PR Pros Need Better Strategies to Handle Crises

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon

This year is no exception to the numerous PR crises that have been worsened by faulty actions of crises specialists and clients. Here are a few (so far) that stand out from the first half of the year.

Concussions in the NFL. After years of claiming that there was no proof that concussions caused life-altering damages, despite growing scientific evidence to the contrary, the NFL agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by retired NFL players.

What would have been better. By settling the suit years ago, the NFL could have avoided years of negative publicity, which made the league resemble the actions of the cigarette industry of years past. Of course, the NFL copied Wall Street by not admitting any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, its big-bucks settlement can be considered a tacit admission of guilt and did nothing to stop continuing negative press regarding concussions.

Hacks of customer data. Despite knowing for several days that its customer list was hacked, Target kept the problems secret until the news was broken by journalist Brian Krebs, a security blogger; also, Neiman Marcus did not divulge that it had been hacked until questioned by Krebs. Customers also said they had difficulty getting information about their accounts from Target.

What would have been better. Unlike too many PR crises—where companies shoot from the hip immediately after a problem occurs, before knowing all the facts—Target and Neiman Marcus knew about the problem and should have notified its customers without delay about the hacking (rather than customers learning about the breach via the media).

Target also broke another cardinal rule by assuring that encrypted PINS were safe and then admitting that they weren’t.

The Target news coverage, still a live story, is an example of what I’ve been saying since I switched from news reporting to public relations regarding a PR crisis: Despite the best efforts of crises experts, only the media will decide when to end coverage of a crisis situation.

GM’s faulty ignition switches. Despite knowing about problems about a defective ignition switch since 2001, which was cited by investigators as causing crashes and deaths, General Motors didn’t issue a recall until 2014.

The revelations about the delay resulted in numerous continuing negative media stories, Congressional hearings, on-going government investigations, charges that GM broke the law and GM recalling millions of cars for safety defects.

What would have been better. This is a no-brainer. By waiting more than a decade before issuing the recall, the situation is a public relations and legal disaster, again placing the company under the government microscope, damaging GM’s reputation and stalling its efforts to regain the confidence of consumers.

The onslaught of negative news stories once again proved what I’ve always told clients and agency account execs: despite the best efforts of PR crisis specialists only the media can decide when a crisis is no longer newsworthy and crisis specialists can do little to lessen the damage until the coverage ceases.

The Benghazi memo. On April 29 Judicial Watch released an email it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It included talking points from former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, that said that the Benghazi attack in 2012 was “rooted in an Internet video and not a broader failure of policy.” The release of the newly disclosed email gained major media attention.

What would have been better. As in almost every crisis, an attempt to hide negative information failed, giving the Republicans charges of a cover-up new life. Releasing all the bad news at once is always better than having it become public drip-by-drip, prolonging the story.

PR history shows that often the best advice a crisis specialist can provide to a client is try to settle this quickly before it becomes a continuing media story or be prepared for on-going negative media coverage.

And sometimes, I ask to wait a day or two before responding publicly because often the crisis turns out to be a one-day story.

CONTACT:

Arthur Solomon, a former senior VP at Burson-Marsteller, consults on PR projects. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.