Stealing Opportunity from Cracks in the Status Quo

Photo Credit: Arvind Balaraman

Although there are myriad intelligent discussions, analysis and practice occurring lately about and around social media and the power and utility of the social experience, I wanted to take a step back and inward, to explore the vivid terrain of personal experience and what it itself can mean for the agency of the individual as well as for the social experience. I attempted this traversing of the subject of power, possibility and personal experience and broke the macro task down by looking at it through the lens and the phenomenon of “the news.”

News & the Process Through Which it’s Produced Determines Public Experience

One salient postulation that got me thinking about this whole subject of personal experience, structures and therefore human agency and opportunity is a quote by the sociologists Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester. “News is the information which people receive second-hand about worlds which are not available to their own experience.” This means that news and the process through which it is produced determines the experiences of the public. There is a middle-man and there are those with vested interests and the unequal power to get these interests addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not explicitly saying having vested interests and influence are always negative attributes, just that we, as young communicators who probably do not have built-up influence, have to be alert, versatile and dynamic to make and take advantage of opportunities when they are presented to us – because they are increasingly few and far between.

Molotch and Lester go on to write that although the news, and especially routine, promoted events such as the president making an inspection tour of a ravaged Gulf Coast, is managed, there are certain times when the status quo is breached, true power dynamics are exposed and opportunities can therefore be swiftly exploited. In all such circumstances, we must be on the ready and have the confidence to take full advantage of these cracks.

For an example related to the news, after a very public accident occurs where oil is released in large amounts into an ocean basin and direct consequences of this unplanned event are that well-loved wildlife are killed and are being killed, this cannot be easily hidden from the public’s view – no matter how powerful the actors who may have caused it and no matter how much they may want it spun. According to Molotch and Lester the media must now become truly objective and serve as the public’s ally, not the partner to the ones with the power and influence.  Here we are able to witness such information usually obscured from public consideration as the close ties and the in-step decision-making that takes place between the federal government and Big Oil.

The opportunity lies within one leader or in-tuned individual of an environmental group being aware, proactive and taking advantage of the very public and the very negative climate produced by the spill that chastens Big Oil and cries out for regulation. He/she can then internalize and utilize this event and the subsequent crack in the dominant political structure to effectively lobby for changes to offshore drilling laws etc. The social experience for many will have been affected.

For our purposes and on a related note, I think its important that we take our personal experiences for what they are and to also be cognizant of their intrinsic value. We should make the most of these events and always be on alert for possible changes and trends in the industry that can signal our opportunity.

For example, taking a job right out of college that may not be our “dream job” in PR or journalism and internalizing the experience as we keep working to find and even cause the tremor that cracks the status quo and leads to our big break. What do you think about finding and making your own personal opportunities?

Like This!

Add Conduit for Communicators to your favorite blog reader!

LeBron James: A Veritable PR Genius?

Some say that LeBron James is a bona fide “public relations genius.” This may or may not be true, we will explore this in a bit, but the fact remains, the basketball star and free agent has managed to dominate the news cycle and foster massive amounts of speculation and therefore buzz around the decision of which b-ball team he would choose to continue his vaunted career with. Would James stay in Cleveland where he has doggedly chased the elusive championship ring for 7 seasons and formed a relationship of sorts with the city and its fans, or would he sign with another franchise, leaving Cleveland high and dry? And if choosing another team, which one would it be?

This event certainty had all the makings of a dramatic narrative from which to create and implement a solid and responsive PR campaign from. But was it?

Not counting the rumors that have been circulating since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where he met fellow players Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, from approximately early June to July 8th, when he finally announced at a live ESPN press conference his decision to go to the Miami Heat, “King James” has been a very popular guy. For example, as of late June his newly launched Twitter account had already acquired over 300,000 followers.

So, to get back to the bona fides that have been bestowed upon James, the real question is: Has the lead-up to the big decision and also importantly, the actual decision, been evidence of James’ (and his handlers of course) public relations genius?

Lets briefly start from the end result and go from there. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Nielsen Co. estimated that 9.95 million people watched James announce on ESPN that he’s leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, “making it the third-most-watched program on cable television this year.” Even though he already was a big star and media draw, this deluge of viewers obviously shows the campaign did something right because a part of PR is creating awareness and buzz around a product, company or even an individual. This earned recognition has its advantages, and in this particular case, it’s money. James has deftly shown he can command great attention for himself and the league, which may translate into a bigger signing bonus, contract etc., now and down the road. Therefore this aspect of the campaign is indeed a success, but is it unique or different from any other media relations, strategic marketing or publicity campaign? No, not really.

Now, the lead-up to the “The Decision.” James has declared that all advertising revenues from the ESPN performance would be donated by James to the Boys & Girls Club of America. This is a smart PR move as it illustrates a concern for and an awareness of other people beside the proverbial pampered MVP and his big “Decision.” Also, as I mentioned above, James launched a Twitter account and a new website. Both in place to ( ideally) create a channel in which to connect with fans, reporters and the public. Although this is a great idea, it’s pretty standard for any PR campaign these days, as well as the fact he ignored a vital public relations practice: he hasn’t exploited either channel to really interact with his publics in any meaningful way (e.g. he hasn’t followed anyone on Twitter), so a genius this does not make.

