reputation management

Dancing with Truth and Consequences

U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte wants to move on from his fractured hold-up story in Rio to ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” without dancing with the consequences of his cover-up lie.

U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte wants to move on from his fractured hold-up story in Rio to ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” without dancing with the consequences of his cover-up lie.

The brand known as Ryan Lochte is broken. An apology isn’t enough to glue the legs back on his brand.

In another televised interview, Lochte admitted to lying about an armed hold-up at a Rio de Janeiro gas station that he and three other U.S. Olympic swimmers apparently vandalized when drunk. Apologies work when someone makes a mistake and owns it. They don’t settle the score when you make a mistake and try to cover it up.

For reasons that are hard to understand, Lochte continues to use the odd phrase “over-exaggerated” the truth. He didn’t exaggerate the truth. He lied.

Lochte blames the news media for fanning the flames and dragging out the story. He says, “I have a great team. They are dealing with it, all the legal issues. We’re just trying to get this over with. It’s been dragged out way too long. The media has taken this to a whole new level. I want to put this behind me and move on and move forward.”

Lochte adds, “There are other, bigger issues that this world is facing. I am human. I made a mistake, and that’s something I am going to have to live with.”

Yes, the world has bigger problems than Lochte. And, yes, he will have to live with his mistake. But if he wants his brand to shine again, he needs to redeem himself, less for the deed, than the cover-up and his continued whining.

Lochte already is pitching for his appearance on “Dancing With the Stars,” which appears on ABC, the same network that carries Good Morning America, where Lochte made his latest attempt at a cleansing apology.

If Lochte really wants redemption and to show he has a spine, not just swim fins, he might consider returning to Rio to face the criminal charges that have been filed against him. Would it be risky and could he face actual jail time? You bet. It would also show he is a grown up prepared to accept the consequences of his actions. Maybe he could agree to community service, working with young Brazilians who want to become world-class swimmers, but wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn from a world-class swimmer.

Showing respect for Brazil, its people and its laws would make Lochte respectable again as a brand. His actions would speak louder than his poor choice of words and his pathetic attempt to deflect blame for his misery on the media.

Acting like an adult might be inconvenient for Lochte. It might force him to miss his dance date on a TV show. That’s the price you have to pay for bad behavior. It's also the price you have to pay to redeem your brand, and perhaps even your own self-respect.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Deception = Dumb Business Practice

VW rigged its software to allow cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

VW rigged its software to allow cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

While the CEO of General Motors was apologizing for cars that killed people, the CEO for Volkswagen was scribbling notes to explain the carmaker's admission that it installed software that lied about its diesel car's carbon emissions.

VW, which has been venerated for years for its reliability and quirky styling, now has to contend with a reputation-busting revelation that it sandbagged U.S. environmental regulators for years. And not just a little bit. The rigged software allowed VW cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

Granted the higher-than-reported emissions levels didn't directly kill anyone, but it demonstrates the same indifference and above-the-law attitude that plagued GM on its faulty ignition switch.

GM's Mary Barra has apologized for the company's incompetence and reluctance to own its problem. What is Michael Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, going to say about his company's problem?

Horn's initial comment was, "We have totally screwed up." Martin Winterkorn, the top boss at VW, has said he was "utterly sorry." Meanwhile, European Union and other nations are checking under their regulatory hoods to see whether emission cheating occurred in their jurisdictions. Company officials said as many as 11 million VW vehicles worldwide could be involved.

Apologies won't be enough in the VW scandal. Just as Barra had to take steps to change the culture of customer indifference at GM, VW needs to root out organizational behavior that enabled gaming the law and thought it was an okay business practice. GM is guilty of an omission of action. VW may be guilty of committing a crime.

Horn pledged, "We are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust. We will pay what we have to pay."

Not surprisingly, the VW scandal has taken its toll on its stock price. The company faces stiff potential fines.  There are more than 480,000 VW diesel cars in the United States that could be subject to a Clean Air Act violation fine of $37,500 each, which could total $18 billion. That's a hit, even for the world's largest carmaker with annual global sales in the neighborhood of $200 billion.

The VW scandal should go down as more than just a crisis. It should serve as an example of why deceptive practices, however justified at their inception, prove to be stupid business decisions.

A simple sniff test on the tricky VW software would have told the tale of how dumb this idea would turn out to be. Every product designer and manufacturer should give their nose a tune-up after the VW scandal.

Top of Mind: Key to Being Remembered

Remind people that you exist and do quality work.

Remind people that you exist and do quality work.

You may be someone's best friend, but they still could forget you if you aren't doing what it takes to remain top of mind.

