Crisis Management: The Best PR Is No Help Sometimes: Crisis response
Since many know that I assist companies facing controversy to minimize it or avoid it, several people asked me, half-jokingly, “What would you do if Enron were your client?” I said, “Enron is like the Titanic. How do you raise a ship resting on the ocean floor? You can’t. It sank in thousands of feet of water. How do you haul it to the surface, patch the holes, pump out the water, and re-float it.” Enron management failures were so massive that no amount of crisis PR could undo the damage.
For a few days I did think that Enron’s auditor, Arthur Andersen LLP, might be able to save itself. But when: 1) Andersen said nothing for 5 days after Enron exploded, 2) a huge shredding operation surfaced, 3) a federal indictment followed, and 4) clients bailed – Andersen too appeared lost at sea. All in spite of the aid of former Fed chairman Paul Volcker and an ace Washington PR firm – two smart moves.
The saying holds, “If you do the crime you must do the time.” Don’t look for spin control to save you. Continuing my nautical metaphor, attempting reputation saving for a guilty party is like plugging a hole in a hull below the water line with a wad of news releases. You’ll still sink.
I write about this after reading a Wall Street Journal article criticizing Arthur Andersen’s failed PR attempts. Frankly, I can hardly imagine how the brightest public relations minds could keep Andersen afloat. As with Enron, Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and, well, you know the rest.
This is NOT a comment about Enron or Andersen, but when I started crisis PR consulting I worried that disreputable businesses would ask me to help save them. Thankfully that has happened only twice.
In the first case, the prospective client was unwilling to do anything I suggested at an introductory meeting. We parted, and 6 months later the top official was indicted.
Several years after that, I learned that a client lied to me. I fired them in a nanosecond. It was surprisingly easy even though it cost me a lot in potential fees.
All other clients have been honorable folks who didn’t want to be misunderstood after stumbling – as we all do occasionally. They just want to do the right thing, make amends, communicate well, and move on. I have been delighted to find that clients tend to self-select when asking for assistance. I believe that truly guilty parties do not want outsiders – consultants like me – to know their secrets. That sure makes the job easier.
To my mind, the lesson for companies is this. Never let early mistakes spiral out of control. One of those 10 crisis management principles that I write about frequently (available on-line at http://www.amme.com/10_crisis_steps.htm) says, “Fix the problem! When did you learn about it, and what did you do about it?”
If you learn of a blunder within your company, jump on it immediately. Even if you do not believe it will ever become public, still correct it as fast as you can. 1) A fast fix can persuade insiders of your values, calm their concerns, and reassure them of your ability to manage difficulty. 2) Should the mistake break into the open, you will have a track record of rapid right action.
Two cases I worked with were classic examples. They were educational institutions where a coach had sexual relations with a student. Although neither incident was public at the time, senior officials acted quickly. They communicated with authorities, staff and parents. When these sorry situations became news, it was clear that management acted fast to protect students, and, by extension, the reputation of their institutions.
So, promise yourself that from this day forward you will do this the minute you learn of a potentially embarrassing problem. Fix it! At worst, if it becomes known, you may have ride rough waters, but you won’t sink, and you might even earn support because of your decisive, reassuring action, and survive with more respect than you had at the start.