Book Offers Crisis Counsel, and Criticism of PR Field
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Book Offers Crisis Counsel, and Criticism of PR Field

Eric Dezenhall is, by all accounts, a fine crisis communications specialist. If your company is under attack by politically-motivated activists, sensationalistic reporters, or trail lawyers looking for a hefty settlement, there is probably nobody better to have in your corner.

Paul Holmes

Eric Dezenhall is, by all accounts, a fine crisis communications specialist. If your company is under attack by politically-motivated activists, sensationalistic reporters, or trail lawyers looking for a hefty settlement, there is probably nobody better to have in your corner. He is both smart and combative, and has worked on a host of high-profile crises over the past two decades.

Much of what he has learned is contained in Damage Control his second book (the first was Nail ‘Em: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business) written in collaboration with John Weber, president of Dezenhall’s consulting firm, and most of it is sound, sensible advice. Unfortunately, it’s interspersed with a sustained attack on the public relations industry that rarely rises above the level of caricature.

It’s hard to know whether Dezenhall is deliberately distorting mainstream public relations advice or whether he sincerely believes that most PR people advocate a simplistic approach—always apologize, always recall the product—and share a common desire to undermine the entire capital system. Whichever is the case, the energy he devotes to creating and then criticizing this straw man makes it impossible to recommend Damage Control (the subtitle is Why Everything You Known About Crisis Management is Wrong) to anyone who might benefit from sound public relations advice.

For example, “companies (and individuals) that survive crises tend to have certain features in common,” says Dezenhall. Most of the things they have in common are unlikely to provoke any profound disagreement: they have strong leaders; they are flexible; they commit significant resources to the resolution of the crisis. But Dezenhall throws this into the mix: “They question conventional PR wisdom and do not worship at the altar of feel-good gurus who espouse ‘reputation management,’ the canard that corporate redemption follows popularity.”

I have been writing about reputation management for 20 years, and I have never heard anyone suggest as one of its principles that “corporate redemption follows popularity.” In almost a decade of publishing a magazine called Reputation Management, I must have made the point a hundred times that reputation management was very definitely not about “popularity,” usually quoting experts in the field to support that contention.

Later, he over-simplifies an argument to make the same case, discussing the anti-trust case filed against Microsoft by the Department of Justice and claiming that “some pundits predictably speculated that had Bill Gates been more philanthropic throughout his career, the Justice Department might not have sought to break up his company.”

“Some pundits” may indeed have made such a claim, although predictable Dezenhall doesn’t identify any of them. But the majority of public relations people I talked with about the case made a quite different argument. They didn’t see more philanthropy as the answer, because lack of philanthropy was not the problem. And they didn’t think a more public relations savvy would have avoided prosecution; it might, however, have enjoyed broader third-party support.

And those arguments seem to be supported by recent events, which have seen Microsoft’s reputation improve and its legal problems (in the U.S., at least) diminish as a result of both greater philanthropic activity by Bill Gates and his wife and—more importantly—a shift in corporate culture.

Elsewhere during a lengthy myth-busting passage on the Tylenol crisis, Dezenhall suggests that “public relations people love the Tylenol crisis because it suggests there is a proprietary technique—one they happen to know—for resolving crises. This technique inevitably includes the merits of expressing concern for consumers (which should be obvious) and, more important, the supposed benefit of an ‘instant’ product recall.”

It is possible that there is somewhere a public relations professional who believes that the correct response to every crisis is an “instant product recall.” I’ve interviewed dozens, probably hundreds of PR people, and never found one, but there are clearly many thousands of practitioners with whom I have never spoken and I am prepared to concede that one of them, perhaps even several, are as unsophisticated as Dezenhall suggests.

But the reality is that the vast majority of a PR people regard a recall as the solution only in very specific circumstances: when a product is genuinely too dangerous to remain on the shelves. And they are just as likely to criticize companies for recalling too rapidly as for delaying too long. For example, when I interviewed crisis communications experts in the wake of Merck’s withdrawal of Vioxx, they were almost unanimous in the verdict that the company had erred by pulling a valuable product from the market.

Elsewhere, Dezenhall argues that “the latest rage in public relations is ‘building bridges’ between corporations and their ideological adversaries…. One of the great myths of public relations is that you can get hostile audiences to like you.” I’ve heard public relations people argue for keeping all the lines of communication open, and I have heard them talk about building bridges, but almost always to undecided audiences or moderate activists, and often as a way of isolating the most dedicated enemies. There are surely enough examples—companies working with moderate environmental groups, patient advocates, and others—to demonstrate the efficacy of this approach.

Finally, there’s a tirade in the middle of the book in which Dezenhall explains that “one objective of this book is to disabuse the reader of the current dogma of surrender that permeates the public relations industry—the template that a capitalist enterprise is a guilty enterprise…. Today’s businesses can transcend the crises they confront, but doing so requires a belief that capitalism must be defended, not cringingly tolerated. The hackneyed chestnuts of conventional public relations have not withstood the crucible of our uniquely savage climate.”

