Founded in 2003, the Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit with the mission of “Honoring and empowering wounded warriors(Wounded Warrior Project, 2017)”. They accomplish this through providing community activism, outreach, and counseling for veterans injured during their service. In early 2016, CBS and the Washington Times released a report that contained accusations of lavish spending by the executives at the Wounded Warrior Project. Almost immediately, shockwaves from these allegations resonated outward and the organization quickly had a PR crisis of epic proportions on its hands.
A boilerplate response
Initially, the Wounded Warrior Project(WWP) issued a boilerplate release in response to the allegations. In the release they simply reaffirmed the organization’s core mission and the fact that they took the allegations very seriously. Additionally, that they would be retaining independent advisors to investigate the allegations. This was followed up in the ensuing weeks by the announcement of the firing of the CEO and COO.
Controlling the crisis
Despite these efforts on the part of the WWP to control the crisis, it seemed that the damage had been done with respect to their earned media. Prior to the crisis, the WWP was an organization well supported by both veterans and non-veterans alike. One only need gaze among a parking lot and there was a good chance of seeing a WWP bumper sticker on someone’s vehicle. Once the crisis hit and in the months since, the WWP has had a tough time regaining their footing with respect to their once stellar earned media. Even to the point of after the firing of the CEO and COO, there still being questions about where the money was going. Even over a year after the crisis hit, the new CEO, Mike Linnington admits that it would take at least three or four more years for the impact of the crisis to fully fade into the past(2017).
A fast moving scandal
In the age of social media, any PR crisis has the potential and often results in a firestorm of criticism and emotion. The scandal involving the WWP is no different. In fact, the response condemning the WWP on social media and especially their Facebook page was so great that CBS actually wrote a follow-up report detailing the social backlash.
The effective response
In looking at the PR and social media tactics that were employed by the WWP that were an effective response to the crisis, there is one that stands out to me. That response was the firing of the CEO and COO just over a month after the story broke. Most often in situations like this there is someone at fault. In this case, the WWP found that the lavish spending was intentional and under the guise of the CEO and COO. With that being said, in good PR fashion, a “sacrifice” was offered to the audience.
Better crisis communications
With respect to what could have been done better on the part of the WWP in response to the scandal lies solely in their initial statement and press release. Quite a few large organizations take a “hope it will blow over” approach to PR crisis’ and it often results in simple boilerplate statements being released. History has shown us that this rarely works out well. What the WWP should have done was take steps to control the optics of the situation and get ahead of it by releasing a more heartfelt statement and promising action along with a timeline for that action. Even more important would be to provide regular follow ups to that initial statement to keep the public informed of steps taken to rectify the situation.
Wrapping up, there is sure to be a long term impact from this scandal that even by his own admission, the new CEO says will take years to recover from. However, there are indicators that the recovery of the WWP’s brand equity is well underway. Two indicators of this are their new C-level executive’s approach to running the organization with a newfound emphasis on extreme transparency, coupled with the increasingly positive reception on social media. Overall, the WWP is still on shaky ground with respect to how their brand is perceived by the public, but it is clear that they are taking big steps in regaining their footing.
After financial hit, recovery of Jacksonville-based Wounded Warrior Project could take years. (2017, February 21). Retrieved from http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2017-02-20/after-financial-hit-recovery-jacksonville-based-wounded-warrior-project-could
Chasmar, J. (2016, January 27). Wounded Warrior Project accused of wasting donor money: ‘It just makes me sick’. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jan/27/wounded-warrior-project-accused-of-wasting-donor-m/
Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/wwp/?fref=nf
Janisch, C. R. (2016, January 29). CBS News investigates Wounded Warrior Project. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-investigates-wounded-warrior-project-spending/
Janisch, C. R. (2016, March 10). Wounded Warrior Project execs fired. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wounded-warrior-project-ceo-and-coo-fired/
News, C. (2016, February 01). Wounded Warrior Project publicly responds to “concerns”. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wounded-warrior-project-publicly-responds-to-concerns/
White, M. C. (2016, March 11). Vet Groups Worried About Donations After Wounded Warrior Firings. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/vet-groups-worried-about-donations-after-wounded-warrior-firings-n536811