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For big organizations and people in positions of considerable responsibility, crisis communication comes with the territory. We’ve all see Public Relations meltdowns in the media – enter Crisis Communication. Crises can come from external sources – natural disasters, civil strife, economic turmoil, and so on. But sometimes crises are self-inflicted, created when an organization’s representatives or a highly visible leader does something untoward or idiotic within public view.
And yes, “public view” includes their social media channels. Today I sit down with PR and crisis communication expert Molly McPherson to discuss what’s expected of leaders during crisis management, how they can balance out the need to be personal and ‘authentic’ with the need to be professional and on-brand, and what we can all learn from the gaffes that high profile people and companies sometimes make in the public eye.
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LAUREN: For big organizations and people in positions of considerable responsibility,
crisis communication is a fact of life. Hello my name is Lauren Sergy and this is Talk Shop – the place where we get to connect with experts from variousindustries to discuss communication issues that affect your work and life. You have probably seen at some point a brand, an organization, or an executive having something of a meltdown in themedia, thus necessitating crisis communication.
Now crises come in all shapes and forms. Certainly large social, natural, or health crises can affect us from time to time, but there’s also the sort of crisis that can potentially damage the reputation of a brand or an executive. Think along the lines of the Astros response to the baseball scandal or any sort of number of executive moguls’ responses to scandals that they have been embroiled in.
Crisis communication is a fascinating area of the communication profession and to talk to us today about managing crises, about managing reputations, about handling the human in the social media side of this type of communication, is PR and crisis communication expert Molly McPherson.
Molly McPherson is a public relations
expert extraordinaire and this woman
knows crisis communication. Her years of
experience in news and crisis management
includes working in FEMA’s office of
External Affairs during post-Hurricane
Katrina efforts and as head of
communications for the Cruise Line
International Association in Arlington,
These experiences and others
have led her to create PR frameworks for
responding to crisis, including dealing
with public backlash both online and in
She helps organizations emerge from
crisis with their reputations intact and
helps executives and organizations learn
to manage the murky waters of crisis
response in the age of digital. She’s a
sought-after speaker and hosts the
outstanding podcast ‘Confident
Communicators,’ which I strongly
recommend you check out.
Hello Molly McPherson, welcome to Talk Shop!. You are
currently my favorite PR person out there!
MOLLY: OK, how many do you know then?
LAUREN: I actually know a few and you are
top of my list my dear. I found it for
everyone watching, in terms of context, I
found Molly on Twitter – which normally I
considered to be one of the
cesspools of humanity (and which I just can’t
get off of) and there was Molly
dispensing wonderful PR and media advice
and wittiness abounded. I reached out
and contacted her and it’s… it’s like I
have a sister down in New York now! I’m
so happy to have you here!
MOLLY: Thank you, yes you’re my
you’re my Canadian sister but as someone
who’s based out of New England whenever
I hear of New York I think of the New
York Yankees…that’s okay you know what I
But no but that but that northeast
mindset of you know the media market is
New York and on the East Coast. I’m I’m
all about ripped from the headlines PR
and that’s what I think resonated with
you which is great and it’s just I love
what I do.
LAUREN: Well there’s there’s so many
headlines to rip from, right? I mean
that’s what we come from living in an
information saturated world and I’m just
I am very curious… how many social media
accounts are you personally juggling
MOLLY: what an excellent question! No one has
ever asked me that question before but
it’s so relevant because I speak to a
question I get a lot is what should I be
on? And it’s “I hate Twitter,” or “I can’t
stand Facebook” and everybody talks about
why it’s horrible. But the answer is
always this: where do you feel most
And what you touched on is
‘where is your voice heard or seen the
most?’ For me I would say my…my “me”, the
mantra of me comes out of Twitter the most
because it’s very real-time, it’s very
topical. When something happens I’ll go
to Twitter. And LinkedIn is my
professional face, and then I do have a
Facebook for my podcast and then
personally I have a Facebook but in an
Instagram of course owned by Facebook
but that’s pretty much about it. I don’t
feel like I need to be anywhere else.
Oh and I’m a closeted secret tik-tok user so I
can watch my kids but they don’t know that.
LAUREN: oh I promise I won’t tell them! We
won’t we will not share the link to this.
