Monday, May 31, 2004

In Memoriam 

This is the day of the year when we remember those who did not return and honor those who did. I have to admit that I am one who did return from a battle zone, but that is all. Nothing was happening when I was in it, and the experience was normal. Not that I was unhappy about that.

I spent time in Saigon when there was no fighting in the country. I stayed in an old Hotel -- The Meyerkord -- that had a light well in which the Vietnamese women hung laundry to let it dry. We had Gekkos on the wall -- a whole family of them and one old, creaking overhead ceiling fan. I had to go to the office in another building blocks away in the early morning hours to talk to the office in Hawaii and on occasion, to Washington, DC.

In the predawn hours, it was so dark one could not make out another person on the street, yet the Korean embassy guards always snapped to attention and saluted when I passed. I never figured out how they could see my lieutenant bars in the gloom. Some days I would detour through the market and stop at the old French bakery where sweating Vietnamese workers were turning out hundreds of baguettes for the day. The loaves were as French as anything in Paris, and they were storied vertically in baskets. One simply drew one out, paid the proper amount and the counter clerk would snap a piece of paper around the center of it with a rubber band. One baguette was breakfast.

There were those who suffered greatly in Vietnam. I got to know one fellow much later whom I admire for his ability to make light of terrible injuries received as a tanker in Cambodia. He never lets them slow him down. I am honored to count him as a friend to this day.

But the sad truth was that I was never shot at by hostile forces in Vietnam or anywhere else in the military. It was as a newsman later on in a midwestern town that I was in the line of fire twice in a year. I was shot at one of those times and exposed the other. It was one of those curious things that happen to people.

The military taught me a lot that I use today as a PR practitioner. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Grasping for Solutions 

In an extraordinary crisis, a crisis that rises above sex scandals and plant blow-ups, there comes a time when a company may be blocked. There seems to be nothing it can do to make headway against inaccurate and accusatory media reporting. Moreover, the company might be running behind the story. Just when it thinks it has all facts in hand, new evidence emerges to reignite speculation.

It is then that weary and angry executives start making decisions that might not be best but make them feel good. It is also then that PR counselors need to muster persuasiveness to keep CEOs from blunders. It isn't easy. A CEO might have decided what to do, and the counselor must persuade the CEO to back down. This is done only through a solution that is clearly better than the CEO's choice. But there might not be clearly better solutions. One is left grasping for answers with compromises that are as risky as what the CEO wants to do.

But, the problem is that CEOs might not have media instincts. For example, a CEO might be determined to blast poor media reporting publicly. The counselor has to convince the CEO that not only is this bad form, it also can make things worse because reporters might bait the CEO into an even larger -- and more newsworthy -- explosion.

One needs psychology and credibility with a CEO to get the CEO to do the right thing. But, credibility is not conferred overnight. It is gained through consistent performance that a CEO values.

When confronted with such situations, our agency leans heavily on teamwork to produce and second-guess advice. We challenge each other to poke holes, to prod, to disagree, to find a better way to express what a CEO should do. Two of us usually work on a problem, but we bring in a third to serve as a tiebreaker when we cannot agree. The idea is that when the agency confronts the CEO, we are ready to knock down convincingly every objection the CEO has. That is easier said than done. Failure is frequent. But when one is grasping for solutions, you do what you have to do.

Weary and Confused 

There comes a point in every crisis in which everyone is tired and feeling paths forward on a hidden course. There are landmines everywhere and a misstep can set one off. Sometimes the wound is minor, but it can be fatal if the wrong set of circumstances occur in the right combination. When I write fatal, I mean a company can face a huge loss of business and perhaps loss of the company itself. Anyone who thinks this isn't true hasn't been around in the last three years.

The questions that the client will ask focus on what is right. Is the course taken the right course? Should the company be doing more? Should the company be doing less? What will make the crisis go away? Answers to these questions are rarely clear. And an answer that will solve the problem may be too difficult or unachievable at the moment. The company might be fastened firmly to a tar baby that smears it over and over and cannot be pulled off.

