The New York Times magazine piece on crisis communication this weekend is long and probably not worth reading all the way through, unless you are new to the field or want to find a few nuggets about the value of crisis preparedness to share with your CEO and feel that the Times will carry more influence than anyone of a dozen trade publications that has covered the subject far better in far fewer pages.
But the first couple of pages did bring to mind an important point. The Times mentions BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs as companies that—in the words of Howard Rubenstein—“found themselves under attack over the very traits that were central to their strong global brands and corporate identities.”
This actually seems to me to be the most interesting point about the recent spate of badly-managed crises (I’d throw Tiger Woods and the Roman Catholic church into the same category), although the Times doesn’t follow up on Rubenstein’s point. So allow me.
The conventional wisdom, I suppose, would be that the worst public relations is when people don’t know how good you are, when a bad reputation is undeserved. On some level, this may be true. But the most dangerous kind of public relations is when people think you’re better than you really are—when a good reputation is undeserved.
Because in an age of radical transparency, people are always going to learn the truth, eventually. And when they do, it’s not only your bad behavior that will be punished. People will at least as outraged by the deceit and dishonesty that went into creating a false image than they are by the incident that revealed the gap between image and reality.
If someone had revealed that Denis Rodman—rather than the clean-living Tiger Woods—had a string of sleazy affairs, would it have been any kind of story? Probably not.
Similarly, if BP had not invested such a huge amount of energy in telling people that it had moved “beyond petroleum” (or better, if it had invested just as much energy in actually transforming its operations), the outrage over the Gulf spill would have been much more manageable.