Gini Dietrich

A Crisis Communications Plan to Help You Prepare for a Sexist Tweet

By: Gini Dietrich | November 2, 2016 | 

A Crisis Communications PlanAlright, I’m going to admit I didn’t sleep much last night because GAME SIX OF THE WORLD SERIES!

But it’s 5 a.m. and I need to accomplish something today (before GAME SEVEN OF THE WORLD SERIES), so let’s see how we do.

Let’s talk about what happens if you or someone in your organization posts something on social media that goes awry.

Are you prepared?

What if you are Pete Codella—the man who tweeted that Theresa Payton’s shirt was distracting during the PRSA International conference last week—and you don’t think you did anything wrong?

Are you prepared?

What if you truly believe people are being “hyper-sensitive,” yet you still have to respond to the criticism and detractors.

Are you prepared?

First Step: Accept Responsibility

As it turns out, Pete Codella was not prepared…nor does he think he did anything wrong.

Mike Doute, a PR student at Eastern Michigan University, got Codella on the phone and interviewed him about the tweet, the apology, and what’s next.

You can read the article (linked above), but the gist of it is that he believes the following:

  • He was giving advice to a fellow speaker that is akin to someone pulling him aside at a speaking engagement to mention that the vent on his suit jacket was still stitched closed.
  • We should accept other people’s points-of-view without tearing them down.
  • We are in a time where people are “hyper-sensitive,” he has a very conservative background, and Payton should be aware of how her shirt affects those of his kind.
  • He is the victim, people are being rude to him, and the PR industry is full of meanies.
  • The meetings he’ll have with HR and his boss are because of the responses to the tweet, not because of what he said.
  • He’s going to lose his right to post sexist rhetoric on Twitter.
  • Because Trump posts awful things on social media, he also has that right.

I can imagine Codella’s entire conference was derailed because of his tweet.

Second Step: Plan and Be Prepared

He’s likely learned there is never a good time for a crisis to strike.

It’s something completely out of anyone’s sphere of control.

What is under our control, however, is our ability to have a fully thought out crisis communications plan.

(Or, in this case, not tweet that remark at all, but hey…what’s done is done.)

But, as it turns out, nearly half of all companies haven’t sketched out even a basic skeleton of a crisis communications plan.

The excuses for not having a plan in place usually center around not having the time, or having a “we’ll deal with it when we need to” attitude.

But, as Codella has proven, when you are in the eye of a public crisis, you’re not going to be capable of making confident, thoughtful decisions.

It takes planning in advance, without the pressure of a looming disaster, to come up with a cohesive crisis communications plan that can keep your organization’s reputation intact.

Third Step: Define Your Crisis Communications Plan

When we work with clients to document their crisis communications plans, we walk through the following questions:

  1. What’s the worst thing that could happen? This is where you brainstorm every possible worst case scenario that could happen to your organization. This should capture everything from marketing campaigns that go off the rails (like this Sea World campaign), to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Not all crisis has an external source, either. Prepare for things your executive team could do, such as poorly thought out social media posts, sexual harassment, or tax evasion. And prepare for things employees might share on social media. Make sure to cast a broad net when sourcing your scenarios. You can do this by brainstorming with people across departments and at varying levels of experience.
  2. Is this scenario an issue or a crisis? An issue is a kerfuffle. It won’t damage your company’s reputation or your bottom line. But if you don’t deal with it quickly, it could morph into a crisis. A crisis, in comparison, immediately and negatively affects your company’s reputation. It results in a significant loss of revenue. A negative comment directed at your company on Facebook is an issue. Your product exploding and being banned from being taken aboard aircraft by the FAA is a crisis.
  3. How big is our risk? Not all crises demand all-hands-on-deck and sleeping in the office until they are resolved. Rank your scenarios on a scale of one to three, Three is low risk (but still important) and one has you setting up sleeping bags in the boardroom.
  4. Is it preventable? You can’t prevent every unhappy customer or predict manufacturing issues that can cause a need for product recalls, but there are some things you can at least work towards preventing (such as an ill-conceived marketing campaign or a sexist tweet) through better due diligence or more thorough planning and training.
  5. What would escalate a crisis? Sometimes a crisis may start off as a three, but rapidly escalate. What are factors that could cause an escalation?
  6. Who needs to know and when? Although some people like to call a news conference whenever a thought enters their heads, not all crises merit public mass communication. If you receive a negative review on an industry review site, for instance, you should make your sales and customer service teams aware of it, and provide some talking points, but you don’t need to issue a news release refuting it point-by-point (over-defensive much?). But if an executive is leaving the company to head up a rival firm, pretty much everyone needs to know, starting with your employees, board members, and investors. Failure to get out in front of a story like this is a great example of how a crisis escalates.

But the most important, first step of a crisis communications plan is accepting responsibility for what went wrong.

Until Codella can do that, none of the advance planning will help him.

You may face something similar with executives, bosses, or clients.

But the more you are prepared, the better able you’ll be in keeping a cool head and reacting thoughtfully when the unexpected inevitably does arise.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • paulakiger

    Agree. Accepting responsibility without use of the word “if” (I apologize IF you felt offended, IF I hurt anyone’s feelings, IF I was misunderstood). The road to repair begins with fully owning it.

    • Or the word “but” for that matter. I’m sorry, but you…

      (I miss you!)

  • stephanie t

    Good post. Go Tribe!

  • Elise Perkins

    Aside from the PR101 on how to succinctly apologize without inciting further anger (seriously), they should also understand the ramifications of how you construct your tweet (if one insists on posting something so ridiculous). By using the conference hashtag, he cordially invited all of the blowback in realtime.

