Crisis Communications…oh, where art thou?

Author: Dick Grove

Oh my, what a time we live in.  Reeling from one communication crisis to another…United and Southwest Airlines, Facebook, Papa John Pizza all the way up to POTUS, a crisis gift that just keeps on giving; what’s a PR pro to do? So many crises and so little counsel.

Having spent my early PR training years with a firm often considered the originator of a PR discipline known as “crisis communications” I learned long ago the value to corporate entities of circling the wagons and at least making an effort to professionally explain the circumstances that lead to some terrible reputational and potential revenue reducing incident.  Burson-Marsteller, where I begin my public relations career fresh from college as well as a return engagement as a regional executive, is a firm that built its reputation on counseling Tylenol and Exxon, where death was an issue; to Coca-Cola where only cola taste and sales suffered. We learned the importance of moving quickly and decisively when one’s corporate or personal reputation is at stake.  We also learned the importance of making truth a keystone of any communication strategy…or at least, parsing the truth to best present the client’s side to the public.

Truth being the key word here…as plain and as simple as possible…and always better late than not at all.  Is that so difficult to understand? And almost more importantly, is that so difficult to advise? But today’s endless parade of executives, celebrities, and yes, those most guilty, politicians, has exposed the crisis communications discipline today for what it is, one not so much of a detailed list of do’s and don’ts anchored in a strong foundation of truth, common sense, and perceived goodwill, but a grab bag of protective obstructions and misdirected blame and press management (or mismanagement as it was) by “PR handlers.” Or even worse, by one’s own egotistical accusations of “false news.”

Whether or not the founder of Papa John’s is a racist or just not a good PR student, listening to him try to cover his stupidity and bad judgment by blaming his PR staff was the classic, “the devil made me do it” defense.

Facebook’s founder’s defense sides closer to the “we’re too big to screw up too much…” well, maybe just a little, just the one time.  But POTUS, oh my. Someone whose wealth and political savvy is far exceeded by his ego and sense of insecurity, simply cannot admit screwing up or stepping on his own (toes, words, —- etc.), even when confronted continually with facts. And the Exxon Valdez supertanker leaking crude up the Alaskan coastline…never happened, or was the result of a bad deal with its former CEO, not a leak.

Somewhere out there, there must be a few old school PR pros still covering the basics to companies and individuals willing to listen before they act or speak.  And when they do, moving quickly and decisively, making truth a keystone of any communication strategy and always anchored in a strong foundation of common sense and perceived good will.

Or, as one of the old guard at Burson-Marsteller used to advise…just admit you screwed up, take the consequences, and stay out of the spotlight.

His defense…Orwellian….that is, present an alternative reality, stated over and over, till it becomes accepted through repetition alone by social media. If Tylenol had used either of these defenses, the brand would be long gone from retail shelves; or worse, those that actually lost their lives didn’t really die, they just never existed.  

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