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Media and Crisis Management

Death and a career – trying to save a reputation

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Death and a career – trying to save a reputationCrisis communications

A morning TV news anchor in our area named Tolly Carr allegedly struck and killed pedestrian Casey Bokhoven while driving while impaired.  With a suspected offender whom many felt they knew because of television, it became personal.  With a death it could hardly be worse.

I’ve never met Carr but have thought him talented.  Friends from my TV news days have asked me, as a crisis manager, if there were anything this young man should do to salvage his future and do the right thing.   The “what should he do” question has nagged at me.  Mind you, crisis management seems coldly clinical with death involved, and worrying about a future seems almost inconsequential when the victim has none.  Yet Carr’s life deserves thought and I will think about it through these words.

First, when you’re worried about jail, public relations is usually the last thing on your mind.  I am not a lawyer, have no inside knowledge and don’t know if imprisonment is a possible outcome, but if it looms then Carr will not worry much about television just now.  Eventually he must rebuild his life and that is the time I want to address. What happens today could dramatically affect tomorrow.

We are not defined by a crisis but by our response to it.  Therefore, is there anything Tolly Carr could do now that might help those days in the distance?  I believe yes!

In a perfect world, if culpable, here is what Carr should have done within days of the accident but can still do now.  First, contact the victim’s family directly, accept responsibility, apologize, and ask what act of contrition he could perform on behalf of their loved one.  He should keep this private.  Second, he should call a press conference, publicly take ownership of his actions, apologize to the victim’s family, his own family, his colleagues and public whose trust he violated.  He should explain how he will correct personal problems that may be related.  Then he should sit there and take it from the press.  Answer every question about what happened as truthfully as he can and duck nothing.  He should accept whatever fallout follows.

I am NOT saying Carr is culpable.  I AM saying that should he be, then this is one path to public redemption.

Such an act is a public confession that could handcuff his attorneys, harm his legal case and worsen the penalty.  Possibly.  This strategy is loosely based on a philosophy that hospitals increasingly embrace: full disclosure.  If a doctor makes a mistake, even kills a patient, he admits it to the family, apologizes and accepts the consequences.  Studies show it works better than “deny and defend.”  Sure, doctors are trying to save lives and not driving a vehicle but you get my point.

The truth will out eventually.  My approach would be risky and I cannot calculate the risks without the facts.   Nevertheless, I have written before that when a public figure or high profile executive goes to court there are two matters on trial: guilt/innocence and brand.  I have quoted crisis expert lawyers saying attorneys should protect both.  Phoenix lawyer Ed Novak once said he would hate to win a case only to hurt the brand and perhaps destroy a business.  Carr’s brand is in ruins. If culpable, it is better that Tolly Carr reveal it himself if he wants a public career.

I have no such prescription for the pain of the victim’s family.

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