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Crisis Communication

No Weiner jokes, please.

Anthony David SausageAnthony David Weiner, the U.S. Representative for New York's 9th congressional district, has been in the news of late. I‘m flabbergasted that a guy with a name like Smuckers would do anything to associate himself with the particular body part that shares his mis-pronounced surname. (For the record, “wein” in German, meaning wine, is pronounced “vine” not “veen.” The “er” means “of the,” which may explain his poor judgment).  In his stage act, the drag comedian, Dame Edna, picks a woman from the audience and says to her, “Oh, my dear. You have obviously given a great deal of thought to that outfit. What were you thinking?” Oh, my dear, Mr. Weiner.

To students of crisis management, this guy has offered up a perfect case -history, videos and dissections of which will be common in PR and MBA programs for decades. The lesson is simple: don’t do anything he did after he did what he did. The crisis, you see, was not the discovery of pictures of his body parts in the hands of nubile nymphs across the nation. The crisis, entirely of his own making, began when he lied.

A couple of years ago, I participated in a seminar with Bob Woodward, who has been chronicling, since breaking the Watergate scandal, the stupid behavior of powerful men. (See TIME magazine’s recent piece, The Caligula Effect: Why Powerful Men Compulsively Cheat for some fascinating reading on the subject.)

Someone asked Woodward, “As a reporter, what do you want to hear when a company or public figure makes a mistake?” “The only acceptable answer,” he replied: “We did it, we’re sorry and we’ve taken steps to make sure that we never do it again.” An earlier author who went by the name of John, said it another way, “The truth will set you free.”

Eastern philosophers (and Werner Erhard, as I recall), expressed the concept underlying modern-day crisis management in two principles: “resistance causes persistence” and “re-creation causes disappearance.” Resistance in a crisis situation can take many forms, such as not answering a reporter’s questions or denying something in plain evidence like, oh I don’t, say a picture of you in your underwear. What happens when you don’t answer a reporter’s question? Why, the question persists until it is re-created, that is, answered. Once answered, the question disappears. /p

Crisis management, as it turns out, is really very basic, a lesson that bears re-visiting from time to time. Tell the truth and fix the problem. Yes, my dear Mr. Weiner.

Crisis-communication mistakes to avoid.

j0407334.jpgFor The Thunderbolt Kid and Random Acts of Conversation, click here.

I’ll never forget my first crisis-communication project.  I was about to meet for the first time with the executive team of a new client, which was in a business that handled all manner of toxic and deadly industrial substances. 

When I arrived with my business partner at the time, the CEO and his team were fuming.  They had just been told about a newspaper article that reported on the company’s spill of a chemical into a waterway in a town hundreds of miles from where we sat.  The CEO essentially demanded that we immediately “issue a press release” calling the local reporter and his editor “yellow journalists.”  I asked simply, “Have you read the article?”  No one in the room had.  They were relying on the telephone report of an employee in the hinterlands who clearly had an agenda that involved covering a certain anatomical feature beginning with the letter “a.”  The article, when we read it, was fair, balanced and complete.

In scores of client crises encountered in more than 30 years, I have seen and almost always helped to avoid fundamental mistakes such as responding with invectives to newspaper articles that no one has read.  Here’s some of the common mistakes I’ve seen:

Responding to ego damage instead of real damage.  Too many crisis-communication situations are infected with the probably incurable disease I call Testosterone-itis.  Rather than responding to and managing the reality of a crisis, those driving the response too often are blinded by the damage done to their feelings.  For example, the executives of an insurance company that specialized in annuities was under attack by a rogue rating agency as “most likely to fail” because of its so-called “junk bond” holdings.  Though the executives wanted to send a letter to every annuitant reassuring them that the company was well managed, an overnight random sample of annuitants revealed that only a tiny percentage even knew the name of the company that had issued their annuities.  Imagine the firestorm that a letter to all of them would have ignited.

Greatly over-estimating the role that mass media play and under-estimating the role that opinion leaders play in creating or resolving the crisis situation.  This mistake was just as common in the pre-Internet days as it is today.  Yes, mass media (including social networks, Twitter and such) do play an important role during crisis situations.  But all crises start and grow with at least one victim and at least one other person pointing out the victimization.  Successful crisis-communication programs speak to them directly, not at arm’s length.  (For a series of charts describing how crises emerge and resolve, along with specific strategies and tactics to employ during each of the three major phases, visit my website. )

Taking actions that will extend the crisis, not resolve it.  (Think Toyota, the modern-day J&J and the Vatican.)  There’s a phase during every crisis during which it can almost always be resolved simply by fixing the problem that is causing a crisis to germinate.  It often requires a mea culpa along with the fix and a realistic set of steps to avoid a re-occurrence.  But too often, company executives listen to their attorneys and not to the overwhelming evidence that acknowledging and fixing problems does more to help a company’s reputation than any amount of foot-dragging, passively voiced non-apologies (“Mistakes were made …”) and finger pointing.  The corollary of this mistake: being guided by fear of lawsuits rather than doing the right thing.

Allowing dangerous gaps in the crisis infrastructure.  These gaps include lacking a plan, the tools necessary to implement it and to monitor its progress.  Gaping holes I’ve seen include lack of a well-coded and complete database of opinion leaders; having no regular methods for monitoring social media and having no alternative means of communicating with key constituent groups when one method can’t be used or isn’t appropriate. 

