Category Archives: Crisis Communication

Redemption for Tiger

Tiger prefers not to.  He won’t dance/Don’t ask him (Madam, with you.)

Well, good for Tiger. He’s channeling Barleby the Scivener, Melville’s passive aggressive office rebel. He’s in that raggedy line of existential figures who’ve just said No. No mas. They won’t come out for the boxing round just to be beaten to a pulp. They won’t cross the finish line just to spite the sadistic coach of the juvenile prison track team in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” that gritty B & W Brit film from the 60s.

So, the hell with Gillette and its marketing campaign. Same to you, PGA tour.

My wife told me that Dr. Drew, the priest B-list celebrity sex addicts, and Dr. Phil, the homespun TV therapist, are working their shamanistic magic with Tiger right now on the golfer’s yacht, Privacy. I fell for it –it isn’t happening, yet. But it’s perfect.

We all know that Tiger’s life has plunged down the rathole. But notwithstanding that aphorism that there are no second acts in American lives, we know there are.  There’s Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Mike Tyson (wonderful can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him in the film documentary of his extraordinary, scarifying intermittently triumphant and scabrous life). And there’s my man Augstine who turned his sorry life around and wrote that tell-almost-all classic.

There are, too, second acts because as Augustine’s Confessions indicate, you can play the first half of the game as a lecher fornicator blasphemer — as long as you fall on your knees and recant. The poet Eliot did it — turned Catholic, churchly, devout and, from Grouch Marx’s account in Groucho’s letters, rather chipper and very happily married. Make that re-married. The first one didn’t pan out. Crazy  Viv. Fornicating with Bertrand Russell and wearing those goofy Flapper gear — at least that’s the impression we have. Half crazy, then all crazy, then institutionalized. Poor cuckolded bastard Eliot — motives late revealed (and all that). But he found it, at last, down on his knees — his conversion. His redemption.

Redeem. DEMAN in the Old England — the judge. We want to be judged anew, what with our spiritual rebranding. Cleaned-up resume. And isn’t that what education’s about –redeeming our ignorance. Isn’t that the purpose of experience — the redemption of our missteps. All that apple-biting in the garden. How many bites did Adam take? And when God kicked A & A out of the garden, wasn’t it all about the second chance. East of Eden. (Go East, young man and woman.)’

Even the snake’s punishment —  going forever legless and having to slither around on the ground — was a kind of redemption, if you spin the story a certain way, hold it at a particularly glass-half-full pt of view.

Life is nothing but a long series of mulligans, isn’t it? Do-0vers.  And what’s wrong with that? All those cliches about life as journey. It’s a journey, and with or without GPS we are bound to get lost. We are all losers in the end — I mean, in the Big Sense. Shuffling off the coil. But there it is — that message of redemption. Nor is it restricted to St Paul’s Unique Selling Proposition: Just accept Jesus and we’ll send you the gift of eternal life.Get to see God.

The whole Christian message (do I oversimplify?  Very well, I oversimplify! I am large. I contain oversimplifications) is about second chances. Just believe, accept, change your ways because this earthly existence is not the final inning. The Super Bowl is what comes after. The Afterlife. The second chance.

For Tiger, just saying No Mas to Jamie and Rachel and the porn star twins is the ticket. And it’s just a warmup for the Big Redemption that follows the l8th hole.

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Tiger’s Twisted Tale a Simple Story

Now that a dozen women have publicly announced their Me too’s, what appears to be a story about big numbers and high complexity may not be complex at all. Shorn of the billion-dollar net worth, the prancing porn stars, the Vegas angle, the pancake waitress, what it all may amount to is not something off the charts but utterly average.

Truth be told, for all its sadness, Tiger’s tale is common and banal. It only looks exotic, and why wouldn’t it? All that money, fame and pulchritude. All our surprise, curiosity and amusement.

All that flash blinds us to the real story, stripped of the strippers. It’s the tale of another unhappily married man who was looking for love in all the wrong places. Apparently having been unacquainted with Aristotle’s extremely practical distinction between pleasure and happiness, Tiger opted for the former at the expense of the latter.

Few hells are more hellish than a bad marriage, as half the U.S. population can attest. (That’s right — me, too.)

Perusing the rapidly mounting Tiger Mistress files, I was struck by the plaintiff and confused (others would say whiney and pathetic) tone of his declarations of need, if not love, for at least one of the mistresses. And while the unambiguous beauty of some of those women suggest that the tiger eye was trained on certain body parts, our prurience makes us miss the point again. Shakespeare’s king cries out, A kingdom for a horse!  Tiger was willing to sell his kingdom for an ear — a sympathetic one, and a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and yes — cynical reader! — a heart.

