Myths of crisis management

Myths of crisis management

Pines, Wayne L

Crisis management as an art has been around since the beginning of recorded time. Adam had to manage the first crisis after Eve persuaded him to eat that apple.

But crisis management as a science for American companies has been around just a few decades. The watershed event that focused national attention on crisis management was, of course, how Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol episode in 1982. Every PR agency and every practitioner alive at the time, and some who weren’t, claim to have played a role in advising J&J. That’s comparable to the hundreds of thousands of people who claim to have seen Roger Maris hit his 61st home run in 1961, when in fact only about 20,000 fans actually were recorded as having been in Yankee Stadium that day.

With the science so new, a number of principles have developed about how to manage crises. Many of them have withstood the test of time, to date, as brief as the time really has been since Tylenol. For example, it really is best to centralize the spokesperson function, so that only a single person is speaking for the company, keeping the messages consistent.

A few myths also have developed over the years about how to manage a crisis. Herewith are ten of them:

1. The spokesperson for a company during a major crisis should always be the CEO.

Jim Burke set a standard when, as chairman of J&J, he handled the Tylenol announcements himself in 1982. Since then it’s been conventional wisdom that, during a crisis, the CEO must speak for the company. In fact, not all CEOs are suited for this responsibility. Some CEOs, no matter how well trained, don’t have the instincts needed to handle the media at a press conference. Some do not believe that the management of media is important enough for them, and this lack of respect for the power of the media is evident. Some are just plain hostile toward the media, no matter how much training they have, and this hostility can hardly be disguised.

It’s better to have someone who can speak authoritatively for the company, who understands the media, who knows how to answer questions and who can be the best representative for the company publicly. That does not have to be the CEO. Only in the most egregious of crises – when lives are lost, when the story remains on the front pages for days – does the media and the public even expect to see the CEO.

2. Announcements on Friday will generate the least publicity because no one reads Saturday newspapers.

The traditional wisdom is that since Saturday newspapers are so slim due to reduced advertising, Friday is a good day to announce bad news. There is no evidence that I know of to support that view. Moreover, with so many people getting information from the Internet, the news announcement may actually be kept in the Internet news cycle longer on a weekend.

The reality is that the American public has an extraordinarily short attention span and it’s getting shorter every year. The case can be made equally well that how long an announcement lingers in the public mind has more to so with its substance and its direct impact on consumers than on its timing over a weekend.

Announcements should be made when there’s information to be announced.

3. By now, most major companies have systems in place to manage crises.

You’d think that after all these years, most companies would have effective crisis management systems in place. Even those that claim to, don’t. People switch jobs so often that establishment of any effective rapid response mechanism will have a short half-life.

Companies need to examine closely their crisis management systems and undertake simulations and constant rehearsals to be sure that, if a real crisis occurs, they will be ready. That means that the chain of command during a crisis should be clear. Roles of management and other personnel should be defined.

Most companies aren’t really prepared to handle a crisis and that’s why so many still fumble around when one occurs. 4. The worst thing that can happen is to have a negative story on 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes is, indeed, a highly rated TV show. At one time, before cable TV and the Internet and Dateline, a negative story on 60 Minutes was likely to be discussed the next day and have the potential to be devastating, particularly to an individual product, such as occurred with Audi.

Today, fewer people watch commercial TV and fewer people watch 60 Minutes. There are many other sources of information and entertainment. Further, the public has become skeptical of TV news because of its sensationalistic tendencies. TV news is designed as much for its entertainment value as for the information it conveys. Finally, other reporters are not likely to follow up an “expose” on 60 Minutes or any other TV show. It’s now possible to be the subject of an expose on 60 Minutes or another TV magazine show and not get a single call about it from anyone the next day.

No one wants to be skewered by 60 Minutes, or by Dateline, or 20/20, but it’s not the end of the world.

5. If you’re caught red-handed, try to keep the story out of the newspapers.

No one wants to have a negative situation exposed in the news media. But during a crisis, trying to keep a story out of the news usually is fruitless. Even discussing the possibility of burying a story raises unrealistic expectations among colleagues who do not understand how the media functions.

If it’s big enough, if it’s really a crisis that affects the company or people’s health and safety or convenience, the story will eventually make the newspapers no matter what you do.

Focus instead on expressions of error and repentance. During and after a crisis, companies are judged not by the original negative actions but by how they handle them. We learn from the political system. Nixon’s crime was not the burglary at Watergate, it was the cover-up. We can forgive Clinton’s infidelity, but not his direct lying to the public and his perjury. The public forgives mistakes, even major blunders, if the individual or company is honest about the mistakes, indicates they’ve learned from them and will not repeat them, and is truly concerned for any victims.