For example, we never got a chance to pitch a project for a former client, who when asked why sheepishly said he forgot about us. 

On the other hand, a long-time colleague invited CFM to be part of his proposal after he read one of our blogs that touched directly on what the potential client wants.

If you are sitting on the sidelines, don't blame your clients or colleagues. Look in the mirror, then get out of the bathroom and remind people that you exist and do quality work.

How you stay in the line of vision of potential clients can take a lot of forms. Give speeches, write blogs, keep up regular correspondence, share a white paper, take people out for coffee or do someone a simple favor. 

Success is less about what you do than whether you do what it takes.

Integrated approaches to networking work best. Take an idea and turn it into a blog. Promote your blog on your Twitter feed and ask for feedback on your LinkedIn page.  Self-publish press releases on your website. Start a conversation that attracts the eyeballs of your target clients – and your existing ones, too. Let them see you are thinking and offering ideas.

The best posts, speeches and coffee chats center on sharing something useful. It won't seem as much like a sales pitch if you offer information or a tip clients can use. It will remind them of your value and relevance.

You can't stop with a single outreach effort. People are busy and can overlook your post or miss your speech. It may seem like you are saturating your communications channels, but that is unlikely unless you screw up like Justin Bieber. Staying top of mind demands being a regular part of the thought leadership landscape.

As a colleague once said, professional networking is a contact sport. No contact, no client, no gain.

Going Negative is Bad PR

North Korea's threats against The Interview backfired and turned a silly satire into a cause celebre and a case study of why going negative is bad PR. [Credit – Reuters] 

North Korea's threats against The Interview backfired and turned a silly satire into a cause celebre and a case study of why going negative is bad PR. [Credit – Reuters] 

North Korea, perhaps unwittingly, has proven once again the danger of poking the eye of your opponent. The results often boomerang, giving what you despise the publicity it needs to succeed.

The Interview, the satirical movie about two journalists recruited to assassinate North Korea's Kim Jong Un, drew sharp rebuke from the isolated, often angry North Koreans, which was followed by the hacking of Sony Pictures' computer network. North Korea denied any involvement, but the hackers threatened terrorist acts if The Interview was aired in American movie theaters.

The threats, compounded by movie theater owners refusing to show the movie, aroused First Amendment sympathies from President Obama to the people who buy movie tickets. Before you knew it, The Interview was a cause celebre and streaming on iPads. All the North Koreans and the hackers accomplished was to embarrass Sony Pictures with leaked emails and to promote a picture that may have been a flash in the pan.

As a PR campaign, this may be without parallel. As a smart move, it may go down in annals as one of the dumbest.

It certainly is a neon reminder of the risks inherent in negative attacks. Veering from your own narrative to criticize is an open invitation for the attacked to respond. What you are doing is essentially laying down a red carpet for the other side to tell its story. 

Even if your criticism is warranted, the upshot of voicing it may not be worth the rush of righteous indignation you feel. [China dryly observed that while America values free speech, other countries don't. It might have added that countries like North Korea value suppressing information it doesn't like. In North Korea, no one was likely to see the movie anyway.]

The best advice is to stick to your story, even if the other side is taking shots at you. Once you turn negative, you lose control of your own story and that never is a good thing.

"Pink Slime" Gets Second Chance for Explanation

If you add chemicals to your product, be prepared to answer questions from consumers, regulators and the news media.

That's advice from Ron Hanser, head of a Des Moines, Iowa-based PR firm that works with agribusiness clients and was interviewed by NPR for a story this summer about "pink slime." (Hanser & Associates was a partner along with CFM in the former Pinnacle Worldwide network). 

"Pink slime" was the inadvertent and unfortunate nickname given to a meat byproduct added to hamburger to make it stretch further. The nickname, which was coined offhandedly by a meat inspector, betrayed the product's origin as meat trimmings. The butchering leftovers were treated with citric acid to kill bacteria.

As the name caught on in the media, consumers reacted, prompting fast food restaurants and grocery chains to reject products containing what Cargill and other meat producers referred to as "lean, finely textured beef."

That was 2012, when ground beef cost $2.50 per pound. With beef prices on the rise — ground beef now averages $4 per pound, "pink slime" may be making a comeback. This time, its makers are better prepared to talk about it.

Meat processors are also in court pressing a defamation suit against ABC News for its use of the term, which processors say led to plant closures and layoffs by implying "pink slime" was unsafe.

Directions to the Road to Redemption

Dear Ms. Deen,

As one of "those people" who wrote about you and told "lies," I wanted to take this opportunity to offer specific suggestions on how you can hop on the road to redemption.

