Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Children stuck on scary roller coasters sometimes close their eyes and wait for the ride to end. So, apparently, do grown-ups heading giant corporations in crisis” … or, at least, so says New York Times economic writer Peter S. Goodman in his very interesting article, “In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do," which anatomizes the recent public relations missteps of three enormously successful enterprises — Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs.

Goodman does a great job interviewing corporate insiders and agency experts who generally agree that the most important strategy in a crisis is to come clean: “When the story is bad, disclose it immediately — awful parts included — lest you be forced to backtrack and slide into the death spiral of lost credibility.”

Now, the fly in the ointment. There were more than half a dozen quotes from Eric Dezenhall, who, according to the article, was a communications strategist for Ronald Reagan (that would be 20 or 30 years ago) and once represented Michael Jackson when he was accused of child molestation.

Dezenhall believes that “when the facts are horrible,” the best strategy is to ignore the problem and get back to business, “while eschewing the sort of foolish communications gimmicks that can make things worse.” After all, he says, “the goal is not to get people not to hate [the executives responsible for the companies’ problems]. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

The world Dezenhall describes is anarchic and brutish: “The reality [of a corporate crisis] is absolute chaos…. Nobody knows what the facts are. The lawyers are trying to get the P.R. consultants fired and the P.R. consultants are criticizing the lawyers. Everybody despises each other. It’s a totally unmanageable situation.”

It’s a sad commentary on Dezenhall’s cynicism. In my world, our clients, their lawyers and the agency work together as a team to uncover, take responsibility for and correct problems. We don’t scurry into a corner and hide from them.

There’s no point in avoiding open and honest communication. There are no secrets any more. The internet has seen to that.

Brad Burns, who headed communications at WorldCom during the 2001 accounting scandal, knows that ducking a crisis is no solution. “The quicker you apologize and make it right, the faster it goes away. The longer you stonewall, the worse it gets.” This salient point doesn’t get the play it should have from the Times writer.

Ultimately the story ends with Denzenhall, who once again misses the point: “You have to have a realistic expectation of what communications can accomplish. Nobody ever says: ‘Oh, that’s wonderful communications. We feel good now.’”

Thus, it bears repeating that professional public relations is about strategic crisis planning, rapidly executed critical actions, creating the right kind of culture — as well as the words communicated — among a host of other factors.

Technorati Tags: BP Global, Peter S. Goodman, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, New York Times, Eric Dezenhall, Brad Burns, crisis, communications, public relations, Makovsky


Blogger David Jacobson said...

Hi Ken,

One important skill the article barely mentioned was that the best way to avoid a crisis is to be prepared beforehand. The best quote in the article said as much IMO: "You never hear about companies that manage crises well."

It's also true that you can't prepare for every crisis. At my last company, an apparent abduction happened in our company parking lot. In the end there was no abduction and none of our employees were involved, but I still had four news trucks and one news helicopter to deal with in a 15 minute time span.

But I have found it often comes down to a legal vs. PR viewpoint. When a crisis like BP or Toyota happens, very often the PR people recommend being as open as possible. The legal team often takes the opposite approach; they recommend not saying anything so it can't be held against the company in the event of a lawsuit. Whichever side management ends up taking can have a colossal impact on any company's reputation and bottom line.

David Jacobson

Friday, August 27, 2010 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Ken Makovsky said...

I have always found that there is transparent language that is legally permissible. Anything short of the truth does not work. Occasionally, the client has to appraise a situation before talking. But even then response must be rapid. Obviously, there is no substitute for preparation.

Kenneth D. Makovsky

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 11:51:00 AM  

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