It should go without saying that this idea of mainstream public relations professionals as ideological fifth columnists dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist system from the inside bears no resemblance to reality. It is as pernicious a distortion as the contention from the other side of the political divide that all public relations people are deceitful “spin doctors” prepared to say or do anything to help their corporate clients continue their rapacious behavior.

And it is interesting to note that despite his continued denigration of “public relations people” in general, Dezenhall fails to identify by name even one public relations professional guilty of offering the kind of glib and facile advice he attributes to the entire industry, or any mainstream agency dedicated to undermining the capitalist system upon which it depends for its survival.

“We endorse a political model of crisis management versus the more conventional public relations approach,” says Dezenhall. “The fundamental difference is that the political model… assumes the threat of motivated adversaries, while the public relations model tends to view crises as organic and resolvable through good communications. In real crises, there are often opponents—a mirror image of your own crisis management team—that want to torpedo you.”

That opposing team, he says, consists of competitors, plaintiffs’ lawyers, the news media, politicians and regulators, short-sellers, NGOs, bloggers and more. “These opponents don’t care whether you ‘do the right thing’; they care about defeating you.”

Again, I don’t know of any serious public relations practitioner who would deny the existence of the opponents Dezenhall lists here—although these opponents are sometimes the instigators of a crisis and on other occasions are brought out of the woodwork after a crisis occurs (sometimes organically)—or would question the importance of having a strategy to respond to their arguments and when appropriate challenge their motives.

At the same time, I don’t believe these individuals should be the focus of the communications effort. Companies do not “do the right thing” in order to appease these implacable enemies, but in order to demonstrate to their important stakeholders—customers, employees, shareholders, communities—that the image of their company that these foes are peddling is false.

But Dezenhall spends a good deal of time describing crises that were manufactured by individuals with an overtly hostile agenda: the Audi “sudden acceleration” epidemic of the mid 80s, which was clearly stimulated by some dishonest reporting on 60 Minutes and by the enthusiasm of trial lawyers for a new claim to bring against automakers—although as the authors point out, every case every brought against the automaker resulted in a not guilty finding (small comfort, I suspect, after sales had plummeted from 74,000 to around 14,000.

Dezenhall is critical of the company’s decision to “be nice,” without ever really making a distinction between those injured in these incidents, most of whom appeared to sincerely believe that there was something wrong with the car, and those fueling the crisis for their own ends. Surely, it was appropriate to “be nice” to the former—an approach which would not have precluded suggesting that they were mistaken—while taking a more aggressive attitude toward the latter. In fact, a smart strategy might have been to be nice to the victims by pointing out that the trial lawyers and sensationalist media were both manipulating and taking advantage of their misfortune. Once again, that would seem to me to be relatively conventional public relations advice.

Dezenhall disagrees. “In retrospect, the greatest lesson of the Audi affair is that when an avalanche of blame is inevitable, unconventional methods of response must be entertained….  In today’s adversarial climate, if you believe you are being wrongly attacked, hitting hard and hitting first should be high on your list of options.”

And it is. Most crisis counselors, for example, insist that clients make their own recording of any interview with a news reporter who seems to have an agenda. It has become routine for transcripts or the tapes themselves to be distributed via websites and blogs to demonstrate the way in which sound-bites are selected for maximum damage while exculpatory information is excluded.

Says Dezenhall, “Today communicators can introduce alternative narratives, including indelicate ones that require self-styled victims to pay a heavy price if their stories fail to hold water.”

I’ve spent a long time on Dezenhall’s caricature of the public relations business partly because this is a public relations newsletter and because there will be those in the media (and in senior management positions in the corporate America) who lack the familiarity with our business to see it for the straw man it is. But I’ve also spent a lot of time on that aspect of the book because when you strip it away, you’re left with pretty conventional wisdom about the crisis business.

In his previous book, Nail ‘Em, Dezenhall painted a colorful portrait of a world in which well-financed, all-powerful, viciously cynical consumers and activists launched completely unwarranted attacks on hard-working, well-meaning but naïve corporations, who were impotent in the face of such potent foes. Dezenhall appeared to be living in a bizarre alternate universe, and my review of the book suggested his solution—to vilify the victims of corporate malfeasance—owed more to political dogma than it did to the pragmatism that most crises require. But at least it was an interesting universe, and at least Dezenhall had a point of view.

That didacticism—except for the attacks on Dezenhall’s notion of “typical” public relations—is almost entirely missing from Damage Control.

Indeed, he is quite explicit about taking a practical approach to crisis management. “As crisis managers, we are loyal to our client’s well-being, not a strategy. We believe in being flexible and are willing to abandon strategies when the operating client changes.”

Although to be fair, he sometimes sounds as if he is advising companies to take certain actions not because he believes in them but because he knows the public expect them.

“Whatever the crisis you may be facing, the primary point is that our scandal-obsessed, crisis-consuming public has become conditioned to expect a few very specific things our of whoever is on the hot seat,” he says. “Call them the rituals of crisis management.

