There’s a maxim that says the cover-up is worse than the crime. Another variation is the cover-up makes the crime worse.
A prime example is the cover-up of the break-in at Democratic National Committee HQ at the Watergate Hotel, in 1972.
In our business, unsuccessful cover-ups have brought many entities massive negative media coverage. Years later, the National Football League, Boeing, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen remain excellent examples of entities that brought trouble on themselves when they tried hiding certain difficult facts.
- For example, the NFL has never lived down denying a link between football and brain-damaging concussions. This is mentioned whenever major injury news arises, as it did recently.
- Boeing attempted to shift blame for two crashes of its 737 Max 8, in 2018 and 2019.
- Wells Fargo played hanky-panky with customer’s accounts for years. The story broke in 2013, but reached page 1 three years later. When John Stumpf, Wells' then-CEO, appeared on Capitol Hill that year, he downplayed the bank's conduct and culture. It was a disaster. Stumpf was ousted within months. Wells Fargo's blemishes haven't disappeared yet.
- Similarly, and just prior to Wells Fargo's news, Volkswagen attempted hiding that it falsified emissions statistics, in late 2015. Like the others already mentioned, that cover-up was a bust.
Avoiding drip, drip, drip
History shows one way you can limit negative media coverage is disclosing bad news ASAP and tell as much of it as you know. This prevents the dreaded drip-by-drip coverage. It's painful, but it works.
Failing to come clean publicly about classified documents has engulfed President Biden in a large PR snafu. While the White House notified government authorities the moment classified documents were discovered, it largely kept quiet publicly. Once the documents story went public, the drip-by-drip negative coverage began.
Another mistake: the White House hid the possibility that more documents might exist.
As noted, it's painful admitting mistakes. Admittedly, it hurts more disclosing bad facts when you think additional snafus are ahead. It's rare in a PR crisis that you possess full knowledge of a situation. Once again, the best route is disclosing what you know promptly and admitting more bad news might come.
There are other important lessons here. One of the most important is that PR pros should avoid hiding problems, ignoring them or hoping they'll go away. Instead, face the issue and solve it if you can, before it mushrooms into a crisis.
Below are simple rules that might lessen negative coverage of a PR problem:
- Avoid a media feeding frenzy, which occurs when you hide facts and they trickle out, drop by drop.
- When engulfed in a long-term crisis, schedule weekly news conferences, always with a high-ranking corporate officer answering questions. This will let your crisis team analyze reporters' questions and help prepare for future press encounters. On other days, post statements on your site.
- Never answer a question with 'no comment.' Explain why you can’t answer the question. One reason might be because it's a 'what if' question. Refuse those.
- Reply immediately when rumors appear. However, respond only to the rumor. Some PR operations are large enough for dedicated truth squads. They can scour media for rumors and respond.
- Transcribe questions and answers when speaking with media. Studying this material is another way you can prepare for future inquiries.
- Don’t hide the CEO. Make her available for press inquiries when the crisis goes public. After that, have the CEO on hand only when releasing significant news.
- Always have a prepared statement for media distribution.
- Avoid playing the blame game. It results in additional negative coverage and reputation damage. We mentioned Boeing's blame-misplay above. Similarly, Wells Fargo's Stumpf initially blamed mid- and low-level staff for scamming customers. Both companies paid the price for these poor attempts at hiding facts.
- And most important, when addressing the media, always tell the complete truth. It comes out anyway.
Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. Contact him: [email protected]
[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]