public relations crisis communication tips
By now probably most people reading this have either seen the ending of the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant or heard about it. As I was watching it live, my heart sank as I witnessed what was transpiring before me.
While I ached for Miss Colombia who, after a joyous and tear filled celebration came to realize her reign was cut way too short, and for Miss Philippines who, stood in moments of complete confusion without an interpreter as she tried to piece together the confusion; I especially felt pain for the very kind, talented and usually fun-loving Steve Harvey who I had grown to love from watching him time and again on his hit talk show.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit his mistake of announcing the wrong Miss Universe is one that anyone of us could have made. The truth is, all of us have undoubtedly made mistakes – some bigger than others. They are part of this big classroom called life, and they give us opportunities to learn, improve and grow…if we are open to the lesson.
This past year when I was working on a large event, someone’s error caused some pretty big issues. To be honest, I don’t remember what that error was now but I remember it had a big impact on what we were working on. Instead of reprimanding we focused on moving forward and getting past it. I reminded that person that we all make mistakes and it is how we grow. We worked together as a team to find a solution, and in the end, that error was not in our way of achieving great success. The error also was never repeated again.
I most certainly have made plenty of mistakes in my lifetime, some made in unforgiving environments and others in environments where errors were not admonished but accepted as a mere bump in the road that could be overcome. I have also been lucky enough to have had people in my life and career who chose to take that opportunity when I was down to remind me of my strengths and ability to succeed.
Can you guess under which circumstances I was quickest to move past the mistake and go on to achieve great things, and under which circumstances I found myself in a continual pattern of errors? If we had handled the mistake differently toward our team member, how do you think our negative reaction would have impacted that person’s self esteem, motivation to get past it and even go on to better and more creative decisions, and overall joy in being part of the team?
Now, let’s look at what happened at the Miss Universe Pageant and beyond
Steve’s incorrect announcement was followed immediately with a forthright acknowledgement and ownership of his mistake, and subsequent apologies. Yes, he did misspell the countries of both Pageant contestants in Tweets that he wrote when his emotional state may not have been the clearest but he corrected himself. Although I have never met Steve, I think I can speak with much certainty when I say he no doubt was hurting A LOT from the experience – and probably will carry that weight for awhile.
It saddened me to see how the world was quick to make Steve Harvey a target for wide spread criticism on the internet and in traditional media for an honest mistake that could have happened to any one of us if we had been in his shoes. There are definitely larger, more far reaching world events right now with the capacity to inflict much greater harm. One thing my study of applied behavior analysis has taught me is that in order for this type of blaming, derogatory behavior to continue it must be being reinforced by something. That reinforcement could be in the attention received from comments to comments or reposts of posts or news stories; or it could be in the relief felt by taking the focus away from internal personal challenges or other world events. Steve may have been a prime target for a scapegoat.
Then, my other public relations side also sees this situation from a crisis communication standpoint. There were a number of things that were handled right and some examples from which to learn both in terms of crisis prevention and crisis management. I applaud Steve for taking the bull by the horn, taking responsibility and making a quick apology. Absolutely this is a lesson that even in the heat of the moment, taking a deep breath to collect yourself and have your facts accurate is very important as he learned when he misspelled Colombia and Philippines. The Pageant could have also created a list of potential mishaps such as that and made a plan for handling each one. In this case, it was a tremendously awkward half a minute or so while contestants, Steve, and the production staff were figuring out what to do next.
Those are some take home lessons that I hope were learned from the experience.
What are some additional lessons to Steve AND the Pageant to minimize the risk of this type of crisis in the future…and some lessons for us all?
For one, having absolute clarity in messaging is critical. I have read that Steve first announced Miss Colombia’s name as the Pageant Winner after reading it on a teleprompter. If that is what happened, there are a number of factors on the chain that should be looked at to ensure complete accuracy in EVERYTHING. But the other question is, why they needed something that important and that secret on both a teleprompter and a hand held card. (I am not sure if that is the case, but it may have been.)
And, let’s talk about that hand held card. In case you have not seen it, here is a photograph that is circulating online. I can see how it may be confusing to read, for an announcer under a lot of pressure on stage. When I have written scripts for major events, I have always written them so that the flow is very easy to follow.
Perhaps, instead of giving Steve a card like the one they gave him this year, in 2016, the card can read:
3rd Place – USA
2nd Place – Columbia
WINNER – Philippines
Much simpler and to the point.
So, let’s look at this now from a compassionate human perspective.
I greatly applaud the Pageant’s quick announcement that they signed Steve Harvey to be a future host. Organizers gave him the respect that I’d hope every employer or leader would give to their employee or team member. They stood by him and showed the world in a big way that they still believed in him. (I personally do not think Steve is the only one at fault here, which makes me respect Steve all the more for publically taking the brunt of the blame.) AND, while it is private what conversations and decisions they have made behind closed doors, I bet that they have and are continuing to work together as a team to analyze what happened, learn from it and take steps that can not only prevent something like that from happening again but maybe even improve the whole process.
I also greatly admired Steve’s wife, Marjorie, for taking to Instagram the next day with this declaration to her husband..”You are a Stand Up Man and A True Class Act the way you went back on the stage on live TV and took full responsibility alone.”
As for the rest of the world, it is one of my wishes that those who felt the need and put forth the effort to quickly criticize Steve and knock him down further, that they take a look inside themselves to think about why they reacted as they did. And I hope that if they do, that they come to realize there is so much more to gain from practicing empathy, compassion and encouragement – not only to the recipient but to the giver as well.
I also hope that when Steve takes to the stage of the Miss Universe Pageant 2016, that the world applauds him for his integrity, his loyalty, and his resilience to move forward.