Washington Post: “Crisis PR–PR’s evil twin–can’t keep up” Is it true?

July 26, 2010

This is a very intriguing analysis by Matthew DeBord in the Washington Post, titled: How crisis PR hasn’t kept up with the turbulent times.

His overall point is that the Internet has made it impossible for the $700 an hour (are you kidding me??) crisis PR people to avoid destruction in a crisis. What used to work, a call to Burson Marsteller or Sitrick and Company, just doesn’t work anymore.

Here’s his summary: The lesson now for companies that screw up is that you really have no chance: The currents are against you from the get-go. The courts of Twitter and online video sites, along with Facebook groups that deplore the transgressions, will overwhelm even the most elaborate crisis battle plan. The profession, quite simply, is at a crossroads. And it isn’t in a position to ride out the bumps, because it’s up against the kind of high-altitude turbulence that can shred the airframe.

Here is where I think he is right:

1) Crises of the nature of a 90 day plus endless spill are beyond PR strategies–this crisis is not just about BP’s PR failures (there are those aplenty) but about the fact that if there is this kind of damage to the environment and to people’s lives and you are the one (right or wrong) standing in the crosshairs, it just ain’t going to be pretty.

2) Speed matters–the Internet along with other instant news technologies means that it is virtually impossible for large companies (and highly bureaucratic ad-hoc response organizations) to react fact enough, and slow response is a killer.

3) Social media is playing a huge, if not the largest role, in the way in which today’s crises play out, and social media will play a huge, and perhaps dominant role, in how organizations respond. In this DeBord sees the potential salvation for crisis PR–I think that is too simplistic.

4) Most of yesterday’s crisis PR thinking doesn’t work well in this environment. Particularly when it is focused on spitting out the occasional press release or putting up a press conference and thinking that your job is done.

But overall, DeBord’s analysis is too simplistic. Using the examples of BP and the spill, Toyota, Tiger Woods, Al Gore and Stanley McChrystal, he comes to the conclusion that all the PR expertise in the world can’t prevent the damage and destruction left in the wake of a major public crisis. The problem is that our situation in crisis PR is much more complicated than that.

Starting with the loss of trust. From Congress, to the president, to the major industries, to almost anything big, powerful and in the news, we Americans tend not to trust. Big Oil is derided and hated, with only the media as an industry having a lower trust rating. We don’t trust CEOs, PR folks, lawyers, and reporters. With this kind of environment, when someone is accused loudly, frequently and vehemently of doing actions that undermine what little trust there might be, is it any wonder that we believe the accusations? Why is no one asking the question as to why we are experiencing this historic loss of trust? What are the causes?

I think these are important contributors to this loss of trust:

– Bad behavior made known.  I don’t think for a minute that behavior at the corporate or government (church or education or anything else for that matter) has suddenly gotten a lot worse. I think the level of people doing bad things has probably stayed pretty much the same through most of our few ten thousands of years of human history. But the big difference in this “information age” is that bad behavior is very hard to hide. The truth will out and it is often ugly. We have probably more rules, regulations and ethic standards than ever, but we also have unprecedented ways of sharing information about bad behavior. And our interest in these things is very high, particularly when we feel we are victimized by it.

– media competitiveness. There have been times in our history when the political attacks and venomous punditry in our media was likely greater than it is now, in fact at one time (during President John Adams administration) it was extreme enough to result in one of the worst pieces of legislation in our history, the Alien and Sedition Act. However, we are not that far behind in terms in the kind of journalism we have today and this is more than evident in the examples that DeBord mentions. It is not surprising that as a journalist he does not include the hype-negativity and attack journalism as part of the problem with crisis PR. The fact is that mainstream media is fighting for its life and their very difficult job is to gain attention for without that they die. No readers or viewers, no ratings, no ads, no revenue. As I commented in my previous post, this phenomenon was elegantly described by an Economist columnist when he said the media (referring to British media) cultivates provocation rather than analysis. Yes, it is very much their job to provoke. Provoke or die. Get attention or die. And if McChrystal’s, or Gore’s or Woods or Hayward’s or Toyoda’s lives and careers are destroyed in the process, well, “and so it goes.”

Education. I am intrigued by the cultural values of our educated young people. Every generation brings new thoughts, ideas, priorities and visions to the world. There is much positive in the generation of new young leaders emerging from our universities. But it is also true that they are remarkably anti-business and to a large degree anti-big and powerful everything. They don’t trust a lot. That is based more on personal observation than a detailed study, but challenge me if you think me wrong. I visited a university class a few years ago and asked what they thought of oil companies. Though this community is surrounded by four refineries and many in the community make their living in the oil industry, the students were almost universally angry and bitter about big oil (again, well before this spill). Their level of passion was stunning. Where did they get this? Then I remembered a study done by an economics professor that showed at any university in the nation, the chances of a student getting a professor with a positive attitude toward business, toward free enterprise, toward anything remotely conservative in the humanities departments was almost nil. We have developed a very ideological and nearly one-sided education system when it comes to important issues of economics, business, politics, religion, etc. Perhaps a legacy from the 60s and 70s, this overwhelming bias in our higher education (I suspect is goes into lower education as well) likely plays a very significant role in the development of attitudes in our young people relating to business.

– social media and “toxic talk” — Everyone of the situations DeBord mentions included a tremendous amount of social media chatter. Certainly the spill did and that continues. But the chatter is dominated by voices that are exceptionally strident, vengeful, angry, and hate-filled. There is a cultural phenomenon at work here as well. I would have to ask the question as to how some have all the time for this and is there a connection between these kinds of attitudes and the people who spend so much of their lives living in a social media world. Regardless of the causes, the impact is very predictable. Imagine you went to a cocktail party and all you heard was angry people spouting off against BP, or Toyota, or Al Gore. You turn this way and you get more of the same, you turn that way and it is even angrier. Would not come away from this thinking that there was rationale behind this passion and rage? The toxic talk that dominates our political blogs and so much of social media is toxic. It’s toxic to those who supply it and those who simply observe. The toxicity feeds the extremes the media needs to go to compete. Social media and mainstream media play off one another in a fascinating dance of interaction. But if it is your reputation at the heart of the discussion, this toxic talk becomes not only dangerous but deadly.

If this analysis is correct, what can crisis PR people do about it? How to advise clients? What strategies might be effective?

Mr. DeBord quoted Ira Kalb from USC: For PR firms, the key is to get back to focusing on trust. “One you’ve lost trust, you’ve lost just about everything,” Kalb says. “You can’t put spin on it. You’re dead if the public thinks you’re spinning.” Kalb stresses that it’s important for companies caught in the crisis spiral to propose solutions.

I’ve repeated this mantra for many years: trust is based on two things–doing the right things, and communicating about them well. I see no reason to alter from this basic approach. But the underlying lack of trust in our culture, and the extremely powerful forces that by their nature are determined to undermine trust when you are caught in a major crisis make building trust exceptionally challenging.

While it may be tempting to cast about for new ideas and new strategies in this kind of environment, I think the answer is in the basic things that work because, well, they are just the right things to do:

1) Make sure as much as you can that everyone in your organization makes choices that are in the best interest of serving all those impacted and understand that without trust your organization dies.

2) When actions taken by those in your organization clearly violate that trust, expose it, apologize for it, fix it and try to prevent it in the future–and do all these things out in the open as much as possible.

3) When you are responding to a big problem (like a recall or an endless spill) stay focused on clearly communicating what you are doing to solve the problem and what you will do to prevent it in future. Don’t get distracted by the endless attacks, rabbit trails, and so-called experts the media will trot out to try to destroy your credibility.

4) Effective communication means challenging lies, rumors, poor reporting, and misstatements of facts. You can’t allow lies to be often repeated and go unchallenged. In all major events a sort of meta-narrative evolves that all media seem to get locked into (Katrina–Bush failed, Toyota–no concern about safety, BP–rogue company run amuck). Accept the truth it it, apologize, but when the attacks are unfair, inaccurate and simply wrong they need to be challenged.

5) Engage, engage. Yes, social media is one place to engage, but not the only place. It is difficult to engage positively given the toxic talk, but essential. And the more personal and direct the engagement the better. Public meetings, face to face, phone calls, direct email–all these and more are critical especially when focused on the opinion leaders and those whose opinion is most important to your future. This may not be so visible to the media-consuming public and the media will not pick up on the positive outcomes of these engagements, but over the long term this is where the battle will be won or lost.


6 Responses to “Washington Post: “Crisis PR–PR’s evil twin–can’t keep up” Is it true?”

  1. J.D. Says:

    Good summary and conclusion, Gerald. I’m surprised DeBord’s article attracted so much attention, when he demonstrated little understanding of “crisis PR” beyond spin and/or image polishing. At least you were able to make lemonade. Thank you.

  2. Terrific post! Clearly academic research shows that information is weighted to some degree by the degree of trust placed in the source. What most of the younger generation senses is that self-serving statements are not trustworthy. So how does the message get out and how can it be understood and conveyed? That is what and why the PR professionals must focus on whatever the technology? When I used experts at trial I often was faced with the fact that yes they were paid by Uncle Sugar and they should expect to be asked that by opposing counsel. Since my cases were never jury trials the judges understood that these men and women were never volunteers (maybe sometimes!)and someone or some organization had to pay them for their participation. Of course judges are skilled at weighing veracity and understanding that justice and not necessarily truth is served by the judicial system. So the fact that someone is paying must not be allowed to determine trust, although it can be a factor and probably needs to be dealt with more openly. I view that is what the Obama Administration was trying to do initially on the BP Catastrophe but once BP was tossed out of the JIC in early June, the fact that the NCP called for the responsible party to be included in JIC activities, and that the JIC should never be the WH operation that it became in this instance resulted in even further collapse of trust in what the public was being told. These are complicated and complex factors and Yes superb judgment and competence will always be of use and assitance to all involved, including the so-called “victims”!

  3. I agree, excellent analysis, Gerald. DeBord also completely misses out on one of the primary purposes of Crisis PR — MINIMIZING damage, even when it can’t be avoided. Further, with the wisdom of hindsight, in my 25 years of full-time crisis management PR, 90% of the breaking crises to which I’ve responded could have been prevented through effective vulnerability assessment, planning, training and simulation exercises. Oh…and I’d like to thank DeBord for giving me ammunition to make an astronomical increase in my rates!

    Jonathan Bernstein, President
    Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

  4. Andy Russell Says:

    Gerald: Good response. This Burson-Marsteller practitioner in Melbourne, Australia must have read your mind [or your blog post] –>

  5. Raj Says:

    Gerald, awesome post.

    you have explained it very meticulously which Debord’s article was not able to do.

  6. TJ Walker Says:

    The real lesson from BP for PR is that it is more important than ever for CEOs to be rehearsed and media trained so that they don’t constantly have stupid off-message sound bites coming out of their mouth the way Tony Hayward did.

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