(I published this article October 10, 2017 on LinkedIn.)
As a good business practice, PR experts urge businesses to have crisis communications plans in place well in advance of a crisis occurring. This is useful guidance for all forms of businesses, including the media. Yes, even the media needs solid crisis communications plans. Whether they are newspapers, TV stations, digital platforms or magazines…they all need to know in advance what they will do if faced with a crisis. One can assume Milwaukee Magazine (MM) did not have such a plan in place based upon their numerous missteps when they were recently the target of social media backlash.
Milwaukee Magazine’s first misstep was in thinking they could publish a racially insensitive photo in the September 2017 edition and it would go unnoticed. The photo was in an article promoting Milwaukee Fashion Week. The point of concern was with a model posed in front of a two-story mural meant to increase awareness about the extreme level of mass incarceration of Black men in Wisconsin. To add insult to injury, the dress was made with 4,000 plastic cable ties (in case you don’t understand the inappropriate symbolism, police use handcuffs made out of cable ties to arrest people in large disturbances.) I noticed the photo and was immediately disturbed by the imagery. I channeled my energies into an article and published it on LinkedIn August 31st. The following day I did ‘Live’ videos at the site of the mural for all of my social media platforms.
Before going into details about MM’s failed crisis communication strategy, let me provide significant details about what life is like for Blacks in Milwaukee, a place that some call ‘a great place on a great lake’.
Black men in Wisconsin are incarcerated at the highest rate in the nation. A large percentage of these men’s home addresses link back to one zip code, 53206.
Milwaukee has long been, and continues to be, ranked as the nation’s most racially segregated city.
- The poverty rate in Milwaukee is the highest in the nation.
- Black men in Milwaukee are unemployed at a rate nearly twice as much as the national unemployment level during the great depression.
- Black infants in Milwaukee die at a rate of 3-4 times more than White babies. This infant mortality disparity is comparable to third world countries.
- Education wise, Wisconsin has the highest achievement gap in the country between Black and White students. The vast majority of the Black students come from Milwaukee.
- The high eviction rates of Black women was the basis for a book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. An eviction for Black women in Milwaukee has the same negative impact as a prison record for Black men. This becomes a barrier for social stability and advancement.
As seen in the above social indicators, the reality for most Blacks in Milwaukee is dismal. The inappropriate fashion photo MM published would be inappropriate in any magazine, especially without any contextual information being provided. But the enormity of the error was magnified based upon the status of Blacks in Milwaukee.
Now, back to MM. To her credit Carole Nicksin, the editor of Milwaukee Magazine, sent me an email the day following my LinkedIn article. Seeing her quick response was a false indication of how she would handle the chain of events that followed. In the meantime of confirming a meeting with Carole, an avalanche of online activity had begun. My article was re-published by Milwaukee Independent and the social media backlash was uncompromising.
Typically, the life-cycle of topics on social media is very short. This was not the case with the online criticism against MM. I was thinking it would die off after a few days, but it continued for weeks. Even now, some thirty days afterwards, I see occasional posts or receive direct messages that continue the conversation. Much of this can be attributed to the posts in racial justice groups on Facebook (SURJ MKE and Necessary Allies Coalition).
Despite Nicksin having a crisis on her hands, she did not seem to have a sense of urgency for meeting with me. Bad mistake. As she put other things at higher importance (the Labor Day holiday, her being out of town, etc.), the social media outrage continued to grow. Additionally, her email began filling up with countless complaints. Many of those were posted on social, some even included her responses.
My husband and I also kept the conversation going with frequent social media postings. This led to us being invited to be guests on the local talk radio show, Rise & Shine Morning Show, with Jermaine Reed on WNOV AM 860. One of the first callers to the show was a leader with Milwaukee Fashion week (MFW), John Kowalkowski. He called to reiterate a statement MFW posted online, totally absolving themselves of the problematic photo. Despite the whole purpose of the article being to promote MFW, Kowalkowski was clear in stating the photo was not reflective of what their organization was about. I can attest to this. At his invitation, I spent time at two of their events. I was very impressed with the diversity of the designers and models. At one of the events, I talked to the designer of the cable tie dress, Sarah Nasgowitz. She too had issued a very sincere apology on social media that also absolved her from the photo shoot as well.
