By Arthur Solomon
We are now well into 2011. By this time last year, PR crisis specialists, from big and small companies, were all over the media landscape, frequently offering unasked-for advice, often from playbooks that should have been revised years ago.
Corporations were knee deep in crises situations. Remember BP/Halliburton, H.P., Toyota, Goldman Sachs, J&J, and Verizon Wireless? And who can forget Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, Gov. Haley Barbour and The Vatican?
So have things changed in 2011?
Obviously not. It’s a boom time for crisis pros with ubiquitous media coverage of the Murdoch/ News Corp.’s hacking scandal, debt ceiling debate, Wall Street meltdown and the specter of a double dip recession.
And as certain as day follows night, more crises will occur. And like history that is often repeated, most of the advice offered will be outdated.
If there is one important PR lesson learned from the disaster rich crop of 2010/11 media crises, it is that the aged formula of confronting a media crisis often does clients a disservice.
Each crisis has to be approached differently, even if it means delaying a response for a day or three, until approaches that make sense for the situation are formulated. Until they are, a general statement should suffice.
Something like, "We are reviewing the facts and will answer media questions after all the details are in," or, in legal situations, "We have been instructed by our attorneys not to answer any questions." (But never "no comment.")
That might not make the media happy, but agencies commitments are to clients, not the media that loves "gotcha" journalism.
Responding too quickly after a crises, (the old-fashioned way still in vogue with many crises specialists), instead of gathering and analyzing all the facts and consulting with corporate lawyers before going public, can do considerable harm to clients.
Too quick statements from BP and Tiger Woods denying the severity of their problems resulted in loss of credibility, and fueled public and media distrust of future comments. Conversely, waiting too long and trying to conceal negative information, as J&J did before announcing a product recall, can also damage a company's reputation.
PR firms and their crises specialists only have to read the papers and watch
TV to see how crises coverage has changed: sensationalism, panel discussions and
repetition of charges flourishes.
The transformation from reporting it “straight” to "exclamation!!!" reporting actually occurred years ago with the advent of the 24/7 cable channels and talk radio. But too often the reactions were from tired playbooks, not responses that kept up with the changing media. That's because crisis plans are often on the back burner until one occurs and not continually updated (or so it seems).
PR firms push media training on their clients. But media training is a poor substitute for crises preparation. Unlike planned newspaper and electronic interviews, there is no advance notice of a media crisis. Thus, it's difficult to prep clients. It makes more sense to conduct a crisis media training session after one occurs and the facts are in.
However, competent media training should be undertaken as a preventative crises tool.
But, in my experience too many media training sessions were taken from the one-size fits all agency play book, and not tailored to specific client needs. Only the names of the company, not the facts, were changed during the sessions.
Also, it should be a must for crises teams to have a person on the unit with hard-news reporting/editing experience, both to tell company executives what to expect when the crisis first occurs and then to evaluate how the media may react to what is proposed.
During and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller (where I traveled internationally as a media consultant to Korean and Australian government and Olympic officials and played key roles on a variety of significant national and international sports and nonsports accounts), I always believed that protecting a client from media controversy was more important than the "big hit."
Thus, for all clients, I always practiced "precautionary PR" -- meaning pre-crises prevention -- when planning or implementing an agenda. But unforeseen happenings occur. When crises situations did occur, I used out-of the box strategy and tailored the responses to each situation, fortunately limiting the media coverage.
Common sense and knowledge of which media will give your client a fair shot at telling its story may temporarily assuage the bad coverage, but facts are facts and in most cases no strategy can make it go away until the crisis runs its natural course.
Why do I believe that each crisis requires a different approach? Want an example? See the New York Times story of August 9, 2010 about H.P. dismissing Mark Herd as chief executive. The story, under a four column headline, said that a PR crisis specialist convinced the directors that if they wanted to prevent a media circus, Herd should be fired. The best laid plans, etc. etc.
- The traditional PR crisis management playbook with musty, unoriginal and boiler plate ideas should no longer be pulled off the shelve and used; it should be amended to fit a specific client crisis. The same is true for media training.
- When public safety is involved, underplaying the severity of a crisis or attempting to hide the facts, as BP and J&J did, will result in continual government and/or media skepticism when statements from companies are issued.
- Avoid adding fuel to a crises by saying others exaggerated its extent, as Bob Dudley, CEO of BP did in London on October 25, 2010.
-The Delta Air Lines GI/baggage media coverage proves that even fast corrective action after PR crises will not immediately cease news stories.
-Respond to a crisis but: don't rush to make a statement, be cautious of your assertions and make certain they are factual; err on the side of caution.
-Getting out in front of a crisis does not assure it will shorten media interest and not be covered extensively.
-Holding more than an initial press conference during a crisis situation is rarely a good idea. Every story that emerges from the conference will revisit the situation that caused the crisis, often overshadowing new positive information.
-It is not a good idea to question the integrity of reporters, when defending your own honor.
- After an initial statement, it is best to let update announcements be posted on Web sites until all the facts are in.
-Importantly, don't think you or your crises team can control the media.
-Always be honest with the media.
-Don't fall for the media game of, "I need a statement immediately."
-Proclamations of innocence, as the N.Y. Mets owners did in the Madoff situation, on February 17, instead of letting attorney's do the talking, only will intensify media coverage.
-As I’ve said many times, top executives should rarely make themselves available to the media. Example: Fred Wilpon’s interviews with The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated only emphasized the financial plight of the New York Mets, rehashed his Madoff connection and resulted in extended media coverage regarding unflattering comments he made about his ballplayers.
-Apologizing for an indiscretion has no affect on immediately minimizing media coverage or preventing follow-up coverage.
-Attempted cover-up of a crisis only worsens the media coverage.
-In an attempt to show clients how smart the agency is, (or maybe to justify a huge new billing opportunity), too often “crises team specialists,” with little knowledge of the account, are positioned as saviors.
-If an account is well-staffed, the account supervisors, who should know all aspects of the client, should primarily be calling the shots during crises planning and media responses. Crises specialists should take their leads from account managers.
-A crisis is like Old Man River. It just keeps rolling along. The crises team must never assume “a job well done” just because the media suspended reporting the crisis as a daily news story. Government hearings, feature stories and other follow-ups are often certain to emerge.
-Never promise a client that you can limit media coverage of a crisis (unless you want to jeopardize the account).
-Crisis specialists should have learned from the many past diasters the importance for corporations and their agencies to review and amend their crisis plans on a regular basis.
As I’ve also preached about PR crises actions: unlike inexpensive clothing, one size does not fit all.
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Arthur Solomon is a former senior VP at Burson-Marsteller, where handled national and international accounts. He is available at [email protected].