Christine Walton Brennan

About Christine Walton Brennan

Christine Walton Brennan is the former Head of Corporate Communications for Marsh & McLennan Companies. She also managed media relations at banking giants UBS and Merrill Lynch, and was a journalist with Bloomberg News. In 2011, Christine embraced her midlife "realization" and is now a Registered Nurse in New York's Hudson Valley.

Credit Suisse Tax Evasion Fine is Just That: Fine

 Credit Suisse Tax Evasion Fine is Just That: Fine

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the US government, which gave its PR team little to work with.

Credit Suisse pled guilty this week to helping more than 22,000 Americans evade taxes by stashing their cash in Swiss bank accounts — a notable event on several levels, PR included.

The deal represents the first criminal conviction of a major global bank in more than a decade. Criminal charges, it has been widely thought, are a death knell for institutions that cop to them. Credit Suisse agreed to pay $2.6 billion — the largest penalty ever in a US criminal tax case. Prosecutors huffed and puffed about how significant this plea is: US Attorney General Eric Holder warned, “No bank is too big to jail.”

But…nobody’s going to jail, at least nobody at the top. While the conviction generated a lot of media, the general impression is: It’s not so bad. Credit Suisse wasn’t forced to reveal any client names, and it can keep operating in the US. The bank’s CEO told analysts he expects little business impact from the agreement. Indeed, Credit Suisse stock actually rose after the deal was announced.

No doubt the US faced a conundrum: Regulators wanted to inflict serious pain, but too harsh a penalty might be so destabilizing as to spark unintended (and unwelcome) consequences. After all, the threat of banking failures precipitated the last global recession. So they walked a line — and that’s exactly how the media read it.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the US government, which gave its PR team little to work with.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Actions speak louder than words. Are we really shocked, shocked, to discover that Swiss banks help people hide money? Yes, the fine is big, but even the general public has become inured to banks paying massive sums. If the US really wanted to send a message to tax evaders and the banks who love them, regulators needed to be more visible: name-and-shame clients, or put some white collars in orange jumpsuits. There’s nothing like a CEO in handcuffs to really command attention.

Sterling Crashes and Burns in CNN Interview

 Sterling Crashes and Burns in CNN Interview

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Donald Sterling.

If ever you’re compared to the Hindenberg, it’s a safe bet to assume something went terribly, terribly wrong.

That was how one CNN anchor described his network’s exclusive interview with Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Last month, Sterling was banned for life from the National Basketball Association, including his own team’s games, after audio recordings surfaced of him making racist statements. After weeks of silence, Sterling agreed to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper on Monday.

As he sat with Cooper sans handlers, the 80-year-old Sterling seemed unaware he was plummeting from frying pan to fire. He tried to blame his woes on Magic Johnson, the NBA hall-of-famer he insulted in the first place and who, Sterling said, told him everything would be all right. He admitted that his original comments were made in pursuit of sex with a woman 50 years his junior. Worst, he made another seemingly racist statement about African Americans’ philanthropic efforts, or lack thereof.

“What this was to PR, the Hindenberg was to blimps,” CNN’s Bill Weir said, while The Washington Post grimly noted it was “a study in damage control gone wrong.” Variety said Sterling  “gave the impression of somebody who was not mentally clicking on all cylinders” and that “the erratic, strange performance…will be studied in crisis public-relations classes for years to come.”

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Donald Sterling, who may be long in the tooth but who still hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: “No Comment” is a PR strategy.  Sometimes a situation is so incendiary that the only recourse is to lie low until the heat dies down. There are (at least) two hard-and-fast criteria for walking into the flames: be absolutely certain that your messages will clarify or put the crisis in context, and be able to deliver them expertly. In Sterling’s case, he failed on both counts.

Lewinsky Tries to Turn Media In Her Favor This Time

 Lewinsky Tries to Turn Media In Her Favor This Time

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Monica Lewinsky.

Sixteen years ago, a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky became a household name. This week, a now 40-year-old Lewinsky will tell all about her affair with President Bill Clinton in a Vanity Fair essay entitled “Shame and Survival.” The piece is available to digital subscribers today and on newsstands this weekend.

