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Media and Crisis Management

Sometimes It’s Best to Shut Up During a Crisis

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Sometimes It’s Best to Shut Up During a CrisisFrom the archives

Sometimes it’s best to shut up.

Nationwide, former reporters like me tell companies how to protect their reputations when they get in trouble. After years of journalistically pounding the skulls of businesses and institutions that erred, we are well suited to give advice. We witnessed strategies that stopped the media bleeding and those that didn’t. However, there is one crisis management philosophy most ex-reporters endorse that can be risky. We consultants need to be careful of it and you, the potential crisis victim, should too. Beware of tell it all, tell it now.

This approach simply means that after you or your company stumble, tell how you screwed up, tell it fast, make amends, and move on. Tell it all, tell it now!

Journalists are inclined to think “tell it all” is smart because most of the businesses that got out of a mess with us the fastest were those that practiced it. They came clean quickly, didn’t hide, were transparent, and vowed to do the right thing. We and the public got our pound of flesh and shifted to the next big story.

Well, it ain’t always that simple! While “tell it all” usually works for companies restoring reputations after honest mistakes, simple negligence, or unavoidable events; it’s quite another thing to spill your guts if you made mistakes carrying substantial potential penalties such as fines, sanctions, and prison.

As much as I hate to use them as examples, let’s look at two lawbreakers to make the point: former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling and Martha Stewart. Skilling is likely to go to prison for a long time for conspiracy, fraud and more while his company famously tanked, and Stewart has long since logged her five months behind bars for false statements to federal investigators. Although juries convicted them for wholly different transgressions, Skilling and Stewart are noteworthy because both compounded their problems by talking too much.

Former Enron president Skilling told The Wall Street Journal June 17 that the person most helpful to prosecutors was himself. He said, “I was the best source of information that the government had. Absolutely.” He told of how, after his company plunged into bankruptcy, he spoke at congressional hearings and appeared on the Larry King show. He even gave interviews to the Securities and Exchange Commission. All was done, Skilling said with no apparent irony, because it was the “ethical” thing to do. He described how prosecutors successfully used his statements against him in court. The former Enron exec chastised himself and said, “Stupid me.”

In Martha Stewart’s case, which I have written about before, she did not go to a federal correctional institution for insider trading. She went after openly talking to investigators looking into the matter and lying. L.A. defense lawyer Robert Shapiro (remember OJ?) chastised Stewart in the Journal for believing that she could give prosecutors “a convincingly innocent explanation of the suspect sale” of ImClone stock when she shouldn’t have been talking at all. Stewart also talked a bit about her situation during a regular appearance on a network news morning show. She expressed confidence she would be exonerated of “all this ridiculousness.” But should she have said anything?

This is why a team is essential to strategizing during a crisis. There should be a constructive push-pull between people like me trying to protect your reputation and lawyers and trusted colleagues trying to prevent you from self-inflicting wounds. It is a balancing act where no one strategy works all the time.

So, in especially serious matters, talk it through with your team before opening your mouth. Tell it all, tell it now may be just right. Then again, it could send you to jail. In my experience, the solution is somewhere in between.

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