Crisis Communication

Archive for January 2009

Crisis in the News
Facebook status gets public school employee fired

What’s in the news

What you say isn’t as private as it used to be, especially with the use of social media.

In December, Morgan Wyhowski updated her Facebook status to say: “Morgan wants to kill her ninth grade flute player who stole the school’s $900 dollar piccolo, and is denying it.”

Wyhowski, the band director for grades six through 12, resigned from Bangor Public Schools after being placed on administrative leave. Criminal charges are not being pursued.

The police chief said it was not an actual threat.

See the entire story here: Bangor band director resigns after posting message on Facebook page she wanted to ‘kill’ student

Crisis communication perspective

Wyhowski, who is 23 according to Wood TV 8, resigned from Bangor Public Schools. This was probably best route for both her and the schools because:

  • It stopped the situation from becoming a crisis
  • It avoided them having to terminate a teacher
  • She will likely be able to find another job
  • The crisis will likely evaporate because parents won’t be arguing that the teacher should leave

Millenials, like Wyhowski, use social media to communicate with friends. I’m sure Wyhowski did not expect that anyone, other than friends, would see her post. For this generation, posting a Facebook status in an everyday activity.

Unfortunately, school employees getting fired due to their Facebook postings isn’t unusual. One teacher faced termination after posting “teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.” The Washington Post reported on several teachers who had derogatory and inappropriate things posted on the MySpace, Facebook and YouTube accounts.

The best route for schools and other employers to go in the future is the provide warnings to all employees about what is and isn’t appropriate. It might also be suggested that employees place all of their social networks to a private setting if they might post something inappropriate.

Perhaps there should be a “social media” section in the employee handbook. Some argue that workplace life and social life are two separate places, but even outside of work an employee is a representative of their employer.


I just came across “Ask the Professor: Sorry! An apology as a strategic PR tool” in Public Relations Tactics (12/2007) by John Guiniven, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA.

Here are three key points I picked up from the article:

  • Relationships are important and sometimes an apology is the best way to get it back on track.
  • The legal department might say no. Sometimes you should listen to them, but make sure they can justify why you shouldn’t apologize.
  • Don’t just say, “We were wrong and we’re sorry.” Someone needs to take responsibility, tell them how the problem will be fixed and why it won’t happen again.

Motrin Moms
Case Study

Crisis Description

In September, Motrin launched a new ad campaign online and in magazines.  The ad, which you can see above, focuses on how wearing a baby can give you a backache. It also gives the impression that baby slings are worn as a fashion statement.

After the ad aired, there was an online explosion of negative PR. One story in USA Today said it perfectly: “Offended moms get tweet revenge over Motrin ads.” The controversy also was one of Advertising Age’s Stories of the Year.

Jessica Gottlieb posted her response to the ad on Twitter, a popular micro-blogging platform. A Twitter hashtag, #MotrinMoms, began to be used when other moms joined the conversation.

The viral controversy spread throughout the various social media outlets. Women, like this one, posted their response on YouTube. There are currently more than 1,300 members of the Facebook group boyotting Motrin.

A graph of the viral activity is available here.

The ad agency wasn’t really aware of what was going on at first, according to Joyce Schwarz.

Social Media Communication

This crisis is a great lesson in how quickly things can go viral through social media. Social media offers the opportunity to engage and enter in a dialogue with an audience. You can see a graph of the viral activity here.

With the rise of social media, companies need to begin to at least track what is being said on blogs, Twitter and other media. They also should consider taking part in social media in order to build relationships with their audiences.

Shannon Paul, who works in new media communications, said in a blog post, “At some point, merely listening won’t be enough. More brands, especially big brands, will either need to learn to engage in social media culture at all levels, or enlist the help of social media natives to carry the message to the community.”

Crisis Communication

The apology below (from the Mom 101 blog) was sent to some of the bloggers who protested the campaign.

I am the Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.

We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologize for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in process of removing it from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.

This apology was on Motrin’s Web site (found at this blog):

With regard to the recent Motrin advertisement, we have heard you.

On behalf of McNeil Consumer Healthcare and all of us who work on the Motrin Brand, please accept our sincere apology.

We have heard your complaints about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and take feedback from moms very seriously.

We are in the process of removing this ad from all media. It will, unfortunately, take a bit of time to remove it from our magazine advertising, as it is on newsstands and in distribution.

Thank you for your feedback. Its very important to us.”

Kathy Widmer
Vice President of Marketing
McNeil Consumer Healthcare

Seth Godin said that the apology sounded as if it was put together by a committee.  Blueprint Creative Group said there was a need for a more sincere statement.

Advertising Age’s Tom Martin said Motrin may have overreacted. By simply “shutting down,” Motrin missed out on an opportunity to engage in a conversation with its consumers. According to Wired, only about 1,000 Twitter users responded, out of an estimated 3 million users.

Comparing to Other Situations

In crisis communication, the apology to an audience is very important. It gives the company an opportunity to acknowledge the problem and inform the audience of how the problem will be fixed. Motrin might have looked to other controversial crises for ideas.

