I read some news in a PR trade this past week about a New York PR firm that was tapped to help a large organization faced with the need to rebuild confidence after a scandalous crisis. I’m avoiding mentioning names here because the mere mention of the names would be a distraction from the PR issues on which I’d like to focus.
That said, here’s the situation in the most general of terms. A major organization with a broad range of constituents found itself in the middle of a highly visible crisis. The people involved included top leadership on down to some key members of the organization. Grossly unethical and criminal behavior led to an investigation and then criminal charges and then media coverage. The CEO was fired and so were others. But those actions alone were not enough to stem the damage.
Just about every organizational policy and practice had come under scrutiny, and all the while, the organization continued to fulfill its mission, largely unaffected by the messiness of the highly visible crisis.
The thinking is and was that once new leadership was installed that the organization could get back to doing what it does best, and that has been the case. Still, the after-effects persist.
Now the organization has to rebuild trust. New leadership has to restore confidences that have been lost. All of this must take place to restore the organization’s reputation to its formerly well-respected status.
The Madison Avenue Solution
Enter the new Madison Avenue PR firm that was hired to spearhead the confidence-rebuilding program. The CEO of the firm who is largely a figurehead in situations like this was interviewed by reporters. He told them that his new client has been in a reactionary mode for too long and now it’s time to take the initiative as though that’s the primary reason this organization has had problems. It wasn’t.
To paraphrase, the CEO said that a key PR strategy to rebuild confidence was to arm loyal stakeholders with the information they need to correct misperceptions and a general lack of awareness of all the good the organization does.
This all sounds good and makes perfect sense for quite a few organizations faced with the need to rebuild confidence shaken by a crisis. But here’s the problem. This is cookie-cutter crisis communications. It’s based on common assumptions that simply weren’t true in this particular case.
As scandalous as the crisis was, misperception was not the problem. An enabling corporate culture seemed to allow the perpetrators to do what they wanted without penalty, until now. Lack of awareness was not the problem. Media coverage was so broad, far-reaching and constant, that this, combined with a legal investigation, brought the true facts to light. New leadership did not deny this. Stakeholder engagement was not a problem. Instinctively, the organization’s most loyal stakeholders immediately sprung to the defense of the organization without prompting from anyone but their own desires to see the good of the organization prevail.
The Real Situation
The truth is, this is a crisis that could have been prevented and even after it came to light could have been managed differently for the betterment of the organization and its many stakeholders. But it wasn’t. The actions of one led to the inaction of a few, and as time passed, the situation was allowed to explode.
My concern with the Madison Avenue approach in this case was that it takes an almost completely desensitized approach to a crisis situation that if it requires anything, it’s a deep-seated empathy for all of the people and organizations involved. Out of such empathy, responsible communications counsel may not resemble the all too common acknowledge-apologize-awareness-move-on approach to communications. That’s too cliché.
What this situation requires is lots of closed-door meetings, ironically, to maintain a certain level of transparency. In order for the organization to be accountable and transparent, it must first respect the dignity and privacy of those affected by the crisis. It must also create systems for going forward that also respect individual privacies. At the same time, while these systems should be very discreet, they must also be very proactive, consistent and involve aggressive early warning protocols to prevent a repeat of what happened before.
Communication of how these systems will function have to be handled with great care and caution so as to be effective and so as not to create the perception that the organization is being shamelessly promotional and self-serving. At the same time, there must be communication so that everyone knows the organization is committed to maintaining a certain level of responsible transparency.
There’s a rule of thumb in all of this. It’s based on the belief that the best way to manage a crisis is to at first determine the true cause of the crisis and at what level in the organization it originated. This can be visualized as layers of an onion. The outer layers represent the levels of a situation that tend to be more externally driven and under less control of organization leadership. The closer into the core you get, the more control leadership may have possessed and the more serious the crisis.
The rule of thumb is that to most effectively manage a confidence-rebuilding program, you have to restore trust at the same level where trust was broken. Usually, this is at a behavioral level rather than a publicity level. Once the new and proper systems for behavior are in place, if the crisis was a highly visible one, there’s a good chance you won’t need a megaphone to get the word out that the organization is back on track.