There are tactics one can consider in instances like this but they rarely bring much relief from the relentless pounding that a firm and its CEO takes day after day after day. In many ways, the counsel one gives is not what the CEO wants to hear. Open up, one advises, but the CEO isn't ready to open up for good reasons, some of which the counselor cannot know. Answer reporters' questions, one thinks, but even the counselor knows this is impractical when the company cannot say any more than it has. Saying the same things over and over while facts emerge that make things look worse is a way to make a company irrelevant and not credible.

What to do? Sometimes the only option is to sit there and take it. That's the worst option but sometimes there isn't much else one can do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Banned in the Pentagon 

The Army is trying to hold back the sea with its ban on digital cameras. Of course, it won't work. Digital imaging is being put into just about everything. And, camera phones will be the only kind of cell phone one can buy soon enough.

What happened to the Pentagon at Abu Ghraib should be a warning to organizations everywhere. Public relations practitioners should add yet another risk to their list of things to watch out for. If soldiers could take photos of prisoner abuse, employees can take photos of managers consorting illicitly with employees or supervisors drunk at a bar or documents showing the company has been fudging its numbers. In fact, there is no end of things employees can take photos of and post to the Internet anonymously or hand to a local prosecuting attorney.

There is little secrecy in the digital age. I hesitate to say no secrecy. It is still possible to operate undercover. Osama Bin Laden has been successful in eluding American troops. But chances of discovery now are greater than ever.

If people possess equipment, they use it -- some for good purposes and some for ill. Digital equipment is in the mainstream, which means digital imaging will soon be available to everyone at an affordable cost.

Think, if you will, of the future PR organization set up to intercept digital photos of the boss in flagrante delicto with a secretary at a local motel. It's going to happen soon enough, if it has not happened already. I'm sure there are companies already whose dirty little secrets are stored on CD-ROMs that employees are handing around. It makes my skin crawl to think about it, but if it could happen in the Army, it could happen anywhere.

Get ready.

Monday, May 24, 2004


I found this article in MarketingProfs.com to be interesting and on the mark. It is a critique of marketing integration and the rigidity into which it can fall when there is a need to coordinate multiple media. It should be mandatory reading for every public relations practitioner. Why? Because much of media relations is opportunistic and cannot be planned or controlled in detail. One might get a marketing message across but not in the way it is supposed to happen because reporters aren't buying the theme and editors are focused on something else.

Marketing integration works best when one has control of a product, service and message. There are situations with product introductions, for example, where one has nearly total control. But for most of us, there isn't such control. We ride the surf and try to get to the beach without wiping out.

The examples that the author gives of Walt Disney and the M&M's color vote are two cases of total message control. What about a situation in which one is dependent on others to produce or deliver something? That's not nearly as easy and by time one has everyone coordinated and messages negotiated and approved, the time for the announcement may be past.

There comes a time in every marketing effort when speed is more important than coordination and control. This is part of the message that the CEO of P&G has been delivering to his company. There is such a thing as too much testing and too much planning.

I'm not against integrated marketing. In fact, I have preached integration for a long time, but the author of this article has an insight that should not be dismissed.


Some crises never go away. Just when you think there will be no more stories because the media have beaten a topic to death, new articles appear and an organization hears itself condemned again. It's demoralizing, wearing and frustrating. Anger is natural as well as defensiveness. Neither are good for handling a crisis. Worst of all is a feeling of helplessness, a creeping conviction that nothing one does will fix the situation or make it go away. Loss of control is particularly hard for people who have been successful all of their lives in mastering events.

But some things cannot be mastered. They just are, and one lives with them or leaves the business. I'm thinking here of lawsuits and doctors. There was a time not that many years ago when being a doctor was a position of honor. Today, being a doctor means one is sued at least once and sometimes, over and over.

The feeling that one is here to help people has been replaced by wariness that maybe this patient or that one is out to make a buck. It's the pain of being dragged into court and called an incompetent boob because one made a judgment call that didn't work out. OB-GYNs in the US live with this situation. Inevitably, a woman will have complications during childbirth and just as inevitably the woman will sue the OB-GYN. It is so bad that many doctors have left the practice and some states have fewer doctors than they need. But that's the way it is and will be, even with laws to protect physicians. It is lingering crisis or chronic crisis, if you will. One prepares for the next event and not for a time when there will be no more events.