No, no, no! I am not exculpating him for being just another cheating heart, himself. As for his own body, we all know that he did his thinking with the wrong part — hardly a novel failing among men and, if much research on infidelity indicates, women, too.

Tiger is lost in the woods, and he won’t be out of them for quite a long purgatorial stretch.Think: The Divine Comedy. In the middle of his unhappily married life, Tiger found himself in a dark wood and confused and miserable, he descended into hell. Only unlike Dante’s journeyman, Tiger had no Beatrice – no Divine Reason — to guide him down through the increasingly piteous circles of hell. And if memory serves, lust itself was one of the least offensive sins, and lustful lovers were housed in one of hell’s upper circles as they were buffeted with the winds of lust and forever chasing each other around with no hope of capture or embrace — as opposed to the likes of the political and religious betrayers who were way down in the 9th circle.

In Dante’s Comedy, all does end well. Having descended to the depths of hell, Dante is guided upward into purgatory — where he does the Oprah and Letterman shows and cries on “Barbara Walters.”  But having paid his debt and witnessed the worst, Dante — guided by Divine Reason — ascends into heaven in the “Paradise.”

I have Tiger beginning the descent, with quite a long way to drop before he begins what I suspect — even hope– will be that blessed turnaround that begins the sweetest of gifts to the sinner.

It’s called redemption.

My advice to Mr. Woods: Dump those caddies and go looking for Beatrice. You’re going to need reason — the more divine the better.

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What Obama Should Say Over the Beers

SCENE:  THREE MEN SEATED AT A PICNIC TABLE IN A REASONABLY PRIVATE SPOT ON THE WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.  PRESIDENT OBAMA,  PROFESSOR GATES AND SERGEANT CROWLEY.

OBAMA:  I know. I know. This is the biggest fishbowl in the nation. I’m almost used to it. There isn’t a whole lot of privacy.

What I want to tell both of you right off is how much I appreciate your coming here today. Skip, we’ve known each other for a long time, and you already know how much respect I have for you — what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done with your life, what you’ve done as a teacher, a scholar, and a leader and friend of black and white communities in this country and around the world.  Had you not been the man you are, we very likely wouldn’t be about to drink this beer today. And, by the way, you know that we’ve got a selection of brands made right here in the U.S. — in fact, a couple of them are from New England. I know you like that foreign brand, Sergeant Crowley. But I’m just a tenant in this house — I’ve got to follow the rules on beer selection!

Sergeant Crowley — OK, that’s a little formal, but we’re just meeting each other for the first time — I am so pleased that you accepted my invitation to come to my house — the nation’s house. And as I’ve already told you, everything that’s been said about you by folks who evidently know you well professionally as an officer and personally as an outstanding leader and teacher in New England communities — everything I’ve heard makes me proud to welcome you to the White House.

Look. A whole lot’s been said about what happened back in Cambridge.  But I really do believe that this can’t help but be a teachable moment. All three of us have been teachers. Are teachers. In a way, not only has the nation become a classroom — so has  the world, judging by the media from everywhere.

I’ll say one more thing before I offer a toast and we all get to drink our beer on this hot and humid typical July day in D.C. And, really,  it’s a hell of lot  better to be drinking our beer than crying in it.

One more thing. My chief of staff — you know  about him — Rahm Emmanuel — got a little famous for saying “Never let a crisis go to waste.” So to the extent that what we’re doing here started out as a crisis, I wanted to make damn sure we didn’t let it go to waste.

So, all right. Here’s that toast. Let’s raise our glasses of this fine New England brew and drink to understanding and respect and peace and friendship — and to the very best lessons our meeting can teach the communities of this nation and the world — and what we still have to learn from each other!

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Beer Diplomacy

One of my earliest posts to this blog about something I called ‘twitter diplomacy’. Last winter, amid the Israeli-Hamas skirmish over Israel’s retalliation over captured soldiers, an item appeared in the New York Times about social media. It seems that Israel’s communication managers were engaging the criticism of the nation’s allegedly “disproportionate” reaction (bombs away; civilians killed) to what Israel saw as Hamas’ aggression.

The very look of tweets — “Is” for Israel and far more bizarre and unintentionally ironic or absurdist verbal truncations to describe the fog of war –struck me as a blend of Orwell and Beckett. It looked like the language of diplomacy had been taken over by adolescents engaged in a game of “Doom” on X-box.