It is parental prerogative right
now to let their kids make sure that
their kids don’t know that we’re
creeping on their accounts. It’s very important!
So you have you have a specialty dealing
with PR and communication crisis in a in
several different environs and the first
thing that I’d like to lead off with is
that as a communication crisis expert
yourself you’ve seen it all you’ve dealt
with it all. How would you define in
particular a ‘social media crisis’ for
executives for individuals?
MOLLY: okay that’s a
great question and the reason why it is
it’s because it’s changed so much just
in the past five years. So I would say
what really kind of got me onto this idea of
a social media crisis happened a few
years ago. It was Dr. Walter Palmer. He
was a dentist from my home state of
Minnesota. He killed Cecil the lion and and it was
and he posted it on his Facebook page.
Because his privacy settings were likely open
it became a worldwide story.
Okay so back
then it was all about social media,
privacy, who’s putting what on Social
Media. So whenever I hear about a social
media crisis nowadays it’s reporters
digging in to find out what people said
four years ago, five years ago. I think,
Lauren, that that’s changed – that people
are now savvy. Even the non-techie people
are savvy to bring up phone to someone
and say “could you lock down my facebook,
please?” So that’s not so much what is
social media crisis is anymore.
How I look at it is that it’s a traditional
issue or crisis or controversy that’s
happening with a brand or a person or a
business, but it’s amplified on social
media. That’s how I define a social
media crisis. Or your opponents or
enemies – whatever – it could be are using
social media as a means to attack a
brand. So that’s their way to look at it.
LAUREN: I think that’s where I’ve seen most
of the… most of the – in particular the
social media crises as you mentioned as
of late. It’s people using stuff they’ve
dug up and distributing it via social
media in order to attack an individual
or a brand. In particular with with our
recent Canadian federal election, that
was like every day constantly. After a
while I started ignoring Twitter
completely because it was getting
So it’s not…so it strikes me that it’s
not so much people doing dumb things on
social media but people using it as an
MOLLY:Yes and a third part of it
and since you touched on Canadian
politics it’s what people can uncover
what they can uncover on social media or
find and then they blast it on social
media, a la a prime minister who has a number
of photos in blackface, right? And that
becaume a story and and it was a timely
story, because it was right before an
So that’s the pattern that I
notice. It’s using that social media for
from an archival point of view or as a
weapon. But they’re using it as a means
to to to represent a brand or to try and
bring down a brand or person.
LAUREN: So if if communication crises because one
thing that I’m hearing is that it’s it’s
not just about social media, of course,
these crises happen all over
the place, of course.
And if these if these crises are more
what in particular do individuals need
to know? I’m thinking of senior leaders,
of executives, of people who have a
personal presence online or a personal
presence even offline that’s deeply tied
to their brand. What would they need to
understand about the use of media over
all or projecting their their personal
brand image out to the world?
MOLLY: What I…so I
think my my business my my consulting, my
advice moves along with
culture and what’s happening.
I’ve really noticed in the last two years – but
there wasn’t a name to it yet – that these
brands and leaders were dealing with a
crises. right? But when we define the word
crises most people – I mean the hack
crisis that most people go back to when
they think of crisis communication it’s
Tylenol. You know, years ago back
in Chicago when Johnson and Johnson was
dealing with a crisis they were the
casebook study of how you
respond to it. So a lot of executives
will tune out crisis comms or crisis
management because they have this “well
it could never happen to me” mentality.
The first thing I do is I try and remove
the word as I change the lexicon. Don’t
look at it as a crisis, look at it as a
controversy – because anyone can talk
about a controversy. It could be within
your building, it could be with your
employees, it could be with your product,
or it could be something happening
externally that’s affecting your brand.
So it’s like this kind of controversy
Now in terms of how
leaders should look at it is that it’s
never separate, you know. Like when you
think of the Tylenol incident, for
instance. There wasn’t a CEOs name that
anyone could just attach to that crisis.
But when they think of Boeing? Okay
the CEO of Boeing had to step down. The
part of the Boeing crisis was attached
to the fact that the CEO was a part of
it. So what he does need to understand
now is that back in the day they could get
behind a closed door when the media
calls. They could say “oh tell them I’ll
call them back or have them speak to our
spokesperson.” All of that has been blown
up. It’s gone nuclear on this and that.
