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Media and Crisis Management

Avoiding the 5 Stages of Scandal

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Avoiding the 5 Stages of ScandalCrisis response

The scandal at Duke University over its lacrosse team and whether members attacked a stripper at a party reminded me of a column I wrote awhile back. It concerned the seemingly endless corporate scandals at the time, plus a controversy at the University of Colorado. Here is what I wrote.

AP news item: Seven women allege that they had been raped by University of Colorado football players or recruits since 1997, and the university is investigating whether sex was used as a recruiting tool with player visits to strip clubs and the hiring of escorts.

Then NPR anchor Bob Edwards interviewed Washington Post Denver Bureau Chief T.R. Reid about the Colorado case.

Edwards asked, “How have university leaders reacted to all this?”

Reid said, “I think (they) have gone through the 5 stages of scandal step by step.”

I know about guidelines for reputation-saving, but stages of scandal? Directions to PR infamy? T.R. Reid’s 5 stages provide a revealing map, and it is NOT a good route out of trouble.

Stage 1 – No comment

Stage 2 – None of this happened

Stage 3 – Maybe it happened, but we didn’t know about it

Stage 4 – Let’s have an investigating committee to see what we did know

Stage 5 – We can’t do anything until the committee reports.

Through experience I have come to believe today’s leaders are increasingly savvy about protecting reputations. The learning curve seems to have risen out of Johnson & Johnson’s stellar handling of the Tylenol poisonings 20 years ago. Most enlightened managers surely know you must have a death wish to want to go through Reid’s scandal stages. Well, based on recent scandals, the U of C case, and a new Harris Interactive survey, either the death wish is alive or the crisis management learning curve is steeper than I thought. Worse, when you fail, people have long memories.

The Wall St. Journal quotes Harris Interactive, “…three-quarters of the survey respondents graded the image of big corporations as either ‘not good’ or ‘terrible’. People are far from ready to forgive the corporate fraud, deception and greed they have witnessed.” A Harris Interactive executive said too many companies think they can advertise their way out of a bad situation, and the Journal said, “Now, more than ever, the public has a show-me attitude.”

So why are companies still stumbling to protect their reputation? I think it is fear of liability. If you put a PR professional in a room alongside the corporate attorney, the balance often tips toward the lawyer. Therefore a litigation-based, super-conservative, don’t say anything unless you have to orientation can rule the day.

Certainly, when you face prison or a securities violation, legal is paramount. However, since an estimated 90+% of all controversies have a legal threat, it would be a mistake to let litigation protection be the sole strategy. Public relations must be in the mix because long after individuals are gone, the reputation remains – good or bad. And as Harris Interactive reveals, a bad taste lingers.

I like strategic consultant Richard S. Levick’s advice to lawyers. “Trust is the only acceptable currency. To truly serve your client, remember that the company’s trustworthiness is on the line in all high profile litigation. Litigate to win, but always

respect the promise of the brand. Once it’s lost, a favorable jury verdict or a practicable settlement can be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.” It is not all about the courtroom.

We began with scandal stages – what not to do – so let’s close with what you should do.

1. Take care of victims or perceived victims, 2. Fix the problem, 3. Notify stakeholders, 4. Strive to respond in the first news story, 5. Rehearse critical press interviews, 6. Don’t make it worse, 7. Get it over with, 8. Tell the truth.

Remember people want to know “Am I safe?” Reassure them that they are. If you act accordingly, I seriously doubt you would pursue the 5 stages of scandal that embrace the University of Colorado and apparently some of corporate America.

A postscript – T.R. Reid later told me he simply invented the scandal stages basing them loosely on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief.

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