The P.R. Disaster Intensifies


public-relationsLast week I wrote about the local Saratoga Springs, NY HUD Board public relations disaster.

They had done everything wrong by ignoring and then mishandling a problem with bedbugs and providing a “not our fault” response. You can look at the earlier blog and videos for a full account.

The Board quickly had to decide on a crisis communications strategy and probably chose between these four typical approaches:

1. Rope-a-dope

Popularized by Muhammad Ali, rope-a-dope in P.R. is just like in boxing: Protect yourself during the early part of the fight while an opponent wears himself out, and then unexpectedly attack.

2. Stonewall

In public relations, it’s more typical to continue laying low and doing nothing that would restart the inferno. This tactic worked much better before social media.

3. We are good people

Tries to communicate that this a good institution which is trying hard to do the right thing and will work with everyone to make “it” better. They also:

  • Immediately apologize, and
  • Quickly provide all besieged of the information at one time.

4.   Counterattack

Tries to regain their lost image by destroying the attacking enemy. This is the approach we’ve been subjected to in the Republican presidential debates.

  • Initially the local HUD Board and Director blamed the residents, which of course badly backfired.

The Board hired crisis-communications help after a month, which was necessary given their poor performance. It appears that the P.R. consultant convinced the Board to take the “we are good people” approach, which was by far their best option.  (Note that the local daily paper’s editor was crotchety about dealing with a P.R. person, others have criticized the cost, and the month-long contract was not renewed.)

The Director and a low-profile Board member meet with the area press and quickly provide some information in response to FOIL requests. Unfortunately, the information generated more outrage about the staff and Board members spending money on junkets even though they argued that they couldn’t afford to treat the bedbugs.

  • Even after they had been severely criticized, the Board Chairman and Director went to a convention in Florida in January. Dumb almost beyond belief.

As a result, the press changed its focus from not eradicating bedbugs to mismanagement approaching malfeasance by the Board as well as the Director.

The front-page articles and evening news stories continue and the tone of voice has become increasingly accusatory and atypically biting.

Late last week, the Board and Director tried to survive the assault by providing an action plan with an appropriate tone-of-voice. Obviously written by the public relations person, this plan was too little too late to stop the outrage and investigations.

In an example of not having a unified message, a few days later another Board member “attended” a City Council meeting via Skype and took an imperious attitude communicating the original and now unacceptable “we’re excellent” arrogance.

Future news stories could be about dueling lawyers in an attack-counterattack scenario. That certainly will be bad public relations for everyone.

About Richard Sellers

Richard is Chairman Emeritus of the Marketing Executives Networking Group, founder of Demand Marketing consulting firm, and former Sr. VP of Marketing for three multi-billion dollar companies: CEC, WLP, and Service Merchandise. His early career was at GE, P&G, Playtex, and Marketing Corporation of America. He’s also a volunteer counselor for SCORE assisting small businesses in upstate New York. You can follow his communications about marketing, job search and careers here and at mengonlineENTREPRENEURS QUESTIONS, and on Twitter at @Sellers_Richard.



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