TEXACO FIGHTS FOR IMAGE IN COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION


When crisis and chaos erupt at corporate headquarters, silence is never golden. As the recent Texaco Inc. race-discrimination suit shows, a swift response will likely minimize further damage and set the tone for the remainder of your communications efforts. For the past several weeks, White Plains, N.Y.-based Texaco has been in the spotlight battling a $520 million race-discrimination suit brought by 1,400 Texaco employees earlier this month. The case involves high-ranking officials who were caught on tape using racial slurs to describe employees. When the tapes became public, Texaco's chairman, Peter Bijur, immediately held a news conference to admit Texaco's culpability, and went on ABC's "Nightline" that evening -- though some claimed that Bijur's move was simply a calculated public relations maneuver. Adding to the confusion, a few days later, the company issued a statement denying that the offensive racial slur caught on tape had never actually been uttered. The single most important element in a crisis communication strategy is to get information out there as accurately and quickly as possible -- or else others will. The entire tone of your public relations efforts will be set from your first effort, and coming forward quickly with some information will earn you at least a dose of a "benefit of the doubt" attitude from the public and the media. This seems to be the strategy Texaco pursued when Bijur immediately stepped forward. Certainly, the way in which a company responds to a crisis will depend on the nature of that crisis. If a case involves a violation of federal law, as discriminatory cases do, legal considerations do limit how much a company can say. And though providing information quickly is essential, beware of moving too fast without really having a handle on the facts, because making erroneous statements later on can delegitimize your earlier, positive efforts. "It is very dangerous to make comments or offer facts if you are not sure of them," said Thomas G. Goodwin, senior vice-president, Porter Novelli, Washington, D.C. "Do not go beyond what you know. [With respect to Texaco], it seems as if they did not have full control of the facts." It is difficult in crisis situations to have complete control of the facts early on. Even if you don't have all of the information yet, however, coming forward with what you do have --even if just to restate company policy, or express regret -- is a way to establish early positive communication. "People assume companies have something to hide, and that presumed victims are telling the truth," said Michael Kempner, CEO, MWW/Strategic Communications, in East Rutherford, N.J. "But almost any comment or information is better than saying 'no comment'. "No comment" is the worst thing you can do. It says, 'I'm hiding, or I'm guilty." And, as is often the case in a crisis, new information continually surfaces, and that information needs to be brought out as forthrightly as possible, even if it is contradictory to original statements. "It may be that you need to amend or modify information, and that is proper," said Richard Hyde, executive managing director, Hill and Knowlton, New York. It's hard in the initial hours and days of the crisis to reach firm, definitive conclusions at the outset." The ability to get information out quickly is one element of a crisis communication strategy - but not the first. A carefully crafted strategy should be in place way before crisis hits. The strategy should not be based around a single individual, such as the CEO, or senior executives - who may not be available when crisis hits - but instead should be organized around a process. "It is preferable to have a senior executive up front, but all executives need to know what to do," said Kempner. "A good plan doesn't depend on a person, it depends on having a process." The lack of such a process may have led to the negative public perception regarding TWA's handling of the fatal crash of one of their planes in New York this past summer. When the crash occurred, TWA executives were in London, and failed to issue a timely statement from those offices. The situation worsened when the airline appeared to provide information to the public reluctantly and slowly. "The fact that TWA was slow in getting information to relatives was a serious glitch in their policy," said Goodwin. In fact, a recent survey of reporters by Kulat Communications, a PR firm in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, supports that notion. When queried about the overall communications abilities of five airlines which have faced crisis, Delta was first -- and TWA was last. And, reporters ranked TWA last in rating the airlines proficiency in getting back to reporters with answers about the crisis. Understand Media Before Crisis A solid crisis communication strategy acknowledges the possibility of crisis at any time. This includes knowing the media that covers your company or industry, and cultivating a relationship with the media. That way, a level of trust is established. If you have pre-established relationships, when the crisis hits, you will get the benefit of the doubt from the media. And even though legal considerations may restrict what you can say, you are not limited to who you can get your message out to. In times of crisis, a company such as Texaco should be sending messages to the media, shareholders, the business community, analysts, special interest groups and their customers. Don't overlook your own employees, either. They can be the biggest source of information --or misinformation --to the press. "There are many people with many different agendas out there," said Kempner. "I've seen many employees offer improper or damaging information." And, though the messages to different audiences will all carry the same theme, consider using different mediums to reach them. "The best way to reach employees may be in face-to-face meetings in small groups," said Hyde, " whereas with shareholders, in some cases you can reach them through the media. For a government or regulatory audience, a direct phone call or face to face meeting would be appropriate. The news release is not the answer for everything." (Richard Kempner, MWW/Strategic Communications, Tom Goodwin, Porter Novelli, 202/973-1361; Richard Hyde, Hill and Knowlton, 212/885-0372)

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