Suzan Colon

About Suzan Colon

Suzan Colon, The PR Verdict’s Content Editor, has written for magazines including O, the Oprah Magazine; Jane; Details; Rolling Stone; Harper’s Bazaar; and many other publications. She is the author of Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times (Random House). Suzan blogs for the Huffington Post and has appeared on The Today Show, The Early Show, and NPR. For more, visit suzancolon.net.

Damage Control Handbook: When Celebrities Attack

 Damage Control Handbook: When Celebrities Attack

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Solange Knowles.

Publicists have always tried to control celebrity clients’ appearances and interviews; it reduces the need to break out the damage control handbook later. These days it’s especially important, when social media can go mad with, say, footage of Solange Knowles, sister of mega-star Beyoncé, attacking her rap icon brother-in-law Jay Z.

On Monday, social media went ablaze with a video showing a woman reported to be Knowles kicking and punching a man believed to be Jay Z. The video was security camera footage from an elevator at the Standard Hotel in New York. “Reported to be,” “believed to be,” “apparently”—in other words, nothing has been confirmed.

Nothing has been denied, either, and lack of denial is as good as a confirmation; were these not the people in question, flaks and lawyers would have responded with all the threatening impact of the Wildlings on Game of Thrones. So far the only comment has come from the hotel, “shocked and disappointed” about the release of the security camera tape. (They’ll need to go into damage control, too, to regain guests’ trust.) As time passes with no response from PRs, minor celebs opine, social media pundits make jokes, and the problem lingers… For now.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Solange Knowles.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Damage Control Rule #1: Think before you make a statement. Issues such as this require a huddle with all of the celebs’ representatives. Stick to the facts within your own confidential conversation, and then agree upon a plausible explanation that will douse the flames of interest. A misunderstanding; too many cocktails; people are making too much of this. Most important? Keep your clients quiet. The alternate route is to say nothing; it’s new page in the handbook, and one that allows the story to remain alive, but only for the few days it takes for social media to move on to the next viral trend.

Fox Network’s Low Ratings Highlighted Before Upfronts

 Fox Network’s Low Ratings Highlighted Before Upfronts

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the Fox network (pictured: advert for Fox’s upcoming series Gotham).

This week, advertisers flock to New York City for upfronts—parties, meet-and-greets with celebrities, and previews from networks of new fall TV offerings. This is when advertisers decide which networks and shows will share nearly $16 billion in ad dollars. Among talk of the upfronts, one recurring theme emerges: how badly the Fox network needs a hit.

A series of hits, actually, to make up for once mighty shows that have dropped precipitously in ratings. Take American Idol, which during one season had 30 million viewers glued to Fox. Now it averages less than 7 million. Another former hit, Glee, is also viewer anemic. “Fox has the most to prove,” said David Campanelli, senior VP and director for national television at Horizon Media to the New York Times.

Toward that end, Fox started buzz with Gotham, their big gun, which tells the story of a young Bruce Wayne, pre-Batman cape, and a young(er) Jim Gordon, pre-commissioner title. The drama melds popular TV themes of cop show with teens (yes, there are young versions of Catwoman, Joker, et al), and a hit movie genre, comic book heroes. Gotham’s trailer does look like one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Will it save Fox? A few days, a few cocktails, and a few billion dollars will tell.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Fox, if the network can turn the conversation from their need to advertisers’ want.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Ostriches can’t just take their heads out of the sand; they have to do something. Fox could say things are tough all over—they certainly aren’t the only network feeling the sting of failing shows, viewers who fast forward through commercials while watching recorded programs, and other ad-dollar losses. But Fox is suffering more than most networks, and their PR job is to generate buzz about Gotham and other shows, and get it off their ratings plunge.

Hotel Group Suffers Via Association with Sharia Law

 Hotel Group Suffers Via Association with Sharia Law

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for The Dorchester Collection hotel chain.

What’s the connection between Hollywood’s celebrity elite and an ancient law that punishes homosexuality with death by stoning? The Dorchester Collection, a string of luxury hotels including the famed Beverly Hills Hotel and other five-star lodging used by A-listers who have launched an aggressive boycott.

