By F+A Staff

Mattel: Too Many Missteps?

It seems the last few months have been rife with crises, so we certainly had plenty to choose from this month.

One misstep that stands out is a recent kerfuffle with toy maker Mattel over a book called “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer.”

As part of Mattel’s strategy to position Barbie as a role model for young girls everywhere, they’ve given Barbie various professions, but this one that started with so much potential falls a bit short.

The story starts off promisingly when Barbie sets out to design a computer game. But things quickly go south when Barbie runs into trouble – and a computer virus – and has to run off to the IT guys to fix it for her.

Couldn’t Barbie, as a computer programmer, navigate this issue herself?

The Internet agreed and quickly took it upon itself to rewrite the story, which was originally published in 2010.

And while the Internet maelstrom took over, Mattel quietly pulled the book from Amazon and issued an apology over Facebook:

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

But does blaming the misstep on the year the book was published – 2010 – make up for the lapse in judgment? The idea of female computer engineers wasn’t too far-fetched even four years ago, making this story seem as an unfortunate slip in Mattel’s brand.

This case study reinforces the importance of monitoring blogs and other websites outside of the traditional news sphere. What started as a call-to-action by a disheartened blogger quickly spiraled into an online movement.

According to NPR, the blog that called for the re-writes has gotten more than 2,000 submissions.

We can only hope that Mattel had a robust online monitoring strategy to get wind of the problem before it spread too far. Blogs, Tweets and even online reviews have the power to mobilize an entire population.

By F+A Staff

Ride into your next media interview with the headlights blazing

Preparation is essential heading into a media interview, and the reporter isn’t the only one who should be armed with questions. Here’s what you need to know before beginning any interview:

  • what the interview is about;
  • what specific topics will be discussed;
  • from what perspective the story will be written;
  • who will be conducting the interview;
  • who else will be interviewed;
  • how long and in what format (e.g. phone, in-person, live or filmed) the interview requires; and
  • when the story will run or air.

Never consent to being interviewed on the spot, and remember that people who are interviewed before or after you will, or already have, shaped the reporter’s perspective on the story.


Ideally, when a reporter calls, whoever takes the call records the reporter’s information and then works with their public relations team to arrange the interview. Reporters are accustomed to working through PR executives, so while they may prefer to get directly to the source first, they will not be unduly disturbed. This allows time to determine the nature of the interview, discuss strategies in private before speaking directly with the media and determine the answers to the questions above.

By F+A Staff

Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error

MidMountain Construction is a Pacific Northwest construction company with an exemplary record of completing highly technical projects on time and on budget. The company has a great reputation for maintaining ethical practices and providing living-wage jobs to members of our community.

MidMountain Construction submitted a bid to build an important commuter rail project for Sound Transit. The firm was happy to learn that they were the apparent lowest bidder; the second lowest bid was $800,000 higher than MidMountain’s on a total contract value of $40 million.

Shortly after the bid opening, MidMountain received disappointing news. In the rush to submit the bid paperwork, MidMountain erred and failed to file a seemingly innocuous form. When the employee handling the paperwork realized his error, he ran back to deliver the one-page form, just 20 minutes late.

As a result of the error, Sound Transit declared MidMountain’s bid “non-responsive,” disqualifying the company.  The $40 million project was awarded to the second-lowest bidder, costing taxpayers at least $800,000. The winning bidder, obviously enjoying the fruits of the procedural error, began pushing to consummate the agreement as soon as possible.

MidMountain, through their attorneys, asked for our help.

We worked alongside MidMountain’s attorneys and crafted an outreach strategy that complemented their legal approach; while the lawyers fought in court, we took the battle to the elected officials who held oversight of Sound Transit. We presented each Sound Transit board member with a packet of information describing the impact of denying the bid to MidMountain, including what $800,000 could purchase for their tax-paying voters. To put this decision into perspective, the packet described in detail how many new teaching positions the forfeited money would pay for, how many firefighters’ salaries it would support, and other ways the people of Washington were going to be negatively affected by this decision.

In tandem with our written material, we also worked with the construction company principals to make one-on-one calls to some of the same board members so that they could better understand the political fallout of squandering $800,000 of taxpayer money over a minor procedural error.

We were able to engage a majority of the Sound Transit board members, either through our issue packet, or through one-on-one conversations over the course of a few weeks. Through this exchange of information, we were able to convince the Sound Transit board to rule that the tardy form was simply a “minor irregularity.” The decision to disqualify MidMountain was overruled, and MidMountain completed the project months later, on time and on budget.

