28 Apr 2015

Spin? Lie? Why Smart Companies Shouldn’t Do Either. Really.

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youcan'thandlethetruth2“There’s been some bad behavior,” they told me. “We wonder how much you’d charge to help us with it. Maybe a campaign, shifting attention to the accuser, and to help us get out messages reminding stakeholders of our values and all we stand for. Not that we should spin it. But you know… spin it.” 


The company representatives laid out the (grim) details. I listened because, well, maybe there would be something redemptive. Maybe I could help. The assumption was — because this was a company in crisis, and I have crisis PR experience — that this is just what I do.

But the fact is, I don’t spin and won’t lie, and a smart organization won’t, either. And here’s the thing: if PR is done right, you don’t have to.

If you believe popular media (looking at you, Scandal), you might imagine a PR person can and will spin or lie, can make things (odious things –why do you think they call them “ripped from the headlines?) vanish, leaving little bits of his/her credibility and conscience dropped here and there, faster than newlyweds disrobing on their wedding night in 100-degree heat.

It makes sense, right? Protect the brand. An interesting PR challenge. And they offered a lot of money.

It’s just what we do.

As it turned out, it’s not what we do. Or not the way they wanted. Not only because my and my agency’s brand is about trying to do PR ethically (more on that later) but for an even simpler reason:

Truth serves you better in the long run.

I told them, “Trying to spin or cover this up is not in your organization’s best interests. Our recommendation is that you ferret out as much of the truth as you can, transparently, in the name of credibility; and then show the actions you have put in place to avoid or remediate this happening again.”

They were surprised. And they disagreed, to put it mildly — pointing out that The Truth could harm perception, revenue, investments.

We held firm. Because, as I told them, “in this case, you already know or believe the person in question was most likely guilty. If you cover it up or try to spin it — and this is discovered — you lose credibility. Then you contend not only with anger at the initial act but with disgust and loss of faith at having been deceived.

“But one day, your organization or someone in it may be wrongly accused — you won’t be guilty. And you will need to draw on your community’s and the public’s faith in the same brand you’re trying to protect now. Without credibility, you may keep some cynical stakeholders — but they will run to the first competitor. Because there’s no emotion holding them to you. But if you shine your own light on your organization, your stakeholders still may not love it, but they’ll identify with your struggle emotionally and intellectually. You demonstrate that your brand goes deeper than just nice words strung together, that you value current, past and future stakeholders’ long-term faith and investment in your business.”

They were unmoved. They hired someone else to help them “get ahead of the story.”

With very little schadenfreude, I will tell you only that it didn’t end well and the public was not kind: they smelled a rat because there was one. People were fired. But just as important, the brand was damaged. You saw it. You may have forgotten about it. But sadly, the next time a similar story runs, that organization’s soiled laundry will be unpacked and re-aired, courtesy of SEO.

When companies ask us about spin, or about lying, we tell them this basic truth (and it plays out every day in companies, schools, non-profits and government organizations across the world):

  1. Sooner or later, you will need to be believed.
  2. Being believed is much easier when there isn’t previous evidence that you’ve lied.

So find the truth that you can tell with the least amount of damage, be accountable, and try to fix it. It is ever so much easier to forgive a mistake, even a gigantic mistake, when there is leadership and accountability — and when there is not the added insult of a person or organization trying to get one over.

If the emperor isn’t wearing clothes, you should be the one to point it out — not the public or the media. And you should be the ones scrambling to fetch the poor guy something to wear.

Uh, wait, you say: So people were fired. Damage to the brand was done — but was it? In this world of 24/7 newscycles there’s always a new story to kick the old one off the front page. Protect the brand. That’s just what you do.

True enough. Or it was, once. But I’d argue that the worst thing for a brand isn’t one huge crisis — it’s the slow drip, drip, drip of eroded credibility.

And for me as a PR professional and former journalist myself, there’s my own credibility, too — trying to tell a reporter that this time, the company isn’t lying. It’s unbelievably uncomfortable (imagine trying to have a conversation while ignoring a dead body on a coffee table. Something like that). And, it doesn’t work. I’ve done it just once in my career and swore to never do it again.

So what’s a company to do? Apologize? Just own its mistakes and pray?

1. First, know that there is no such thing as “getting ahead of the story.” 

There was a time, before the advent of social media and cameras and documents that live forever, that maybe — maybe — you could hide the truth and “get ahead of the story,” as the PR saying goes. But that time is no more. Today, chances are good that sooner or later, the truth will come out. The wrong perception of your brand could cross the world 10 times over while you are getting your statement or tweet approved in Legal.