In situations like this, a public relations practitioner can never assume a better scenario. One explains what the organization or individual does and tries to build understanding that leads to reasonableness. It's a long-term grind and it isn't much fun. But, there is no other way to counter the drip-drip-drip of bad press. One tells the public repeatedly the reasons why the organization or individual is essential until the public hears or enough organizations and individuals disappear to make the points clear.

It's hard work and often unrewarding.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Pecking Order 

For those who wonder if PR ever will come into its own in the communications combines that rule marketing, I have an answer. Look at the May 17 edition of Advertising Age on the first page of the 17th Annual Marketing Services Agencies Report. There you will find a pecking order in the marketing communications business, and it tells the tale vividly.

Of total expenditures for marketing, 49.3% goes to advertising and media and 13.5% goes to public relations, which is on a par with direct marketing (14.1%). Power goes with money flows. The money in the business still flows into advertising and media. Hence, the heads of combines and important people will be advertising executives.

PR should reconcile itself to its second-citizen status. It has always been that way, and it won't change. The reason it will lag is an issue I have written about too much already -- control. Advertising is controlled-message media -- expensive controlled-message media. Because there are so many dollars involved, marketers pay more attention to its effectiveness than they do to other disciplines, which are not even half the size of advertising and media. With the attention goes power and compensation.

So what is an ambitious young marketer to do who wants to rise in the ranks? The best bet is still advertising, and the risky bet is public relations or direct marketing -- unless one starts a company.

Frankly, I have enjoyed my career as a second-class citizen. It provides me an opportunity to tweak those who are too serious about their jobs. What I do as a PR person is often important. I know that, and those of us who work in PR know that. That's good enough.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Duck and Cover 

I have witnessed several instances lately of the old nuclear protection technique -- duck and cover. Except in the present, it is careerists ducking and covering their parts in something that had gone wrong. In some of these instances, the situation was farcical and in others, serious.

As a public relations practitioner who sometimes knows the facts of a situation, it is not always easy to deliver an official explanation when I know it to be inadequate at best. Yet, that is what we are paid to do. We don't lie, but we don't tell everything we know either.

I find those who duck and cover to be a distasteful. I much prefer to work with the individual who stands and says, "I did it and I goofed." That individual is far more credible in the end, even if the person has to take a fall for what he or she did.

I find particularly distasteful watching government types squirm in every direction to avoid blame for something they have clearly done. The spinning is disgusting, and they are experts at it, even to the point where one almost believes them.

It would be a nicer world if people always told the truth, but they don't and they never will. Duck and cover is part of human nature.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Exhibit A 

I have not written about Abu Ghraib because events were too much in the news. There was no need to pile on and enough was being said. But, Abu Ghraib is a textbook case of the power of credibility and what happens when one loses it.

The US had a claim on a position in Iraq before the incidents occurred. The position was that freedom and democracy would make the country better for Iraqis. Since the photos, credibility for that claim has been jeopardized and, some say, lost. I'm not taking a position one way or the other on that. But what intrigued me is how quickly everyone saw the damage to the US' credibility. It was instantaneous.

We can talk measurement all we want in PR, but one incident like Abu Ghraib can offset all the placements and good work a country or a company has done. That is why "reputation management," a term I dislike, is important. In fact, a country or firm cannot manage reputation. One guards reputation the best one can, but inevitably things happen. At Abu Ghraib, the worst possible "thing" happened. And there will be a long period, maybe years or decades, before balance returns.

The problem seems to have started with the US entering a situation in which the people didn't like their old leader but don't like their new one either. It is also not clear that Iraqis are ready for a leader. They might prefer to fight with one another. We don't know whether a middle will emerge that will seek compromise and civility rather than terror and warfare.

But what we do know is that Iraq was a tarbaby for the reputation of the US. The US dared to touch it and the tar is smearing the honor of its soldiers and citizens. Credibility is precious: Trust in another is easily lost. In Iraq, the US has learned that lesson bitterly.