According to promotional tidbits, Lewinsky says it’s time “to bury the blue dress,” a rather wince-inducing reference to one of the more salacious details of the saga: that Lewinsky had a frock bearing carnal proof of presidential coupling. In the piece, she reportedly says she deeply regrets the affair, which was consensual, and that she feels her entire life has been charted by those few years of youthful indiscretion. In writing the essay, she says,  “I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past. (What this will cost me, I will soon find out.)”

Lewinsky says she was inspired to break her silence by Tyler Clementi, a college student who, apparently distraught after being filmed in a romantic interlude with another man,  committed suicide in 2010 by jumping off New York’s George Washington Bridge. Lewinsky says she could identify with Clementi’s anguish and the possibility that someone could be “humiliated to death.”

The buzz about the impending essay is formidable. The question now is: Will Lewinsky’s tale live up to the hype?

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Monica Lewinsky, who for better or worse will always be Monica Lewinsky.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Media can bring both condemnation as well as redemption. Over a decade ago, a young Lewsinky had no control over with the media said about her. As she astutely notes, she was “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Today, with the benefit of maturity and an auspicious media platform, she just might have a chance at rewriting her own footnote in the history books.

NBA’s Silver Is a PR Game Changer

 NBAs Silver Is a PR Game Changer

THE PR VERDICT: A (PR PERFECT) for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Just three months into his tenure as commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver was confronted with a situation that could make or break his career: how to handle leaked audio recordings of Don Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, making racist statements.

Silver’s response was pure PR gold. On Tuesday, he shocked the sports world by imposing the maximum fine on Sterling ($2.5 million) and banning him for life from the NBA. Sterling cannot attend any NBA basketball game or appear at any Clippers facility, nor can he participate any business decision regarding the team.

At the press conference, Silver’s voice shook with emotion. “The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful. That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage,” he fumed at the microphone. He also said he “wiill do everything in my power” to force Sterling to sell his interest in the team.

The punishment was swift and harsh–and universally lauded. “The conversation transcended sports,” wrote USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan [no relation to the author of this blog]. ESPN’s J.A. Adande opined, “He took bold strides down his own path, showed an unwillingness to allow the sore of Sterling to fester. It’s a new era.”

The magnitude of Silver’s decision, quick action, and unvarnished disgust conspire to make this one of the most significant moments in basketball history.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR PERFECT) for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has cemented his legacy just three months into the job.

THE PR TAKEAWAY:  A good decision goes a long way. Silver’s unprecedented actions are important not just for managing the current situation, but for what they suggest about the new commissioner: this is a strong individual with a low tolerance for bad behavior, someone who will bring stability to the league. The press conference left no doubt: Adam Silver is a game changer.

Saying Almost Nothing Can Be Everything

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PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Terri Lynn Land.

Turning the tables on one’s opponent can also work in PR. That’s what Republican US Senate hopeful Terri Lynn Land of Michigan has done with her first campaign ad, a 30-second spot entitled “Really? that  pokes fun at her rival, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters.

Peters asserts that Land, a former secretary of state in Michigan, is part of a “war on women.” It’s an accusation in the vein of that old leading question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Say “yes” and you cop to the transgression, but saying “no” implies it’s still going on — and trying to explain yourself just keeps the issue alive. In her ad, Land appears on screen and says Peters “want[s] you to believe I’m waging a war on women. Really? Think about that for a moment.” As campy music starts up, Land sips her coffee, shakes her head and checks her watch before the ad concludes with an overtone of her saying “I’m Terri Lynn Land and I approve this message because, as a woman, I might know a little more about women than Gary Peters.”

Simple and amusing, the ad hit its mark. “It seems to work,” The Daily Caller says. “It’s tough, but also fun.” The clever commercial also caught the attention of the big media guns like Time magazine, The Washington Post and National Public Radio. Talk about bang for your ad-buying buck.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Terri Lynn Land, a relative unknown whose ad put her on the national radar.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: It takes two to tango. When a damaging accusation is made, take a deep breath and try to figure out how to bat it down without directly engaging. Land’s execution was flawless. The gauntlet was thrown so she had to act, but she did so in a mocking way that makes her look smart and her opponent look aggressive and silly. It’s also a nice departure from the relentlessly negative political ads that permeate the airwaves. For Land, saying almost nothing said everything.

