Nine PR Tips to Prevent a Fall from Grace
My brows raised in unison and drew closer together. Jimmy Fallon… in hot water? That’s a name I didn’t expect to see alongside a phrase like that. I read it again, just to make sure. I mean, the guy is so darn LIKEABLE.
It was mid-2020 and, by all means, the year of all years when it came to people being called out for bad or insensitive behavior, past or present. Be it racism, sexism or political beliefs, the court of public opinion issued swifter and louder verdicts than ever before.
Jimmy was trending on Twitter, under the hashtag #JimmyFallonIsOverParty. The reason for this sudden declaration he was over and done with? An unearthed 20-year-old Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit of him impersonating actor Chris Rock in blackface. The Internet outrage grew fast, but the response that followed was fascinating. I was watching the reactions more closely than the best episode of SNL. What would he do? Would the public insist he be fired? Would ratings go down the tubes?
Fallon said some had told him to remain silent in the wake of the controversy, but he then heard other counsel that felt right to him: he issued an apology and used his show as a platform to talk openly about the matter. Before long, Rock himself came to Fallon’s defense and proclaimed how they are friends, that intent matters and that Fallon never set out to, and in actuality did not, hurt him. It seems, even in the midst of “cancel culture,” Fallon was reinstated.
What is cancel culture exactly?
Cancel culture is a modern-day form of ostracism or boycotting, in which the offender is called out in shame on the Internet, social media or in the news by being “cancelled” or having support or sales withdrawn from them, depending on if it’s an individual or a company. No matter what name you give it, it’s a serious concern for many, from food brands to celebrities and even small business owners, who worry about being on the receiving end, whether unjustly or deservingly so.
What’s a brand to do?
While no two matters are exactly alike – and offensive behavior is never appropriate or excusable – there are a few things, on the brand side, that can be done to limit and minimize risk.
- Establish values and live them. When a company is clear about what it stands for and why, and uses this value system as a framework for decision-making, including hiring, firing, promotions, corporate decisions, giving campaigns, advertisements and even social media interactions, fewer issues arise. Values should be backed by actions and revisited often so they are understood and absorbed by everyone, internally and externally.
- Have a team in place. While Fallon didn’t name names, my hunch is that he was surrounded by professional handlers, from the show side and maybe even personally, including a legal team and public relations professionals. Every company or brand of any size should have an outlined list of who is to reply in the case of a crisis and who else needs to be notified and in what order. Cell phone and home numbers should be on these documents and they should be periodically updated for accuracy, since crises have a way of striking at the most inconvenient, unpredictable times. Established organizations and businesses with many employees often benefit from having a PR agency in the mix before anything arises, to proactively build goodwill and share positive stories in advance of any challenges.
- Plan – and keep on planning. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail, so taking your crisis communications seriously is a must. All companies benefit from developing a crisis communications plan, which anticipates likely and possible scenarios, responses, policies and protocols.
- Talk to your team. Have set policies for both traditional media and social media use, as well as general conduct, and put them in writing. Flesh out specifics such as how the phone is to be answered during a crisis, who calls can be forwarded to and how, if employees are allowed to interact on the company’s social media pages or reshare content and more.
- Be a human. To err is human, which is why a compassionate, genuine tone helps. An earnest apology or hearing a company spokesperson talk openly can help with how a message is perceived. The details of an apology are just as important as the words. For instance, qualifiers around a mea culpa can negate the statement and incite anger and pushback. Take a look at how Jimmy framed his apology on Twitter: “In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.” Notice he says, point blank, that there is no excuse, that it was a terrible decision and that he’s sorry. The word accountable also makes an appearance here. He followed it up with talking about it on his show and bringing on experts to further the dialogue about racism, showing that he was committed to doing better.
- Move swiftly. Don’t bury your head in the sand. The advancement of technology and social media means messages move faster than ever and moments of prolonged silence are easily filled in with misinformation, reactions and judgment. Taking charge of the narrative early helps minimize negative effects.
- Closely and continuously monitor. Keep tabs on all news stories, social media posts and reactions, conversations on the Internet, changes in sentiment and even other trending stories around similar situations. Being aware of what’s out in the public domain can help a company respond sensitively and using of-the-moment information can inform on when a story is dying down in the news cycle and the focus has moved elsewhere.
- Consider all affected parties and make amends. It’s easier to forgive transgressions if apologies are issued to all people affected by the negative, or even perceived negative, matter. Amends is an action word, so don’t just say you’ll do better – do better!
- Last, but not least, learn from it. While no individual or brand ever wishes for a crisis to happen, the silver lining is that it’s a chance to improve and possibly even to deepen a relationship with your customers, clients, fans and followers. After all, while Jimmy’s SNL skit wasn’t his finest moment, I admire his humility and humanity, am still a supporter and will tune in to his show.
Last, but not least, here’s one final tip to apply from this day forward: Acting honorably at all times is always the best way to go.
About the Author: Filomena Fanelli is the CEO and founder of Impact PR & Communications, Ltd. (www.prwithimpact.com), an award-winning public relations agency based in NY’s Hudson Valley region, with clients throughout the tri-state area. Fanelli can be reached at 845.462.4979 or at email@example.com.