Categories: Crisis management / Trust and reputations / Zurich

20 June 2011

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How pat PR sells clients short in a crisis

I’m sitting lakeside near Zurich after a swim, and I surf on my friend’s handheld electronic thingamajig. It lands me on Paul Holmes’s eponymous Report. There I click on a video by Richard Levick, CEO of Levick Strategic Communications. He’s discussing three common mistakes that companies and countries make when faced with a crisis. Oops, and he then makes four classic PR errors himself.

My first instinct is that it is very hard to give general advice in a list of three that won’t fall apart at the first hurdle. So from the off I’m pretty convinced he’s going to make the biggest mistake of all. Error #1 being pat. In addition he made three other simplistic errors:

#2 asserting that perception always trumps reality;

#3 advocating the grovel;

#4 advocating over-reaction.

Levick says that in a crisis the first 24 hours are critical. But that’s far from always true. Plenty of proper crises unfold over days, weeks and even months. There is often nothing to be done in the first 24 hours bar trying to find out what’s going on (whilst issuing numbingly dull statements of concern).

Levick says people get (1) stuck in fear (or rather believe that they’re the good guys); (2) stuck thinking more of what they always do will work in a crisis and (3) won’t make the radical changes which are needed. These amount to firms being in denial, and sometimes that’s a problem on all the scores he mentions, I agree.

But none of these general truisms implies or validates the formula Levick advocates. In short that’s that firms at the outset of a crisis should collapse into grovel mode; throw out the good with the bad of their culture (and sort it all out overnight) and shoot anything that limps providing it’s in their own camp.

Levick rightly remarks:

“You can never underestimate how much emotion plays a part in those crisis situations, in those critical 24, 48 hours.”

While that’s often the case, one of the commonest errors in a crisis situation is to pretend those emotions can be capped at the outset by PR spin and hasty action.

Of course, sometimes an immediate dramatic reaction is exactly what is required. In groceries, an instant product recall is a great move when E.coli bacteria is suspected to have contaminated produce. But in cars, it might be the right move only after days or weeks. (Why cause unnecessary panic, which can cause its own crisis?)

In the case of strife-ridden countries, which Levick says his advice covers, the full meaning of a challenge is seldom visible within days. Events rarely require knee-jerk responses so much as considered strategies and smart tactics. To say otherwise would be to put leaders at the mercy of impressions, which change like the wind.

But let’s get one thing clear. When things explode, when people get harmed or killed, property damaged and the environment polluted, organisations had better be penitent (but listen to their lawyers too) and never arrogant. This leads me on to take a closer look at Levick’s second distorted observation:

“Well, in a crisis perception always trumps reality 100% of the time.

“And one of the things that we need to recognize is that it requires a paradigm shift. We need to think and act differently.”

The point about PR is to certainly to stress to bosses that perceptions matter, and that action may be required to create a better perception. But PR does its best work when it bends false public perception into something like alignment with reality. If all we have to offer is to tell clients to accept whatever perception the media have painted, it reveals that we are not up to our job. The Levick line implies that all the paradigm shifts are on the bosses’ side: I say that we may need paradigm shifts all over the place, and they take time.

I do agree with Levick that lots of firms are often almost as awful as it’s possible to be at managing their PR hazards. Actually, their problem is threefold: thinking about risks in order to minimise them and thinking properly about how to deal with disasters when they arise and thinking about the PR dimension of the latter.

Companies – their CEOs and boards – ought to be stress testing the worst cock-ups they can imagine. Banks ought to have assumed that their run of good luck might be a bubble, and one of their making. Even saying this reminds us that at the highest level firms tend to be in denial about the risks they face. So it’s hardly surprising that they end up in denial when things go tits-up (as I know well, nuclear core meltdowns are a classic example of an industry falling into that trap). That leads me to question the last aspect of Levick’s advice:

“The third reason are the following three words: ‘why we can’t’…. everyone has been trained and paid to avoid risk. And now you are asking what risk should we take. And every one will always come up – no matter what the opportunity is. Should we recall the product, should we get rid of that division, should we fire that individual responsible. And everyone will come up with why we can’t. Why we can’t do it for financial reasons. Why we can’t do it for company morale reasons. Why we can’t do it for legal reasons. And the end result is that the opportunity early in a crisis to make a sacrifice and to do way with the brand, or the division or the person that is the cause of the problem ends up being lost…”

Fire a person? Get rid of a division? Do away with a brand? Make a sacrifice as a way out of a dilemma? Does he really believe that in most cases in most crisis-hit bodies they should take such drastic action in the first 24 to 48 hours of a crisis? Regardless of the facts? Regardless of whether one has just cause or not for doing so? I say that’s mostly rotten advice.

Though, as I said earlier, I agree that sometimes his advice might be exactly the right thing to accept. For instance, if the causes of a crisis are transparent, remedial action is obvious, if painful, and occasionally so if only for precautionary reasons.

Yet let’s not panic. Most firms could survive either following or ignoring Levick’s advice. There’s never been a car company ruined by a product recall. There’s never been an oil company wiped out by the consequences of an accident. The truth is that most so-called crises are not crises at all, but dramas. That’s life. Nothing gets done without hazard, and cock-ups come in all flavours. Hence, I maintain that case by case, the wheels fall off generalizations when it comes to crisis management guidance. That means that organisations and their PRs have to be canny and flexible – and certainly not pat.

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