Lance Armstrong’s Road to Redemption?

 Lance Armstrongs Road to Redemption?

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Lance Armstrong.

This Easter week, Christians around the world  celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Disgraced professional cyclist Lance Armstrong is apparently trying to resurrect his career. Armstrong popped up this week  in a rather strange place: a two-minute instructional video on OutsideOnline.com.

Dressed in a cap and bike mechanic’s apron, he introduces himself as  “Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France” before quipping “Hey, I didn’t write the script.”  Trying to be both humble and humorous, he shows viewers how to fix a flat tire: stripping the rim of a deflated inner tube, replacing it and ending with “And off you go,” saying under his breath “I broke a sweat doing that.”

Armstrong, of course, was himself stripped of his seven Tour titles and banned for life from the sport after evidence showed he had used performance-enhancing drugs. After years of denials, he eventually admitted his drug use.

Media coverage is almost universally harsh. The Bleacher Report calls the video “a drop in the bucket of some egregiously foul substance,” while Sports Illustrated sees “a blend of smugness and faux-humility” and  “[a] subtle play for all the American hearts he broke.” But he got a much better reception on Facebook, where he posted the video. As of this writing, the simple how-to film earned him nearly 9,000 “likes” and legions of fans expressing their unwavering support.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Lance Armstrong, cycling slowly uphill toward a better image.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When all is lost, there’s nothing to lose. Lance Armstrong’s legacy will always be tarnished. But with public figures admitting transgressions almost daily, hope springs eternal for those who want an asterisk next to their names in the history books.  The  media may not be inclined to give Armstrong a pass, but his fan base seems a lot more forgiving. Whatever Armstrong’s motivations and goals, this video of him performing a prosaic task just may be a start down the road to redemption.    

Baker vs Mouse: Baker Wins

 Baker vs Mouse: Baker Wins

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to bakery owner and cronut creator Dominque Ansel.

The “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” PR strategy is a tough one to pull off, but it sometimes works. To wit: Dominique Ansel, whose bakery was shut down last week by the New York City Department of Health. The home of the original “cronut” (a croissant-donut hybrid), Ansel’s eponymously named establishment was closed after a patron took video of a mouse skittering across the floor.

Video footage of rodents running amok in a kitchen is usually a devastating blow to an eatery. Conventional PR wisdom would have Ansel issue multiple mea culpas, pledge to clean up his bakery’s act, and keep a low profile.

Instead, the Frenchman fumed. He took to Facebook to rail against small-business saboteurs: “[H]onest, hard-working businesses should not have to face cruel and sensationalized attacks that are not framed in the proper context…We urge our customers to seek deeper details and answers before jumping to conclusions.” He issued hard facts, stressing that no mouse was found and no droppings were in the kitchen. He stood outside his shop and vowed to come back like fictional prizefighter Rocky Balboa. “You take a hit, you go down, but you come back up stronger,” he proclaimed.

And… the gamble worked. Less then a week after Vermingate, lines for cronuts and other  delectables are just as long at Ansel’s bakery as they were before the mouse made his (or her) film debut.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to bakery owner Dominque Ansel.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When everything is on the line, nothing is out of bounds. Perception is important for all businesses, but critical for those in industries like food service; just a whiff of odiousness can be enough to send fickle customers across the street. It’s a difficult strategy to employ: the facts must be in your favor, and there’s a very fine line between being seen as rightfully indignant and a whiner who won’t accept responsibility. In this case, Ansel succeeded, and the cronut lives on.

OkCupid Hits the PR Target

 OkCupid Hits the PR Target

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for dating website OkCupid.

OkCupid’s arrow was on the mark. The online dating site made headlines this week for its clever slam of Brandon Eich, the new CEO at software collective Mozilla. Visitors to OkCupid who use Mozilla’s Firefox web browser were greeted with a message asking them to return via an alternative browser –  because Mozilla’s new head honcho apparently doesn’t support alternative lifestyles.

In 2008, Eich donated $1,000 in support of California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative declaring marriage as being between a man and a woman. The measure passed but was ultimately deemed unconstitutional. His donation, made public in 2012, caused some chatter that eventually died down.