Monday, May 17, 2004

How Not to Take Control 

A PR person working with Secretary of State Colin Powell showed how not take control of an interview Sunday. You must have read by now that the woman had the camera panned away from Powell and told the famously grouchy interviewer, Tim Russert, that the interview was over. Needless to say, Russert did not take intrusion into his interview kindly. It took the intervention of Powell himself to keep the interview going. Powell told the PR person to back off and the interview was concluded, but Russert got his revenge by making it known far and wide that it was "press management gone berserk."

In the press aide's defense, the interview had run over its allotted time and Powell's people had tried to get it wound up, but Russert wouldn't stop. Powell, a much smarter media relations person than his aide, knew Russert should be allowed to run on.

I can appreciate the quandary of a PR practitioner who tried too hard to take control. There are times when you need to get a person out of the room and on to the next appointment. You have to intrude in one way or another. That's your job. But, there are journalists who don't care a fig for your job. They are going to continue their interviews until they are done with whatever they have to ask. I have played the heavy in the past, but I'm not sure I would have the courage to do what Powell's press aide did, especially with such a hard core interviewer like Russert.

I'll bet she never does it again.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Cooling Off 

The crisis on which we have been working is cooling. There is no new information out that harms or helps the client. That doesn't mean stories have stopped coming. They haven't stopped, although there are not as many of them.

My "favorites" are conspiracy theorists who see subtle connections between the client and all sorts of nefarious things. These people come out of the woodwork in every crisis. The most annoying are self-styled experts who purport to know the events and what has transpired then proceed to make factual errors throughout their articles.

The client is apoplectic about the errors that continue to appear in print despite the company's best efforts to correct them. A prestigious newspaper made a whopping error the other day that even amazed me (I'm used to seeing this sort of thing.)

During the cooling off period we will try to correct most of the errors but we know that once in the media, errors tend to take a life of their own. "If X said it, then I can say it." The failure of the media to check basic facts is disturbing. There is a lot of shoddy journalism in the world. But, if there weren't, what need would there be for public relations practitioners?

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Control Freaks  

A colleague related a story to me a while ago of a conversation he had with a movie studio PR person. It was one of those "I-don't-believe-I'm-hearing-this" discussions.

This PR person had a story -- not a compelling one -- that supports an upcoming movie. He was demanding that it be on the front page of the B section of The Wall Street Journal, or he would take the story to a contact at the Los Angeles Times. My colleague pointed out that the story was missing some facts to make it more interesting and anyway, there was a better chance for it elsewhere in the Journal. But no, that wasn't good enough for the PR person. He wanted the front of the B section of The Wall Street Journal or nothing.

I have been hearing more and more tales like this and have experienced a few myself. There is a loss of balance in the PR industry and a loss of understanding of the differences between advertising and editorial. To the discredit of some news media, they have brought this on themselves. But for the most part, PR practitioners have fallen under the spell of marketers who believe in control, control and more control over the message. These are marketers trained in advertising and promotion where they can dictate what is said. They do not want to understand the nature of First Amendment media, and they don't grasp its credibility either. For them, column inches are advertising equivalents -- nothing more or less.

It saddens me that PR practitioners have fallen for this cant. PR has gone back to the future. It started with payola at the beginning of the 20th century when publicity agencies paid newspapers to run columns on the wonders of the telephone. Payola was a part of the media through the scandals of the Nixon era when newspapers and other media started an overdue cleanup.

Some of the worst practitioners of control PR are in Hollywood where publicists bar access to celebrities and stars unless they get the cover of People Magazine or a guest shot on the Today Show or another quid pro quo. This cynical horse trading has spread through too much of the industry. It is the fault of bootlicking editors and publishers who are more concerned with numbers than honesty. It's past time to put a halt to it. There are honest editors, reporters and publishers who refuse to kowtow to the dicta of marketers and advertisers. I prefer working with them, even though they kick me or my clients once in awhile. They are honest and their readers know it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


I got the newspapers this morning and vowed to read about anything other than the crisis I am working on. Anything. The crisis is so consuming it is all I think about. That's a lousy way to keep perspective on a world, which is moving forward despite my concerns. It feels strange, however, reading about things that have the significance of feathers on the breeze.