The public demand to hear from the
leader now. They want to know from the
person – either the CEO the board of
directors – they want to hear from the top.
Especially if something happens, the
public wants acknowledgement that they
know one that something did
happen, that they’re acknowledging it,
and what are you gonna do about it? So I
think that’s what’s changed. People who
are not comfortable being out there, so
to speak, need to be because the ones who
aren’t are the ones that get kind of
railroaded right out of there because of
these crises or controversies.
LAUREN: right and
you know you mentioned the the Boeing
controversy. Another one that immediately
jumps to my mind as a case study
of how to do it spectacularly badly
is Rob Hayward with with BP oil.
MOLLY: oh yes yes yes
LAUREN: when he made that that idiotic
comment.”I want my life back.” He
was one who had to step down but it’s it
is possible to, though…there there are
examples of of leaders who have managed
to increase their reputation and use
their their own personal aura,
if you will, and their and their personal
response to help resolve some of these.
One that comes to mind is many years ago
Maple Leaf Foods – a major food
processor up in Canada – had a serious
listeria outbreak and several people
died from it. It was a big
honking problem and the CEO did a series
of announcements straight to the public
of unbelievably sincere apologies.
I know it’s funny I say unbelievably sincere
isn’t that a contradiction and a half.
Incredibly sincere…of incredibly
sincere apologies, looking straight at
the camera. It was the perfect response,
almost, and it was that it was treated
with with dignity, with serious concern,
not trying to gloss over it, and it was very
very personal. Are there some other
examples that you can think of where an
executive got the communication right?
MOLLY: you know I…
LAUREN: We always think of the
ones that went wrong.
MOLLY: we always think of
the ones that went wrong because where
we are right now heading in to now we’re
into 2020, people
are still doing it wrong. Someone had
asked me, they said “why didn’t you do..” (and
was someone from Canada by the way!) “you know you did a top twelve
you know crises of the year, you know PR
fails of the year, why not one of the
of the good PR practices?” And the truth
is I couldn’t come up with twelve
because there really aren’t a lot of
examples there people are still learning.
But an example where I would say that
it’s…that it does work and your Maple
Leaf example is a really really good one,
and as a complete aside I saw a
viral post about how a little boy in
Canada wanted a Maple Leafs Cake logo but he gone one of the food packers!
But here’s a brand like for instance here’s
a brand I really never heard of and now
I’ve heard of it twice in 24 hours,
because of social media!
An example that I give and I think it’s a
pretty good example and this would
probably be you know for mostly a u.s.
audience right now but last year in
January 2019 we had a governor, governor
Northram, he was in from the state of
Virginia and he, very similar to Trudeau,
had a had a blackface problem.
There was a photo that came out of it. The reason why
I loved his response is because it was
out there it was a photo he didn’t try
and humma-nah humma-nah humma-nah it
He did a press conference, which is
straight out of traditional you know 90s
media response, but then he sat down at
his desk…which I don’t love ‘at desk’
because that’s creates another barrier. If anyone asked I tell a lot of
executives now like do it in your office
but sit at the corner of you’re
desperate it’s more relatable that way.
But he spoke to what happened, and the
first thing that he did is the most
critical thing – and I don’t care where he
or how you do it the channel that you
use, and you mentioned it that the CEO of
Maple Leaf Foods did this – is you acknowledge
what happened. The first step has to be
in acknowledgment or an apology. You have
to recognize, yes there’s ownership
because the public is looking for you to
acknowledge what you did wrong. If you
don’t do that now you’re moving yourself
in a different lane where the public is
just gonna bring you down. In other words
they’re just gonna knock you off the end
of the cliff.
But this governor Northram,
he admitted “I had no memory of
it” (which we don’t know if that was true
or not” but he said you know how much
alcohol was consumed… yeah so
he was working with the crisis
team, undoubtedly, but they were weaving
him through until as much of the truth as
what you know and what you remember and
then acknowledge it and then
put it into context.
He said it happened
years ago and it would never happen
today. And then the next step is: what are
you gonna do moving forward? It will
never happen again, and so on and so
forth, it’s that three-step process as
you would say in Canada. It’s a
three-step process where you have to hit
all three steps and if you do then it’s
almost like you’re giving out a full
pass. But you’re allowed to get through
crisis management – controversy management –
whatever it is, it’s messy. It’s never not
going to be.
