Where’s Shakespeare When PR Needs Him (Or Christopher Marlowe)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

On August 16, the New York Times ran an article about Well Fargo continuing to charge customers overdraft fees for accounts that were closed.

A spokesman for the troubled bank, which has for several years been the subject of government investigations for unseemly practices, told the Times, in part, “Wells Fargo works hard to foster a culture that is centered on doing what is right for our customers and exhibiting high ethical standards and integrity.” 

Statements like the one above are from the public relations boiler plate statements hand book that was created many decades ago and should have been trashed, but still unfortunately survive. Two of the so-called “golden rules of PR” that has always bothered me are the clichéd, parrot-like statements issued after a PR crisis and statements by a corporate entity or individual with a PR crisis that lack any empathy. Like the one above.

Most corporate statements after a PR crisis read or sound as if they were written by individuals who have a master degree in Uncaring from Trump University. It’s as if they were instructed that any showing of empathy would create a bigger PR or legal problem for an entity or individual.

I plead guilty to not being a historian of how responses during PR crises affect the legal outcome of a situation. (Probably those who write them also can’t point to how expressing empathy is harmful to a client. Teacher says, student does, is most likely their rule, even if the belief was originated by a Homo erectus.) But I do know that both boiler plate statements or responses that seem as if the person is being water tortured before admitting responsibility is not good public relations.

Below are a few examples of quotes issued during a PR crisis:

In its May 31 edition the New York Times ran a story about a young girl who was injured when she was hit by a foul line drive in a section of the seats that had no protective netting. 

The Times reported that Major League Baseball said, “Clubs have significantly expanded netting and their inventory of protected seats in recent years. With last night’s event in mind, we will continue our efforts on this important issue.” (If the seats are the inventory, are the spectators the product?)

“Boeing CEO Muilenburg Issues Statement on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 Accident Investigation.”

“First and foremost, our deepest sympathies are with the families and “Boeing continues to support the investigation, and is working with the authorities to evaluate new information as it becomes available. Safety is our highest priority as we design, build and support our airplanes. As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety.  While investigators continue to work to establish definitive conclusions, Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously-announced software update and pilot training revision that will address the MCAS flight control law’s behavior in response to erroneous sensor inputs. We also continue to provide technical assistance at the request of and under the direction of the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Accredited Representative working with Ethiopian investigators.

“In accordance with international protocol, all inquiries about the ongoing accident investigation must be directed to the investigating authorities.”

Boeing also is not beyond using the “It’s not our fault” strategy. On June 20, after being  strongly criticized for its handling of the 737 Max crisis at a House hearing, a spokesman for the company said, “The 737 MAX was certified in accordance with the identical FAA requirements and processes that have governed certification of previous new airplanes and derivates,” according to the New York Times. (That’s like saying that just because the government doesn’t prohibit smoking it doesn’t mean doing so will not cause life-threatening illness and addiction.)

Actress Felicity Huffman’s pleading guilty statement re the college admissions scandal:

“I am pleading guilty to the charge brought against me by the United States Attorney’s Office.

I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.

I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.

My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her. This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.” 

Perhaps the most long-lived and nonsensical boiler plate response is that issued by corporate America, when it reaches a financial settlement with the Feds for regularity wrong doing. The standard statement is, “We neither admit nor deny guilt,” whatever that means, unless you believe that the business is patriotic enough to voluntarily ante up money to enrich the treasury. (Call me a cynic, but I find that hard to believe.)

Resorting to horse and buggy PR statements earned Paul Parilla, former chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, a place in this article. In a story regarding the sexual assault charges and victim statements against USA Gymnastics, the New York Times quoted him as saying, “The entire leadership of U.S.A. Gymnastics shares the U.S.O.C.’s commitment to promoting a safe environment for athletes, and we take its views very seriously.” (Boilerplate statements like this, without any empathy or admission of wrong doing or corrective measures, is a PR tenet that should have never been practiced. They position a person or entity as uncaring and unsympathetic to those injured.)

The U.S. Olympic Committee again, when a spokesperson, responding to a Wall Street Journal article headlined, “ATHLETES CALL FOR OVERHAUL,” said, the committee’s “…top priority is to protect, support and empower every athlete in our community.” (Another example of a boiler plate response that has little to do with the reality of a situation And I’m still trying to figure out how the U.S.O.C. planned to “empower every athlete.”)

The statement by Huffman gave the impression that she is truly sorry. The other communiqués might have been issued by an A.I. device that lacks any human emotions. (Even responses by Siri and Alexa have more human qualities than most by-the-book PR crises assertions.)

For years, I’ve been questioning the effectiveness of PR crisis efforts. Sometime I counseled clients that the best crisis strategy was to do nothing; other times to be pro-active. But I’ve never believed in some of the tenets that PR crisis specialists advise, like respond quickly, (before the facts are known?), have prepared statements, (without knowing what the problem is?), rehearse your crisis team so they will be prepared if a crisis occurs, (but shouldn’t every crisis be handled differently because as I have long said, “There is no one size fits all crisis plan?), and especially, plan to “get ahead of the story,” a crisis PR tenet that means nothing to the media or public and accomplishes nothing?)

The April 14 business section of the New York Times had a column about crisis management in which Eric Dezenhall, of Dezenhall Resources, was quoted as saying, getting ahead of a story is a great sounding cliché that has no meaning

In my opinion, the most effective statements by an entity or individual in crisis, which so-called PR experts would probably disagree with, are the ones that admit as soon as the facts are known, that there is a problem that has to be corrected, spoken in every day English.

One that impressed me was, There’s only one thing to do,” David Calhoun, the lead independent director of Boeing’s board, told the New York Times. “And that’s to get a safe airplane back up in the sky. I can’t message my way into it.” Mr. Calhoun has it 100% correct. That statement was the best and most believable PR crisis response ever regarding Boeing and other PR crises.

The efficacy of how PR crisis responses help a client can be debated. But one thing is certain. No matter the outcome of a PR crisis strategy, it will be deemed a success, because PR crises teams certainly know how to make themselves look good

In our business, the opinions regarding statements that are issued by individuals or entities in a PR crisis differ. Some practitioners will agree with my take; others will not. But there is one thing that I am fairly certain of: Many of the statements are written by individuals who do not agree with the famous Shakespeare quote: “To thin own self be true,” or the Marlowe line, “Honour is purchas’d by the deeds we do,” and that includes, in my opinion, being honest with clients about what a PR crisis plan can truly accomplish.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, 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 publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum,net.

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1 Comment

  1. Toni muzi falconi on August 18, 2019 at 10:13 am

    Wish author could be’ more careful in his writing before telling others what to do.