“Most of all, they want to see someone out there publicly explaining themselves or the company. In today’s media environment, silence equals guilt. Yes, there may be times when you have to, out of necessity, hide behind a half-page statement as you scramble to get yourself together…. But if people’s lives are significantly affected, or there are real health and safety risks involved, you must share with people what you know. A good crisis counselor can show you how to do that without saying more than you should.”

That’s pretty much the same advice you’d get from one of the public relations people for whom Dezenhall has such scorn.

The fact is that even Dezenhall’s patented combative approach is mostly common sense.

“Offense nearly always trumps defense for several reasons,” he says. “First, the news media are allegation-driven. Whoever is alleging is shaping the coverage.” Moreover, “playing defense requires far more resources and is vastly less efficient.” And finally, “a demonstrated ability to throw punches sends an invaluable message to your adversaries that their siege against you or your company won’t be easy.”

This is good advice, and for an audience of non-communicators is probably extremely helpful. But by suggesting that this is somehow outside the public relations mainstream, Dezenhall raises expectations that he is going to deliver something truly unconventional. This could have come from the crisis practice at any competent PR firm.

Other good advice includes the suggestion, borrowed from Ronald Reagan, that companies should “wrap every argument in a principle.”

Essentially, says Dezenhall, that means “taking an issue, position, or call-to-action and associating it with a timeless value—something most people cherish or hold sacrosanct.” Examples include privacy, security, justice, choice. Aligning your argument with one of these values “adds enormous authority and weight” to your claims.

In many situations, when a product is under attack (violent video games comes to mind), “the best moral high ground is consumer choice—the right for consumers to decide for themselves, as responsible adults, what products they use. Consumer choice is empowerment. It is independence. It is freedom from the elitist heavy hand of the ‘nanny culture’ that aspires to run our lives. Evoking consumer choice turns the tables on self-appointed industry watchdogs.”

But he also provides some counsel on when a company should, in fact, recall the product or an issue an apology or otherwise surrender: most notably, when the company has clearly done something wrong, “especially when the problem, the harm, and who is at fault are clear-cut—an oil spill, a chemical discharge… an offensive or insensitive remark, for example.”

Perhaps the best advice of all comes close to the end of the book, in a chapter Dezenhall calls “In Crisis, Personality Trumps Planning.” (I’d have preferred the word character, but anyway…)

“Our collective plan-worship is as absurd as waiting for Godot,” Dezenhall argues. All the planning in the world doesn’t address the reality that God, Faith, Fortune, Lady Luck—name your belief system—has reviewed your crisis management plan and will make sure to visit a scenario upon you that wasn’t anticipated….

“The world doesn’t run on strategies; it runs on emotions—egos, biases, passions, dreams, jealousies, resentments, gut reactions. Most corporations under siege devote far too much attention to strategy and not enough on the key personalities.”

Strong leaders need the capacity to make decisions, even on incomplete information. “In crises, organizations never feel they have sufficient information. But the marketplace doesn’t forgive inaction for any reason.”

The bottom line: “If given the choice between a thorough plan and a good leader, go with the leader, because people rarely separate the event from the personalities that dominate the event.”

Here at last is a legitimate criticism of the public relations industry, and interestingly it brings to mind the Tylenol case study, on which Dezenhall pours such scorn 150 pages earlier. Because the real lesson of the Tylenol crisis is that a company needs to know its values, and how to make decisions based on those values, before a crisis strikes. The reason J&J survived the Tylenol crisis was not that it had a flawless crisis plan in place, it’s that the company—and its CEO, James Burke—had character, based in strong, enduring and authentic values.

Finally, there’s a glimpse of the old Dezenhall—the Dezenhall of Nail ‘Em—in the last chapter of the book, in which he warns companies of The Crisis in Your Future and identifies 10 likely sources of future crises, beginning with what he calls “mission creep.” Companies of all sizes, but multinationals in particular “are committing to a host of social, civic, health, and environmental responsibilities that far exceed the law,” he says.

Is he really arguing that companies are likely to encounter more crises as a result of being too responsible than they would as a result of being irresponsible?

He also bemoans the “demise of science,” a phenomenon he blames on “special interest groups” and activists, as if the tobacco industry had never tried to distort or conceal evidence linking its product to caner, or Exxon Mobil was not—as we speak—funding groups that deny the reality of climate change with the same fervor with which the government of Iran denies the Holocaust.

But my favorite claim is that corporations are “outspent and outgunned” by their critics. Environmental NGOs, he blusters, “have billions of dollars in assets, with the top 10 exceeding $3 billion in collective revenues.”

Just to provide a little context, the 500th largest company in the world (Nike, according to the latest Fortune list) has revenues of $13.7 billion. In other words, there are 500 companies in the world that have revenues close to five times larger than the top 10 environmental NGOs put together. Somehow, I don’t think any of them need to invest time and energy worrying about being “outspent and outgunned” just yet.

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