Recently, the communications team at Franklin Templeton in NYC woke up in the middle of a PR Crisis. One of their employees was caught on camera in the now infamous “dog owner versus bird watcher” video. They had no warning this might happen, and they only had a short time to decide how to respond. 

This is just one example of how a PR crisis may happen at any moment, catching a company or brand completely off guard and throwing any current campaigns into a tailspin. It could be a public health issue like Blue Bell Ice Cream or Chipotle have faced in recent years, or an employee insulting first responders as what happened to Starbucks. It could even be a CEO getting caught in a public rant like Tesla or Uber. 

Whatever the case, a professional communications team is a prepared communications team. Simply assuming that “all news is good news” is not an acceptable strategy. Especially today, when the news cycle is constant, and the ratio of “incident” to “response” is often skewed far to the side of the response. Social media makes it quick and simple to absolutely destroy a person for making a bad decision, sending an inappropriate tweet, or getting caught saying or doing something that maybe they would not have in a different set of circumstances. 

Given this context, what are the basic best practices when your PR team gets hit with an unexpected crisis? Well, the first step we borrow from Douglas Adams: “Don’t Panic.” Keep your head, think through any response before saying anything about the issue. A simple “We’re looking into the issue” will often suffice in the early going, and it’s a much better answer than something off the cuff that could come back and bite you. 

At the outset of a crisis, sit down with the PR team, legal team, and any relevant decision makers. Share the facts and listen to their various perspectives. Understand that, going forward, the company must work with all the facts available and as little assumption as possible. Even if you don’t have a definitive answer, prepare to take a clear stance that is both empathetic in tone and directed at the correct audience. This may mean slightly different messages for various unique audiences, but that’s a decision that will need to be made at the time. 

Determine the core message of the response. Is an apology appropriate, or is this a time to take a stand, get some facts out, and grab control of the narrative? Have steps already been taken to mitigate the issue? If so, what, and what are the next steps? Be certain that the positions being taken are clear, concise, and easily transferred through the media to your audience. Message confusion here can exacerbate a situation, taking it from bad to worse. 

Control the narrative coming out of your camp. Make absolutely certain no one on the team speaks out of turn or says anything that’s not strictly within the boundaries set by the official message. This is imperative, especially in the age of social media, when an errant tweet can derail a carefully crafted crisis response.

Be sure to script the response. Do not try to be extemporaneous in order to come off “real” or “authentic.” Let your spokesperson practice delivering the scripted message with authenticity. Trying to “just go with it” often doesn’t end well. 

Avoid shifting blame where possible, but only assume responsibility where appropriate, with a focus on taking action when there is opportunity to create change, make something good, or do something positive.

Cooper Left Franklin Templeton No Choice

At any given moment, through no fault of their own, a single stupid decision by an employee can put an entire company on blast. We’ve seen it in the past when a coffee company employee refused to serve first responders, or when a marketing executive sent out a racist tweet. Now, we’ve seen it in the Coopers in Central Park debacle. 

Most people have seen the story: A birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, met up with dog walker Amy Cooper in The Ramble in Central Park, and things quickly escalated into the absurd. The bird watcher challenged the dog walker to keep her pet on a leash. The dog walker ignored him, then challenged him. The bird watcher called her dog over, and the dog walker lost it. She called the cops, telling them that an “African American man” was “threatening” her life. 

The video hit social media and immediately went viral, leading to multiple news reports about the incident. In many of these reports, the dog walker was not just listed by her name, she was described as “Franklin Templeton employee Amy Cooper.” 

Now imagine, you’re a communications executive at Franklin Cooper. You’re looking over the company’s plans for the day, the week, and the year, worried, as we all are, about the state of the economy and all the circumstances related to it, from COVID-19 to the upcoming election. Then, you log on to social media, and see that one of your people is in the news for exercising incredibly poor judgement in a very public way. Bottom line, you must respond, and you must do so quickly and publicly, in order to distance your brand from the negative headlines. 

Amy Cooper had to know what happened next was coming, but she tried to forestall it with a public apology, calling her actions “unacceptable” and saying: “Words are just words, and I can’t undo what I did. I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone… Especially to that man, his family…” 

But stories were still being written, and Franklin Templeton was still being brought up nearly every time, both in the news and in discussion on social media. Time after time, the brand was being linked to this woman’s behavior. So, the company had no choice but to act. 

Amy Cooper was initially put on administrative leave, then fired the next day. The statement from Franklin Templeton, released to the media and on social media, was clear: “Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately. We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton…” 

Notice the precise verbiage here. The statement does not mention the employee by name, adding one layer of distance between “Amy Cooper” and their brand. Second, the statement connects “we” and “Franklin Templeton” with a clear statement that the brand “will not tolerate racism.” The clear subtext: “We’re not this person, and we don’t support those actions.” 

There is no doubt this was not the kind of messaging the PR team at Franklin Templeton wanted to be sending out this week, but they were left with no choice. And, the main takeaway, for all brands, is that this could happen to any company at any time. Be ready to respond clearly, forcefully, and immediately. 

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Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations, one of the largest independently-owned PR firms in the United States. With over 20 years of experience crafting and executing powerful narratives, Torossian is one of America's most prolific and well-respected Public Relations professionals. Since founding 5WPR in 2003, he has led the company's growth, overseeing more than 175 professionals in the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan. With clients spanning corporate, technology, consumer and crisis, in addition to digital marketing and public affairs capabilities, 5WPR is regularly recognized as an industry leader and has been named "PR Agency of the Year" by the American Business Awards on multiple occasions. Throughout his career, Torossian has worked with some of the world's most visible companies, brands and organizations. His strategic, resourceful approach has been recognized with numerous awards including being named the Stevie American Business Awards 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year, the American Business Awards PR Executive of the Year, twice over, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year semi-finalist, Metropolitan Magazine's Most Influential New Yorker, and a 2020 Top Crisis Communications Professional by Business Insider. Torossian is known as one of the country's foremost experts on crisis communications, and is called on to counsel blue chip companies, top business executives and entrepreneurs both in the United States and worldwide. Torossian has lectured on crisis PR at Harvard Business School, appears regularly on CNN & CNBC, was named to PR Week's "40 under Forty" list, is a contributing columnist for Forbes and the New York Observer, and his book, "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results With Game-Changing Public Relations" is an industry best-seller. A NYC native, Torossian lives in Manhattan with his children. He is a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and active in numerous charities.