In addition to all that was going on social media wise, other media picked up the story. This included a segment on WTMJ-TV 4 by Shannon Sims, an article on Milwaukee Record, a topic on WMSE radio show The Disclaimer (topic starts at 10:25) and my article was also published in Milwaukee Community Journal and on Urban Milwaukee. The social and traditional media on this issue were everywhere, but the response from Milwaukee Magazine was minimal. Despite the backlash mostly being on Facebook, MM did not post their apology on their social media pages.
MM’s egregious error also prompted The Black Panthers of Milwaukee to visit their 3rd Ward office. They expressed their concerns about how MM wrongly represents the Black community and how they have no Blacks on staff in a minority majority city. At last count, a video posted on Facebook of this visit had generated 33K+ views. Nicksin was out of town when this occurred. Per Darryl Farmer, the leader of the group, she had not returned his messages 30+ days after the visit.
Now for a look at where Nicksin went wrong in her crisis communication.
She delayed meeting with me. When dealing with a crisis, companies must have a sense of urgency. To downplay or ignore the problem is like ignoring a small tree catching fire in a drought, the fire grows quickly and the damage can be very severe.
She posted a very vague apology on the MM website that was buried at the very bottom of the site.
You may have seen readers respond to the photographic image on page 25 in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. We welcome honest feedback and, better yet, dialogue with our readers. We are deeply sorry that we offended anyone and extend a heartfelt apology. In no way did we mean to trivialize the message of Adam Stoner’s poignant mural “Devontay” about the legacy of black male incarceration in Milwaukee. We take very seriously our mission to build up the Milwaukee community. We very much appreciate that a reader raised her voice and started a conversation about this important issue. As members of the media, we value our opportunity and responsibility to advance understanding and illuminate issues impacting our community.
The post was moved higher due to public criticism.
Key parts to a good apology
- Authentic - The MM apology was seemed to read like text pulled from a template that was void of them owning the issue.
- Timely - The MM apology was published a week after they were made aware of the offense.
- Full acknowledgement of wrong - MM did not fully own their error. They instead talked about the “one woman” who pointed it out and the artist of the mural to deflect the criticism.
- Actions to correct offence - The apology did not include any definitive steps to prevent a repeat of the action. The most they offered was a round table discussion.
She was very defensive during her radio interview. Mary Dally-Muenzmaier provides a good assessment of the interview in a very well written CricketToes blog, The Privilege of Creating Image: How Milwaukee Magazine Exposed Its White Imbalance with One Photo.
There is nothing is in the October issue of the magazine regarding the gross error. Nicksin claimed the content of the October issue was already finalized when we met on September 8th. I’m unsure if this meant the magazines were already printed or not, but it seems that three weeks gave her enough time to at least make some acknowledgement of the error in her editor’s letter.
With the publishing of the October issue online, the ‘apology’ quickly disappeared. Only to be seen if you put in the right text into the search.
In addition to Nicksin having many missteps throughout the crisis, the owners of MM (Quad Graphics) also were remiss to community interest. They stayed silent, never making a public statement. Even when questions were raised on a radio show and in social media posts, Quad Graphics did not exhibit any sense of corporate citizenship. According to MM’s folio, Mike Gustin is its Publisher and General Manager. Gustin is also Director and General Manager at Quad. The company is a major printing company based in a suburb of Milwaukee with accounts that others in the industry envy. In fact, recent news reports revealed the printing company recently inked a $450 million printing contract. Yet, with a negative issue that reached such a high level, Quad did not seem to have any responsibility to the community. Perhaps they believe they only have a responsibility to certain segments of the Greater Milwaukee community. I guess they were holding their breaths waiting for the crisis to be over so they could continue with their business as usual process. However, individuals from Quad kept viewing my LinkedIn profile when the controversy was going on.
My experiences with this case gave me a front row seat to seeing how social media can spread a crisis like wild fire. It is hard to predict when an incident will spark such a crisis, but it is vital for companies to have a crisis communication protocol. When the crisis hits, it is imperative the response is prompt, authentic and respectful.