I am tempted to say, "Don't these people have better things to do?" On the other hand, what they are doing is better than what I am doing -- using public relations to help protect a client under assault. Times like this remind one that frivolous things have a serious purpose. They help us forget worries and to speculate on the merits of the newest wines or funkiness of designer furniture.

One can go too far into crisis or into any job, for that matter. I think of the publicity types who are consumed with the presidential campaigns now. They are past exhaustion and pushing hard. They will push hard for months more then one individual will go to the White House and the other will go home. All those who worked for both candidates will learn how to live again. They might be surprised to find the world didn't care that much for their work. What was monumental to the publicists was incidental and hardly thought about by most.

We can never forget that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Just the Facts 

The hardest damn thing to get in a crisis is a fact. One could dig a gold mine in less time than it takes to dig pertinent data from a file drawer. And yet, one is hampered fatally until facts are in hand and one can prove that an organization has not acted irresponsibly.

I have watched a client get bashed for a week and a half because the facts were missing for a critical situation, and the people who have them are never around, it seems, or they don't remember or something. Whatever the case is, we didn't until today have facts we need.

In a grueling exercise this afternoon, we collected essential facts about a process that has been the target of criticism. The client has done a fine job with the process but a person criticizing the client in public apparently doesn't know that. We need to get facts out there to media who are listening to the person and are unaware there might be another side to the story. But it has taken SO long to assemble the facts and even today, we couldn't get all of them straight. There was still a flurry of phone calls to find out if A was true and if B was false.

I don't know how one resolves situations like this but there ought to be machinery in place in all companies for sensitive parts of a business through which key facts are digested and stored in a central location for quick retrieval. I hope in time we can get that done. It would save everyone's nerves -- and temper.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Back and Forth and Back 

When one is fighting back against floods of allegations, it is frustrating and frankly, miserable to be on the short end of facts. Whenever you think you have made progress to rebut an allegation without substance, something happens to shift the spotlight. There is a new crisis, a new focus, a diversionary tactic by someone somewhere that destroys the force of the point you want to make.

When everyone is pointing at everyone else, the case is worse. You don't know whom to trust. In fact, you dare not trust anyone. People are looking at the end of careers and maybe, jail time. They will do anything to avoid that -- and they do.

So we sit in teleconferences and debate what we can say. It's back and forth and forth and back. We think this point might be forceful. It will change the debate. It's great. There is a pause: The lawyer begs to differ. Not so quick, he says. We aren't done with the investigation, he cautions. "But haven't we made the point public already sotto voce? Let's shout it from the rooftops." Another pause. The lawyer says he hasn't really interviewed enough people yet nor tracked down nearly enough data to allow the point to stand on its own. So why did we mention this point at all? One can hear air rushing from the room. It's off to another point and another still. Finally, we give up for the evening. There is nothing to say that we haven't said and that isn't strong enough to rebut a witness on national television.

Another long day of crisis peters out and everyone goes home. We'll try again tomorrow.


One insidious enemy in a crisis is exhaustion. With 24-hour news cycles, it doesn't take long for individuals to grind down in 12-hour days, seven days a week.

There is constant news monitoring, the drip of new or repeated allegations in the media, an intense scramble for facts in unclear situations, hours of press release writing, more fact checking, word negotiation with lawyers and senior executives, publishing, followup, interviews and start all over again in the morning. The pace is relentless. Ride the horse or get off and watch the media, the public, competitors, government regulators, the world condemn you and your company for something you are not even sure you did.

For proud CEOs who built their companies the hard way and were enjoying success till the moment of the crisis, the shock of sudden allegations is almost more than one can bear. It is understandable a CEO will take a hardened view of fighting every step of the way in every way and never giving up. But, there is nothing one can do to stop news. It is an ocean smashing against the organization and drowning morale, deluging customers, smothering normal workflow. One almost forgets there is a business to run, but there IS a business to run. There are employees to buck up and customers to call. There are contracts to fulfill and new business to sell. All that work must be done in the hours left over from fighting the crisis. That too adds to exhaustion.

I have watched in a space of a week and a half normal people taking on a glassy-eyed appearance, staring into space, yawning uncontrollably and marching forward with less enthusiasm by the hour. They know they have to get the job done, and they will, but the stress will stay with them for a long time to come.

