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PR risks of evading truth

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For as long as there has been public relations, PR people have attempted to hide or recast facts of clients’ troubles; government investigators and investigative journalists try to seek the truth. Most often the truth eventually emerges, resulting in a major PR crisis.

Here are several infamous examples of protective PR tactics gone bad with lessons for PR people to remember.

Big Tobacco Pleads Ignorance

One of the most notorious examples dates back to the 1930s, when the tobacco industry positioned smoking as cool and healthy. By the 1950s, there was evidence that smoking caused serious illnesses and the tobacco industry changed its strategy to, “We didn’t know.” But scientific studies proved the cause and effect of smoking and lung cancer and eventually Big Tobacco was found guilty of lying to the public, resulting in cigarette advertising being banned in 1970 on television and radio. Starting in 2017, a court ordered that corrective ads had to be shown on television and in print outlets about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.

Lesson to Remember: If the story is big enough, the truth will eventually emerge, despite the best efforts of crisis communications experts. Never lie for a client; if you do so, you jeopardize your reputation with the media.

That example dates back before most of today’s PR practitioners were born. These are a few recent ones that resulted in negative publicity for the client.

The White House’s Incomplete Quote

An article in The New York Times on July 13 detailed statements that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s infectious disease advisor, made about the coronavirus that the White House said was wrong. One example cited by the White House was from a February 29 interview during which Dr. Fauci said, “at this moment there is no need to change anything you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.” The Times and other media outlets, pointed out that was not Dr. Fauci’s full statement, which said, “Right now the risk is still low, but this could change.”

Lesson to Remember: Disseminating misleading statements should never be done. Once they are fact    checked and found to be false, whatever else you release will be treated with skepticism by the media, as Trump’s remarks regarding the coronavirus are, along with those of CDC flaks. Today, Dr. Fauci retains his reputation for veracity. The White House and many other government departments do not.

Boeing’s Reputation Crashes

When news broke that a new technical system in the Boeing 737 Max might have been responsible for two crashes, one in 2018, and the other in 2019, Boeing immediately attempted to put the blame on pilot error. But investigations showed that the new tech system was faulty. All 737 Max planes were grounded. The lame PR responses from Boeing and misleading comments about when the planes would again be permitted to fly by CEO Dennis Muilenburg led to his resignation. Subsequently, investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) discovered other problems with the 737 Max, causing further delay of the planes return to the airways.

Lesson to Remember: When a company is subject of a federal investigation, remember BP, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen. The proper response is to investigate immediately and find the causes. Avoid blaming others.   Say the company is doing everything to correct the problem. Once you have the answers, take the blame if that’s what the facts say.

The Boeing, BP, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen responses led to drip-by-drip negative news coverage and did nothing to impede the Feds from doing their job.

The NFL’s Brain Concussion Problem

The National Football League is a prime example of how an organization can remain tarnished for decades, perhaps forever, because it attempted to cover up evidence. The NFL willfully ignored or covered up evidence that concussions can lead to life changing health problems or death. A 2017 article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “Rather than honestly deal with its burgeoning concussion problem, the National Football League went after the reputation of the first doctor to link the sport to the degenerative brain disease he named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”

The article went on to describe how the NFL attempted to discredit the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, who first decided in 2002 to study the link between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. The football league and its teams then attempted to smother the connection. To this day, the concussions suffered by football players receive major negative media coverage.

Lesson to Remember: Once a company has had a major PR crisis problem it remains in its DNA forever and anything it says about a future similar problem will probably not be believed.

Trump’s Coronavirus Failure

No article about how an attempt to cover up a PR crises can be complete without referring to President Trump and his inept attempt to cover up his handling of the coronavirus crisis. The president and his surrogates at first denied that there was a problem, then said it was under control, with adviser Larry Kudlow talking about it in the past tense during the Republican National Convention.

The attempted cover-up led to a self-inflicted crisis situation for the president that never should have happened. The situation was summed up in a lengthy front page article in The Wall Street Journal. Even the conservative pro-Trump Journal criticized the president for his mishandling of the coronavirus. The president’s replies were similar to the NFL’s, Boeing, BP, Wells Fargo and Big Tobacco, first denying that there was a major problem, then blaming it on others and then saying the problem was solved when facts showed that it wasn’t. In addition, the president attempted to stifle government medical scientists from presenting their honest opinions about the coronavirus to the public.

Trump’s Tax Problem

 A PR crisis being played out as you read this is the continuing negative media coverage that the president is receiving because of The New York Times revelations about his tax returns, which Trump has attempted to keep from the public.

In a Sept. 25 editorial titled Trump’s Unhappy Returns, The Wall Street Journal faulted the president for not releasing his tax information in 2016, thus allowing others to do it in a damaging manner.

Lesson to remember: If Trump had released his tax returns before they were leaked, he would have given the impression that he had nothing to hide and that everything he did was legal. But there is also an important lesson for those in our business to learn: Do not try to hide negative information. It usually will be divulged, especially during a major PR crisis. Releasing damaging information ASAP at one time will prevent the drip-by-drip coverage of the situation and lessen the impression of an attempted cover-up.

Lesson to Remember: An attempt to cover up a PR problem always leads to investigative journalism resulting in ongoing negative coverage and distrust by the media of future comments.

Trump’s Tax Problem

A PR crisis being played out as you read this is the continuing negative media coverage that the president is receiving because of The New York Times revelations about his tax returns, which Trump has attempted to keep from the public.

In a Sept. 25 editorial titled Trump’s Unhappy Returns, The Wall Street Journal faulted the president for not releasing his tax information in 2016, thus allowing others to do it in a damaging manner.

Lesson to remember: If Trump had released his tax returns before they were leaked, he would have given the impression that he had nothing to hide and that everything he did was legal. But there is also an important lesson for those in our business to learn: Do not try to hide negative information. It usually will be divulged, especially during a major PR crisis. Releasing damaging information ASAP at one time will prevent the drip-by-drip coverage of the situation and lessen the impression of an attempted cover-up.

Advice: All these examples have three things in common:

An attempt to hide the truth failed, attempting to hide the truth resulted in ongoing negative media coverage for years, and all the situations resulted in mistrust of the organization by the media.

Lesson to Remember: Telling the truth will not prevent coverage of a PR crisis, but can lessen negative media coverage and prevent reporters from doubting the truthfulness of crises spokespersons’ statements.