Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
As PR colleagues of mine know, I am not a great fan of self-anointed or agency designated “crises experts.” The reason? It’s easy to give advice after a problem occurs, but it’s definitely more difficult to prevent a problem from occurring. And putting a lid on bad news is a pipedream that only delusional clients believe is possible. This was demonstrated once again in numerous White House, corporate and individual PR crises in 2017, when the media confronted crises spokespeople’s talking points with facts. (Of course, the White House doesn’t use spokespeople with a “crisis communications” title. They use ranking government officials to defend the president. But as William Shakespeare wrote in “Romeo and Juliet,” “A rose by any other name etc., etc., etc. “
I’ve now been in PR for more than 30 years, including nearly 25 at Burson-Marsteller, where I managed and played key roles on significant national and international sports and nonsports accounts and traveled as a media adviser with high-ranking foreign government officials.
During my tenure as a PR practitioner, which followed several years as a reporter and editor, my credo has always been that it’s best to practice preventive crises public relations. That means before writing a program or arranging interviews for a corporate executive the account executive has to determine if the client has a soft underbelly by extensively researching the client’s history and not recommending programs that might cause the media to delve into past problems. Equally necessary is researching the type of story a journalist does before deciding who to pitch.
While I always practice what I preach, unexpected crises occasionally occurred and I had to navigate incidents that had the potential of becoming international PR crises. Fortunately, for me and the clients, these incidents were controlled quietly and efficiently before they blossomed into major crises that would attract extensive media coverage.
Today, major PR crises are sliced and diced on cable television with reporters acting as district attorneys and defenders of those in crises playing the role of criminal lawyers. So, what’s troubling about that? The TV media acting as crises enablers in an effort to attract audiences. That’s what’s troubling.
In addition to talk radio and political pundits on the 24 hour cable news networks being largely responsible for the public’s cynicism and distrust of government, the media is also guilty of exploiting PR crises situations by calling on “crises experts” for analysis of situations, even though those used most likely do not have any detailed, or in governmental matters, top secret facts relating to the situations before passing judgment. It’s what I call “we must fill the hours” journalism for the cable networks and I’ll defend anything and say anything for a few bucks for those “hired gun”crises spokespeople, who believe wrong is right.
While the media has changed mightily over the years, all too often crisis communications practices have largely remained stagnant. Advice given is too frequently out of the stale “PR 101 Crisis Communications” play book.
As people in our business know, but won’t admit, so called “PR crises experts”are a dime a dozen. Agencies, both big and small, confidently tell clients that they have the talent on staff to solve any crisis problem. (But that’s not unusual. In our ego-centric business, PR people think they have the answers to everything, except, maybe, to the eternal question of which came first: the chicken or the egg?) The reality is that not all who are designated as “PR Crises Specialists” are equal. And just because an agency is bigger doesn’t necessarily mean the advice given is better, just costlier.
People in our business automatically think that the universe is interested in their client’s PR crisis. Except for people directly involved in a crisis situation – like Equifax, most people couldn’t clear a hoot about a company in crisis. But companies spend a fortune on broad-based crisis communications efforts, especially if it is covered by the media, when experience shows that trying to counter negative publicity only results in follow-up negative coverage.
If no bodily injury or law breaking activates are involved, I would advise clients to take a deep breath and wait a day or two before responding. Because during my long PR career, in many cases, the initial negative story was the only one.
Of course, if it’s a juicy story, cable TV is there to exploit it.