The hard fact of the situation is that they also know -- and the world too -- that they might not win the war of perception. The world will tar them with an ugly label for years to come. All of the company's good work will be framed by one ugly incident over which they had no control whatsoever.

In this instance, it is easy even for the CEO to say, "what will be will be" and to give up. For those who don't give up, leadership is steadiness of purpose and confidence that communicates itself to the weary troops. For some leaders this comes naturally: For others, there is acting, a performance that must be convincing in every detail lest even the tiniest gesture betray the corrosive effects of the situation to everyone about you.

I have been watching this go one with a client for days now. It is amazing, and I cannot recall any crisis manual for public relations that has discussed the effects of exhaustion on reputation management. The manuals need to be rewritten.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Turn 'Em Down 

I had a painful task today of turning down media interviews for a company. There were plenty of them too from the largest networks and from print media large and small. You must understand that for most of my career, I have worked on accounts where one had to work hard to get one media interview, and it was sometimes impossible to get two for products, services and companies that are boring or obscure.

All of a sudden, a client has a crisis and media flood to the client's doorstep from every part of the earth. It was astonishing to the client who couldn't keep up. She would answer one call, hang up, answer another, hang up, answer another. Her voice mail box overflowed. She had chits spread over her desk with scribbled names and phone numbers. Cameramen were in the lobby asking for the CEO. She and the CEO couldn't eat, couldn't relax, couldn't breathe. Finally, she made a wise decision. She wasn't going to get to all the interviews: Some had to be turned down. She asked me if I would do it while she tried to whittle the pile still before her.

So I dialed and tried to make nice while saying no. It is an odd feeling. This is, of course, what entertainment publicists do regularly because stars and starlets are often hot commodities. Publicists can demand covers on People Magazine and get it. They can negotiate with Vanity Fair. They can flip off networks that have annoyed them and go to the gleeful competition.

I have never done that and don't expect to do. About the nearest I got to power in public relations was many years ago when I handled the test drive fleet for Porsche Cars North America. People would beg me in order to borrow a 911 for the weekend. I often had to say no: It was easy because if a journalist could not show substantial circulation or audience, it was too expensive and risky to loan a high-powered sports car.

One might ask why the company with the crisis didn't hold a press conference. The answer to that lies with the crisis itself. For many reasons, it was undesirable to have a press conference, and it still isn't. So, we continue to turn 'em down. I might even get to like it someday. I hope not too much because the crisis can't continue forever.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Thinking Ahead 

In a crisis, paranoia is good. Anything bad that could happen will. In crises, things go wrong in ways one would never expect.

That is why it is good to think about what might go bad and how to maintain control if it does. The problem is so many things could go wrong that it is a useless to forecast everything. Risk managers find obvious dangers and develop ways to prevent them. PR managers don't have the luxury of spending days thinking about failure. We work on the fly.

That is why I was impressed with a client who is dealing with a problem. I was going to send her an options memo related to the crisis when she called, and I discussed it on the phone with her. She had thought of everything I was going to write plus a few more things I had not. I didn't send the memo. I figured the things I had not brought up she had thought of too. It is useless to give advice to someone who knows what to do.

Still, thinking of contingencies and controlling them are different animals. Some risks cannot be controlled. If they happen, one deals with them. For example, one knows employees could spill company secrets in public. We trust employees not to do that, but we know they can, and we know we cannot prevent them. The way to minimize that risk is not to have secrets that can embarrass a company to the point of extinction. Get rid of dirty laundry at once because it will show sooner or later. No one can keep secrets with the Internet.

I am now thinking of contingencies for this crisis for two months out. I'll bet my client is at three months out.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


In a full-blown international crisis, it's damned hard to maintain perspective. I'm learning that anyway. The moment-to-moment changes in the story, deluges of news calls, myriads of articles appearing on Web sites and TV and radio reports overwhelm. One can no longer feel where the story is going and how it might turn out. It is enough to keep up with the news cycle. But losing perspective is dangerous, because it is then one gives bad advice to the client.

