PR at Warp 10

Something worse than Star Trek Voyager.As Jon Newman has pointed out, some of us are rather fond of Star Trek references here at The Hodges Partnership. Personally, I’ve been known to watch a little Star Trek Voyager. In one of the worst episodes of that series, titled “Threshold,” Tom Paris successfully breaks the Warp 10 barrier and soon thereafter realizes he’s transforming into a pink salamander.

I thought of this episode as I considered the speed at which organizations must make communications decisions when faced with fast-escalating scandals. Things can certainly seem to move at Warp 10 once social media gets involved. (And, let’s face it, when it’s a scandal, social media is always involved.)

At Hodges, we know from experience that for the PR pros, lawyers and executives, responsible for making very public decisions in very difficult circumstances, the stakes can seem as high as whether or not you’re willing to spend the rest of your career as a pink salamander.

Consider some recent examples where organizations, arguably, moved too fast or too slow in the face of public pressure.

  1. Rutgers. Too fast? (Disclaimer: We’ve covered this story in previous posts. Jon Newman is a faithful Rutgers alum and Hodges Digital worked closely with the Rutgers Athletic Department developing their mobile app.) Earlier this year, ESPN aired a video showing Rutgers’ head basketball coach, Mike Rice, verbally abusing players with homophobic slurs, as well as throwing and kicking things at them. As if that wasn’t incendiary enough, it quickly came to light that the popular Rutgers athletic director, Tim Pernetti, had known about the tape and the behavior but, after alerting his superiors, allowed the coach to keep his job. Pernetti resigned and the coach was fired. The president of the university was allowed to remain with the support of Governor Christie (Rutgers is a public university). Was the decision to keep the president in place and push out the popular AD made hastily?
  2. Paula Deen. Too fast (or just too much)? You may agree with CNN Contributor, Reihan Salam, that she should have been fired long ago for pushing a high sugar, high fat diet on millions of Food Network viewers. But Paula really got into trouble when she admitted to using the N-word (albeit long time ago and in private) during a deposition in a law suit that alleges racial discrimination and abuse. Food Network and Smithfield Foods promptly fired Deen. Other sponsors and partners are “reviewing their relationship” with the chef. Was Food Network responding to a broader pattern of behavior or was this a hasty decision in the face of a potentially hazardous communications issue?
  3. Paula Part #2 (these things do move fast!). Does her (tearful) apology change your opinion?
  4. Kickstarter. Too slow? According to BoingBoing.com, Kickstarter was alerted by blogger and comedian, Casey Malone, that one of the projects on its site encouraged sexual assault. With just two hours before the project was funded, Kickstarter refused to intervene. It’s since apologized (profusely) and made a $25,000 donation to RAINN. Would you, or could you, have acted faster with the information available at the time?

Put yourself in these companies’ shoes; how would you react? Do we ever win points for being sensible in the face of Warp 10-speed public opinion?

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