2.  Be prepared.

There’s a saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Meaning, all the planning in the world won’t prepare you for the weird curveballs of human behavior and circumstance. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan. Because there’s another saying: the crummiest time to think about a crisis? Is probably when you’re in crisis. (P.S. – it’s also more expensive) The value is in thinking about what could happen and what you should do, resources you could tap, ahead of time — so that if a crisis does hit, you aren’t caught off guard.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet that we have used proactively, and it has hauled some major names’ youknowwhats out of the fire.

  •  Make a list of potentially bad situations: Bad behavior by an executive. By an employee (or student/athlete/clergy/representative…you get the idea). Accident. Death. Natural disaster. Fraud. Whatever applies to your organization. Then, think about logistics: Who would be responsible for getting the facts? Who would speak? To whom? Who would need to be notified? Employees first? Shareholders? Customers? Authorities? How? Conference? Statement? Blog post? (This is tricky. You don’t want to share with people who will post it on social media while you’re talking.)
  • Next, think about the brand’s core value(s), and what you’d need to say to reinforce it. Trust? Safety? Whatever it is, restoring it should be your objective and True North: it should guide all communications and actions.
  • Then ask what actual, tangible steps  you could take to communicate those values, immediately and in the long-term.  Delegate. Assign action items, build a timeline, decide what can and can’t be shared, and when.
  • Plan how you will communicate your actions — the actual words — and figure out who will need to review that. Have a couple of backups, by the way.
  • And — this is important — prepare an initial draft statement (minus specifics, of course) for each of your potential crises and think about the channels you could use to get it out in the world. Traditional and social media. Blog posts. Videos. Friends. Board members. List them in your plan along with who would own them. Somewhere in that statement say that you are working on it, marshaling resources, or gathering facts. It should convey action, but not specifics until you are ready. (Note: Don’t release your biggest statement until you know the scope of your crisis. Otherwise, it’s that slow drip, drip again, as you are forced to issue updates into new news cycles, or the press or public finds something you missed.)

3.   If a crisis occurs, use your plan to guide you. Dig out as much information as you can (trust me, it beats having the press or authorities report something you missed, as though you hid it or were sloppy). Determine what you can safely, legally, and truthfully share. 

Sometimes external constraints prevent your revealing key information. There may be confidentiality, privacy or regulatory forces at work that are bigger than you are. If so, legal counsel or authorities should be able to advise you. But ideally, you can at least show that you would like to be more forthcoming or will be at a later date. “We understand that everyone wants to know X. Right now we have been asked by authorities to respect their investigation. What I can tell you is that when we have more clarity on what we can and cannot share, we’ll be glad to do that.” Know in advance where you can’t go, and be prepared to be transparent about that, too– graciously. “I wish I could answer that, but there are probably people who know more than me at this point; and you should probably ask them.”

4. Use the rule of talking to your kids about sex: don’t tell people more than they’ve asked to know.

Be as transparent as possible, deliver the truth as simply as you can within the parameters described above. Don’t volunteer what’s not asked.

5. Give the apology or explanation you’d want from your leader. And be human.

In a crisis, your stakeholders want to know that there’s a human in charge, not a faceless committee cowed by legal. Generally,we want to identify with your human emotions, even as we want to see your strength (not talking trolls, here; that’s a different post). That doesn’t mean sniffle on camera, or even overapologize — you still have to be a leader. It does give you permission to say some form of what everyone is thinking, anyway: “Even as we work with authorities to get all the facts, our hearts and minds are with the families of …..”

Keep in mind that your public — those who are invested in your organization — wants to rally around you. We know that human beings can make mistakes, and we admire leaders who can model accountability with their words and actions. Be simple, clear, use plain language (not euphemisms). False emotion or humility won’t fly, nor will finger-pointing. Try to consider your words from the standpoint of those hearing them.

6. Promise updates to those who care about the situation. Then deliver them  as promised, without drama or self-aggrandizement. If channels don’t exist to deliver updates, create them. If you’re not hiding something, there’s less reason for others to dig.

Your crisis transforms into reportable facts instead of one, prolonged gotcha.

All of this isn’t to say that finding a way to keep your organization afloat in a crisis without spin is easy. Sometimes, just finding a way to tell the truth without either being boring or throwing someone/thing under the bus isn’t easy. (I could write ten posts about dealing with others’ agendas, legal complications, and more. And then there’s just the post about owning who you are, even if it’s not for everyone.) It’s just smart. Like, long-term smart.

But you know what is easy? Sleeping at night, without worrying that someone is going to do the work you could have done to clear the air. Looking in the mirror and having self-respect. Knowing your stakeholders may or may not be on your side, but at least you acted with integrity.

And that’s a whole different kind of easy.



This post first appeared on LinkedIn

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