With Eich’s appointment as CEO last week, however, concerns have resurfaced about his views.  OkCupid minced no words about its distaste, saying, “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure. If you want to keep using Firefox, the link at the bottom will take you through to the site. However, we urge you to consider different software for accessing OkCupid.”

The company also gets extra PR points for the way in which it took its stand. A press release would have sufficed, but temporarily blocking visitors using Firefox was a real eye-catcher.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for OkCupid for inspiring such headlines as “OkCupid Makes War Not Love on Mozilla: ‘Don’t Use Firefox.’”

THE PR TAKEAWAY:  Playing politics is potentially messy, but it’s not verboten. Certainly, companies should tread carefully when choosing sides on a controversial matter; it is easy to misstep. But there are times when doing so is a no-brainer and such was the case here. OkCupid says it’s in the business of “creating love,” so its objections to Eich’s appointment are both personal and professional. Even their statement notes that 8% of OkCupid matches are same-sex unions. As such, there is only benefit to standing up for equal rights for the LGBT community, and doing so loudly.

Sports Team Owner Fumbles on PR Front

 Sports Team Owner Fumbles on PR Front

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

Take bad PR, add a heaping cup of tone-deaf obstinacy and voila, you have Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team.

Despite worsening public opinion, Snyder continues his fight to keep the word “redskin” in the team name even though it’s seen by many as an ethnic slur against Native Americans. This week, he announced the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, whose mission is “to provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities.” He came up with the idea, he said, after visiting more than two dozen Native American reservations across the US.

The Oneida Indian Nation was scathing, saying they hope that ”in his new initiative to honor Native Americans’ struggle, Mr. Snyder makes sure people do not forget that he and his predecessor … have made our people’s lives so much more difficult by using a racial slur as Washington’s team’s name.”  The media also see a slap in the face in the foundation’s name: Slate Executive Editor Josh Levin opined, “This is perhaps the most uncharitable name ever conceived for a charitable group, something akin to calling your organization “Kikes United Against Anti-Semitism.”

It won’t be the first time a company has tried to create PR goodwill by saying it will serve the people it has wronged. Snyder’s ill-advised effort, however, has fumbled badly.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Daniel Snyder, who, despite his crusade for the Washington Redskins football team name, oddly never uses the word “redskin” as a synonym for “Native American” in his communications.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Perception rules. Snyder may think he is on a righteous path because some Native Americans have assured him they don’t find the term offensive. But he chooses to ignore the ones who do — and they are the ones making the headlines. By naming the foundation so, Snyder has only created even more controversy and further divided the very community he is hoping to assuage.

Airbnb Fights XXX Party’s Bad PR

 

 Airbnb Fights XXX Partys Bad PR

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Airbnb.

An amusing story about a man who inadvertently rented out his apartment for an orgy via  popular website Airbnb is anything but funny for the company.

Airbnb pairs travelers with homeowners willing to rent out their personal space – a popular option in New York City, where the price of even a modest hotel room often daunts out-of-towners. One resident, Ari Teman, agreed to rent his apartment out to “David,” who said he was seeking accommodations for a wedding. As he’d done before, Teman met with the renter, showed him around the place and went to spend the night elsewhere. But he returned to pick something up – and  walked in to a large crowd, overturned furniture, and a bag of condoms and liquor bottles strewn about his digs. Teman’s pad, it seems, was the venue for the “XXX Freak Fest.”

Many have gotten a chuckle out of the tale, but the top brass at San Francisco-based Airbnb aren’t laughing. Although Airbnb employs several methods  to validate the authenticity and trustworthiness of both owners and visitors, they  can’t guarantee that nothing untoward will happen in a client’s home. How to react to the bad PR? Airbnb immediately banned the renter from the site, put Teman up in a hotel for a week, wired more than $20,000 to him and said they will cooperate with law enforcement. Overkill? Not if there’s a possibility the salacious soiree could kill their business.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Airbnb, which recognized that this funny story could have a sad ending – for the company.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Don’t underestimate bad PR. Airbnb’s entire business model relies on homeowners trusting the people who rent their abodes. Since they can’t ensure that nothing bad will ever happen, they can do the next best thing – meaning, everything – when it does. Crises arrive in many forms. Sometimes they’re obvious;  other times less so. Airbnb was smart to see this as more than a joke. There is no such thing as too much damage control.