We had a case today, and I'm not sure who is right. (I think it wasn't me.) It was a question of what to do next in the media, if anything, about a huge crisis. My boss took a position I found alarming. I opposed him because I said it was too early to expose the CEO to questioning that my boss' position would open the CEO to. We went back and forth and for and back. It was then I noticed a colleague standing at the door who is good about judging things. I asked him listen to the argument. He did. There was a long pause, and he said he favored my boss' position. His reasoning -- the CEO needs to show visible leadership in this instance. I thought that response over and realized he had a point, but I still felt the risks are terrible if something should go wrong.

I argued for a delay and got it. We proposed an alternative to the client that the client liked and is doing. We will come back to the original proposal in a day or two, depending on the media climate.

There is no right or wrong in a case like this. There is more or less risk. One has to know the situation and personalities well enough to know the risk to take. I think late tonight that we should propose the boss' idea, but I want to see what is happening. However, there might not be a day or two to spare. The story is moving fast. I am left with a question, "Am I too conservative?"

Monday, May 03, 2004

Bad Story, Part 2 

When a bad story hits, there is much to do. A first step is to look at the reporting closely. Is the story accurate? Is there a gross error somewhere? An attribution that cannot be correct? An insinuation that crosses the line into outright error?

A reporter might be accurate but the person who gave the facts to the reporter might have been inaccurate or using the reporter. This is common in lawsuits. Litigators seek publicity to pressure the other side or sway the jury pool. To get it, they build a package of "facts" and statements that show how deeply their clients have been harmed. By time the reporter talks to the other side, the journalist already has half-written the story. The other side, meanwhile, might not feel free to fire back, especially if it will battle charges in court. Further, the facts might not be as sexy as the allegation. Many a piece on 60 Minutes over the years came directly from litigators who were seeking to put an opponent on the defensive.

The next step is to build a fact sheet or Q&A that asks the worst possible questions and provides facts that refute them or put them in context. There is no percentage for clients in distorting this process: It would haunt them in the media or in the courtroom. Facts without insinuations or aspersions should show how the charges cannot be true. Swinging back with countercharges is good for selling newspapers and boosting TV ratings, but it is lousy for preserving a client's reputation. On the other hand, if a plaintiff is working hard to smear one, it is critical to deliver facts cogently and simply to refute the plaintiff. The brilliant example of this in the last decade was the way General Motors nailed NBC-TV for rigging tests that made gas tanks explode in crash tests. However, it is rare that one can get the goods on a news medium or opposing attorney like that. The facts are seldom that clear.

When stories aren't in error and they look awful, then one should say what the organization will do about it. There is room and justification for radical change: The public wants such action. Are heads rolling? If not, why not? Are injured consumers being recompensed? If not, why not? The CEO has to be willing to say publicly and loudly that "we made a mistake and we are going to fix it."

Finally, one has to speak or at least distribute the facts to the media so they have the other side of the story. The worst case is to get a bad story and to let it sit there while rumor and pressure and new stories build. The client keeps hoping the story's impact will go away. When it doesn't, it is usually too late to do anything. There is no gain in waiting.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Battling Ghosts 

All crisis manuals tell you that to fight a crisis, you start with facts. If you don't have facts, don't speculate. Well, what if you can't get facts? The dirty secret of crises is that facts you need aren't readily available and while news is breaking all about, you are desperately short of real information to pass along. Hence, news outruns the organization, and the organization is placed in a perpetual catch-up mode -- a lousy place to be.

I have long thought that is what happened to Union Carbide at Bhopal. The cloud of poisonous gas escaped and enveloped the shantytown outside its gates and was gone before the company in Connecticut could react. Meanwhile news media rushed to the site and broadcast horrendous images of the dead sprawled on the streets -- men, women and children, old and young. The ghastliness of the incident and the surge of rumors left Union Carbide on the defensive from the instant it heard about the accident or sabotage, depending on your interpretation of what happened.

In other words, the company never had a chance to defend itself. Lest you think this was a special situation that rarely repeats, let me disabuse you of that notion. Any company with foreign operations in remote parts of the world faces the same situation. All the crisis preparation one can do will not make up for an inability to get facts from a remote site in time to handle a 24 hour news cycle.

Like it or not, international crisis work is battling ghosts.

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