“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a proverb attributed to P.T. Barnum, the famous showman and politician. (Is there a difference?)
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright, wrote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with those proverbs. Ask actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, both caught up in the college admission scandal. Or Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner enmeshed in a sex sting. Or on the corporate side, ask Boeing.
Just as the Barnum and Wilde quotes aren’t true, a host of other PR tenets are untrue. The tenets that apply to companies and individuals with a PR crisis are on the top of my list, led by common misconceptions about PR crisis teams and lawyers.
Merlins of the PR Crisis Business
PR crises teams are the supposed Merlins of our business. They are reputed to have the know-how to make a bad situation better. History shows otherwise. Google current companies in a PR crisis situation, Boeing, Facebook and Equifax, or the aforementioned Kraft, Huffman and Loughlin to see if their situations are handled differently by the media since their problems emerged. I’d be willing to bet a few shekels, Euros, or Lincoln’s that they all have had crisis PR advice. It didn’t solve their media problems as the media continue to follow their court cases.
It wasn’t until I jumped from journalism to the PR agency side that I met the supposed Merlins of agencies, the crises specialists, who told clients that they can make negative news coverage disappear. Often bad news did go away after only one or two days, but as a former newsman I never thought it was because of the magical work of crises specialists. It was because the media lost interest – or had bigger stories to publish.
Business news then wasn’t considered as important as it is today and didn’t receive the extensive and expert coverage that it now does. Today, business news is often covered by specialists who actually know the industry they are writing about. They don’t just rewrite press releases or quote management sources without examining the validity of their statements, although much TV business news coverage still often lacks substance.
In past days, business news wasn’t the priority at newspapers, except for The Wall Street Journal, that it is today. And business reporters would do PR people favors.
Don’t Blame the Lawyers
Surprisingly, PR people frequently blame their inability to curtail bad coverage on lawyers. I disagree.
More important than gaining some positive coverage for clients under duress is to make certain that nothing is done to place them in deeper legal or financial trouble. In fact, in certain situations, like the ones mentioned in this article, a lawyer should review and approve every facet that a PR crisis team suggests.
PR people generally consider lawyers poor crisis managers. Lawyers write and speak in ambiguous, impersonal corporate language. They’re known for delaying or withholding comments. But it’s essential for PR and lawyers to work together and to have lawyers on the crisis management team.
Responding to a PR crisis requires interaction between communications and legal departments. Properly preparing for a crisis entails integrating legal, communications and operational issues and preparing and testing a crisis management plan. When a crisis occurs, it’s critical to gather information and continually monitor the media.
Advice from lawyers in big-ticket PR crises can’t prevent the flow of negative articles, but neither can the PR crisis team. However, lawyers might be able to prevent a client from getting into deeper legal trouble or going to jail. PR crisis people can’t.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.