The mistake you make is that
people don’t want to be messy at all so
they lie or they cover or they try and
outsmart the public. You can’t do that.
Someone will always be smarter
than you and they’ll be online.
LAUREN: Homer Simpson’s stupid like a fox.
Don’t try! There are people obsessed
about digging up this information and
they will find it!
MOLLY: Exactly! And when it happens it’s a big “D’oh!”
LAUREN: So how do some
executives land in the sort of
communication hot water that we see?
I’m thinking of situations maybe where
there was a brand…there was a brand
issue and it became a personal issue. Or
they just said something extraordinarily
dumb on camera, whether it’s whether it’s
via social media or traditional media.
but they get caught saying something
stupid. How does this happen?
These are smart people you don’t reach
their level or senior management level
in one’s career without being smart and
savvy and knowing that when cameras are
on you or you’re in a public environment
that you need to stick to the talking
points or or not shoot your mouth off,
do these…how did the the individual
MOLLY: I would say now – and again
it’s it’s changed a lot, you know. I think
when a few years ago people would use
social media as that channel to clean up
Now this isn’t an example of a
CEO or leader but it’s it’s a universal
answer: Kevin Spacey for instance.
He was accused by by an actor of acting
inappropriately when when this actor was
young. Kevin Spacey thought of…
kind of that outsmarting, “I’m gonna go on
Twitter, the social media a
channel of the moment and I’m going to
explain myself and if I explain myself
it will work.”
Well the mistake that he
made is he used it
as a vehicle to come out as a homosexual
while trying to talk his way around what happened
when this actor was 14 years old. We know
now that he hasn’t worked since and
there’s been subsequent charges there.
I find now that it’s not so much that
anymore, where people are making mistakes
on social media. Where I still see the
disconnect is that people are saying and
doing things behind closed doors still
and they don’t think it will get out. And
then it will come out.
An example: Ken Fisher – he’s he’s an investor he’s a very
well-known very wealthy investor he
makes money for people. He’s in the
business of money not, into business
communications. He came out this year, he was
at a meeting behind closed doors
talking talking felt very comfortable
talked openly and made remarks. Very
inappropriate remarks. It’s sexual in nature, of course, degrading to women you know, the
typical hot list. And then a person walks out who
attended and gets on Twitter and does a
rant on Twitter – on video – about what he
said. A millennial feeling very
comfortable in the space.
But Ken Fisher, he has no idea that this could
ever happen. Where someone who’s more
seasoned now would understand “oh
if I say something someone could record
it and it could get out.” Rhat’s the mistake that I
a lot executives are making. They
don’t necessarily do something
themselves online, because they’re still
reluctance there, but they’ll say
something offline that ends up online.
LAUREN: so it’s kind of this
lack of realization that everything is
on the record.
LAUREN: and everyone has
MOLLY: yes to share it. And even more than that, there are people
that don’t mind. So a lot of these
executives, a barrier that they have is
they don’t feel comfortable sharing
everything online. And I’ll hear from
them say “you know these Millennials you
know they’re just narcissist they sit on
their phones all day they put their
lives online!” It’s a lot of the
definitives, right? Like “The Millenials” and
“they do this and and everything is fake
news.” They assume that people
are…that there’s just a segment of
people that are online. But it is true
that there are people who are very
comfortable sharing things online. But
doesn’t mean that they’re on it all day
but that’s the part that broke down.
Millennials were brought up in a time
where they’re wired to share on social
media, their lives, their likes, their
dislikes. So they’re just as likely to
share when someone does something wrong
and that the means that they’re gonna
do it. Executives that are still Gen
Xers, baby boomers, they don’t get that
that can happen.
LAUREN: So be aware you know big
big take away so far be aware that
you’re always on the record and be
consistent in your messaging.
MOLLY: Oh without
a doubt. You want to be consistent.
