Is a Crisis Really a PR Problem?

In the wake of the cascading crises involving Goldman Sachs, BP, the Catholic Church and Toyota, a more insidious crisis for the public relations industry trails close behind. And it’s one that PR people are all too eager to contribute to.

Whenever a crisis involving a major company or institution hits, the news media cover it largely as a public relations issue. Furthermore, with the help of some PR professionals, the handling of these crises is always deemed to have been botched. There is a direct correlation between one’s willingness to diagnose a timely crisis as a mishandled public relations blunder and being prominently quoted in the press.

Both the coverage of corporate crises as communications fiascoes and the willingness of PR people that are not involved in the cases to validate these misdiagnoses make the already daunting challenge of crisis management harder. A more sober analysis of the role of communications—both within our industry and externally—is long overdue.

Let’s start with some fundamental laws of physics:

Nobody likes super-rich bankers that make obscene amounts of money—in a manner that few understand—during bad economic times. Should Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein have joshed that his company was “doing God’s work"? Of course not. But even without this faux pas, Goldman would be filling the culture’s villain void. At least until the arrival of the next villain du jour, a role handily filled by BP.

The largest oil hemorrhage in history is an environmental and economic catastrophe, not a PR gaffe. Saying that BP has a PR problem is like saying somebody who has been hit by a train has a headache. Well, sure they do, but there are bigger wounds to be addressed in the trauma room. And, certainly, the tireless clichés about contrition fit somewhere into the mix, but it’s not an artful apology the decent people of the Gulf want—they want their lives back.

The systematic and longstanding permissiveness of sexual abuse of minors by powerful clergy—whose entire institution is predicated on faith— is a moral, theological and existential crisis, not a failure of positioning for the Catholic Church.

And the intersection of quality control reversals, mechanical defects, media and consumer hysteria, and trial lawyer orchestration is a complicated interplay of controllable and independent variables, not a linear consumer outreach program poorly implemented by Toyota management.

No one would dispute that there are any number of things that the recently crisis-afflicted could have done better. But even if Goldman, BP, the Vatican and Toyota's public relations had been tip-top, it is folly to think that would have defused the tsunami of outrage attendant to their challenges.

Public relations is not a bloodless tool like a ratchet set, which, if used properly, can repair everyday items with fixed parts, like a bicycle. A corporate or institutional crisis has numerous players, investors, agendas and external crosscurrents that are not under the pushbutton control of a centralized management team. In fact, as anyone who has been through one of these crucibles will confirm, you don’t really “manage” a crisis at all as much as you pilot through it.

Crises by definition are unique, negative events. Companies simply aren’t geared up to handle the PR fallout because it’s not what they do. Even institutions that are better prepared to handle crises—such as the U.S. military—frequently are perceived to have failed at the PR side of things because they are dealing with intrinsically bad, truly outrageous, developments. Furthermore, the media and pundit-ocracy want companies to fail at PR. What journalist wants to say that, “while the coastline of four states was fouled, an entire eco-system destroyed, and thousands of families driven into financial ruin by the oil spill, we applaud BP’s PR efforts?”

By perpetuating the convenient chestnut that these major crises are fundamentally communications problems, PR people not only lose face with top managers who know better, but continue to set themselves up for failure by overbidding the role that communications in the resolution of serious problems. As one CEO insightfully told me, “All these flacks out there with their handy suggestions sound like they’re trying to justify their careers, and it all seems pretty desperate.”=

Those who do media analysis of breaking crises—myself included—are free, of course, to share whatever insights we legitimately have. Among those insights can be that communications play a valuable role in the crisis management mosaic. But, if the public relations industry wants to be regarded as something other than opportunistic, if somewhat deluded, it will frame damage control in the context of what communications can—and cannot accomplish.

Eric Dezenhall is CEO of communications consultancy Dezenhall Resources. He can be reached at