By F+A Staff

The importance of finding a credible spokesperson

According to a study published in Public Relations Journal, a spokesperson’s title is less important than perceived credibility when responding to a crisis.

The media and the public respond favorably to compelling, energetic and trustworthy spokespeople.

Throughout our many years of media training experience, we’ve found most participants fit into two groups – confident and tentative. The good news, for both groups, is that these traits are common to the best media spokespeople, and even the most tentative can learn.

If your organization is working to identify or groom a spokesperson, keep these qualities in mind:

  • Authentic: The media, and audience, can tell that the spokesperson is genuine and believes in his or her message.
  • Natural: The public perceives the spokesperson as being the same on-camera as off, exhibiting the same passion, demeanor and values in private and public conversations.
  • Flexible: Being adaptable to change – whether it’s breaking news, technical issues or the availability of new information – and taking everything in stride.
  • Self-editing: The ability to simplify a message down to its most essential parts without saying everything, since doing so can complicate the message and confuse the audience.
  • Compelling: Use of stories, statistics and sound bites to make a message stand out.

By F+A Staff

Case Study: Bill Cosby

Using the Bill Cosby situation as a case study for flawed crisis communication is an exercise that touches on the absurd. Crisis communication professionals would be hard-pressed to manufacture a scenario that had more examples of what not to do.

The lawyers’ handling of the case is contradictory to our crisis communication best practices which, for decades, have guided clients from various industries as they face of predicaments of all shapes and sizes.

The latest revelation in the Cosby case is an amalgam of classic blunders that include “don’t let your lawyer be your spokesperson,” with a dash of “don’t blame the messenger,” followed by the common, “you can’t be silent, except when you want to.”

For those who haven’t seen the latest developments in the ongoing saga, Cosby’s lawyers recently sent a letter to CNN that criticizes the news agency for biased reporting and alleges that CNN selectively interviewed potential sources to support their anti-Cosby view and stonewalled Cosby advocates from being heard.

The leaked letter reveals three significant media relations blunders by the Cosby camp:


  1. Don’t let your lawyer be your spokesperson
    Many lawyers and PR professionals are divided when it comes to the best way to choose a spokesperson. While lawyers have a tendency to view their client’s publicity akin to seeing them on the witness stand – where a thorough cross-examination could potentially hurt the case and lead to unintended consequences – PR professionals prefer a proactive and transparent approach. While the first approach may save face in the courtroom, the second if more apt to foster a positive response in the court of public opinion.We work with plenty of savvy, upstanding and honest lawyers, but the truth is the legal industry itself has a bit of a reputation problem. The public is less likely to have a positive response to a sterile legal response chock full of legalese as they would to a heartfelt statement crafted by the likeable Dr. Huxtable himself – a juxtaposition that is likely the captivating factor that’s pulled so many in to this story.
  2. Don’t blame the messenger
    This marks the second time Cosby (or his lawyers) have blamed the media outlet for biased or incomplete reporting; third if we count Camille Cosby’s comment likening coverage of her husband’s case with Rolling Stone’s flawed reporting of the UVA rape case. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, media outlets are increasingly facing competition to get the story first. This phenomenon, by no means a justification for erroneous reporting, does explain some of the surface-level reporting we’ve grown accustomed to. Cosby’s camp did make one positive step in arranging potential interviews to substantiate his side of the story, but his defamatory remarks toward the media outlets not only overshadow this gesture, but also the implied credibility these witnesses would afford the Cosby case. The case deteriorates even further when CNN fires back, noting the proposed source’s past legal scuffles and poking holes in his credibility.Instead of blaming the media outlets for portraying him in a negative light, Cosby could have taken the proactive step to deliver a well-crafted statement that addressed the issue at hand, rather than attempting to pass the buck to shift the blame to the reporters covering this ongoing saga.
  3. You can’t be silent, except when you want to
    We’ve worked with plenty of belt-and-suspenders type lawyers who swear by the SANTA approach – Say Absolutely Nothing to Anyone. While it may appear the less risky route, the traditional SANTA approach more often than not solidifies incorrect conclusions of guilt or culpability and arrogance. There are times when asserting a proactive and transparent response, while it may feel precarious, is the clearest pathway to resolution.


We’ll surely keep an eye on this saga as it continues to evolve, and suggest to Mr. Cosby that he hire a savvy public relations team to salvage what’s left of the reputation that his legal team is quickly deteriorating.

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Mattel: Too Many Missteps?
Ride into your next media interview with the headlights blazing
Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error
The importance of finding a credible spokesperson
Case Study: Bill Cosby