It’s not just about creating a statement
for print and creating a statement that
I’m gonna speak to a reporter. Every
statement that you make, think
about it. How does it look if they were
to put me on camera saying it? If I run
audio, and if it was tweeted – how would it
appear? Could someone take it out of
context? is it could have bit in the
savvy you are – or at least the people who
work around you and communicate for you –
the better off you’ll be. It’s just
understanding the medium that we’re in
that everyone is here. It’s not just the
Millennials who are driving it.
those are those are some very very wise
pieces of wisdom… I’m just full of
tautologies today! One thing that I’d
like to pivot to is getting
the human touch into your communication
as a leader or as an executive.
This is again on or off social media, because
I don’t believe that social media is the
end all and be all method of
demonstrating your authenticity.
What is it that makes an executive or a leader
appear human and appear authentic? Because that
is so important for gaining people’s
trust but I think that there is a line
that you have to dance between showing
your human side and maybe showing too
much or going too far or becoming
saccharine. How can you deal
MOLLY: Again just like everything
else I’ve mentioned everything, has
changed. It’s dynamic right,
it never stays, it’s constantly
constantly moving. I used to use the word
authenticity all the time it just rolled
off the doesn’t be more authentic be
more authentic. I think as a word
now it’s a charged word. When people hear
authentic they hear “oh you just want me
on video you want me on Facebook live,
LAUREN: yeah, and oh there’s my dog.
MOLLY: Authentic, I now
believe, feels fake. It’s like a fake.
It’s like what you want to project to
people what my authenticity is.
LAUERN it’s an Instagram filter.
MOLLY: oh I love that it’s
a filter. It’s a filter! And it’s not
we’re not in a no filter environment
anymore. But we want to be. So the word
that I have shifted from instead of
authenticity is just being genuine.
If you’re genuine that means you’re
being yourself and I love executives who
For instance if I’m if I’m speaking with an engineer, someone
who didn’t spend a whit of time dealing
with communications, and they kind of
stumbled through something or “I don’t
know how I’m gonna say that”… that’s who
they are! They’re being genuine and
people like that. They like it because if
you’re genuine you’re being truthful because you’re being yourself
People respond to people being themselves.
So a tip that I give when it comes to
executives and how you can use it: go to
a place where you feel comfortable, where
you feel the most comfortable. Video is
good – very few people feel comfortable on
video, of course, but it is the means that messages can get out there the
quickest, where people can can
download it and and take that
information and disseminate it quickly.
But what genuine means is find
your true north as an executive – so
whatever your passion is…so maybe you’re
an executive that works in automotive
but you’re passionate about the
environment, maybe you’re an executive
who works in hospitality but you’re
passionate about kids and children’s
causes, whatever it is – tap into who you
are and people will respond to that true
north of you.
Even if it’s not pretty or it’s messy, if it’s you it will work.
So in the good times people will see it,
it will just like jump off the screen,
but in the bad times it’s your
genuineness that is gonna protect you.
Because it’s who you are and if it’s
your mission, your True North of who you
are, people can’t accuse you of being
false or hiding because it’s me.
LAUREN:yeah it kind of lets people.. it
sounds like it lets people say “okay they
are the face of this brand…but they’re
also this.” They can create a human
behind the brand.
MOLLY: yes yes and an easy way
to do it – here’s an easy way where you
don’t have to get too deep on it – if you
are a leader who loves a sports team. I
mean that’s so easy right? Yeah, I’m a
huge Red Sox fan you know Go Red Sox and
that just humanizes
you but without hitting someone
over the head. If you love dogs, if you
love to run,if you love a TV show, it
doesn’t matter – just show us who you
are. And the more that we see the
essence of you, the better off you’re
gonna be. People will respond to it.
LAUREN: and those sorts of things aren’t
terribly sensitive personal information.
You don’t need to reveal a lot that you
know no one wouldn’t that would that
would bother anyone or make
say “oh I didn’t realize you were into
MOLLY: yeah exactly
LAUREN: it’s not sensitive. One
one that I think of is a is an author
for a while he was posting his running
times. And it was just a simple post of
” here’s a picture and ran this
long in this much time today”
that was it. And it was “Oh you do
things other than write books!
cool!” But not revealing
details of his life or posting pictures
of his kids or things like that.
and the 2.0 of all of that could be
okay now you’re posting your time so
maybe the next thing that you do is “I
was on a run today and I was inspired by
this family that I saw and they
triggered this thought that I should
write a book about so on and so forth” So
now you’re creating a story.