If you’re caught red-handed, handle it in a repentant way. Don’t try to hide it or cover it up. We’re a forgetting and forgiving people (except the trial lawyers, of course).

6. During a crisis, in order to control the story, you can’t be too aggressive.

You can easily be too aggressive. With the multitudes of media around now, it’s hard for any story to get through the clutter. Being too aggressive in managing a story may result in cutting through that clutter and may also put the story in places that it would not normally be.

A measured, thoughtful approach during a crisis is the best strategy. It’s easy to overreact when you see all the clips involving your crisis. You may think that everyone is seeing the story, because you’re seeing all the stories.

Make sure you have perspective on what’s really happening in the marketplace in deciding how aggressive to be. Take a poll to see if your crisis has penetrated public consciousness, even to a small extent. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to get through the clutter – and this serves us well during a crisis.

Of course, there are always targeted audiences who will get the message during any crisis. If your crisis affects other businesses, if it affects public health, if it affects how investors perceive your company, there may be a need to be aggressive in a targeted way. 7. The constraints that lawyers impose on communications efforts during a crisis are not really necessary.

There is a traditional tension between lawyers and PR people during a crisis, particularly if the relationship lacks mutual respect and understanding. In fact, how lawyers think during crises gather all the facts, protect the long-term interests of the company – can be very consistent with a solid communications strategy.

Unfortunately, during crises there often is polarization, with the communications staff seeking to be responsive to media inquiries in a timely way, and lawyers seeking to slow down the process and understand the dimensions of the crisis before making any public statements that might be misinterpreted by a jury. The lawyers’ position is quite legitimate. In today’s litigious society, a class action product liability suit can be much more devastating to a company than a barrage of negative publicity.

It’s not really that hard to reconcile the positions if you remember that what really counts is not an admission of fault, which the lawyers try to prevent, but an expression of responsibility in managing the crisis moving forward. The company will ultimately be judged in the public’s mind by how it handled the crisis. Take responsibility without admitting fault.

8. Communications professionals should manage crises because crises are largely communications problems.

Most real crises have an important and central communications challenge, whether dealing with external audiences or internal. But a crisis is not likely to be solely a communications challenge. Communications professionals often wind up managing a crisis because no one else in the company wants to do it and the communications department is being driven by media deadlines. In fact, communications is only one aspect of true crisis management.

Some communications professionals are good managers, others are not. Some do well during crises, others do not. It’s a function of the person, not his or her training or professional responsibilities.

A smart company will put in charge of a crisis someone who can balance all the needs, one of which usually is media outreach, another of which usually is internal communications. There also needs to be an effort to manage the underlying cause of the crisis, as well as to reach out to audiences other than the media, such as the government and constituency groups. A good communications professional may be able to manage everything successfully and efficiently, but those that can’t, shouldn’t.

9. The government usually won’t help much during a crisis.

Government agencies are more accustomed to handling crises than anyone else. They see them all. Whether it’s the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration, or the local health department, they know what constitutes a crisis and they know how to handle it. In fact, government agencies, because they do have that broad perspective, often are calmer during a crisis than a company, which may be facing its first crisis (those that have multiple crises won’t be in business long).

During a crisis a government agency can bring expertise, reassurance, perspective and resources to a crisis. Perhaps most importantly they bring public credibility – much more than any company has – and experience. Bureaucrats, especially those who work for regulatory agencies, expect to be notified and informed as a crisis is developing within a company, and usually are much more helpful if they are involved earlier rather than later.

It’s important to communicate early and often with a government agency as a crisis evolves.

10. Crises are downers.

No one wants his or her company to be involved in a crisis. Crises cost money to resolve. They require longer hours. They keep you from your everyday work. A big one can undermine your company’s future.

But crises are also exhilarating. They require an intensity of effort and a focus that is not normally needed. They create strong relationships with coworkers. Tempers flare, decisions are made quickly, natural leaders emerge. Some people who have never made a not of coffee learn how.

A company’s management and focus can emerge stronger from a crisis, if it is well handled and if all the dimensions, including the external and internal communications, are handled well. That’s why the Chinese symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity.

No one welcomes a crisis but if one comes your way, manage it as if it’s an opportunity. PRQ

Wayne L. Pines is an internationally-known crisis and health care consultant Formerly Associate Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, he is President of Regulatory Services and Health Care at APCO Associates, Washington, D.C. Mr. Pines is author of the FDA Advertising and Promotional Manual, and edited When Lightning Strikes, a crisis management manual, A Practical Guide to Food and Drug Law and Regulation and How to Work with the FDA. Mr. Pines also lectures frequently on crisis management, media outreach and FDA regulatory issues. He was a columnist for “Medical Advertising News” and now writes the Inside Washington column for

Copyright Public Relations Quarterly Fall 2000

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