In 2013, the retail giant JCPenney posted a billboard featuring a stainless steel tea kettle (shown above) designed by architect Michael Graves, near the 405 Freeway outside of Culver City, Calif. The company quickly received complaints that the kettle resembled Adolf Hitler. Soon, the Internet picked up on the Hitler comparison and media outlets from NPR to The Telegraph wrote stories with headlines like “Tempest Over a Teapot” and “Kettle That Looks Like Hitler Brews Trouble.”
Dalia Stoniene, vice president of New York–based public relations firm Susan Grant Lewin Associates, told Graves, her client, to ignore the controversy. "We laughed," Stoniene says, recalling the conversation. "Do we respond to this? The answer was a resounding 'No.' How can you? It was just so silly."
Architects have always courted controversy due to the public nature of their work, but in this era of global commissions and social media—when a case of pareidolia on the 405 can become international news in a matter of hours—firms need to be prepared to manage crises. Top communication strategists offer advice on how firms can prepare for criticism of controversial projects and even transform negative press into positive growth.
"We front load any project with information," says Carin Whitney, the in-house communications director at Philadelphia’s KieranTimberlake. This includes creating a sheet of frequently asked questions for the press and the public, posting information to the website, and preparing staff on how to respond to comments they might receive. "We try to have the right people queued up on what to say so that when we get a phone call or an email, we can provide thoughtful and timely responses."
When a project is particularly controversial or newsworthy, Whitney might convene a mock press event. "In the military, the term is a 'murder board,' " she says. "You practice by having people throw questions at you to see how you think on your feet. We imagine the kinds of things that people are going to seize on and we consider how best to respond."
Don’t Be Defensive
Before founding her eponymous public relations firm in 1996, Susan Lewin was an architecture journalist who covered a contentious public river walk in Dayton, Ohio, designed by 1991 AIA Gold Medal recipient Charles Moore. "I asked [Moore] how he was going to defend his plan to the public, and he looked at me and said, 'I have nothing to defend. I am here at a town meeting to gather ideas.' I never forgot that," Lewin says. "When a problem arises, don’t be defensive. It’s the worst thing you can do." Ignoring questions or ducking phone calls will only frustrate journalists, she adds. She counsels her clients to build a rapport with key media publications. "Then when something happens, you have someone who could potentially tell your side of the story."
Consider the Source
Not every criticism warrants a response. "Look at who is speaking, who they are reaching, and what kind of authority they have," Stoniene says. "If it isn’t consequential, ignore it. You don’t want to appear petty." If the source is reputable, or the facts are wrong, consider a measured reaction. "If there are factual errors that need to be corrected, we encourage people to respond," she says. "These things live on the Internet. Request a written correction, or put a response on your own website and share it."
Respond Quickly, but Thoughtfully
With significant crises, "your immediate posture should be to find out what happened first," says New York–based Capelin Communications founder Joan Capelin, Hon. AIA. Capelin, citing the walkway collapse at the Kansas City Hyatt in 1981, which killed 114 people. "It wasn’t clear for a very long time where the fault was," she says. The engineering firm was ultimately to blame, but local architect Bruce Patty, Capelin's client, fielded months of public scrutiny for his role. "He would open every single discussion—a client meeting or an AIA lecture—with a very simple statement: 'I know that the Kansas City Hyatt is on your mind, so let me address that first,' " she says. "There was an attitude of openness and that took guts."
Establish a Social Media Policy
Sometimes your worst enemy can come from within. A seemingly innocent Facebook post or a misinterpreted tweet from an firm member can raise a firestorm. "We have broad guidelines for our staff about social media," KieranTimberlake's Whitney says. "We tell people that the work we do is confidential unless otherwise noted. Our first responsibility is to protect our clients. We do want people to have ownership of their work and have opportunities to talk about it, but it requires thought and clearance."
Turn a Negative into a Positive
Controversy isn’t always a bad thing. "It means that you are alive and doing something that sparked conversation," Stoniene says. Negative press and criticism can sometimes offer a chance to redirect that conversation and elaborate on your firm’s work. When KieranTimberlake designed its sustainable prefab Cellophane House for a 2008 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, the firm was criticized for using aluminum, an energy-intensive material. The firm used it as an opportunity to talk about its materials research and the logic behind the design. "We responded with a press release that let people know that because the house could be put together and taken apart with bolts and screws, all the material could get reused," Whitney says. "It doesn’t go to scrap. [There was] an initial response saying we’re not really being sustainable, but [the explanation of our logic sparked] a whole new discourse about how aluminum can actually be a sustainable material."