But at the same time I could see the sense of it. After all, it wasn’t what it resembled — tweens texting. The conversation — stacatto ping-pong — may have looked lightweight, but it certainly wasn’t. The back-and-forth was about life and death issues — ancient, modern, complex and profound. But on reflection, there was nothing inherently wrong or wrong-headed about conducting a conversation about those issues in tweets than in paragraphed op eds and communiques.

The issue of the moment happens to be the dueling accusations over the brief but well publicized arrest of Henry Gates by a Cambridge, Mass. police officer.  The prominence of the Professor Gates — a Harvard professor, acclaimed scholar, media personality and influential friend of the most powerful public officials in the U.S. including the president– led rapidly to the issue’s escalation to the top of the issues food chain: a presidential press conference intended to lobby the nation on universal, public health care.

Every plot element in this story has seemed unlikely. A famous African-American Harvard professor’s arrest in his own home. The arresting officer accused of racial profiling, but revealed to be nothing less than a sensitivity trainer, himself. The president of the United States characterizing the Cambridge police’s arrest of Gates as ‘stupid’ — but within 24 hours marching into the White House press secretary’s press briefing to offer a quasi apology for having used language that had made a bad situation worse.

Then it was time to pop open a cold one — or, that is, surface the trial balloon of a beer diplomacy moment (as opposed to a teachable moment).  Rather than unsheath their swords in rhetorical and legal combat, the principal Montague and Capulet would quaff a hearty brew in the neutral corner office of Mr. Obama. There, more manageable issues could be discussed, including the matter of the beer, itself (domestic, in this case, because the White House doesn’t stock the police officer’s favorite because it’s foreign-made).
That’s a issue that even a hot-head can wrap his fingers around.  That’s a controversy that doesn’t require a Nobel Peace Prize winner for the engineering of a compromise.

What if, on closer inspection, and with the aid of a cold one and a bowl of peanuts, race relations were found to be no harder to resolve than multi-lateral agreement on the brand of a beer? Didn’t Forest Gump make it abundantly clear that life is just a box of chocolates?

Maybe we’ve all been over-thinking this whole thing.

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THE “SKIP” GATES DRAMA – A THEATER REVIEW

The handcuffing, perp walk and arrest of Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. is one of those can’t-believe-it news stories. It’s also irresisible grist for PR blogging heads like me.

That a prominent citizen could be arrested for trying to get into his own (OK, rented) home is a source of wonder. Sort of the opposite of evolution: In the Skipgate Breakin, so many things had to go south for the bizarre tableau to have occured. As of today, the story’s legs have grown legs. After President Obama launched into the middle of the whole mess — racial profiling, racism, “stupid” Cambridge, Mass., police, etc. — the White House tried spinning a retreat: The president didn’t actually mean that he thought the local police were stupid, but only that cooler heads should have prevailed).

But “stupid”was the word that the president, a wordsmith, used. One of the cooler heads that should have prevailed was the president’ — particularly in the  context of the press conference he summoned to lobby the nation to support his health care reform.

But Mr. Obama shot himself in the media with his improvisatory sniping at the Cambridge police department. By identifying himself with Professor Gates (‘it could have been someone like me!), he pushed his agenda off the front pages of the Washington Post and Boston Globe whose editors headlined Obama’s bashing of a local police force.  Points off for media relations.

Not that the president has been the only hot head. Professor Gates wasn’t what you’d call a model of civility, either. Furious at the gall of a local cop to continue to disbelieve Gates’ insistence on his very identity as a home owner, not to mention Harvard professor with an international reputation and a PBS documentary series, Gates head practically exploded. Who in his own best interests tells addressed a clealry agitated cop seeking an I.D. by dishing him with streetish disrespect ( “I’m gonna show my ID to your Mama”)?  Certainly not me.  Whenever a police officer has asked for my I.D., I am quick to hand it over — as well as I can from a fetal position.

As for the Cambridge cop  — from whom Gates has demanded an on-your-knees apolology for being a racist– it didn’t turn out to have been his best day, either. (The both-sides-can-share-blame interpretation was nicely said by a spokesperson for the Cambridge police.)  Yes, the police offier was only doing his job. But once he was able to determine that the angry gray-haired fellow was the rightful owner of the home, he would have done himself and Gates a big favor by hopping back in his  squad car and allowing the outraged professor to rage and fume.

But, Nooooo!, as they used to say on “Saturday Night Live”. The professor boiled over and his “tumultuous behavior” indicated a “disorderly person” charge — at least until the story hit the wires and the Cambridge Police saw the wisdom of dropping the charge.Boston Globe columnist Joan Venocchi framed the incident as a machismo moment — two tough guys facing off, one powerfully connected, the other one with handcuffs and a pistol.

