Many lessons should be taught but are not, because they differ from crisis communications norms established decades ago. Important lessons that receive short shrift are:
- There is no one-size-fits-all public relations plan.
- Once an entity or individual has been hit by a PR crisis situation, it sticks forever and can be revived by the media at any time.
- If you represent an entity or client who has had a PR problem, make sure to take that under consideration when crafting programs.
- An entity’s or individual’s PR crisis can be revived by the media because of another crisis, so always be prepared.
- Despite their best efforts, PR communications specialists cannot deter the media from reporting negative news.
- A client is not in a PR crisis just because of a few negative news stories, so don’t rush to institute a crisis PR response.
- A PR response claiming that a client has done nothing wrong, receives skeptical media coverage.
PR Crisis Lessons from 2019
Here are some examples from 2019 that substantiate these beliefs:
The New York Times reported on Feb. 23 that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged in a sex sting and his punishment would be decided by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. The article also mentioned two other NFL owners that had PR crisis situations that have nothing to do with the Kraft matter: Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who owned the San Francisco 49ers and was punished for failing to report a felony to which he pleaded guilty, and Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, who Goodell punished after Irsay pleaded guilty to driving while impaired.
The above story in particular, and those below, prove my contention: A PR crisis becomes part of entities’ or individuals’ DNA and sticks with them forever. Reporting on the crisis can be revived at any time, and there is nothing PR crises experts can do about it. If you don’t believe me, ask President Trump, who has claimed total innocence regarding all accusations against him and claims he is targeted by an attempted coup. Nevertheless, negative reporting regarding his claims of innocence continues daily.
Examples of Resurrected PR Crises
A Wall Street Journal story on Jan. 2 said that the Democrat-controlled House will introduce legislation and hold Equifax responsible for the massive credit report breach. Then in the Feb. 23 issue of The New York Times, a short article headlined “Equifax Says Regulators Seek Damages in Breach” said that Equifax was named in numerous class-action lawsuits in the U.S. and that the company has been fined by regulators in Britain and Australia for the 2017 breach.
Then, on Feb. 23, a New York Times headline on a story read “Ex-Enron Chief Released from Prison After 12 Years.” A much larger story appeared in the Feb. 25 Wall Street Journal, which described Enron as “a symbol of corporate fraud and excess …”
Knee-Jerk PR Responses
The odds of your organization being involved in situations like these are not great. But PR crises of various natures are growing because it is more difficult than ever to hide corporate and individual wrong doings. As a result, too often the slightest negative media mention results in a “we must do something” knee-jerk response. Sometimes the client demands action; other times agencies want to sweeten the budget pot by recommending a PR crisis response.
In such situations, I’ve counseled clients not to man the barricades and immediately rush to action. Not every negative story is a PR crisis.
Unless information about loss of life or criminality is part of a news report, wait a couple of days before responding to negative stories for the following reasons:
- Immediately responding to a negative story usually results in follow-up stories by the news organizations, which will include repeating portions of the original articles. A prime example of why immediately responding is an old-fashioned, flawed strategy can be learned from reviewing media coverage of the Kraft sex sting case. A spokesperson for Kraft responded immediately saying, “We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.” But additional stories said that law enforcement officials had detailed evidence that Kraft had visited the sex establishment twice and that there was video evidence. The immediate Kraft response only opened the door for journalists to have a new angle and to make the claim of no wrong doing unconvincing.
- Certain news organizations, especially cable TV, depend on negative or controversial subjects to retain or gain an audience. Responding to one negative story can result in multiple panels discussing the media coverage of the situation, even when there is no new news to report. Cable TV panels always over-blow the coverage of a story. But they never change their methods because making oceans out of a drizzle is what they are about.
- A negative story is just another article to people not personally involved; clients and agencies are involved, so any negative reporting takes on over-blown importance to them. Most people, unless they are personally involved, like in the Equifax credit breach, have their own concerns and don’t care about the travails of celebrities or companies.
- Unless it involves a major corporation like Equifax or Boeing, or well-known individuals like Mr. Kraft or actress Felicity Huffman, who is enmeshed in the pay for college scandal, most negative stories disappear in a day or two without agency action — unless they contain new information. But not all do. So, it’s important to monitor all national news outlets as well as major news sources with a media monitoring service.
A Time for Patience
When clients become subjects of negative news reports that rehash past problems, I always counsel patience before responding. If stories don’t contain anything new, they will probably die of their own accord in a day or two. Immediately responding will lead to follow up negative stories. If a reporter contacted a client for a quote, one should be provided, but that’s different than commencing a crisis response.
Despite the best efforts of PR practitioners to prepare clients for a crisis with a supposedly by-the-book, proven crisis plan, history shows four realities:
- Clients want negative news stories stopped, but crisis PR pros have no control of the press. Negative stories will continue until the media decides there no longer is relevant news to report or a more important story emerges.
- Despite the much-ballyhooed stakeholders’ outreach facet of the crisis plan, there is scant evidence that it helps a company in crisis. Why? Most people get the story from the media, which now updates reports several times a day, long before the company can produce stakeholder communications. Any stakeholder communications should assume prior knowledge from the media.
- Shares of public companies will decline when negative news is reported. There is little that can be done to prevent this.
- A major mistake is to relinquish total control of a crisis plan to a PR crisis team. The regular account team must have major input into any plan to ensure that the client’s priorities are not damaged and can be revived when the crisis subsides.
Most PR Crises Will Fade Away
The media can revive articles about past PR crises at any time, but that doesn’t mean a company or individual needs PR crisis outreach. Unless a truly famous individual or company is the subject, the great majority of negative stories will be short lived. So don’t rush to act. If replying to media coverage is necessary, remember that every plan deserves new thinking that relates to the current situation.
While many of these lessons were probably not taught in communications schools, those of you who studied Greek philosophy may have an advantage when dealing with a PR crisis.
The Greek philosophy of Stoicism emphasizes many points that can apply to a client in trouble:
1- Account handlers must not be emotional during a crisis.
2- The best thinking occurs when a problem is approached in a dispassionate and calm manner.
3- During planning sessions, as the ancient Greek Epictetus said, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” We can’t control events, no matter how high the hourly billing rates.
Don’t Charge at Windmills
My own philosophical belief regarding PR crisis planning is this: Stop fighting windmills like Don Quixote de La Mancha. Be realistic about the situation and what you can do to control a PR crisis. And never believe that you, or any crisis team, have all the answers to the problem.
Sometimes an aggressive plan to counter the crisis is called for. But PR people should remember that sometimes the best PR crisis plan is to do nothing, although I suspect that crisis counselors and agencies looking to improve their profits will largely disagree.
I approach PR crises differently than those who follow the established norms. The most important lesson that is not taught about PR crises: Throw away the “how-to-do-it” books and think for yourself. Remember: The established rules weren’t handed down from above. They were invented by people in a different time with a different media landscape in a different business climate who had a different client and different PR problems. Those old-timers may have thought they had all the answers then – but today the answers are undoubtedly much different.
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.