The problem is not the hotels themselves but their ownership by the Brunei Investment Agency. Recently, Brunei adopted the Sharia Law, which punishes theft with the severing of limbs, and adultery and homosexuality with death by stoning.

Celebrities and bold-faced names protested with a boycott of the Brunei-owned hotel chain. Understandable, though questionable; will oil-rich Brunei be affected by Richard Branson’s vow that no one from the Virgin family will stay at Dorchester hotels? No, but hotel employees will suffer, as Christopher Cowdray, CEO of the Dorchester Collection, pointed out. “During this challenging time, we have been deeply touched by the tremendous support received from our loyal guests and longstanding business partners who recognize that Dorchester Collection hotels are part of the fabric of their social communities.” In other words, guilt by association should not be punishable by economic death.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for The Dorchester Collection hotel chain.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Just deliver the facts. There are times when companies may be adversely affected by their owners’ actions. In this case, there’s almost nothing the Dorchester Collection can do but what they did, which is to point out that they didn’t adopt the Sharia Law in Brunei, and there’s no reason their own employees should suffer for it. That said, financial boycott and the pressure of negative PR sometimes wins out. Will it here? It’s unlikely. If only to keep from losing face, Brunei will probably maintain their position. Dorchester walks a dangerous line between siding with an unpopular owner and maintaining business; best to keep quiet and hope for a sale to a less controversial owner.

NBA Fallout Continues As NAACP Head Resigns

 NBA Fallout Continues As NAACP Head Resigns

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the NAACP. (Pictured: former NAACP LA President Leon Jenkins.)

Even when public relations scandals are properly handled, they can continue to thrive when an event triggers a national conversation. Last week, the National Basketball Association banned Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, from the NBA for life after racist statements he allegedly made went public. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out that Sterling’s racism had been known about for years; action was taken after bad press went viral. Spurred by the larger issue of racism in America, the media continued to look for a story – and found one, in Sterling’s association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Los Angeles NAACP President Leon Jenkins resigned last Friday after reports that Sterling was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP. This would make two NAACP awards for Sterling. The first, for promoting civil rights, was given in 2009, the year Sterling agreed to pay a $2.7 million settlement after the US Justice Department sued him for allegedly refusing to rent apartments he owned to African Americans and Hispanics.

“In order to separate the Los Angeles NAACP and the NAACP from the negative exposure I have caused,” Jenkins said, “I respectfully resign my position.” Appropriate action, but again, it may not stop more negative fallout.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the NAACP.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Internal review of public decisions is a must. Lifetime achievement and other awards, especially those given to public figures, will be featured in the media. As such, they should be carefully reviewed by the organization that will be represented by these figures. Jenkins is at fault for giving Sterling, a known racist, these awards, but did he act independently? Surely higher-ups must have known. They’re now likely shaking in their corner offices.

 

Police Dept Goes from NY Hashtag to Global Bashtag

 Police Dept Goes from NY Hashtag to Global Bashtag

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the NYPD’s #myNYPD social media campaign.

Two weeks ago, the New York Police Department launched a goodwill campaign on social media, asking people to post photos of themselves with police officers with the hashtag #myNYPD. The hashtag soon turned into what the Associated Press cleverly and appropriately termed a “bashtag.”

Members of the Occupy movement were quick to share snaps of violent interactions with police. “Here the #NYPD engages with its community members, changing hearts and minds one baton at a time,” read the caption of one post. The campaign may started locally, but it quickly went national, then global. Twitter users in Los Angeles showed police in menacing riot gear. Social media users in Greece posted photos of police brutality against protestors with the hashtag #myELAS, and users in Mexico started #MiPolicíaMexicana.

At first the response from the NYPD was typical New York attitude. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton waved aside the Occupy photos as old news and said, “I kind of welcome the attention… We really broke the [social media] numbers.” When the backlash continued and went worldwide, a more somber response came from Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster, who said, “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community…this is an open dialogue good for our city.” Really?

