I was invited recently to provide a short presentation on “crisis communications” to a group of California Young Democrats gathered in LA for the state Democratic Convention. “Crisis communications” is that adrenaline-generating mixture of experience, luck and timing that communications professionals attempt to practice when the TV live truck pulls up unannounced in front of your office. Someone important has done something embarrassing or been accused of doing something illegal or unethical. Oddly, it seems to occur most often to elected officials.
Preparing for the presentation provided me with a chance to consider how we as communications professionals handle these cases. There are agencies like Sitrick, which have thrived in this practice and can claim they have successfully steered these unfortunate targets of the media’s unflinching gaze through this often torturous fifteen minutes of infamy. I had the chance to work with Lynne Doll at Rogers as a client once giving me a front row seat to a master at work. The industry lost an amazing professional with incredible integrity when she passed away in 2010.
But there are few communications professionals who have the experience and creativity to manage what can appear to be a very chaotic and uncontrollable situation. Some communications agencies and consultant only focus on helping their clients tell better lies.
Some people deserve the scrutiny. They’ve been caught red-handed violating our trust, our laws or both. Some were just in the wrong place at the really wrong time. But most were simply guilty of being human and being famous, or at least well-known. Whether drunk driving, cheating on their wives or husbands, or suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction — these are offenses we ourselves or someone close to us has experience with. When you’re a corporate CEO or a county supervisor, your drug addiction can become TV news fodder.
And it isn’t just individuals who need help in these situations. Institutions and companies often find themselves seeking “crisis communications” support. The city council that’s being criticized for a controversial public works project is going to find itself on the defensive and maybe the target of a recall if they don’t handle it right — and fast.
Some turn to communications professionals like us for help. We often begin that conversation by getting to the facts. There’s always more to the story that needs to — and should — get told. And when it’s true — she had too many glasses of wine at the reception, or he didn’t buy those concert tickets or he was cheating on his wife — the solution can be very simple. Own up to it. Admit it. Be honest.
Many of my communications colleagues will disagree with me here but as a reporter for more than twenty years, I watched my share of public officials, celebrities, and other high profile individuals, turn a human foible into front-page news and a career-ending scandal simply because they couldn’t summon the humility, and good sense, to own up. The public will forgive many things but they don’t seem to have much patience for a liar.
The so-called “news cycle” has shrunk down to hours and minutes. Your time in the glare of the disapproving scandal spotlight may not last very long these days. But the damage it can do to a person or organization’s reputation and credibility, can survive long after the media has moved on to someone else’s crisis.