does.” Venture Beat.

 

Regulation: Flywheel is the first taxi-hailing app to secure approval on the state level in California and was recently approved for a pilot program in New York by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They released TaxiOS, streamlining existing cab infrastructure with cloud-based technology, giving them an edge with competition like Verifone’s Way2Ride in New York. Now, in addition to the taxi-hailing technology, customers have options. They can hail a taxi through the Flywheel app, pay with the app once they hail a taxi on the street, or pay via the new cloud-based technology within the cab itself. The TaxiOS launch and infiltration to the NYC taxi marketplace generated 100+ articles and syndications between 10/22/15 – 12/27/15.

 

Branding: DeSoto Cab rebranding as Flywheel created an edge that only Flywheel has: a taxi-hailing app with a branded fleet of vehicles. This rebranding generated 400+ articles and syndications between 2/18/15 – 2/20/15. These aren’t the only taxis that work with Flywheel, but it effectively makes a unique statement in San Francisco. “A San Francisco taxi company is kicking its 82-year-old brand to the curb and renaming itself after a smartphone app in the latest sign of how mobile technology is changing the way people get a ride,” Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News.

 

Evaluation

Despite Flywheel’s funding of $30m compared to Uber’s $8.1bn, or roughly 1/300th the amount of investment, Flywheel has crushed its actual taxi competitors and is often mentioned in the broader transportation conversation with Uber and Lyft. Thanks to this campaign, Flywheel has won many more taxi partnership deals in major markets such as Portland and Los Angeles and is going on to begin trials with the New York Transportation Association, expanding into the nation’s premier taxi market.

 

Read more about Flywheel here