Because everyone loves the story. From
the time when you were a child all the way through. Whether it’s a news story, a fable,
whatever – everyone has one and
people can relate to stories. So as much as
you can bring in whatever these factoids
about you to show your genuineness and
turn it into a story as why it’s a part
of you, then it works.
Just quickly like my story when I worked for FEMA the
Federal Emergency Management Agency it
was at a time after Hurricane Katrina
when everyone hated this agency because
they were the agency that bungled the
response of Hurricane Katrina and the
flooding the devastating flooding in New
Orleans. Now they were certainly a part
of the problem but there are lots of
people that were a part of the problem.
But for my job working in public affairs,
trying to get a good story for us, the
traditional press wouldn’t give it to us
. They’re like “nope you’re dead to us,
you’re tainted to us.”
But I said how can we talk about what we really do and the
idea was well why don’t we just become
our own broadcaster and bypass
traditional press and put our own videos
out there and put it online? And that was the
start of the social media program. It
really all it was was tapping into the
genuine mission of FEMA which was
helping people. So the next time a
disaster happened, I flew out there
started filming us helping people.
It softens who you are, it
softens that hard edge of the bad news
story and lets people in on this real
story of what you do. Any executive or
any business owner or entrepreneur can
do the same.
LAUREN: that’s a fantastic
bit of applicable advice actually,
to wrap this up on. You know what
you’re about in this in this field. You
Molly knows what she is about in
here, and you’ve got a few really
exciting projects on the go. As well as
an outstanding podcast on communications
issues with fairly a fairly broad look
at communications issues that affect our
leaders and our businesses. Can you tell
us a little bit of what you’ve got on
MOLLY: right now 2020 is a year – again
we’re morphing, always changing, very
dynamic business I have. I’m now moving
towards a place where I feel I bring the
most value is when I’m in a room speaking to
people or when I’m giving workshops. So
2020 is all about me speaking and
and being in front of an audience.
Because that’s where I get my passion.
That’s where my genuine true north is is.
I love teaching I love helping people
and when I can see them do it as opposed
to on a you know on a piece of paper. So
I do have clients that work with me on a
retainer basis for a crisis, which
happens a lot,
but I’m in the process of
publishing a book, “Indestructible Leader”
and it’s about how to survive when
everyone wants to bring you down in this
time of controversy. So I’m working on
this book , I’m finishing, it will be
published this year soon. And I’m giving
a lot of talks and a lot of workshops
around this idea of what you and I were
just talking about. How can you be
indestructible not be canceled out in
the day of the cancel culture.
The podcast supports it because it is
communication tips in the sense of how
do you become indestructible in this age.
So it’s for any leader business owner,
anyone working in business, anyone that’s
interested in how to be a better
communicator in terms of navigating the
modern age so to speak. I also do
have courses on my web
So it’s like I’m bringing some of
my workshops online. Communicate
With Power in Less than an Hour – some of
the tips to help you be more genuine as
a leader but also one called Calm the
Critics, which a lot of my
clients are dealing with the segments of
of activists or micro activists or at
least stakeholders that are no longer
happy with the business that you’re
providing, or the service, or the
leadership, so I’m creating a playbook to
help get you through that incident or
that controversy that you’re dealing
with. They’re both on my website
which is Mollymcpherson.com
and I’ll link up to the website
in the notes down below and once
that once that book is out… Molly I’m
having you back! We are going to talk
about indestructible leadership for sure!
I love holding up books
with all of the flags so we will
definitely be having you back on the
show to discuss that as soon as it’s out.
And yes please do visit Molly at Molly
McPherson.com. She has so much on her
website, her podcast is really good – make
sure you check it out.
And of course if
you want to be sure that you continue
getting the communication goodness that
we have going on right here hearing from
more experts like Molly, more advice that
you can apply to your own communication
at work and in life head over to LaurenSergy.com
and sign up in the pop-up to
make sure that you don’t miss our next
episode of Talk Shop.
Molly, thank you so
much for coming! This was heaps of fun! I
can’t wait to have you back again! And to
everyone else out there: speak well, be
consistent, you are always on record, and
we’ll see you next time.