In no time the tempest-in-a-teapot story went viral. Naturally, every public official and talking head had to weigh in — Massachusetts’ governor, an African American, identified with the outrage of a prominent citizen of color being racially profiled and harrassed in his own home; and Al Sharpton — whose wit is highly underrated — allowed that he’d heard of Black folks being arrested for driving while black, but until now he’d never heard of being arrested for being in your own home while black.

Whether Professor Gates carries through with his promise to sue the Cambridge police department is a matter for additional speculation. It has been said that tragedy is close to farce, but in this case the farce has it all over the tragedy. Of course, from a PR perspective — and an interpersonal one — there’s no greater tragedy than a damaged reputation. More than anything — race relations included — reputation seems to be all the rage here.

While this is an awful moment for the two principal players — professor and cop — it is a rewarding opportunity for a communications professor like me with no skin in the game. I think of sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy  — that all the world’s a stage and we are but poor players upon  it. From that perspective, this was compelling theater as well as wildly inept mismanagement of what Goffman called “dramaturgical discipline,” an individual’s ability to manage his (or her) “face,” even when the sky is falling.  The sociologist was fascinated with the many strategies we all have for navigating potentially identity-damaging situations just like the one under scrutiny today.

More often than not, we are successful at deflecting the other guy’s suspicion and even hostility — a skill set that makes civil society functional in the end. But sometimes one or both parties fail to discipline their act, so to speak, which results in the melodrama that makes for great tabloid news and photos. The famous professor in handcuffs on his porch, mouth agape as if screaming nasty things about the cop and his mama. A public spectacle!  Fabulous!

While Gates has a good shot at collecting a fat settlement from the embarrassaed Cambridge Police — already dressed down by their governor and president — he may well take the high road and cool his rhetorical jets. It’s pretty clear that by appearing of the “Today Show” and hearing powerful people publicly take his side, he’s already perceived to be the winner in the face-off.

As for Officer Crowley — whose history of vicious racism includes attempting to save the life of Boston Celtics basketball star Regggie Lewis who went down in practice with a heart attack — it’s his reputation that has been cuffed and perp walked.

From my perspective, this is not a crisis but an incident which has the potential to become a crisis if either or both sides escalate it with bad language and law suits and more taunts of ‘yo mama’.  But I’m betting that, to quote another president, both parties to the dispute will, over time, get back in touch with the better angels of their nature.

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No Business Like Zoo Business

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 — Facing a brutal budget cut from cash-strapped Massachusetts, ZOO New England — Franklin Park Zoo and the smaller Stone Zoo — swung from its PR heels and hit what appears to be a PR home run. With the veteran counsel of its Boston-based PR firm, Marlo Marketing, ZOO New England responded to the hovering budget cuts by putting out the word that the Zoo might have to shut down its operations which could result in some of the animals being (here’s the Long Ball) EUTHANIZED!

OMG!  When I saw the newspaper coverage (ZOO NEW ENGLAND ANIMALS COULD BE EUTHANIZED — to closely paraphrase the hook), I could plainly see the storm of public opinion that such a PR “framing” would be certain to generate (those POOR BABY GIRAFFES! THOSE CUTE LITTLE CHIMPS!). And of course it has.

Governor Patrick shot back at the Zoo that no such thing was sure to happen — and that it was unconscionable and unethical for the ZNE to distort the truth like that. And how selfish of the Zoo, when the entire state — including the elderly and poor and others whose state services have been slashed — is feeling the pain of the financial meltdown.

Of course, the governor and his spokespersons’ defensive reactions — no matter how rational — are too little and too late. The first big shot was fired. The PR battle has already been won, it appears, by Zoo New England because it moved swiftly and boldly and found the sweet (or is it bitter?) spot with the image of the heartles murder of defenseless critters. Even the Boston Globe, that LIB-RUL newspaper that conservatives and bean counters and others on the right love to despise, editorialized that Zoo New England had clearly sidestepped the truth and failed to consider very rational management options such as consolidating the functions of the two zoos and seeking donor dollars — not to mention the ME ME ME! selfishness of ZNE’s claim, considering the misery being endured by so many other, less well-funded and PR-savvy constituencies in the Commonwealth.

But, so what? It looks like a done deal in PR  terms.

So when you hear whimpers that “PR is dead!” — don’t believe it. That’s like saying influence is dead. Persuasion is dead. Politics is dead. Pleeeze! T’ain’t so.

