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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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).