    • And, if you truly are offering advice to a fellow speaker, do it face-to-face and in private. I totally agree that, by using the hashtag, he invited all of the blowback.

      • obviously the guy isn’t a social media expert.

        • I think that’s what bothers me the most about this. He’s supposed to be a communications expert. He’s been trained better than this, no matter the tool.

  • Nancy Davis

    Wow. What a spoiled man-child. How a person dresses is their choice. I dress conservative, and that is MY CHOICE. It has zero impact on me if someone dresses differently. It is also clear he is a Trump supporter.

    An apology needs to be exactly that – an apology. It needs to be sincere, and not come with conditions. This person has no filter, and sadly enough has no idea how hurtful his comments were. How sad.

    • The problem is, he doesn’t think he’s wrong. It’s hard to apologize when you don’t think you’re wrong.

    • You nailed it, Nancy: Spoiled man-child!

  • Jo Lynn Deal

    This is a true ‘shaking my head’ moment for me. It’s astonishing to learn he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

    • Nothing. He thinks he did nothing wrong. I get being a conservative person. But there is a HUGE difference between a fellow speaker telling you your vent is still stitched shut (in private and face-to-face) and tweeting publicly that a speaker hasn’t left much to the imagination.

  • Michelle Hals

    The thing that strikes me the most is that he never takes responsibility for his actions. He offers one excuse after another and exhibits poor judgment at every turn. Sad.

    • When I read that interview this morning, I got angry all over again. It’s everyone else’s fault. That is the WRONG thing to do in a crisis.

      • Michelle Hals

        Exactly and the crisis could have been avoided altogether if he had exercised better judgment and never commented on what she was wearing in the first place.

    • This is not about Trump, Michelle. lol

  • Dawn Buford

    First lesson, if you are at a conference and representing an organization, it is your duty to be a professional. Professional protocol means that you DO NOT tweet, say, post, email personal thoughts or comments about anyone or anything. Stick to business. BE A PROFESSIONAL. PERIOD.
    Second lesson, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t lie. Don’t make excuses. Don’t blame others. Own up to the fact that you made a mistake, offer a SINCERE apology and move on.

    • this is why everyone must live tweet…..everything that comes to mind.

    • Exactly! Remember when the BP CEO said he just wanted to get back to his life after the oil spills? That is NOT the way to avert a crisis.

    • Common sense!

  • Samantha McCain

    Risk assessment. We do it every day with every word we present so that we can maintain the line of trust we have with our audiences and more. And, he failed miserably at every level. The industry isn’t full of big ole’ meanies, it’s full of people who expect more from its own. How are we supposed to level up with the rest of the business industry if we have situations like this at a major conference?

    While reading this interview, I rolled my eyes so hard they fell on the floor. This opportunity could have gone a different way for him – it could have allowed him an opportunity to express his side of the story in a genuine, careful way WHILE giving time to a student who could learn so much from sitting through the situation. Instead, he did the exact opposite. Now, his university leadership has to deal with its own issue and how they respond to such will be interesting.

    Yes he made a mistake (he is right, no one is perfect), but then he kept making more … even for the little things that are completely textbook (like accepting responsibility).

    • Yep. To all of this. It’s like watching someone over their own foot with a semi and then back it up and do it again….and again…and again.

    • Totally agree with you, Sam. It was a great opportunity for him to say, “You know what? I totally screwed up. I made a very human error and lost my judgement for a minute.” Instead, he blamed everyone and everything—and I loved that he said he’s going to have to talk to HR because of the responses (not because of his tweet).

      Crisis 101: Take responsibility, apologize, and mean it.

      • When your ego does not let you see the forest for the trees, you’re in trouble.

  • just sensor yourself like everyone normally does on twitter since we know it is 100% public. That tweet is fine to a buddy in private via sms or snapchat.

    The real problem is men refuse to dress in revealing sexually provocative business fashion to even things up. This has to change.

    • I agree! Did you see the video of Jake Arrieta pitching naked? If we all just did our jobs in the buff, no one would have anything to talk about.

  • It all comes down to who you are as a person.

    Professional or not, PR or not, huge conference or not, if you don’t have common sense, all of them are irrelevant.

    I found that no matter how smart or successful some people are, if they lack basic common sense, humility and acceptance for the ones around them, no professionalism can make up for that.

    Money, success, and why not illness, enhance people’s true character.

  • Lauren Batzer

    While Codella apologized for his tweet, it obviously from the article (and the twitter apology) that he doesn’t mean it. So my question — if you don’t think you did anything wrong, how do you successfully manage the crisis? It is hard to take the first step of a sincere apology, if you really aren’t sorry for your actions and don’t think you did anything wrong.

    • Super good question! I’m not sure you can manage through a crisis in that case (which is what Codella is experiencing…the BP CEO also experienced this when he said he just wanted to get back to his life). The trouble, of course, is both are/were vilified in the court of public opinion.

      If you’re working with clients or execs who aren’t willing to dig deep and see the issue within themselves, I say run as fast as you can.

      What do you think?

      • Lauren Batzer

        Your right, running is probably good advice. If you have a client who want’s your help to manage the crisis, but can’t/won’t address the root of the issue, it would be quite impossible to do what you were hired to do.

        If running wasn’t an option, I imagine the best thing to do in the situation is manage the crisis by breaking the situation into chunks and see if there are areas where a genuine apology can be made to start the healing process. But I imagine even that approach would be a tricky tightrope to walk.