6 crisis communications red flags

July 10, 2012
red flag

Crisis matters are without question the highest stakes public relations engagements. When a client is in crisis, it often means we’re embroiled in a bet-the-company situation, and many times there is an adversary on the other side of the issue actively fighting against us, such as an activist group, politicos trying to make a name for themselves, or a competitor slinging mud.

As a result, there are often a multitude of advisors at the table: C-suite execs, board members, lawyers, investment bankers, internal and external communications teams, etc. It’s in the midst of these all-hands strategy sessions that I have my antenna up for red flags. Here are a few.

1. “Blah blah blah TYLENOL blah blah blah …”

I owe this one to Eric Dezenhall, author of the fantastic book on crisis management, “Damage Control.” In his introduction, Dezenhall says, “One of the more hackneyed features of most introductory crisis management meetings is the obligatory citation of the famed 1982 Tylenol case.”

He goes on to explain how mentioning Tylenol has become an instant argument in favor of capitulation in crisis management. Those embroiled often believe that simply by accepting responsibility and capitulating they will preserve reputation. But this is not the case.

Dezenhall explains that Tylenol had a number of fortunate bounces of the ball in the tampering matter. Its retailers pulled Tylenol off the shelves immediately; J&J actually waited over a week, a decision that would have been disastrous in today’s instant-on news cycle.

It was obvious to all that the tampering was the work of a crazed murderer and not J&J’s fault. And J&J had already done extensive work on tamper-resistant packaging and was ready to introduce it. It was able to expedite the rollout to counteract the tampering matter. In reality, in many crises, capitulation would make the crisis even worse and provide fuel for the adversary’s fire. Sometimes, it’s necessary to stand your ground and fight back.

2. “Can’t we just say, ‘no comment?'”

Of course you can. You can always say, “no comment.” For that matter, you can always turn off the phones and computers and hide under your desk.

But it also means you’ll concede messaging for the entire story to your opponents. It is going to get ugly. It is going to appear that you have no defense, no message, no answer, no ability to advocate for your side of the story. You will lose in the court of public opinion. You may never recover.

Far better to have a cohesive, credible message; stand up on the firing line; and answer questions with those core messages in mind.

3. “What are the chances that this could significantly damage the company?”

It’s a reasonable question, but the reality is that the real consequences often have more to do with how a company responds than the original sin.

I’m often asked upfront to give that analysis even before we understand the company’s willingness to adopt an aggressive or conciliatory approach as dictated by the issue at hand. The client’s appetite to fight or capitulate will drive the outcome in the court of public opinion, which will in turn determine the lasting impact on reputation.

4. “Could be …”

Early in our firm’s history we handled a crisis management engagement having to do with an attorney general’s investigation of a company’s owner. Throughout the entire first meeting and fact finding, the client seemed cagey and hesitant, unwilling to give specifics even to the people on their team.

When we asked if there is the potential for more to come out, the client’s response was simply, “could be …” with complete unwillingness to share the risk. If the client can’t speak openly with their advisors, what chance do we have to help plan a strategic response?

5. “Can’t we take the high road?”

At some point when planning an aggressive response, someone will plead, “Can’t we take the high road?” This to me is code for, “I’m afraid to drop the gloves.” If you get to the point where you want to take the high road, it implies that someone on the other side of the argument from you is taking a low road. And if they’re taking a low road, I hate to break it to you: There ain’t no high road to take.

In corporate America, it’s definitely out of character to openly blister an opponent. We try to deal with one other in a way that preserves decorum and class and high moral character. So it’s distasteful to us to really let fly — to say what we really want to say.

But sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes our opponents don’t play by the moral code of business. They use hysteria and bravado and exaggeration to state their case. Sometimes they want us left for dead. In these situations, we can’t be afraid to do the same.

6. “I’ll defer to the experts on this, but …”

This is code. It might sound like the person at the table is open to new ideas. But in fact it means the opposite. It means he believes he is the expert, and you should defer to him.

I was recently in a meeting where a high-ranking member of the team said over and over again, “I’ll defer to the experts, but …” before stating a completely different view than was being advocated by the communications team.

It became clear to me that the company had an institutionalized culture of deference to this individual. They were not open to advice and input. They wanted to dictate. In these situations, presenting and advocating for a different approach is going to be an uphill battle. Not impossible, but challenging.

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