How Crisis Communications Can Help Clean up the Mess

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Intellectual Property Owners Association Annual Meeting in New York City. The trademark session where I was one of three speakers was entitled “Brands Under Attack: How Brand Owners can Save Face.” Attendees came to hear how ambush marketing, data breaches and negative PR impacts brand value, how brands can respond to attacks and how in-house and outside counsel can mitigate the damage.

My fellow panelists were Jeffrey Greenbaum, one of the country’s leading advertising lawyers, who addressed lessons learned from the Rio Olympics around the upsides and downsides of ambush marking. The other was Jon Frankel, who covered security issues with wearable technology and how breaches of these devices’ data can occur. Between Fitbits, smartphones and GPS, there is data literally tracking our every step and a breach of this information could easily compromise a trust in a brand among consumers.

My own presentation, “Cleaning Up the Mess,” addressed how crisis communications can protect and defend a brand during tough times as well as how to prepare ahead of the storm by building both your crisis team and a solid plan that can be effectively executed.

To make the theoretical practical, I reviewed the real-life lessons learned from Chipotle and its systematic food safety failure that resulted in 500 of its customers falling ill with norovirus, salmonella and E. coli, and the 2014 hacking of Sony’s Picture Entertainment’s email system. In Chipotle’s case, their response to not proactively talk on their website or social channels about sick customers for five months after the first cases were reported might have done the brand in if not for years of talking about sourcing only the freshest food with integrity. While their stock and revenue has taken a beating in 2016, many on Wall Street expect Chipotle to survive.

Sony’s response was especially tone-deaf in that they didn’t issue a statement in the days following the breach, leaving the disgraced chairperson of the Motion Pictures Group to issue her own apology after emails revealed her embarrassing and offensive behavior. Ultimately, she was asked to leave. During this time, the only official language Sony issued was a letter from a high-powered attorney threatening the media that they were breaking the law by reporting on stolen material. Needless to say, the coverage didn’t stop.

While the damage was contained to the release of one film, “The Interview” (the plot—the attempted assassination of the North Korean government—was assumed to be the motive for the breach by that very nation’s government), Sony will go down in crisis communications infamy for how poorly they handled the breach.

Thanks to the IPO for a fascinating conversation around these vital and increasingly-relevant issues.

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