Crisis Management: Fighting Back in PR – Sometimes it Works: Crisis Response
Revenge feels good. So said a study in the journal Science. Brain scans indicate we feel satisfaction when we make others pay for not doing what we want. Furthermore, researchers theorize fear of revenge tends to discourage people from acting against the needs of society. With revenge being sweet, society benefits. It’s innate. It’s largely constructive.
In crisis PR, however, revenge or just plain fighting back is often self-destructive. Rarely does it reassure customers, employees, and other audiences who depend upon us. Fighting usually creates enemies or emboldens existing ones. Peace not war is usually the best PR move.
Sometimes, though, fighting may be your best option.
Case #1. Several years ago in Raleigh, NC, the public relations firm CAPSTRAT took on the NC Department of Insurance on behalf of client Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC.
After Blue Cross reported record net income of $196 million for 2003, the state insurance department claimed more than 1200 people filed complaints against the company. Journalists reported those numbers. Blue Cross and CAPSTRAT didn’t believe them. So the PR firm took a page from investigative journalism and used the NC Public Records Law to demand copies of all Blue Cross complaints to DOI in that period. The insurance department delivered 118 letters. In explaining the huge discrepancy between 1200 complaints and 118 letters, the agency said the larger number was based on 400 phone calls a week for three weeks. However, the calls were not logged and there was no record. The department said 1200 complaints was an educated estimate. Blue Cross began circulating the much smaller numbers although DOI stuck to its original claim.
Case #2. A year earlier a client was under constant public attack by a former employee. When the false criticisms continued and efforts to let the matter fade failed, we felt no recourse but to counterattack. We held a press conference to state our case. Our comments also gave us a factual foundation to address stakeholders and respond to complaining emails from around the country. Over time the issue began to fade.
Case #3. A client that makes coffee was a subject in a TV newsmagazine “expose” that claimed our decaf coffee and that of several other well-known brands exceeded federal caffeine limits. With the story impending, we had outside experts check. Our decaf was legit. I personally tried to communicate these contradictory findings to a program producer who blew me off. She said, “Everyone says that!” It was obvious the TV program was going to slam us regardless of our countering evidence. We chose to fight. Our attorney contacted their attorney in writing and by phone to relay our test results certifying our decaf as meeting guidelines. That put them on legal notice. Now, if their story ignored our evidence that could be tantamount to malicious disregard for the truth. Libel. When the national story finally ran, we were the only “guilty” company whose side was reported. We won, but we had to fight to get it.
Caveat. Fighting remains risky. A client – before I got involved – challenged regulators who were simply doing their job inspecting the operation following complaints. I am convinced that action stoked the inspectors. After all, government agencies earn respect for protecting the public, not accommodating companies. There is every incentive for them to be tough if your business has erred, and especially if you have baited them.
So most of the above cases worked, but public relations professionals realize that those you defeat in PR have long memories. Payback can be hell, and as researchers say, “Revenge is Sweet.”