In a 2007 crisis, JetBlue’s CEO gave an unscripted apology after its crisis (Public Relations Strategist, 2007).

Motrin’s vice president of marketing was the one to apologize in this situation, which was appropriate since it was an ad campaign controversy. But, it also might have helped if the CEO was more involved.

In the Rutgers University crisis, President Francis Lawrence made an apology in a statement to the press, then in 48,000 letters to the community and also in person at campus meetings. He also focused on open meetings with his constituents (Public Relations Strategist, 1995).

But, if Motrin had done more than apologize online (for example, if they had done a live press conference), more attention would have been drawn to the ad. This would have increased awareness of the problem and may have caused more of a problem.

Motrin did keep the apology short and did not try to justify their actions. Motrin also stated what was to be done to correct the situation, which is another important factor in crisis communication and apologies.

What could have been done differently

One problem was the slowness of updating a Web site.

“If your site has to be taken down in order to respond to a crisis, re-design it so that it can be updated quickly and easily without having to throw your organization and agencies into a panic,” said David Armano on Logic + Emotion.

I think that having an established social media presence also would have been immensely helpful for Motrin.

Blueprint Creative Group said in a post that you need to monitor more than just traditional media. Tracking social media conversations about your company is very important. Google Alerts and Twitter Alerts are easy ways to this.

If I were in Motrin’s PR department, I would suggest starting a parenting blog sponsored by Motrin. The blog wouldn’t write about Motrin, but focus more on useful parenting tips and maybe feature some of the more prominent “mommy bloggers.”

After establishing a blog presence, Motrin could expand its audience with micro parenting tips and ideas through Twitter. A credible Twitter account would have assisted in a more immediate response to the tweets about the ad campaign.

The blog also would have a secondary purpose: giving Motrin access to its target audience. Motrin would have the opportunity to feel out ad campaigns before launching them.

For example, Motrin could have found out what mothers think about baby slings if they had been using social media. Motrin would have then realized the ad campaign was off target if they had been utilizing a social media community through a blog or Twitter account.

Sandra Fathi, president of Affect Strategies and chair of the New Media and Technology Committee of PRSA’s New York Chapter, said Twitter can be used to foster customer loyalty (Public Relations Tactics, 2008).

“Companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” Fathi said.

With reputation management, “companies can search tweets from their customers to see what questions and critiques they may have,” (Fathi, 2008).

In regards to trends and news,  Twitter is “a great place to listen to chatter in the market and follow key influencers to learn what they are discovering on a daily basis,” (Fathi).

If Motrin had kept its eye on social media before, the company may have realized the negative feedback before it turned into a crisis.


News Sources:

Industry Sources:

Blog Sources:

Print Sources:

Fathi, Sandra. (Oct. 2008). “From generating awareness to managing reputations: Why your company needs to Twitter.” Public Relations Tactics.

Langley, James M. (Winter 1995). Vol 1, No 4. “Lessons learned from Rutgers’ racial ruckus.” Public Relations Strategist.

The following is a syllabus and description of the course featured on this blog.

Crisis Communication & Management

COM 490: Independent Study
Syllabus by Rachel M. Esterline

Course Description:

This course focuses on crisis communication and management, emphasizing practical application of theories, strategies, and tactics from a public relations perspective.

Course Objectives:

  • To understand the theories of crisis communication
  • To critically analyze crisis communication case studies
  • To competently utilize crisis communication and management strategies and tactics for detection, prevention, preparation, containment, and recovery.
  • To be able to create a crisis communication plan
  • To be able to transfer learned crisis communication and management skills to a real world context

Course Assignments:

  • Case Study Analyses
    • Critical analysis of case studies related to crisis communication and management
  • Crises In The News
    • Critical analysis of crisis situations showcased in the media
  • Crisis Communication Plan
    • Creation of crisis communication plan, preferably for local business or organization
  • Professional Journal
    • Professional journal, created through, will contain notes from readings, case study analyses assignments, crisis in the news assignments, and any other details related to class.
  • Crisis Management Manual
    • Reference manual created from class materials that can be used as a reference tool in future crisis situations

Course Points:

  • Case Study Analysis 110 points
  • Case Study Analysis 2 10 points
  • Case Study Analysis 3 10 points
  • Case Study Analysis 4 — 10 points
  • Case Study Analysis 510 points
  • Crisis In The News 1 — 10 points
  • Crisis In The News 2 — 10 points
  • Crisis In The News 3 — 10 points
  • Crisis In The News 4 — 10 points
  • Crisis In The News 5 — 10 points
  • Crisis Communication Plan — 150 points
  • Professional Journal 150 points
  • Crisis Management Manual100 points
  • TOTAL –500 points

Recommended Texts:

  • Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding by W. Timothy Coombs
  • The Crisis Counselor: A Step-By-Step Guide to Managing a Business Crisis by Jeff Caponigro

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