First Steps During a Crisis: Gauge the Intensity and Show Vulnerable Side

[Editor's Note: Earlier this month during an interview, Bridget Paverd, founding partner, GillespieHall (GH), now a consultant at Slice, which acquired GH Jan. 4, told us part of her job as a crisis consultant is helping executives become confident enough about their role in crisis communication that they can instinctually begin recovering reputation, almost without thinking.

In this portion of our interview, Paverd emphasizes certain human elements in PR crisis. Showing sorry and vulnerability are critical, she says.

This interview was lightly edited for length.]

PRNEWS: There’s the human element of crisis communication that's critical for you. You discussed earlier why some people and companies essentially stick their heads in the sand when a PR crisis is developing or has arrived. We also see CEOs and others failing to apologize directly for a mistake. For instance, they concentrate on things other than the mistakes in a crisis.  

Bridget Paverd: I had a look at the Southwest Airlines's CEO’s video response. It was well written, very balanced and there was loads of empathy.

[One of] his key message[s] was, ‘Well, we don't have hubs, because we come to you.’ Right. Well, you have 65,000 people waiting in lines...The message should have centered on being sorry. ‘We are so, so sorry. This is just our worst nightmare,’ instead of talking about hubs.

PRNEWS: Do you have an example of an executive who was more direct?

Paverd: Yes. Remember [COO] Rosalind Brewer with Starbucks? She admitted quickly [at her first briefing in the midst of the Philadelphia incident] that it was ‘not our finest moment.’ Two years later, she’s CEO of Walgreens. That [PR crisis] was a career-defining moment.

PRNEWS: She made it personal.

Paverd: You have to be prepared to put your personal brand on the line for the people for whom you work in a crisis, because if you're not, then you're working for the wrong people, you don't belong there.

[In a crisis] it's going to be you as the advocate of the company. And it's really important to feel aligned. You must feel you can go to bat for them. If you don't, if you can't, it's going to be incredibly obvious and transparent, and you're never going to recover.

PRNEWS: What are some other human issues with PR crisis and apology?

Paverd: Look at Volkswagen. It’s my favorite case study. The arrogance and the entitlement. [Yet] what happens is that to be an effective CEO, often you have to have sociopathic or narcissistic tendencies…you think, ‘Well, maybe, hang on, I'm untouchable. Nobody deserves an apology!….’

This is what people don't get. With millions of people on social media, you can lose your and your company's reputation in nanoseconds.

We just worked with a young CEO...of a very big company. He's talented. But he looked privileged and entitled...we had to knock that out of took three rounds. He's much better now. People want to see vulnerability.

If you look at the apartment building that collapsed in Florida [in 2021], the first tweet about that went out just minutes after it happened, from someone in a neighboring building. And that crisis lasted, well, it was 11 months later they found the 98th body.

So, [crisis] almost is never one and done. It’s ongoing and you have to prepare people for that. You've got to be robust and understand how your company will recover. And you still got to move forward and grow and protect your brand. Protect your employees.

PRNEWS: The best route?

Paverd: Show me you’re sorry. Help me understand why and how it happened. Tell me what you're going to do so it doesn’t recur and what are you doing for the victims.

PRNEWS: OK, so what’s roughly the percentage of people and companies who call you who are prepared vs unprepared for crisis?

Paverd: Oh, gosh, probably 70:30.

PRNEWS: 70% unprepared, 30% prepared?

Paverd: Yes.

PRNEWS: So, when you’re parachuted into a crisis and the company paying you is unprepared, has no crisis prep, what are the first things you do?

Paverd: You gauge the intensity of the crisis, that’s very important. Are there victims? How many? What's involved? Who was at fault? When did it happen? And, what kind of messaging has gone out to date? How exposed is the client?

PRNEWS: You’re gathering information.

Paverd: Yes. We'll try and get to know as much about the CEO as possible. Is it family owned? What is the C suite like? Who's the board? Are there any [3rd-party] champions who can come out …and support us? We try and get all that information before we have our first meeting….

PRNEWS: And you work with attorneys?

Paverd: Yes. And we’ve seen enormous growth there. Initially, it was ‘Don't listen to PR….’ [But we try to keep statements human. We just do not use words like “alleged” and…legal terminology…that does not happen in our executive statements. We keep it as human and as authentic as possible. People want to see that you're vulnerable, and that you're in pain and that you're devastated by what's happened. They need to see that and feel that.

[Part III of this interview will appear next month.]