Peter Burger
Peter Burger

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” These words from President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel have been taken out of context for cynical opportunism. Try making that declaration to Boeing, as its stock price drops in the wake of the 737 Max Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes or any organization fighting to maintain its reputation during a public conflagration. Even if a crisis doesn’t involve the tragic loss of life, far from seeking to capitalize on it, leadership simply wants it to go away.

In the digital-social media age, scandals are spread and remain memorialized a few clicks away. Recent examples include H&M selling a racist t-shirt; Oxfam’s workers paying for sex while working in Haiti; and Tesla CEO Elon Musk running afoul of the SEC with his tweets and smoking weed during a video podcast. Not to mention the post-2016 U.S. presidential election revelation that Facebook had harvested customer data for client Cambridge Analytica without their permission, a contravention of its mission to make the world a “more connected place.”

These debacles metastasized across the web as memes, acquiring a life of their own that companies could do little to stop. Indeed, today every crisis is digital, moving at a velocity that could tarnish even the most pristine brand halo, despite an organization’s best efforts to respond. Social platforms have turned the print media’s 24-hour news cycle into a relic. Yet the average PR team clings to the old mission of “controlling the narrative” by communicating the corporate story early and often.

This approach doesn’t work. According to Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources, during a full-blown crisis it doesn’t matter how mellifluously a company’s spokesperson talks and how precise its tweets are. “No matter what they do, for a while every action will be considered a misstep,” Dezenhall said. Anything you utter orally or digitally can and will be used against you. It’s time to take a tough look at the PR crisis communications rulebook and write a new one.

Shattering the PR crystal ball

Let’s start by examining a tenet of public relations: the crisis communications plan. However well-intentioned, it’s based on the naïve belief that PR professionals can see the future. Peering into their crystal balls, PR chiefs devise plans for their potential crises. When a predicament occurs, the company implements the corresponding plan to blunt public outcry, avoid product recalls, arrest a plummeting stock price and preserve brand equity. All in a good few months’ work. Theoretically.

Such a PR plan likely includes anticipating issues and preparing responses to each; building a team with roles including a spokesperson that can execute a response to whichever issue arises; developing a holding pattern statement to issue to the media when the crisis happens; being ready to respond immediately after the crisis hits; showing compassion for the people the harmed; have the capability to monitor the situation as it occurs; and conduct an analysis when it’s over to assess the effectiveness of the plan.

No PR director ever got fired for developing a crisis plan. But that doesn’t constitute evidence that plans work. “The PR industry over-emphasizes preparation because they get to bill for it,” according to Dezenhall. “Most preparation — not all — is worthless because nothing is predictable. Companies desperately want to be told they can prepare because it gives them the illusion of control.” Accordingly, Dezenhall is adamant that “There is no one ‘approach’ that works. The flaw is that my industry sells an ‘approach.’ Every case is different.”

In short, you can’t plan for a crisis you can’t predict.

Less conversation, more action

While a big crisis plan might make you feel confident today, it likely won’t help you cure an actual future crisis. “It’s more useful to have a response apparatus and strong leadership than a good plan,” Dezenhall said. “The focus should be on making sure you’ve got a strong leader with the authority to act, not in developing a thorough plan that will never be used.”

To stem a crisis, you need to be able to solve problems with the business rather than engage in the thankless and usually futile efforts of trying to take control of a narrative through words. “If your client doesn’t have the power to authorize a product recall, you don’t have a team leader,” Dezenhall said. “A company’s PR chief almost never has that power.” Like it or not, the de facto crisis leader is the chief executive, not the PR chief, and only executive actions that solve operational and business issues will make a measurable difference.

Going (anti)social

A highly-accepted way of communicating is social media, and you need to stay away from it during a true viral crisis. These days, social isn’t only the preferred channel for issuing apologies. Marketing gurus extol the virtues of upping your social “quotient” by “engaging” your constituents with dialogue and sticky content they can’t get enough of. But when it comes to large corporations, social media doesn’t stem the tide of haters. Quite often, just the opposite results when you “go social.”