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the NYPD, whose social media campaign has embarrassed them and their law-enforcement brethren worldwide.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Not every PR tool flatters the user. Social media can work, in the right hands and when correctly implemented. Perhaps the NYPD could use social media for, say, tips on crime. But it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that this naïve attempt at generating positive PR image could be twisted. Royster’s key word was “effective,” and this use of social media clearly wasn’t.

 

BP’s New PR Tactic Is Its Own Disaster

unnamed 150x150 BPs New PR Tactic Is Its Own Disaster

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for BP.

Energy company BP is shifting PR gears. In 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that left 11 oil rig workers dead and the gulf off Louisiana slick with millions of gallons of oil, the company’s PR was geared entirely toward apologies and vows to right the wrongs done. A massive cleanup effort was launched to save the coastline. Payments were promised to the many businesses affected – some perhaps irreparably, such as those of independent fishermen whose catches were contaminated.

The days of apology are apparently over. An article in the weekend edition of the New York Times illustrates a shift in attitude from the international energy giant. BP, once all apologies, is now on the defensive, saying they’re the victim of false insurance claims.

“I think there are really bad public policy ramifications to what’s happening to BP,” the Times quoted Geoff Morrell, senior VP for communications and government affairs at BP America, as saying. “It’s not just bad for this company that illegitimate, dubious claims are being paid to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars; it is bad for, dare I say, America.” It is also bad for, dare we say, BP’s PR

But does BP care how it looks anymore? Last month, the US government allowed BP to bid again for oil and gas leases in the gulf. And two weeks ago, BP officially ended active shoreline cleanup – and, apparently, the cleanup of their image.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for BP. As much as they’d like to move on, those affected by the disaster haven’t.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: You can stop apologizing, but don’t stop repairing. Part of a company’s recovery from extreme damage is presentation of image. Okay, four years on, BP can stop apologizing. But portraying themselves as victims of insurance swindles? It’s more than moving on. It’s an insulting turnaround that, as PR tactics go, is a disaster in its own class.

 

Elizabeth Warren: Champion of US’ Disappearing Middle Class

 Elizabeth Warren: Champion of US’ Disappearing Middle Class

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

You know your PR is on the “stun” setting when the question about the presidential election goes from whether Hillary Clinton will run to whether you’ll run with her. Welcome to Elizabeth Warren’s new world.

Warren, the Democratic Senator of Massachusetts who chaired the government oversight panel on the 2008 bailout, released her latest book, A Fighting Chance, this week. The book is part memoir of her childhood in rural Oklahoma, part commentary on the plight of America’s middle class. (An article in The New York Times about America’s middle class no longer being the richest in the world could not be better timed.) Warren’s plainspoken indictments of political and corporate actions that led up to the financial collapse will likely be read raptly by many a disenchanted American.

Now Warren’s is one of the names being bandied about for 2016. She says she has no intention of running for president herself, nor has Hillary Clinton committed to a run. But Warren is already taking another step in her role as champion of America’s ailing middle class.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Check the weather and step out accordingly. Since the economic collapse that still has the US (and the world) reeling, Americans have grown mistrustful of politicians and banks. Enter Warren, daughter of a janitor and a minimum-wage earner who became a Harvard law professor, who seems to speak the same fed-up language that average people do, basher of big banks and crusader for the little guy. The 2016 election is a while away, but Elizabeth Warren’s message is right on time.

Consumers Didn’t “Like” General Mills’ Arbitration Clause

 Consumers Didnt Like General Mills Arbitration Clause

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for General Mills for a bad move quickly righted.

Anyone involved with PR and decision-making at General Mills was busier than the Pope conducting Easter services this weekend. The food company, one of the world’s largest and owner of brands including Pillsbury, Yoplait, Betty Crocker, Nature’s Way, and many more found itself working overtime on the holiday weekend to correct a mistake that bred bad PR like wildfire.

At issue was a change made last week to General Mills’ legal policy regarding consumers’ ability to take legal action against the company or one of its brands. The new terms seemed to state that even “liking” the company’s Facebook page in order to get a coupon meant consumers waived the right to sue.

