The PR Crisis Cover-Up Solution

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Actual Happenings:

The National Football League admits that concussions can lead to brain damage and also donates money for research into the matter.

Major League Baseball comes down hard on PED users.

BP unleashes a series of TV commercials about how people in the oil spill states are proud of what BP is doing.

SeaWorld commercials proclaim how much they care for Orcas. SeaWorld also joined with the Humane Society of the United States on various programs like fish and marine mammal protection, healthy oceans and sustainable seafood.

If this was a client presentation to one of the above entities on how to respond to an on-going PR crisis it might go as follows:

Problem: Extensive negative major media coverage accelerates because of government and public interest.

Strategy: Initiate a “good corporate citizen” image.

Tactics: Reach the public and opinion leaders using a massive advertising and publicity program by:

  • Hiring a respected “impartial” attorney to investigate charges against the companies.
  • Fund research and other projects to give the appearance of a “good corporate” citizen.
  • Reach out to friendly journalists and politicians who will support your reinventing yourself.

What’s wrong with the above positions taken by the organization to position themselves as good corporate citizens? What’s wrong is that the actions taken were not taken voluntarily. It took years of criticism by government officials, the media and much of the public to get the organizations to change their ways, resulting in a cynical attitude to the efforts.

What makes the above spinners think that the public can be fooled by what is an obvious PR campaign? The advice of so-called PR crisis specialists, that’s what. Good PR campaigns should not be so obvious.

If ever there was a PR crisis cover-up list, the NFL, MLB, BP and SeaWorld are near the top of the list. Recently they have been joined by Equifax and Wells Fargo. The difference is that the later two companies are still under investigation by governments and the media. Thus their “reinventing” themselves is still a while away.

The lessons they learned the hard way is that despite the millions of dollars they probably spent trying to prove to the public and media that they have seen the light and have changed their ways is that it isn’t going to work.” At least in this century.

Here’s Proof:

For the NFL, whenever a story is written about concussions, their sorry history of denial and doing nothing until they were forced to is and will always be included.

For MLB, whenever a story is written about PEDS, their sorry history of doing nothing about its use until forced to will always be included.

For BP, whenever there is a major oil spill, as with the Exxon Vadlez spill, BP will be mentioned.

For SeaWorld, whenever there is a story about the mistreatment of animals and marine life, SeaWorld will be included.

It will take more than a PR campaign before negative media converge stops. How long will it take? That’s up to the media, not PR crisis people. Because only the media can stop the flow of negative stories.

One of the first accounts I worked on when joining Burson-Marstreller was an encyclopedia account, in the days when encyclopedias were in book form. The selling of encyclopedia was under attack because of shoddy sales practices, except for the brand that I was hawking. So I pitched that angle to a leading business writer. He responded, “So you want me to do a story because your client is selling the books in an upright manner?” He continued, “Shouldn’t all corporations act above board?” Of course he was correct.

Over the years, I have advised both American and foreign entities during PR crises. But one rule was constant. Don’t deny the obvious. Doing so will result in a tug o war with the media, which the media will always win.

When supervising a program, I always stressed three other rules:

  • The first is Crisis Prevention in program planning. It means researching a client’s history to make certain that  program elements do not invite reporters to revisit any past negative actions by the client.
  • The second is that every crisis deserves original thinking because there is no one size fits all approach.
  • And my third rule is to begin planning a client “rehabilitation” program during the crisis so it can be implemented as soon as the barrage of negative media coverage subsides.

Following those rules might not prevent a client PR crisis or lessen negative media coverage if one occurs. But it certainly might help alleviate one.

About the Author: Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at