Planning a communication program is a science and an art.  Read more here.  

April fools? The Vatican does not have "a PR problem."

The Pope

It’s long been my pet peeve that, when organizations behave egregiously, they are said to have “a public relations problem.” Yet when they behave in exemplary ways, their actions are “merely public relations.”  Thank god for the Catholic Church, which in recent weeks has demonstrated abundantly that “vile” behavior is simply that, not simply a failure to communicate.
To anyone who is following the Vatican’s blundered cover-up of systematic child rape within its clerical ranks (as Catholic author Andrew Sullivan characterizes the issue) and its tone-deaf response when caught with its collective cassock down, it’s clear that this 2,010 year-old institution has not caught up with modern crisis communication techniques, to say the most. You’d think that an institution that has institutionalized confession and forgiveness would have figured out by now that “mea culpa” is a lot more powerful than attacking the victims. 
Yet that is exactly how the Vatican has responded. At Easter mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope hugged the dean of the College of Cardinals, who broke all traditions and inserted a “welcome” into the mass in defense of the Pope, calling charges against him “petty gossip,” part of a “vile” smear campaign orchestrated by biased media intent on weakening the papacy’s moral authority. 
Many of my friends and colleagues know that I once spent a good deal of time and energy as a graduate seminar leader for Werner Erhard’s est training. (The work he began continues via today’s Landmark Education.) I remember being at an event that Erhard conducted at which someone asked why he had chosen to incorporate his organization as a for-profit rather than a not-for-profit entity. 
He replied that for-profit organizations have the benefit of direct and immediate feedback from the marketplace. If they’re doing something of value, they survive. If not, they don’t. Since he wanted to provide value, Erhard said he wanted evidence for that. Not-for-profit organizations, he said, tend to lose sight of their missions and turn their attention to survival of the organization. Without the feedback of the marketplace, they tend to survive by focusing on survival. As a fully recovered former Catholic, forgive me if I shout “Bingo!”
There is a PR person working in the Vatican, believe it or not; Father Federico Lombardi, an Italian Jesuit, is the Vatican spokesperson. In an interview with Time, he pointed to the “speed and vastness as well as the expectations for response” from media and that “we have been late in learning this within certain ecclesiastical quarters.” Though some news reports about the situation have had “problems,” he’s clear that “we shouldn’t see it as a conspiracy or part of some calculated attack.”
So why is Lombardi’s advice not being taken? He reports to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, the #2 man who is, as Time reports, “an exponent of the conspiracy-against-the-Pope perspective on the crisis.” No, indeed, the Vatican does not “have a PR problem.”

Crisis Communication

j0407334.jpgMy work with clients in crisis is conducted confidentially. Although I would like to share examples of my work, I'm confident you will appreciate that I cannot do so. However, several clients have been kind enough to offer their perspectives on my work with them during crisis situations. For example, Marcy Kelly, vice president, Sales and Marketing, for Wedgewood Pharmacy had this to say:

“We originally engaged David in 2003. Crisis communication was his specialty, and we were certainly in a crisis. He responded immediately, freeing himself up for a meeting the following day, and arriving at the meeting thoroughly prepared with a self-study understanding of the industry, and research in hand. He helped us think through our communication needs internally and externally, performed primary research with our customers on the issue at hand, and promptly developed talking points for employees and the media. The crisis at hand could have had a significantly negative impact on our financial performance at that time, and David's work helped to avert that outcome. As a result of that, and many other successful projects over the next few years, we engaged David on retainer. He has performed a "customer relationship check- up" that is impacting our strategy development, the planning and implementation of a media relations strategy, a public affairs engagement for our industry association, and frequent copywriting projects from our Wedgewood Guide to the voice over for our online tour. David is the ultimate planner. Everything has its place within the scheme of things. When he make plans, they are detailed, logical and progressive (A before B, then B before C, etc.) Before he takes action, he has thought out all the possibilities and then decided on the most probable action to take. He loves to anticipate problems. He checks and rechecks all of the details over and over before taking the first step in the plan of action. Solving problems is one of David's greatest joys. In business, David's bottom-line is dollars and cents. He is very resourceful with money and budgets. If given the right opportunity, he can stretch nickels and dimes into dollars by monitoring and planning the details of how money is acquired and spent. I highly recommend the work of David Kirk.”

As the result of developing urgent communication programs in situations ranging from unexpected executive resignations, hostile takeover attempts, tragic deaths, evacuations, chemical spills, faulty products and a variety of other threats to companies' reputations, I can say that certain factors are almost always present in corporate crisis situations. I believe, that the list below clearly distinguishes my understanding of and approach to clients in crisis.

Common mistakes in a crisis

Clients in crisis typically ...

  • ... are driven to respond to executive ego damage rather than actual damage to the interests or reputation of the organization;
  • ... greatly over-estimate the role that mass media play in creating or resolving the crisis situation;
  • ... greatly under-estimate the role that opinion leaders play in resolving crises;
  • ... are very likely to want to take actions that will extend the crisis, not resolve it;
  • ... don't speak in a way that helps to resolve a crisis;
  • ... are guided by fear of lawsuits rather than what they know is the right thing to do;
  • ... have one, specific and very dangerous gap in their ability to manage a crisis effectively.

If I may be of service to you in a crisis situation in which effective communication with key constituencies is vital, please contact me in confidence.

theCrisisGuy is a service mark of thePRguy incorporated

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