Spiked Articles

Best Practices

Damage Control: Was it Good for You, Too?

By Ray Jones

Originally Posted

I never realized that being a consultant would give me an opportunity to advise three dozen women how to perform better in bed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t talking about the thrills of being in bed with a good lover, just the techniques for earning respect when circumstances put you in bed with the news media. The Tulsa Chapter of IABC invited me to speak recently, based on my lengthy and nefarious experiences as a spinmeister and damage-control artist. Unfortunately, I had to tell my comely audience that crisis skill, unlike lovemaking, usually doesn’t develop spontaneously. It takes lots of practice. My practice came from the opportunity to work for not one but a series of bad bosses. Several were megalomaniacs who thought the rules of journalism applied to everyone but them. They all found out the hard way that such is not the case. This did not deter them, of course, from stepping in cow manure over and over again. They simply responded the way all good CEOs do when shit happens, blaming their failures on the people who tried to warn them. But that’s the subject of another rant ... The point of this one is to share tips for keeping your client or organization out of trouble, and minimizing the damage if damage control indeed becomes necessary. As you plot strategy, keep the following "syndromes" in mind:

  • The Arthur Andersen Syndrome: Arrogance will kill you every time When government lawyers first threatened to indict Arthur Andersen, the company didn’t respond with humility. They dispatched a bunch of slick, Gucci-shoed lawyers to personally insult the government’s legal team. They thumbed their noses, literally, at people who had the power to destroy them, and who subsequently did. Andersen’s management didn’t just lose a legal confrontation; they lost their entire franchise. What is noteworthy is that the company went down without an ounce of public regret that I could perceive. Arrogance will kill you every time.

  • The Firestone Tire Syndrome (formerly known as the Exxon Valdez Syndrome): When a crisis happens, you must emphasize above all else that your primary concern is the public’s safety and welfare If you signal that your primary concern is protecting yourself from litigation, you will not lose public confidence "rapidly"; you will lose it instantly. Defeats in the court of public opinion are typically more costly than losses in a legal arena. Nobody has to buy your product or service. In the weeks after the "Firestone Tire Body Count" became a daily staple on network news, the company’s sales faltered so badly that 1100 workers lost their jobs. I don’t believe this was because tires were being recalled. Auto safety recalls are a matter of daily routine. The problem was an unfathomable delay in mounting an adequate PR response. By the way, what was Firestone thinking when they put that dour Japanese CEO -- who looked like a dyspeptic samurai warrior -- in front of the cameras? (See our Chief Curmudgeon's Biting Commentary, "New CEO Solves All of Firestone's Problems.") From a cultural standpoint, he was clearly unprepared to understand the tactics or sensitivities of American news media. Please, folks, if your company has been taken over by foreigners, don’t give the public any unnecessary reminders that their favorite corporate icons are being managed by remote control. Put a Yank in front of your tank.

  • The Aquila Syndrome: The public is really, really tired of corporate greed Aquila (formerly UtiliCorp United), a utility firm headquartered here in Kansas City, is undergoing hard times right now because of problems with its former energy-trading subsidiary that have spilled over to the rest of the company. Curiously, the subsidiary didn’t go under because business went sour or because management was corrupt. What finished off the enterprise essentially was a lack of public confidence. Confidence eroded in part because energy trading earned a bad name under Enron. But the final nails in the coffin were not hammered in by Enron, or the SEC, or nervous bankers, or gun-shy credit rating agencies. Au contraire, they were hammered in by the two brothers who were running the company. When large layoffs were instituted in an effort to salvage Aquila, it was revealed that the current and former CEO had accepted $18 million in cash bonuses (on top of generous, multi-million-dollar salaries) for doing "a great job of managing." (See Executive Pay Give-Backs: Justifiable Retribution or Penis Envy?) Those Board members who approved the bonuses may in fact believe that some great corporate management was transpiring. But to the public who saw 1500 jobs evaporate overnight, the revelations demonstrated an appalling lack of sensitivity and compassion. When pressed by the media to defend their bonuses, the brothers neither apologized nor conjured up some face-saving act of public contrition. Rather, they said, "We earned it and we’re keeping it." Not long thereafter, Aquila’s CEO was compelled to step down from his co-chairmanship of the region’s United Way campaign. He wasn’t exactly well-positioned to appeal to the lower classes for an extra dose of recession-era "generosity."

  • He recently also resigned from his executive positions and from the Board of Directors of Aquila.

  • The Martha Stewart Syndrome (formerly known as the Kathie Lee Gifford Syndrome): When you go around acting perfect, don’t be surprised if everyone sits on their hands when trouble comes your way For years, Kathy Lee Gifford yakked about her great sex life with Frank. So, when he was caught wet-handed boinking a stewardess, she didn’t get a lot of sympathy. Martha Stewart is but the latest celebrity to ignore the power of "schadenfreude," a German word -– for which there is no true equivalent in English -- meaning "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others."

  • The Gary Condit Syndrome: If you’re not prepared to answer the questions you will inevitably be asked, then don’t go on camera Enough said?

Ray’s Pick for "Next Big Issue": If you are a "working journalist" (Is that the logical counterpart of the "lazy PR flak?"), be prepared to examine matters of corporate governance in coming weeks and months. The public will eventually realize that the most visibly outrageous scandals of 2002 took place under the very noses of directorates who neglected their fiduciary responsibilities in truly historic proportions. The public is going to realize that corporate directors, who in theory are independent overseers appointed to uphold accountability, are often nothing but lackies and cronies who get picked because they can be counted on not to ask tough questions. This revelation will spur a new wave of investigative reporting. If you are a lazy PR flak, get ready for a paradigm shift. Your directors are going to find themselves in the glare of the spotlight to an unprecedented degree. They will inevitably be approached directly to explain and defend major policy, personnel, and financial decisions. So, you now have an even larger stable of constituents whose lack of intelligence or media savvy can pose a distinct embarrassment to your enterprise. And given the public’s low tolerance for incompetence, you don’t want any embarrassments at all. The bottom line, in terms of strategic planning, is that corporate boards will need to be intimately included in media training and crisis preparation strategies. I suspect that some CEOs will be anything but cooperative in meeting this challenge, since the process of preparing directors to survive increased scrutiny will restrict CEOs’ ability to monopolize the flow of information to their former lackies and cronies. This may not have you smiling, but those of us who have suffered under bad bosses and clueless boards are grinning ear to ear. The reforms are long overdue and couldn’t be happening to a nicer bunch of people. Besides, for all those like me who do media training, the scandals are good for business!

Join The Discussion

We will never post your email address publicly; it's used solely as part of our verification process to keep the spammers under control. After submitting your comment or question, you'll receive an email confirmation message with a link back to CornerBarPR.com® that you'll need to click before your post appears for others to see. By submitting this post you agree to the CornerBarPR.com Terms Of Service.