Hire a “PR” Expert for a Crisis, You’ll Create Another Crisis

The Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) recently sponsored a webinar with crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall titled, “Clickbait Journalism and Public Character.” It’s worth a listen.

Dezenhall has never been accused of being a shrinking violet, and this appearance was no exception.

He expressed his long-held belief that “The PR world was addressing crises as communications problems, not as conflicts.”

He points out one of the prime weaknesses of public relations agencies: “Usually the PR industry, what they’re always doing is ‘Let’s tell our side of the story.’ Well, what if nobody wants to hear your side of the story?”

And what of the nonsense spouted by PR agencies who say, “We need to get ahead of the story.” By the time you’re in a crisis, holds Dezenhall, “You’re not ahead of the story. You’re under it.”

Any communicator with any sense realizes that no one, regardless how skilled or connected, can make a company’s crisis vanish. Conduct opposition research? Sure. Argue your case? Yes. But guarantee a victory? As Dezenhall told one public figure who approached him, “You are looking for an enchanter, a guru, a wizard. They don’t exist. K Street, Blackfriars, Madison Avenue, and Wilshire Boulevard are filled with these people. They are lying.”

It all boils down, he says, to this: “Do you want to solve the problem or do you want to make people feel better?”

Some bottom line questions he poses to prospective clients:

  • What do you think I can do for you?
  • What is the best achievable outcome?

These are good questions for all consultants to add to their repertoire when interviewing potential clients. It is the consultant’s job to get clients thinking about what is possible or what the best possible outcome might be. The goal may be acquittal in court rather than saving someone’s permanently tarnished reputation. Or it may mean taking a hit in one part of your business to save the overall enterprise. It may mean issuing a statement instead of holding a news conference or agreeing to a media interview. It may mean spending extra bucks to solve what is clearly a problem.

On the subject of money, “It’s not unusual for the PR industry to give advice that benefits their billing as opposed to advice that benefits the client,” continues Dezenhall. One of the most heinous examples of this I’ve witnessed in my career comes courtesy of the PR agency that asked me to lead a media training session for one of its clients. After a few days, I got nothing but radio silence from them. When I finally reached my contact, they told me they had decided to handle it internally, no doubt solely to fatten their portion of the budget. I inquired who would lead the training. After some hemming and hawing, they admitted it was a 20-something account person. The kicker? This individual had never even observed a media training workshop, let alone led one. I’ve often wondered what that client thought when subjected to that. I have not wondered about the sad results they must have suffered.

In my 20-plus years in communications consulting, I have never released a client list. PR people look at me in amazement. After all, how could I vie for those glittery, self-backslapping — and largely meaningless — industry awards? Whatever. Client confidentiality should come first.

As Dezenhall frames it, “I am amazed at people who claim to be in our industry apply for awards…If I did anything like that I would be out of business immediately.”

I recently all but ended my participation on Twitter, so was encouraged to hear him label social media a problem. “Simply because a technology exists doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean you can control it.” Take a look. Positive news is generally not interesting to social media addicts.

Often, a crisis is a “messy, ugly business of trying to solve a problem that is not going to be solved soon,” he states. “You have to spend a lot of time and a lot of money. And a lot of people don’t want to do that.”

When a crisis strikes, it is important to acknowledge that “Not all of their accusers are wrong,” says the crisis expert. “Our job is to take a mountain of horse manure and, god willing, turn it into a mere pile of horse manure.”

The typical PR firm will try to work with media. Bad move, says Dezenhall, who tells the press, “Our job is not to make it easier for you to defame our client.”

I’ll echo his notion that “The most defensive people I have ever encountered in my life are my friends who are journalists.” With the possible exception of doctors, it is hard to imagine a profession that gets more huffy when questioned. He recalls a conversation with a reporter who said Dezenhall’s client was not transparent. When asked who his sources were, the scribe refused to say, to which Dezenhall replied, “You’re not transparent either.”

Provocative thoughts. Tune in to “Clickbait Journalism and Public Character.” You’ll find it time well spent.

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