According to Dezenhall, “Social media is a vehicle for dispersion. Crisis management is a discipline of containment.” As a result, “More often than not social media exacerbates crises because people over-respond and believe in the old cliché of ‘respond immediately.’ That ethic came from another era when there weren’t cascading technologies magnifying everything.”

In certain situations, social media can be effective. It’s a useful marketing tool and brand positioning channel. But when it comes to getting out your message during turmoil, one need only examine the snarky comments filling up Twitter feeds to see how social can be misused. “I find social media useful for monitoring the state of play on a subject and for communicating discreet, specific information,” Dezenhall said. “It is no forum for engaging in a debate with parties that have a vested interest in keeping hostilities alive.”

Friends, foes, “stakeholders”

Crises aren’t orderly affairs in which everyone speaks when it’s their turn and plays by preset rules. That’s why “you have to run certain crisis campaigns like political campaigns because you need friends,” Dezenhall said. “The first thing I look at when I take on a new client is who their adversaries are. If they have serious enemies, they’ll need serious friends and that’s one of the first challenges we have to work our way through.”

Whether you’re a bank, consumer products company or an energy conglomerate, you must not hesitate from enlisting your most powerful constituencies. “Your adversaries will declare your efforts to find friends of your own to be unfair but that shouldn’t stop you.” Presently, it’s not politically correct to conceive of conflict as a zero-sum game. But a crisis isn’t a marketing scenario where everyone wins.

Who’re you going to call?

“Make love not war” isn’t a strategy that works when you’re in a war of ideas. Accordingly, “There are peacetime advisors and wartime advisors,” Dezenhall said, which is why “the skill set and temperament it takes to run a PR campaign to promote a product is different from the skill set required to do battle.” Which experts are you going to hire to weather a crisis?

The people you want on your side are individuals who’ve been subpoenaed, sued and fired — not merely those who’ve been at companies under siege, but people who’ve been through the eye of the storm. Dezenhall recommends people who’ve been in politics rather than the corporate world. “Political types tend to understand it’s a battle, a conflict. Corporate people tend to think everything is a misunderstanding that can be addressed by better communications,” he said.

Beware the glass jaw

It doesn’t matter how beloved an organization is, how strong its brand, how lofty its market valuation. During a crisis, the company can do no right. Gone is your aura of invincibility. Dezenhall used boxing terms to describe the phenomenon. “All companies have ‘glass jaws’ under the wrong set of circumstances.”

An aerospace company with an excellent safety record was recently described by the following New York Times headline: “As Boeing Confronted a Swelling Crisis, It Had Little to Say.” Fair enough. The article says that with the crisis unfolding on social media, Boeing’s customers are not just the airlines but also the airlines’ customers, suggesting it owes them a conversation. But facing an environment in which every word is being digitally parsed, the airline has studiously resisted overcommunicating.

A more trenchant take came from PR Week, which named Boeing’s response its “Flop of the month” for the aircraft manufacturer delaying grounding the 737 Max only after the UK, China, India and Australia — and finally President Trump in the U.S. — grounded the plane.

Boeing is now handling the crisis in a clinical manner, with its CEO claiming the problem is a technical one, searching for a software remedy while emphasizing that the company itself is the proper authority to arrive at the solution and cutting production of the jet. Notably, while the first Boeing 737 took to the skies in 1967 and has a sterling safety record overall, the current crisis seems to involve not only a software problem but also a training issue that lies with both airline and manufacturer to solve.

No words can change the post-crash situation. Better to take the measured, analytical approach of a management consultant to identify the problem, fix it, compensate victims, regain confidence from airlines and regulators and demonstrate over time that the aircraft and software function.

“The solution isn’t a better CEO interview,” Dezenhall said. Crisis management isn’t the same as PR. It’s not about building the brand but rather preserving it by navigating through the thorny situation at hand — not letting a “serious crisis go to waste” but rather knowing when “a win is losing by less.”

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Peter Burger is an omnichannel content consultant and communications writer who brings narrative life to brands, products and services, organizational cultures and people. He’s worked with the likes of EY, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, Towers Watson, New York Life and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. View his portfolio at aislewpeter.com.