What you have tried so far isn't working. You have lost sponsors, business partners and your cookbook publisher. Even Wal-Mart dumped you.

Your videos and appearance on the Today Show came across as whiny apologies. They weren't convincing. 

You describe yourself as a 66-year-old woman of the South. Now you need to be a woman of the modern South. It is time for you to move from victim to agent of change.

The road to redemption isn't lined with contorted parables about the sinless throwing the first stones at the sinners. Redemption requires a genuine, demonstrable change. It is all about you, not anyone else.

I listened over the weekend to "crisis experts" fumble over the question of what you should do. Those of us who throw stones also should be willing to build bridges. So here are my sincere suggestions of how you can find and travel the road to redemption:

Your status as celebrity chef is a perfect stage to show you have learned from this experience and really changed. 

  • Reach out to African-American chefs to collaborate on a cookbook that celebrates and showcases how black Americans have contributed — from their slave roots through today — to what we now think of as Southern cooking. This could lead to a cooking show where you demonstrate a respectful posture toward African-American culinary peers as together you and they unfold the history of recipes, cooking styles and use of indigenous Southern ingredients. As opposed to a solemn documentary, the show could be infused with your on-stage energy to make it fun, useful and enlightening. 

Paula Deen: Deep-Fried Toast

You know you are in deep-fat trouble when a pork producer drops your celebrity contract. For Paula Deen, it is the latest fallout from her fall from grace after admitting to uttering racial slurs.

The Food Network dropped Deen's cooking show, which catapulted the queen of deep fry into national prominence, and now Smithfield Hams has signed her off at its spokesperson.

"Smithfield condemns the use of offense and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind. Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen," said a company statement.

Deen posted two online videos (the second was a do-over) apologizing for past "mistakes," while her company publicist explained, "She was born 60 years ago when America's South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus, This not today."

At least the publicist understands the problem — that's how the world was 60 years ago, not now. Deen gave an interview in 2012 where she inexplicably defended the merits of slavery.

And so we have yet another case study of self-immolating a brand.

This isn't the first time Deen has been in boiling water. She took heat last year for belatedly admitting she was diabetic after years of promoting carb and cholesterol food bombs. She told an interviewer she didn't plan on letting her diagnosis — or the calorie count of her recipes — interfere with how she wanted to eat.

Looking Like You Mean What You Say

How you appear may say more than all your words, so make sure you look like what you mean to say.If you have trouble being understood when you speak, it may not be what you say, but what you do.

Studies have shown audiences remember a lot more — a whole lot more — about how you look than what you say. For example, if you have wild hand gestures as you talk or speak with your arms folded, you will leave a lasting impression that may undermine or overshadow the meaning of your words.

Most people aren't born actors. But you have to perform to succeed in a speech, press conference or video. This takes coaching and practice. And discipline.

Neuroscience findings indicate people gesture without conscious thought, so it takes a studied effort to restrain distracting expressions or body movements.

People also give off nonverbal signals of their confidence levels, which can influence how your audience apprehends your words. If you look nervous or seem defensive, it may raise suspicion. If you unconsciously smirk while announcing layoffs, you may earn scorn for your lack of empathy.

Trust Marketing Through Engaging Content

In today's marketplace, you need to build trust before you make your sales pitch and content marketing is the path to follow.Successful salesmen spend as much time building rapport with customers as pitching their products or services. The online equivalent is content marketing.

Content marketing engages a target audience by educating them or involving them.

Red Bull is a perfect example, with a website that looks more like an online news outlet than a product catalogue. Its online content is aimed at people who dream of a high-octane lifestyle — surfing on an exotic beach in Hawaii to free-flying from a mountaintop peak. Its news content feeds the appetite of pumped up people, molded into a community by their consumption of Red Bull.

Closer to home, Rogue Ales has invented Rogue Nation around the mantra of "Dare. Risk. Dream." Its pledge of allegiance includes "Rogues take risks," "Rogues have respect for diversity" and "Rogues have one foot in reality to let them get the job done, but they are, nonetheless, led by their dreams" — all this "in the Pursuit of Beer with Taste."

Delivering Bad News

Stuff happens, and it may fall on your shoulders to let employees or customers know. You need to prepare to deliver the bad news simply, honestly and in a timely way.

Writing for, Christina Miranda says your audience isn't going to like hearing about a price increase, a canceled staff bonus, service cuts or layoffs. "That's why it's called bad news," Miranda says.

