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getting out in front of the story

Getting Out in Front of the Story: Bezos Case Study

Getting out in front of the story’ is a phrase that comes up a lot in Crisis Communication Courses. It refers to coming clean about all the bad stuff in one go before anyone else releases it.

In my experience, it is extremely difficult to do.

Human nature is such that everyone balks at revealing negative information if they are not absolutely sure they have to.

Jeff Bezos Case Study

In the last week, Jeff Bezos (the world’s wealthiest man and the Chairman, Chief Executive and President of Amazon) has given us the most dramatic example I can remember of ‘getting out in front of the story’.

getting out in front of the story

Jeff Bezos

It is a complicated tale but at its heart the National Enquirer let Bezos know that it had compromising photos of him and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez – and told him they would publish.

 Political Motivation or Just a Good Story?

To prevent publication, the Enquirer wanted Bezos to stop or curb an investigation into an earlier leak of his private text messages. Also, to publicly state that he did not believe a story based on those texts (or sexts i.e. texts with sexual content) published in the Enquirer, was politically motivated.

Bezos has been married to wife MacKenzie for 25 years. The couple announced they were to divorce in January this year. Immediately after the announcement, the Enquirer published an expose of Bezos’ affair with the former TV presenter Sanchez, including the texts.

A crucial factor here is that Bezos, as well as his Amazon roles, is the owner of the Washington Post newspaper. The Post has been a long-time critic of President Trump, among many other things his relationship with Saudi Arabia. In particular, it has given a lot of coverage to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – in which the Saudi regime is implicated. This criticism and coverage have annoyed the President.

getting out in front of the story

The National Enquirer is a supporter of President Trump

National Enquirer and its owner American Media (AMI) are supporters of President Trump. The group and AMI’s owner David Pecker are currently being investigated for their part in the election of Trump. They are also being investigated for various actions taken on behalf of the Saudi government. In other words, the group is under a lot of suspicion about using its power for political purposes and in ways that may be illegal.

We now know that Bezos believes the embarrassing stories about his love life and in particular, the threat to publish the photos, are all about silencing the Washington Post’s anti-Trump and some would say anti-Saudi stance. AMI denies this.

Here is a detailed account of all this in the Daily Mail.

Getting Out in Front of the Story

The point for us is that rather than giving in to the blackmail, Bezos published the emails that threatened him. He published them with his own commentary on a website called Medium.com– thus getting out in front of the story.

Rather than being the victim he is now suddenly the one in control. The price he has paid for this is letting the world know about the embarrassing photos and a lot of other private details about his extra-marital relationship. Like many before him (Prince Charles, Max Mosley, Jeremy Thorpe etc.) he knows these will affect his reputation for years to come. But he did the brave and difficult thing and published all the bad stuff but on his own terms.

As he says himself ‘If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can.’  In a particularly good line Bezos accuses the National Enquirer of ‘weaponizing journalistic privileges, hiding behind important protections, and ignoring the tenets and purpose of true journalism.’

It is too early to say whether Bezos will be the eventual winner in all this. But for now, it has certainly turned the tables on those threatening him.

 Crisis Preparedness

The Media Coach and in particular myself and Catherine Cross regularly run Crisis Communication courses. Large organisations that have considered business recovery or crisis planning usually conclude that senior staff need some formal training so they are equipped to deal with the media in the face of a reputational crisis.   If you would like to talk to us about what we offer please do give us a call on 44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photo credits:
Jeff Bezos: Wikimedia Commons
National Enquirer: Flickr, credit Rusty Clark

crisis

Crisis management: that’s the way to do it!

In my last blog for The Media Coach, I wrote about the importance of facing the media during times of crisis.
In that article, I credited former UKIP leader Henry Bolton for agreeing to take part in interviews with journalists after the revelation of racist texts made by his new girlfriend but criticised his lack of messaging skills.

crisis

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher made the difficult decision to let the filming continue as one of his own team was arrested.

Crisis management: superb example

One month later – and I note in passing that Henry Bolton is no longer the leader of UKIP –  a superb example of how to engage with the media in a crisis has come to light.

It follows filming for 24 Hours in Police Custody – Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary series set inside Luton police station. During a recent blackmail investigation, it emerged that the blackmailer himself was not only one of the police officers working on the case, but part of the team monitoring a local lay-by where the £1,000 hush money demanded had been left for collection. Newspaper coverage of the case can be found here and the subsequent video of Detective Gareth Suffling’s arrest can be seen here.

Warts and all: how we deal with people

So why did the Chief Constable not pull the cameras and refuse to let the footage of the arrest be shown? In Jon Boutcher’s own words during a BBC TV interview the morning after the programme was transmitted: “What this programme shows, warts and all, is how we deal with people with care and respect – whether they are a member of our own or a member of the public, when they commit offences. And how can we get our public to trust us and to have confidence in us if they can’t see who we are as people? I think the programme demonstrated last night just how we deal with people who sadly on occasions let us down in the police service.

“This is a human tragedy in my view – the story of a young guy, a Detective Constable with an incredible future – who, for whatever reasons, and I don’t think we’ve ever really fully understood why he did what he did… And that concerns me. It concerns me with regard to how that could have occurred… If people are in trouble, if people are struggling in any way – whether it’s financial or otherwise – they should reach out for a helping hand.

Crisis management: transparency is key

“I accept that this programme and full editorial control sits with Garden Productions who make the programme – not with me. It would be against the values as to why we do this programme, if suddenly when we don’t like something, we shut it down… But what is more transparent, for our communities to see who we are? Normal people, from their communities, as public servants, policing those communities in the very best way we can.” His full reasoning can be found in this YouTube video.