On top of these points we also have to factor in the Bitterness in Cleveland and elsewhere that is running quite deep these days. James’ stubborn and increasingly stark reputation as a quitter is not a positive by-product or evidence of a masterful PR campaign. Could he somehow have handled differently this departure from a city that had adopted him as a hero? Yes, he probably shouldn’t have announced his decision on live TV without connecting with his (loyal) fans first. Therefore, I would not call LeBron James a “Veritable PR Genius.” What about you?

Like This!

Apple’s iPhone 4 Reception Problem and Subsequent Response – A Recipe for Organizational Crisis?

Iphone4 Unboxing

The dynamic and extensive history of Public Relations practice is replete with cases of organizations who have, as scholars Heath and Millar write, “lost brand equity, suffered damage to products, services, and lost issue positions because of inept handling of crisis preparation and response.” Is Apple fated to join these mismanaged cases of yore?

Apple’s now well-known iPhone 4 reception issue first surfaced hours after the phone’s release on June 24th and only recently (8 days later) has Apple seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaints and offer a murky explanation (apologia?) for the highly publicized problem in a posted open letter.

Apple claims it is not an antenna problem but instead a flawed software formula that displays the handset’s signal strength, so that in most cases the phone shows two more bars than it actually should. A software fix is due in a couple of weeks according to the company. But has the damage already been done?  Does the signal and reception issue itself constitute an organizational crisis for Apple? And if the actual product flaw doesn’t, what of Apple’s response to the issue thus far? Taking all this into account, is this then an organizational crisis?

To provide some clarity and context to these questions before we precede, here is the definition of crisis that Millar and Heath provide:

An untimely, but predictable event that has actual or potential consequences for stakeholders’ interests as well the reputation of the organization suffering the crisis.

Also, if you look at the rhetorical definition of crisis and its approach you see that the responsibility for a crisis, its magnitude and its duration are in fact contestable – by both the organization and its publics. This gives the organization, such as Apple, an opportunity to effectively manage the crisis before, during and even after the crisis event occurs. This approach stresses the role that message development, framing, people’s interpretation and information provided to publics play in organizational preparation to crises and the subsequent response. Therefore, is this indeed a crisis for Apple, and if so, has Apple appropriately regained control and managed the crisis through its communications response?

Apple’s Response to Antenna/Reception Complaints

First, I would venture to say that this is indeed a crisis for Apple. The poor reception and dropped call problem is untimely (no time is good for a crisis quite frankly) but it could have been predicted. Design flaws happen, it’s not unheard of – that’s why a specific crisis communication plan should be in place beforehand. Also, and more importantly, stakeholders (e.g. consumers who bought the phone, stockholders, vendors etc.) have been harmed and Apple’s reputation has certainly been damaged. Apple now has to spend time, money and energy on issues (such as a lawsuit) that it normally would not have to during a time of normal organizational narrative and business – this signals a crisis.

But what really has stoked the fire, and is even more unforgivable and damaging in terms of reputation, has been Apple’s dismal initial and continuing response to the firestorm. Most recently, the Letter from Apple regarding the troubled iPhone 4 and its reception was posted on their company site, but only after a poor attempt by Apple and CEO Steve Jobs to respond to the growing complaints concerning their flagship product by telling consumers to “avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band.” Apple also initially refused to drop the restocking fee (%10) for customers returning the phone within the 30 days after purchase. Worse still, they had offered a $29.00 “bumper” case as a solution to gripping the side of the phone and therefore causing the phone to not hold a signal and drop calls etc. It’s the end users problem. Nice.

Ethical and Effective Crisis Communications

Getting back to the questions I floated above. The manner or form of an ethical and effective crisis response is truthful, timely, sincere, and voluntary. Initially, Apple glibly responded that some loss of signal from gripping a handset is “a fact of life for every wireless phone.” Before publicly responding to this issue, did Apple in fact know that there was indeed a bigger problem involved besides this “fact of life”? Computerworld reports that in the Maryland lawsuit, mentioned above, Apple is accused of knowingly selling a defective product and breaking its warranty promise. If it comes out that Apple did know something was wrong with the phone it could be damaging and definitely doesn’t constitute a truthful response.

Also, sincerity and understanding of the customers plight seems to be lacking here. For example, many customers felt that by being told they were “holding it wrong” Apple was patronizing them, and therefore, that Apple didn’t have a true intention of making it right. This is a problem. A leaked Apple internal memo has also contributed to people’s sense that the company isn’t concerned with “appeasing” their customers.

Moving on. The content of an ethical and effective crisis response includes fully accepting responsibility, expressing regret, asking for forgiveness, fully disclose information related to the event and offering to perform an appropriate corrective action. Apple thus far has done a poor job on all counts. But among other things, please consider the offering of appropriate corrective action. Is making your customers buy a rubber case after spending hundreds of dollars an appropriate corrective action? Also, in the letter released on Apple’s site it fails to explain why holding the phone with your left hand even causes dropped calls. Many people have reported that they were able to replicate the terrible reception. Therefore, these specific complaints should be addressed and taken seriously for it to be an ethical response and effectively managed crisis. I would also venture to guess that this isn’t fully disclosing all that Apple knows about the issue – another strike.

In conclusion, I offer that Apple’s overall crisis communications response and proposed remedy for the iPhone 4’s obvious flaws have made its key publics even madder and the magnitude of the crisis more serious. I also predict Apple’s latest response with their “apology” letter won’t return the organizational narrative to normal anytime soon. Therefore, their ineffective crisis response will extend the duration of the crisis. What do you think?

Photo credit: denharsh

Like This!

Add Conduit for Communicators to your favorite blog reader!