Four cardinal rules to avoid handling scandal scandalously

Four cardinal rules to avoid handling scandal scandalously.

Bad news is inevitable. It happens to everybody and every organization spanning sports, business, government, entertainment, religion and politics – all of whom seem to have the same issue: handling scandal scandalously. But what turns bad news into a scandal? It’s a simple concoction:

1. Propel someone in the public eye: ceo, golfer, congressman
2. Lashings of hubris that makes it a story e.g. power, greed, hypocrisy
3. Roast it slowly over a fire of corruption, cover-ups and denial (and new information) that fuels the scandal across the media.

Bad news, however, can be good news to the prepared. Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the Godfather of public relations, once said: “Tell the truth, because sooner or later, the public will find out anyway.” So when you need to be big, strong and fast and mobilize a massive, sweeping redistribution of information to the public, hide nothing and tell all. Crises like the
one’s we’re witnessing with Lance Armstrong, DSK and Anthony Weiner are particle accelerators for their personal brands that reveal their fragility. Here, then, are the four cardinal rules people must adhere to when protecting their brands — personal or otherwise:

1. Expect the best; plan for the worst.
When crisis strikes – news and social media burst and formal statements are rendered useless. The media don’t have a memory-recall button, but the public do. The problem isn’t resources; it’s about managing the crisis with a can-do attitude and strong values of trust – something which Mr. Weiner used to be known for. Many claim it, but few deliver: Johnson & Johnson’s $100 million rapid response to the storied contaminated Tylenol crisis in 1982 prepared J&J for the acetaminophen overdosing debacle in ’09, but what really did they learn given their recent pitiful performance? Same can be said of the Vatican, for after the abuse scandal  began to ensnare the Pope himself the Vatican’s strategy became crystal clear: call for repentance over the past sins and demand more effective action in the future, but simultaneously discredit “attacks” on the Pope as a media circus and shield him from legal shenanigans.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Captain Sullenberger’s preparedness for the “Miracle on the Hudson” was a far cry from the corporate puffery supplied in the (delayed) response of US Airways CEO, Doug Parker. A crisis can cost your reputation in a single battering. People may be forgiving, but the media is not – and remember to the media, if it bleeds it leads!

2. Decentralize your decision-making
Crises are too quick for lengthy procedures; you can’t be fearful and hide in bureaucracy, but puh-leaze seek counsel before blatantly lying on camera – involving technology – remember Oliver North and those file servers. Case in point, immediately when the lead-paint scandal engulfed Mattel, CEO, Robert Eckert had a team of 16 open all lines of communication with 300 media channels, and its made 14 TV appearances and 20 calls to journalists in one day — a model for decentralized decision-making. The seemingly integrated, multi-platform blitz strategy by Anthony Weiner resulted in less favorable opinion because Anthony forgot to remember there are two types of bull shit, fluid and lumpy – we don’t like the lumpy stuff. Consider Reggie Bush, he’s been mum about the investigation into his earning record (when his not meant to be earning) and has never met with investigators. This is a precarious strategy to employ –  just ask Barry Bonds. However it must be said that Bush has thus far not been damaged by his fifth amendment approach, but if he is stripped of the Heisman Trophy, his refusal to speak about the allegations for such a long period of time will certainly contribute to the blunt impact trauma on his reputation.

The Fortune 100 favor Twitter as a key communication tool, according to a study by Burson Marsteller. As social media becomes ubiquitous and people participate more, the ability to inculcate social media to sway public opinion is ever more crucial in the crisis, but keep in mind the first four letters of Twitter spell “twit”.

3. Respond boldly.
Marshaling a crisis team and a response plan are critical, including weighing the need for autonomy over the preferred unified leadership approach. Anthony Weiner flip flopped and flailed around like a loose fitting part. Talking without really saying anything isn’t really a recommended solution, either. To the media, “No comment” sounds an awful lot like “I did it” and only handing out the truth in a piecemeal fashion keeps the story alive longer. It’s often said that if Nixon would have come clean in the first week, Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t have written so much ink lambasting his presidency.

The more you want to achieve, the more you achieve, so when you need an ambitious, audacious and imaginative response, beaching ones self on a sludge bank of “no comment” creates a morass. Barry Bonds’ refusal to interject publicly about some of the “added” reasons for his success only compounded the negative public opinion surrounding him.  He and his cabal have handled the issue awfully, and his sponsors have been left with nasty hangover. And there’s a similar storm brewing that Lance Armstrong is saddled with, but that’s an entirely different bag of nuts.

4. Check, test, check, test.
Your brands’ integrity is compromised through fear. Studies show that companies that handled a catastrophe well have recovered and even exceeded pre-catastrophe stock price. Kobe Bryant offered his apology immediately after the accusations were made public and maintained his composure throughout where as in contrast the IMFs Mr. DSK was at the airport and Anthony Weiner was left holding his

In a crisis, fear is often the first reaction and it culminates in either a lack of compassion and/or stubborn refusal of the facts. Firestone tire treads were causing fatal crashes on the Ford Explorer, but customers were blamed first for over inflating the tires, then both brands publicly defenestrated each other for faulty designs and concomitantly fell into silence until dragged before Congress. Reporters hate mysteries. If they sense somebody is stonewalling them, or blatantly lying, they’ll hone in more and excavate on any fact they can muster and dig forever. It becomes a point of principle, a crusade to unearth the truth – and yes, get on the front page. Perhaps the likes of Mr. Weiner would benefit or just next time remember what they say in journalism, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

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Author: Dean Crutchfield

In an award-winning career spanning two decades, Dean Crutchfield has created, built and re-invigorated some of the world's most iconic brands.

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