It was a brave and controversial decision. Indeed, Jon Boutcher admits that he’s had criticism from colleagues, including other Chief Constables, with regards to the previous series. But in agreeing to show the footage, he demonstrates a level of police accountability, transparency and fairness which immediately goes some way to repair the damage caused by the initial arrest. And how much worse would it have been for Bedfordshire Police to have been seen to be trying to hide the film, once news of the arrest came out, if they had prevented it from being shown?

What’s more, Jon Boutcher talks about the case in conversational language (“warts and all”, “human tragedy”, “helping hand”), far removed from the ‘police-speak’ we are so often subjected to; a memorable message, said powerfully.

As an extra benefit, he adds: “the interest we’ve had from people now seeking to join the police service because of this programme, is really encouraging.”

 

Picture is a screen grab from YouTube.

crisis management

Crisis Management Uber style: keep quiet and cover it up

Crisis management best practice dictates that, if the worst happens, a company should, firstly, be open and honest with its customers, staff and other important parties, such as regulators. Secondly, it must also try to fix the problem as soon as possible. If it doesn’t follow this practice, crisis management case studies generally suggest its reputation could be fatally damaged and its bottom line affected.

crisis management

So it will be interesting to see if the news that Uber has only just fessed up to – that it suffered a data breach over a year ago, affecting around 57-million customers and drivers – is finally a crisis too far for the controversial company.

So far it has survived numerous crises including a sexual harassment scandal, highly public fights with regulators, its own drivers and Apple and, perhaps most shockingly, acquiring the medical records of a rape victim without seemingly affecting the bottom line.

As Alex Hern, noted in The Guardian in June: How low does Uber have to go before we stop using it?

“Uber has entered that rarefied portion of the market, alongside companies like Ryanair and Sports Direct, where unpleasantness is now an assumed part of the brand. Sure, some people like the company. But many don’t, but also know it’s cheaper than the competition.”

As I wrote in a recent blog post on Ryanair’s fumbled handling of its mass plane cancellations a few weeks ago, preparation combined with being open and honest when the crisis hits can go a long way to helping salvage reputation in a bad situation.

The regulators, lawyers and investors in Uber may be the ones who will pass the final judgements but customers in the US affected by the data breach are apparently already lining up class action cases.

But for those companies that do still care about the affect a crisis could have on their reputation, remember the best practice golden rules of:

• Tell it all
• Tell it fast
• Tell it truthfully

Being as transparent as possible won’t make the crisis go away but at least your voice will be heard, you will be able to have some control over the timing and the messages and, therefore, the perception of your company.

Photo credit Pixabay

crisis management

What not to do in a crisis? Follow Ryanair’s example of crisis management!

Crisis management is stressful but not usually difficult. When it comes to what not to do in a crisis, the airline industry has recently been a pretty rich source of case studies (read our view on United Airlines recent problems here). Ryanair’s handling of its recent mass plane cancellations provides yet another example of not following crisis management best practice.

crisis management

If it were any other company, the list of sins could be fatal to its reputation. But Ryanair has never sold itself on customer service (in fact CEO Michael O’Leary has often appeared to enjoy antagonising passengers and his critics) and its management seems to feel that the cheap ticket prices and the destinations it flies to means that most customers will just hold their noses and keep using it no matter what.

crisis management
But for companies that are not so lucky – and do fear the old adage that a reputation can take a lifetime to build and five minutes to lose – there are some simple rules of crisis management best practice to follow to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

Crisis Management: Preparation, preparation, preparation

Ryanair initially blamed the cancellations on punctuality problems, saying less than 2% of their flights would be affected and that they would still hit their target of 90% of planes arriving on time. (Following the rule that it’s a good idea to use facts to put an issue into perspective.) But with that 2% translating into around 400,000 passengers affected, the storm of complaints on social media, TV, radio and in newspapers was entirely predictable. The company then changed their story and admitted the problem was caused by large numbers of their pilots booking holidays at the same time. Whatever the operational reasons, it seems hard to believe that Ryanair’s managers didn’t know the crisis was coming. And it seems equally unlikely that they suddenly woke up one morning and decided the solution was just to cancel around 50 flights a day and simply not fly large number of their passengers anywhere! The impression of mismanagement continued with a public falling out with the company’s pilots. 

Crisis management: best practice guidelines

So, a quick reminder of some (but by no means all!) crisis management best practice guidelines:

1. Plan ahead and prepare thoroughly – very few crises cannot be foreseen. The timing may not be known but most major issues can be identified and crisis plans developed to tackle them.

2. Agree procedures and make sure everyone in the company who needs to know them is familiar with them BEFORE a crisis hits.

3. Develop media statements and key messages (templates can be developed in advance that can quickly be modified for each situation) and have trained spokespeople ready to go as soon as possible. This preparation also includes identifying how you will have enough people to ensure websites don’t crash, Live Chat questions are answered and phones are answered. If this doesn’t happen, already stressed and angry customers will only be outraged even more.

4. Position your company as taking action to ‘fix’ the problem and make sure you get the tone right: people are more important than profits. While in certain crisis situation the lawyers won’t let companies actually say the word ‘sorry’, spokespeople can use language like, ‘deeply regret’ and ‘very concerned by’ etc.

5. Don’t view the media as the enemy – they can help you get messages across to all your target audiences!

All common-sense steps you would think but amazing how often companies and organisations don’t follow them.

 

If you would like to know how we can help to educate your top team on crisis management or prepare them for crisis interviews, just give us a call. All Media Coach courses are bespoke, we will work with you to make everything we teach directly relevant to your business.

 

Photos used under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence