Gini Dietrich

Issues Management: Get to it Before a Crisis Erupts

By: Gini Dietrich | August 5, 2013 | 

Issues Management: Get to it Before a Crisis EruptsBy Gini Dietrich

When things go wrong, it’s typically framed as a public relations problem.

Jerry Sandusky abuses boys? It’s a PR problem. Tiger Woods in a car accident? It’s a PR problem. Executives at the Susan G. Komen Foundation defund Planned Parenthood? It’s a PR problem. Paula Deen says the “n” word? It’s a PR problem.

It’s become the default mode for any organization’s crisis…”Penn State has a PR problem,” people will mutter and wait to see what some spin doctor will concoct to make it all go away. We wait with bated breath to see which crisis communications firm the organization has hired and guess at how much they’re being paid.

Human nature requires us to want a brilliant PR strategist to make it all go away, as if any amount of messaging can make the bad facts disappear like the $20 you handed a magician to perform a trick during the company holiday party.

Executives hope and pray perception really is reality as they tout their community efforts and non-profit donations. They begin to talk only about the good they’re doing and choose to sweep the bad under the proverbial rug.

Issues vs. Crises

There is a difference between an issue and a crisis.

An issue is something the organization discovers is happening and comes clean with it. For instance, if Penn State leaders had taken steps to fire Sandusky years ago, the university would have needed specific messages for its board, shareholders, managers, students, parents, teachers, community, and the media. It would have had to have been carefully planned and there would have been several multiple hour, late night meetings as the communications team (made up of executives, communications experts, and lawyers) thought through every possible scenario.

By doing so, Penn State could have framed the story to show how it would not tolerate such actions and how it took immediate steps to hold those responsible accountable. They would have done issues management really well.

They chose, instead, to ignore it for years and then, when it finally was discovered (and it is always discovered), it was a full-blown crisis.

Not only is a crisis expensive, it can hurt a company’s stock price, create a mass exodus for executives, and – in the very worst cases – create bankruptcy (Bridgestone Firestone and Arthur Andersen are great examples of that).

Wouldn’t you rather manage an issue before it becomes a crisis?

Tips to for Issues Management

With issues management, it’s important to remember it’s often not the content of the story that matters, but who tells it first. When you tell your story, you have the best opportunity to stay in front of it. Take the punch to the nose. It may break, but it will heal.

When the media finds out about your issue and they tell your story, you almost always end up with a crisis. There is no way to answer what you knew, when you knew it, and what you’ve already done without looking guilty in the public eye once your issue become a crisis and makes headline news. Wouldn’t you rather be the one telling it?

  1. Act Swiftly. You may not think you’ll ever have an issue to manage. Perhaps you sell capital equipment or professional services or product packaging. Surely your organization doesn’t have any issues. It used to be we’d create crisis communication plans for clients and they’d sit in desk drawers for an entire year until we reviewed and revised them. Today, however, the social web creates an environment where you have to be on your toes all day, every day. An employee could say something racist online. A customer could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or have one on speed dial), and act swiftly. Not in a week, not in a month, not in three months. In the same day.
  2. Address the problem. It’s not fun having to come out and say you screwed up or something bad has happened or you made a mistake. In fact, it kind of sucks having to do that. But it’s the only way to prevent a crisis. It’s amazing how two little words in the English language work as well as they do: I’m sorry. Not I’m sorry, but…just, I’m sorry.
  3. Communicate the story. When a story gets out of control is when you haven’t told your side and people begin to speculate. While you can’t control the story, you can provide the facts, information, and access to executives that allow journalists and bloggers to help you frame it in the right way.
  4. Communicate where it happens. If the story is unfolding on Facebook, that’s the tool you’ll use to tell your side. If it’s happening in the more traditional media, that’s where you’ll focus your energies. Don’t try to tell your side of the story through video if people are on Facebook talking about it.
  5. Hire a communications expert. I’m not talking about someone who knows how to use social media. I’m not talking about someone who works for a company that has experienced an issue or crisis. I’m talking about someone who has deep and intense experience in managing an issue or crisis. Typically these people work in PR firms and specialize in crisis communication or reputation management. It’s unlikely a company will go through enough issues or crises in its lifetime to give someone the expertise you’ll need if something happens.
  6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real-time. Yes, we live in a 24/7/365 world. Yes, it’s fast-paced and you have to act quickly. But that does not excuse you from thinking. When we were kids, my dad used to tell us all the time, “Don’t ever put anything in writing you don’t want used against you later.”
  7. Empower your team. Lululemon is an athletic clothing store. They sell mostly yoga wear, but also have nice running attire for men and women. Early this year, it was discovered you could see through some of the women’s yoga pants, creating a situation for the company that is typically saved only for food products. They had to recall the pants from their stores, but also offer refunds to women who bought them. Not only did they have some fun with the issue – a window at a store in Vancouver had a sign that read, “We aim to be transparent” – they empowered their team to do what they thought was best for each individual customer.
  8. Back down when you’re wrong. If you hold a position on something and someone points out there is a double standard or you’re being hypocritical, reassess your policy.

We’re human beings. We all make mistakes. When you are faced with going public or choosing to ignore it, which will you do? If it’s the latter, please remember…no amount of public relations “spin” can help you.

A version of this first appeared in my weekly AllBusiness Experts column. The photo is Scott Selby (my brother-in-law), Mr. D., and Don Dietrich (my father-in-law).

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Great tips that EVERY business/organization, regardless of industry or size, should review & have in place. Love, love, love the photo! 🙂

    • lizreusswig I’m quite pleased with the photo too! I told them they’re going to be famous today. 🙂

      • ginidietrich lizreusswig I’m thiinking the autographed versions of the photo on eBay may fund the 2014 Spin Sucks Get-Together in Chicago. (?).

        • biggreenpen ginidietrich Oooooo…now that’s a great idea!  But somehow I’m guessing Mr. D would prefer to use the proceeds for something like another trip to Paris! 😉

        • biggreenpen ginidietrich lizreusswig HA! my daughter just asked me yesterday if I was ever going to meet my “rebellious” online friends in person?!

        • Word Ninja biggreenpen ginidietrich lizreusswig You should respond to her with a huffy “I don’t know. Maybe. UHH it’s NONE of your business, whatevs.”

        • @JoeCardillo @biggreenpen @ginidietrich @lizreusswig That would be perfect in most cases, but she thinks it’s cool I hang out on a blog called Spin Sucks.

  • Great tips Gini! I agree that people don’t deal with the issues partly because they do believe they can get away with it but by doing so they just keep digging a bigger hole- the issue always does surface. Thanks for the post.

    • LSSocialEngage It’s pretty scary to come out and say, “We screwed up,” but it’s always better in the long run. Always.

      • ginidietrich Yes very true of human nature in general – both in our professional and personal lives. I see the same apply for my toddler and pre-schooler as well. They are too scared to say “I messed up” in fear of all the consequences… But of course I always find out 🙂

        • LSSocialEngage That’s because, like my mom…you have eyes in the back of your head!

  • John_Trader1

    Important and timely post Gini. At this point in time, I feel like people have very little to no sympathy for companies who continue to take the deer in the headlights, head in the sand approach to crisis communications. With all of the information and resources available and so many historical examples of companies who got it wrong, there is simply no excuse to not be prepared.

    • John_Trader1 (I am not able to comment in the generic comment box but able to reply so John may I come in on your comment coattails?!). I agree with everything written here. I think one thing that is implied is that the org at its core has to be clear on its values (not just the executives but every single employee who creates the image of the org). One of my fave writers about leadership, @leadershipfreak, said this:
      Every organization focused
      on self-preservation is doomed.
      It’s normal to focus on internal matters. But, leaders connect what matters inside organizations to what matters outside.
      As stressful as it is, the crisis communications experts and PR people have the singular opportunity to lead at these times and to enable the internal leaders to bring the team together, respond to the immediate issues, and remember what they are in business to do in the first place.

    • John_Trader1 I don’t know if the general public feels that way or if we do because we’re so close to it. It’d actually be a really interesting study to do.

  • When crisis strikes, you can’t bury it, you can’t hide from it and you can’t control it. So, it boils down to this question. 
    Who would you rather have in control of your message and your image?
    A) You (or your communications professionals).
    B) The media.
    C) The social media world.
    Keep in mind that B and C will tear you to shreds.

    • ClayMorgan Well said. To roughly paraphrase a famous hip hop artist & entrepreneur from sometime in the early 2000s….”Communicate or die”

    • ClayMorgan A-freaking- men.

  • When you are not baddies like Penn State leadership was (that’s a fair assessment at this point, no?) I think one of the strongest things you can do is #6. 
    Saying “I / we don’t know all of the circumstances, but I promise you we’ll find out and we will be honest and transparent” followed by ACTUALLY being honest and transparent and moving quickly, will pretty much get you credibility with anyone that truly matters (read: the non-goldfish memory people).

    • JoeCardillo The non-goldfish memory people. LOL!!

  • A true sign of a business and its leaders is how they handle their issues. Because we all have issues! 🙂 I’ve found that being candid is usually the best way to go. I missed the Lululemon issue, but I absolutely love how they handled it!

    • TaraGeissinger They totally made fun of themselves. It was refreshing to watch.

      • ginidietrich TaraGeissinger I hope I can remember it when I need it! Diffused the situation and left everybody smiling. Perfection!

  • #7 The story about Lululemon is great, love good supporting examples. Using humor can be tricky but effective depending on the situation. In contrast, Barbara Morgan’s swear jar didn’t work for me. The attempt at humor seemed trite and sent the message “I don’t give a…darn.”

    • Word Ninja I thought it was trite, too. It turns out that’s her ongoing joke so it’s not so funny.

  • Great list of tips, Gini! There’s also a lot to be said for letting sleeping dogs lie once the event has died down. I’m thinking back to examples you’ve cited with Penn State where individuals seem to pick at the scabs by bringing in lawsuits in an attempt to save face – just when the media fervor had somewhat quieted around the major story.
    The same could be said about the ‘pink slime’ incident a few years ago when the manufacturer revived a settled issue by suing the television group that broke the original story. Sure, it’s important to protect your brand, but self-inflicted incidents seem to be more common as of late.
    After you’ve worked hard to regain control of an incident it’s increasingly important to continue the transparency around an issue almost in perpetuity thanks to the 24/7 news cycle.

    • dave_link Super great example of the self-inflicted incidents, Dave! I didn’t even think about that when I wrote this. Now you have my wheels turning.

  • Great post, Gini. I think that the, “back down when you’re wrong” point is often a tough point because it’s a hit to the ego, and I think brands can be afraid of how they’ll be viewed if they back down. 
    Love the pic!

    • KateFinley I’m reading Lean In right now and she talks about how Tina Fey discusses the Impostor Syndrome…women who should have big egos, but don’t feel like they’ve achieved what they should so they feel like impostors. I find this very interesting because – with the exception of a very few – the big crises are with men at the helm. That also could be because so few women hold leadership positions. Hmmmm

      • ginidietrich KateFinley I really enjoyed *listening* to Tina Fey’s book. However, I don’t really agree that Impostor Syndrome is just a women’s issue. I definitely think men struggle with feeling that way — maybe even more so. Maybe it’s just part of the human condition?

         Are you liking Lean In so far? I have to finish Contagious before I allow myself another book …

        • KateFinley I really like it. Much more than I expected because of all the backlash it’s gotten. I think people have written stories and blog posts about it without having read it.

  • KateFinley Is spot on about ego. If you let your ego get in the way of managing things you might as well hit yourself in the head with a baseball bat.
    Sometimes you have to eat crow even if it is not your “fault.” But the sooner you take steps to fix things the sooner you can put it behind you and focus on other things.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes KateFinley … and nobody wants to be hit with a baseball bat. Even if it’s wooden. It still hurts.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Sometimes, in business, you do things to mitigate risk…even if it’s not your fault.

  • susancellura

    I wonder how many people and companies hold fire drills, have evacuation plans, etc.? Having a crisis communication plan, training or expert on tap is extremely low in comparison. Everyone hypes up being safe at work and at home (rightly so), but fails to keep their brand safe.

    • susancellura the interesting thing is the CFO and who ever is in charge of risk for a big company run scenarios all the time how certain events might impact the company and thus sales/stock price. So do investors and insurance/derivatives businesses. But I wonder how many actually runf ire drills with people. Heavy Industry runs safety drills all the time so workers don’t get hurt or so the plant doesn’t blow up. Isn’t this the same thing.
      I wonder if the head risk person at Nike had a drill regarding what happens if one of their top 5 sports sponsorships commits murder or similar. Or huge sex scandal like Tiger Woods. Trust me after Tiger got exposed I bet every sponsor ran numbers trying to estimate the cost if they kept him on vs cutting him.

      • susancellura

        Howie Goldfarb Agreed! I’m sure they ran and do run the numbers, but I suspect they run them AFTER the scandal breaks. Also, what about the audience? I mean, did the Food Network break ties with Paula over “her scandal” because they are more of a “family -style” network or over money? Tiger is “owned” by Excel Sports Management and I bet they were the ones discussing terms with Nike, etc. Were they as worried about overall family trust as the Food Network? I don’t know. 
        And to your other point, I suspect more and more of the sports agencies are working on crisis plans…but more to protect the $. And, “regular” companies, no matter what industry they belong to, focus more on physical events versus issue management, in my humble opinion.

    • susancellura I’ve been reading up on the accounting principles and proposed change to include brand equity in the value of a company. If that changes, this is going to be even more important. You’re right: Keep your brand safe!

  • I don’t like the way you said ‘it’s a PR Problem’
    To me the problem is for whoever is in the deep doggy doo. 
    PR are the people who step in and charge bank to be like layer between the problem and the public. Kind of like being the lawyer chosen to get the star from jail (aka OJ etc)
    With the main difference being the PR players range from honest/smart/ethical to lying/blackhat etc. One of the baseball players in this A-Rod Biogenesis was the first to get busted from this clinic. Someone in his team brainstorm session decided to have the player lie and claim he used a supplement and ingested banned substances without his knowledge. They then created a fake product and website to back it up. Until baseball with way more resources than a mid-level player uncovered the fraud.
    Someone convinced Ryan Braun to cut a deal early vs the flipping the finger i am the victim barry bonds strategy A-Rod is using. I bet Braun hired bdorman264

    • Howie Goldfarb I advised him to cut his losses.
      With all the masking agents, I wonder how many are still using but just haven’t been caught yet; Big Poppy, Johnny Gomes….why do you think the Red Sox wear those hillbilly beards….to cover up their big heads.

    • Howie Goldfarb I don’t like you.

      • ginidietrich why because you have a problem with the problem who is bdorman264 ?

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