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Crisis Communication in Colombia

If you’re thinking correctly, you learn more than you teach. I’d like to think that’s what I did at the university Externado, in Bogota, Colombia, this past week. I taught a three-day, 12-hour seminar on crisis management and communication to 90 graduate students, including l0 MBAs.

I did some un-learning, too, including un-learning the dire, hysterically negative images of Bogota — the product of a US State Department Travel Warning and many other well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning worry warts. The Bogota I saw — central and north sections of the city — is a thriving, madcap, digitized metropolis not unlike my native New York City. The streets are clogged with taxis, buses and cars no further from each other’s bumpers than Formula 1 race cars and seemingly not much slower.

Bogota sits on a high plain, 8,600 feet above sea level, and at the foot of moutaints an additional couple of thousand feet above the city. Having lived in Los Angeles, with plenty of side trips to San Francisco, I looked up and around and felt, somehow, that I was familiar with the setting, the sight lines, the hills, the twisty road above the center of the city and through the mountains — not unlike speeding along Mulholland Drive from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific.
This is geographic sense-making — how we reduce the unfamiliarity of a place by running it through our geographic DNA database.

For someone who’s never been south of Key West and whose Spanish does not extend much beyond Lo siento!, teaching a graduate seminar in the capitol city of Colombia promised nothing if not novelty. And while it was new enough, the fabulous anxieties surrounding that newness began to subside within a day or two, and those feelings began to be replaced by a mixture of exhilaration and nerves. I remember a passage in a notebook of Camus when he describes being suddenly so overwhelmed with feelings of strangeness that he bolts from a restaurant, out the door and back to his room. Was he in Prague? Or a village in Austria? I don’t remember. What I do remember was his sense of being almost nauseated — overcome, flooded by sensation. This is both the curse and the paradoxical joy of being a stranger in a strange land (with apologies to sci fi master Robert Heinlein, who died recently, after having written the famous novel among scores of others).

Com theorist and public relations scholar Tim Coombs created a complex theory for the analysis and management of organizational crises. One key factor to consider in the diagnosis of an organizational crisis, he says, is what he calls “crisis history”. When I retailed that idea to the graduate students, they reminded me of Bogota’s intensely operatic crisis history — indeed, the nation’s. And close to home some of it was. In l985, rebel forces stormed the Palace of Justice — the Supreme Court — a five-minute ride from the university, in Bolivar Plaza, the capitol seat. When government forces attempted to re-take the building, there were a dozen or more casualties, including a half dozen or so who were graduates of Externado’s prestigious law school.

There it was again — the branding of Bogota as a violent place. But I kept reminding myself and telling my gracious hosts that as a boy growing up in New York City, I was very aware of the potential for violence, although it wasn’t until I was a grownup living in Boston that I was actually a victim of violence — a mugging in a subway tunnel that cost me 12 stitches and a tooth. In New York City, you didn’t wander into Central Park after dark, unless you were going with a friend to see a Joe Papp performance of Shakespeare in the Park.  You didn’t hang out on 84th street between Columbus and Amsterday — that is, before that whole neighborhood got trendy in the 80s. You didn’t go to Bed Stuy or the South Bronx (Sister Teresa remarked that the South Bronx was more tragic even than the slums of Calcutta) or the Bowery. You didn’t even go to Times Square when you were a kid — in the 50s — which was long before Times Square was swallowed up by the corporate architecture of Viacom. All those places ranged from raffish to dangerous, not to mention the subway at night.

I grew up an city kid, with a city kid’s street smarts. I made it a point not to bike on Riverside Drive after dark or even alone on certain kinds of days in the afternoon when there was this sense of something wrong that you couldn’t help but feel.

What of the horrendously poor, broken, violent face of Bogota South, the face I didn’t see? No more did I see the face of the burnt out South Bronx or the mean streets of Bed Stuy. These nightmarish hopeless districts are quite alive in my imagination, and have served to dominate the imagination and paralyze the wills of innumerable actual and mental travelers. It is not to deny their existence that I dare not venture into those despairing places. Rather, it is to refuse to choose to go there, to catastrophize, to stoke and colorize my tabloid fanatasies — and for what? To acquire frightful images for the memory and narration?

No reason to go there. Rather,  as I ventured out of my charming hotel into the calles and carreras of Bogota, walking briskly toward one of the city’s centers, another feeling took me by pleasant surprise — I was seeing with smiling avid accepting enthralled heart of Walt Whitman on of his his perambulations through the city he called Manhatta, in the poem by that name:

“Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender/strong light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”.

That’s it. Whitman would have embraced Bogota, and to the fortunate extent that I carry Whitmanin me, I, too, embraced you, Bogota!

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