Friday, March 28, 2014

What To Do When Your Organization Ends Up on the Bad Side of National and Social Media - My Advice to the Editor in Chief of Self Magazine

If you've been on social media the past 24 hours you've seen the infamous page from the April Issue of Self Magazine.  Check them out here.  You may have even seen the half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek apology from the magazine's Editor-in-Chief.  Opinions are flaring and some are siding with the magazine and some are siding with the women pictured in the article and their company Glam Runner.  For the record, I am very strongly on the side of the women pictured and very offended by the article, regardless of whether Ms. Allen was a cancer survivor.  Here's the point the magazine has missed entirely up to this point - sometimes just starting the race or just finishing the race is a major accomplishment.  If people want to put on "armor" to face a challenge like a tutu, face-paint, custom t-shirt, etc. who cares?  Not everything is about being the fastest or being first or being stylish.  Unless you are magazine for marathon winners, you probably want to respect that and embrace all of your audience rather than alienating whole sections.  The number of costume races alone indicate that some people want more fun with their running experience.  I say bring it on!  Anything that helps people be healthier is a good thing.

That aside, Self Magazine is now trying to keep up with a national and social media conversation and they are continuing to make very public mistakes.  Last year I wrote a post titled Will Your Leadership Put Your Organization on the Front of the Washington Post saying essentially that whether your lawyer or PR person can spin it, if your actions may put your organization on the front of the Washington Post, it is probably a good idea to pass.  This is the follow-up, what do you do when you are there (or in this case the Huffington Post and Facebook).  All is not lost, here is my advice to the Editor-in-Chief to get in front of this and move the magazine forward in a positive way.

1.  Do not come out with a statement that misses the point of the conversation.  Too late.  Last night the Huffington Post ran this quote:

"I am personally mortified," Lucy Danziger, the magazine's editor-in-chief, told USA Today.  "I had no idea that Monika had been through cancer.  It was an error.  It was a stupid mistake.  We shouldn't have run the item."  

This statement came out on Self's Facebook page as well:

On behalf of SELF, we sincerely apologize for our inadvertent insensitivity.  I have personally reached out to Monika and her supporters online to apologize for the misstep and tell them we are trying to remedy the situation.  At SELF we support women such as Monika; she is an inspiration and embodies the qualities we admire.  We have donated to her charity and offered to cover her good work in a future issue.  We wish her all the best on her road to good health.  

Most sincerely,
Lucy Danziger

Social media interpreted this as we screwed up by picking a picture of a cancer survivor and next time we run a snarky article we will pick our pictures more carefully.  This just feeds the fire of those who were offended by the article in the beginning.  You may have resolved the issue with Ms. Allen and Glam Runner, but you have still alienated a large portion of your audience.

2.  Do not blame (and or fire) a staffer, intern, or first level editor.  Seriously, you cannot tell me a magazine like SELF does not go through several editors.  These people are not Editor-in-Chief for a reason, they are learning.  Adopt the "buck stops here" approach and accept full responsibility.  Period.  No excuses.

3.  Do make amends with the injured party privately and sincerely.  A sincere, hand-written apology with a sizable donation is entirely appropriate in this situation.  Publishing on Facebook that you have done so is self-promoting.  A feature article on Monika, her organization, and a picture of the entire staff (including the Editor-in-Chief) running in her tutus in a charity event is entirely appropriate.  In print not just on the website.  And in the next issue.  If there isn't an event coming up in time to make your next issue deadline, create one.

4.  Do have two meetings with your entire staff.  The first immediately to let them know you are taking responsibility, let them know about the statement that will come out in response, and that there will be a future meeting to discuss core values and how to move forward in alignment with them.  The second meeting is the core values meeting.  Discuss them.  Agree on them.  Engage around them.  Empower every single employee to uphold them if they see the magazine straying.  Live them.  (This is at least a one-day meeting, don't try to cram it into a half hour.  It is not a remedial training it is a culture changing event.  Hire an outside facilitator.  Make it fun and serve good food.)

5.  Do come out with a positive, remorseful, but forward-looking statement.  If I were in the room working on the public statement - yes, it was a room full of lawyers, PR people, writers, etc., I would have slowed everyone down.  Yes, you need to respond timely, but if you don't look at what is happening around you, you may miss the point and make things worse.  Go back to your mission and core values - why is your magazine different than every other magazine out there?  Yes, you are going to have to admit you made a mistake.  And you are going to have to say what you will do as an organization to make sure future articles better reflect your core values.  My statement may have looked a little more like this (although I am sure their professional writers could have made it sound much better).

As Editor-in-Chief I take full responsibility for the article, the discussions around the picture rights with Ms. Allen, and the backlash that has ensued.  We are moving forward with a feature article on Ms. Allen and her inspiring story and work.  In addition, we are taking time to re-examine the core values on which our magazine operates.  All future articles will be within those core values.  We believe in empowering and supporting all women in healthy lifestyles and individual expression.  I look forward to creating a culture that supports our mission and core values and provides the same high-quality magazine you have come to expect from SELF.  

This entire episode is an excellent case study in how something so simple can spark controversy at the speed of light.  You can't always avoid it, but you can move it forward if you listen to what people are saying and operate from a place of internal "right."  It is never too late to do the right thing.