A marketing PR professional, Miranda offers five tips for delivering bad news, which we've distilled to three:

1. Say it simply.  Bumbling, pussyfooting or stalling won't work. Prepare to spit out your bad news as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Avoid jargon, legalese and fluff. Don't try to sugar-coat the bad news with "good news." Miranda notes, this will raise your audience's B.S. radar, heighten negative emotions and "trivialize serious news by not treating it with the respect it deserves."

2. Be honest.  Attempts at spin will be transparent to your already bummed out audience. They will respect — and expect — the truth, the whole truth. Your job is to give them the truth, with appropriate detail and context. Allow questions and provide direct answers. Your emotions also need to be honest. An employee who dies on the job or a layoff requires a different emotional response than announcing a price hike or service cuts.

3. Be timely.  The phrase "there is never a good time for bad news" is false. The time to deliver bad news is when it happens. Communication may not always be instantaneous, but it needs to be urgent. The grapevine spreads news, good or bad, quickly, so you can't procrastinate if you want to let your audience in on the bad news before it hears from other sources. Timely communication allows you to tell your side of the story, which is critical to retaining goodwill and loyalty.

Earning Brand Loyalty

Southwest Airlines has carved out the position as the low-cost airlines and, with solid customer service, it shows that doesn't mean lowest-common-denominator value.Southwest Airlines has a brand promise of being the low-cost air carrier. It has reinforced that promise by not charging for checked bags.

A recent personal experience solidifies my perception that low-cost at Southwest Airlines doesn't mean lame service.

On a weekend flight through Oakland, California, my wife's and my bags were left on the tarmac in the rain as they were being loaded. Even though we have hard-sided bags, water seeped into the luggage through cloth seams, dampening dresses and suit pants. One of my wife's favorite suit jackets and skirt suffered color spotting.

Southwest Airlines provides a place on its website for complaints. I dutifully sent an email detailing what happened and the $100 dry cleaning bill that resulted. An automated response promised a reply within seven days. Frankly I had some doubts.

Engage, Not Hide in a Crisis

"I just returned all my clif bars to Trader Joes. Not a problem. They didn't know about the problem with the Organic brown rice syrup containing arsenic yet. I sure hope that Clif bars comes out with an alternative and a explanation. I also hope, I didn't jeopardize my health."

This isn't the kind of post you want on your company Facebook page. But it is the kind of post you earn by failing to respond to a question with the same urgency it is asked.

Clif Bar is a well-known and well-liked maker of nutritious, organic food. Go to any marathon or road bike event and you will find Clif Bars everywhere as a source of quick, healthy energy.

"Good food provides health, joy and energy, and is a delight to the senses," says the Clif Bar website. "And food, made right, can make the world a better place."

Unfortunately, the website's home page doesn't include any timely commentary about a study released last week raising concerns about arsenic levels in brown rice syrup, a sweetening ingredient found in Clif Bars, as well as infant formula and other high energy bars.

There is a natural place on the website for this commentary to say — "We recognize that food matters top our families, our communities and our planet — as our food choices affect the physical, social and environmental fabric of our lives." But the commentary is missing.

There are more than 91,000 Facebook fans on Clif Bar's page and a number of them asked the company for an explanation. Here is what one fan got on February 17:

"Thanks for taking the time to contact us. At Clif Bar & Company, food safety is our number one priority and your health is paramount. All Clif Bar & Company foods fully comply with U.S. laws and regulations and our own strict quality standards. We are aware of the 2/16/12 brown rice syrup study. It is important to understand that arsenic exists naturally in the soil, water and air, and trace levels can be found in all rice, and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and seafood. Low levels of this naturally occurring substance do not pose a safety concern. We have a dedicated food safety and quality assurance staff that makes sure our ingredients and our foods are healthy and nutritious. We appreciate your question."

Quality Web Content Gets Google Boost

Google made changes this week aimed at "content farms," which are designed to boost search ratings for websites. Google said its search algorithm should give users "the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible." Some website owners complained the change "is killing our businesses."

The new search algorithm follows an exposé last weekend by The New York Times indicating venerable J.C. Penney hired a search engine optimization firm to create websites that linked to the retailer's main website, thus boosting its ratings. Google responded by lowering their search status, which prompted J.C. Penney to fire SearchDEX.

Overstock also was busted by Google for allegedly manipulating students to place favorable links on their school websites. And the company recently unveiled a personal block list that Google 24/7 blogger Seth Weintraub says would allow "users to block content from their research results as they see fit."

All this action takes place amid a backdrop of complaints from users who say it is hard to get legitimate search results in between "content farms" and "content scrapers. "It reflects a Google," Weintraub claims, "on a mission to clean up its reputation." According to the annual Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient Survey that polls more than 30,000 respondents, Google holds the top ranking for reputation among highly visible companies.