Public condemnation was, predictably, fast and furious. General Mills tried to say that the policy had been “grossly mischaracterized,” but they quickly apologized and reversed the policy. “We’re sorry we even started down on this path,” wrote General Mills representative Kirstie Foster on the company’s blog. No translation of legalese necessary there.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for General Mills for a bad move quickly righted.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When consumers go on the warpath, declare peace. Lately PRs have been confronted with company heads who let personal opinion affect brand profiles, as with Brendan Eich and Mozilla. The case with General Mills is more of a classic demonstration of “The customer is always right.” When it became very quickly clear that a business decision angered the people who buy their products, their new policy decision was reversed. That’s the business side. For PRs, the job was striking the right sort of apology: brief explanation for the actions taken, a fast reversal, a human being making a plainly-worded apology. Good ingredients for PR repair after an idea turned out to be half-baked.

Lack of ‘Frozen’ Merch Means Chilly PR for Disney

princess elsa 150x150 Lack of ‘Frozen’ Merch Means Chilly PR for Disney

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Disney. (Pictured: Princess Elsa from Frozen.)

Call it a “good news, bad news” scenario. Disney is currently enjoying the success of its movie Frozen becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time. They can’t gloat for too long, though; the news has shifted from accolades to tears of frustration and temper tantrums, both from children and adults. The problem? A shortage of Frozen merchandise.

Social media hath no fury like mommies frustrated by not being able to buy their children what they want. Specifically, the Princess Elsa dress – a sparkly blue gown like the one worn by Frozen’s heroine. The movie was already a hit, the DVD is now out and reaching an even larger audience, and worldwide demand for the dress far exceeds supply. The costume, usually around $50 in the US, is apparently going for over $1000 on ebay. If you can find one.

When has Disney ever underestimated the popularity of one of its movies? It’s possible that this film became bigger than even the Mouse House foresaw. But with frustrations raging online and in the media from mothers who can’t get what their kids want, Disney had better grant some wishes soon.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Disney. The low grade is not for running out of merchandise, but because running out implies underestimating their own success, and being unable to rectify the situation.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Spin! Spin like a princess at the ball, and then be a fairy godmother, granting your consumers’ wishes. First thing should be a statement saying how fantastic it is that your widgets were so popular that demand for them exceeded supply. Second is getting more widgets out quickly, in this case before a sweet animated movie invokes episodes more like The Hunger Games. This is a problem every company dreams of, but action keeps it from turning into a PR nightmare.

US Health & Human Services Secretary Resigns

 US Health & Human Services Secretary Resigns

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the Affordable Care Act. (Pictured: President Obama, former US Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius)

After a mortifying rollout, the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is finally in place. Over 7 million Americans have signed up, a number higher than the original goal, and President Obama’s legacy – healthcare for all – seems underway. The act narrowly survived constant attack by Republicans, not to mention its own faulty website. However, one casualty that no amount of healthcare could fix was the reputation of US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and its effect on the ACA.

Obamacare was under Sebelius’s watch, and she largely took the fall, rightly or not, willingly or not, for the severely flawed rollout. It was Sebelius, facing an angry mob of senators, who had to admit that Healthcare.gov, the ACA website where most Americans were to sign up, had barely been tested before going live. Damage control appearances caused even more damage, especially an uncomfortable appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. All of it was fuel for Republicans determined to repeal the ACA.

Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas who was once a contender for vice president in 2008, was a likely candidate for termination after the ACA rollout fiasco. The question is now whether the falling ax will do further harm to an already tarnished initiative.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the Affordable Care Act.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Know when to let sleeping dogs lie, especially when they’re vicious. Letting Sebelius go during the worst of the ACA’s rollout would have caused even more turmoil for Obamacare. Her resignation comes on a high note of above-goal enrollment; the best timing for a bad situation. Now Sylvia Mathews Burwell, formerly director of the Office of Management and Budget, suits up against Republicans bent on finding chinks in the armor of the ACA. It’s a tough job; just ask Kathleen Sebelius.