Crisis Communications

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 garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Reader Ideas to Meet the #ChipotleMarketingChallenge

Faced with a series of high profile food safety mishaps over the past several months, Chipotle is on a daunting mission to restore its image. 

Faced with a series of high profile food safety mishaps over the past several months, Chipotle is on a daunting mission to restore its image. 

Based on the ad hoc advice we got, Chipotle may have a tough time convincing wary customers to return.

The Mexican restaurant chain – which built its fast casual brand on quality, locally sourced food – faces the challenge of wooing back customers after at least three separate food safety incidents across the country. One source reported Chipotle’s revenues – despite reopening its previously closed stores – dipped 30 percent in December.

We asked people to pretend to be the chain’s marketer and meet what we called the #ChipotleMarketing Challenge,” an open-ended strategy session about how you would repair the damage. Here’s a sampling of comments, without attribution, that we received:

“I never went back to Sizzler or Jack in the Box after their troubles.”

“They’ve given an edible plant a bad name. I guess they could work on another one.”

“No kidding! Been wondering how they will rebuild the Grand Canyon of public mistrust."

“Chipotle = Corvair. It will be over very soon.”

One commenter threw up his hands and said the best thing Chipotle’s marketing director could do is look for a new job.

Not everyone was fatalistic, though.

“Challenging situation, but Chipotle is not Enron.”

“Try explaining what happened and how it’s been fixed. How about treating customers like intelligent beings. Then suck it up and take a hit on profits for a little while trust is rebuilt.”

“Rename and rebrand. Not that hard if you do it the right way. But you can’t polish a turd.”

“They could start by foregoing all the healthy positioning of food that isn’t healthy. Hello to the 1,200-calorie burrito.”

“Maybe divide local sources of food into distinct local brands featuring regional specialties based in part on what is in season locally. Emphasize freshness and a lower carbon footprint from transportation.”

“Food safety is obviously essential. Overhaul safety procedures in a transparent way. Open up the facilities with web cams and implement a pioneering food handling effort.”

“Have a long view and don’t attempt to rush to a quick fix (like losing all brand equity). Execute. Execute. Execute. This is a process issue and can only be fixed through years of excellent in process improvement and execution.”

"I believe in second chances. What about a 'Great Reopening' campaign. A day of free samples of food? Coupons and food prize give-aways. Everyone likes free stuff. Have each location give away one free meal an hour. Must make a purchase to qualify for the hourly drawing. Have one big grand prize at the end of the day. Good luck!"

There were also some more entertaining suggestions, like following the example of “The Worst Hotel in the World,” where you warn patrons up front. Here are some more quirky marketing ideas.

“Hire Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog, who have great chemistry on her talk show, for a series of cute ads.”

"Have Morgan Spurlock (a documentary filmmaker and humorist known for producing “Super Size Me”) eat at Chipotle for 30 days, then follow him with cameras to see what happens. The toilet experience might be too graphic.”

On the other hand, maybe Chipotle doesn’t need a big marketing campaign to restore its image after all, which one commenter pointed out. “A large number of their customer base are high school students who don’t care and have continued to eat there three or four times a week through all this."

#Chipotle Marketing Challenge

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

Chipotle, which has faced dozens of food safety problems across the country over the past several months, is launching a massive marketing campaign to woo back its customers.

The company is closing its doors at each of its locations – there are more than 1,900 in the U.S. – for a few hours on February 8 for a food safety discussion with all Chipotle employees. This is a respected brand, but what will it take for you to walk through Chipotle's doors and order a burrito?

Share with us your marketing strategy for Chipotle. Comment on this blog or share your thoughts on Twitter at #ChipotleMarketingChallenge.

We will share what we learn in a future blog.

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.

Edit Your Work – and AutoCorrect's Work

AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

Some of life's most embarrassing moments result from unnoticed text changes authored by a stealthy character called AutoCorrect.

When you are under pressure to pound out a message or a memo, AutoCorrect is there to bail you out – or throw you under the bus – by correcting your typos and words in progress.

In addition to catching the chronically misspelled word, AutoCorrect seems to be invested with an ability to anticipate what you mean, or perhaps don't mean.

Take the college kid responding to his mother's text message:

"How's school going?"
"Oh it's great. Just had the best weed of my life."
"I mean WEEK. Not weed. I swear."
"Sounds great, but don't tell your father."

AutoCorrect's uncanny ability to create far more cringeworthy bloopers should encourage people to pause before hitting the send button on an email, tweet, memo or message.

There is no substitute for carefully editing your own copy. And not that quick once-over just after you finish typing or thumbing. Take a deep breath, see if there is a message on your Starbucks cup and then take a fresher look at what you wrote. You may be surprised – or horrified.

Catching that flub – like AutoCorrect helpfully substituting the word "nipple" when you meant to type "dimple" – can save a lot of red-faced explanations and apologies.

While some AutoCorrect substitutions may provoke a smile, others may offend or leave the impression you are careless.

Editing is a painstaking chore. But everyone needs to do. Think of it as a treadmill to trim your words.

Without editing, you are only a hasty slip of the send button from something like this:

"I thought granny was going to be here by now."
"Grandma is in the grave."
"What? What happened?"
"Sorry, I meant she is in the garage."