Crisis Management: When do you fight to protect your reputation?: Crisis response
“How we fought 60 Minutes and won!” “How we beat 20/20!” These sessions headlined a crisis management conference I attended. Public relations professionals explained how their protracted, expensive, and aggressive campaigns successfully halted or modified national negative stories about their clients.
As a crisis manager who finds that compromise and win-win work better than combat, these sessions raised a larger question for me. When in public relations do you fight? Whom should you fight? How can you justify forceful actions that might energize opponents, antagonize reporters, and alienate customers and consumers?
I asked several PR experts at that conference if they would counterattack a hostile press. Most believed it perilous. Even the presenter of the “60 Minutes” session conceded that 98% of the time he would NOT recommend companies follow his approach. They repeated axioms of how the media usually get the last word, and angry reporters become determined foes. I understood. When I was a journalist, a resisting company was a sign that I was on the trail of a good story. (Conversely, resistance sometimes meant my story was misguided, and the company was trying to stop an erroneous report.)
A few crisis managers endorsed a strategy of “attack the attacker.” If there is a single media thorn in your side that threatens serious unwarranted damage and reasonable attempts to stop it have failed, then retaliation is sensible – but only against that one opponent and not all media.
To illustrate, a crisis consultant told of a TV news reporter who planned to generate interest in a series of stories by revisiting an environmental problem corrected long ago. Corporate and community leaders were concerned that resurrecting the earlier hysteria might unnecessarily alarm a jittery public at a time of sensitive community rebuilding. These representatives told news managers of their apprehensions about the potentially inflammatory affect. They called, visited, and wrote about it. In response, the station dropped the old environmental nightmare portion of the stories.
That media challenge worked, but let me caution those who are inclined to fight a journalist. Be sure you are right. I have found a client sometimes blames a reporter when the client is culpable. Reporter-bashing can sidetrack you from genuine problem-solving. Be certain that you are not blaming the messenger.
Fighting non-media opponents is also precarious. The public wants reassurance not conflict during controversy. Battling adversaries with sound bites or lawsuits makes it difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. How do people know whom to believe? Even worse, opponents may be “victims” of your past actions. And victims – real or perceived – usually have public, political, and regulatory support. Fighting victims instead of working with or taking care of them is a road to ruin in my experience.
Nevertheless, sometimes you are being wronged and must protect your reputation. Doing otherwise would be irresponsible. In such cases, try this two-step counterattack.
1) Take legal action
2) Maintain communication with your opponent
The legal move (1) draws a line in the sand. The communication (2) provides space for compromise or face-saving for your opponent. This tactic may also win the respect of outside observers. Because you are collaborating with opponents and not just fighting them, the process will appear fairer than attack alone. Since the public will not have enough information to know who is in the right, the process itself will convey a constructive impression.
I saw this two-step counterattack work. An organization was trampling my client’s rights while pursuing its own legitimate interests. While the ultimate intent was understandable, their scheme was embarrassing to my client and almost certainly illegal. In response, my client took the two steps. 1) A lawyer warned the organization that court action was imminent if the insults continued. 2) Simultaneously, a company representative discussed a compromise that would satisfy both parties. The method worked and no further action was needed. A bonus was that the issue never broke into public view because the dispute was calmly resolved.
Some final thoughts for those of you wanting to fight and counterattack. Such maneuvers scare me. When under assault, it is natural to draw your sword. Your lawyers may unsheathe theirs too. Ego is on the line and the opponent is probably provocative. I understand the desire to strike back. I sometimes have too much of a hair-trigger for argumentative reporters. These immediate instincts are usually counterproductive. I have never – never – personally seen pure aggression succeed! So, fight only if necessary, and even then, mix it with good communications.