After watching the recent Red Cross swim poster debacle unfold in traditional and social media I found it unfortunate that this 100-year-old organization failed in some ways on a public relations level.
Although the agency was quick with a response and apology, it was lacking that human touch. Rather than put a face and a name to the mia culpa, the letter posted to its website and circulated to the media went unsigned.
Most news headlines read: “American Red Cross” apologizes … In fact, it wasn’t until a few days after the news broke that Executive Director Gail McGovern, via a blog on The Huffington Post website, finally stepped up to the plate, apologizing and assuring everyone that they were doing everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen again. What took her so long?
For those who have not heard about the controversy, the poster depicts a group of children at a pool running around and doing things that kids do. The poster, which urges children to “Be Cool, Follow the Rules” shows white children following the rules and labeled as “cool,” while the children of color are doing things such as pushing and running and are labeled as “not cool.”
The initial backlash came via a Twitter user who first saw the poster at a pool in Salida, Colo. The second time she saw it at another pool in Colorado, she couldn’t believe it was something the Red Cross was putting out in 2016. She complained to a lifeguard at the first facility, according to published reports and sent a letter asking for its removal.
Her initial tweet went viral. Television stations, local, national and even international news outlets have since covered the story.
This is not the first time the American Red Cross has been under fire. In fact, earlier this month Senator Charles E. Grassley of the Senate Judiciary and Finance Committees issued a report outlining the results of his inquiry into the agency’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti essentially stating that the Red Cross had stonewalled his investigation. His June 16 letter states that the agency tried to “quash a congressional watchdog review of its practices, successfully limited the scope of the review, and has a poorly staffed ethics and investigations unit.”
The Red Cross’ response, which came in the form of a press release on its website, failed to include comments from the agency’s top dog. Once again, no one is quoted.
Simply issuing a written statement raises a red flag for many in the media. While a spokesperson doesn’t necessarily have to be an organization’s top leader, at the very least there should be a spokesperson who can be quoted, who can answer questions, who can demonstrate sincerity and transparency, and who can keep a cool head during an ensuing media frenzy.
In today’s fast-paced world where news travels faster than you can say “We’ve got a problem,” it’s imperative that every company and organization have a crisis management team and a crisis plan in place -- one that includes someone who can speak for the organization.
While you can’t anticipate every question that might arise, having someone who is well-versed about the organization in question is paramount and can go a long way toward helping to lead a company out of crisis mode quickly in order to mitigate further damage.
Susan R. Miller is founder of Garton-Miller Media, a full-service, South Florida based public relations firm. Susan is a former journalist with more than 30 years of experience. She has two daughters, three golden retrievers and two cats, but just one guinea pig who is happy not to have to share his cage or his daily stash of veggies with anyone.
Garton-Miller Media is a full-service, South Florida-based public relations firm. Founder Susan R. Miller has 30 years of experience as a writer, journalist and PR professional.