MSU Class, PR Counselor Contemplate Crisis Communications

crisis_communications_1This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to students of Michigan State University’s Executive MBA program as part of their leadership series training. And while my morning long presentation was designed to get these growing executives thinking, the tremendous minds in the room – most from major corporate entities – also prodded me to exercise my brainpower in the area of crisis communications.

Where adversity management is concerned, over the course of my more than 20 years in the field, I have counseled clients in all manner of crisis situation, including those involving loss of earnings, loss of jobs and, unfortunately, loss of life. As I walked the soon to be MBAs through a range of case studies and scenarios, I continually stressed the core tenets of effectively dealing with crisis: Inform, Take Responsibility, Reassure and Take Corrective Action.

As the class and I discussed case studies and interactive scenarios – including those involving service interruption, CEO bad behavior, corporate downsizing and more, many in the lecture hall asked my opinion on an array of difficult, recent and high-profile ‘real life’ crises; in essence asking me: What would you have done?

Top of mind for most in the room was the current New England Patriots ball inflation craziness. One of the most successful teams in the NFL, the Patriots are arguably the league’s worst at cheating. What would I do if I were the NFL? Simple: Follow the rulebook.  At best, the Pats should be fined for tampering. At worst, a coach suspension and/or equipment person firing should be enacted depending on what the league investigation (which should be swift and judicious) uncovers.

Several students brought up Bill Cosby and his failure to speak to the public on his alleged travails.  If I was innocent, I told the class, and Bill Cosby, I sure would not be silent.  I’d be suing the women who have come forward for defamation while very publicly denouncing their allegations.  To not speak, I suggested, instead spoke volumes.  Further, Cosby’s recent off-the-cuff and inappropriate remarks to a female audience member at one of his shows regarding alcohol underscores further his lack of sensitivity for the topic at hand. If it looks like guilt and smells like guilt…

One question that took me most by surprise was what I might recommend to just convicted murderer Bob Bashara.  Earlier questioning had delved into the ethics of providing communications counsel to someone the police and court system have assigned guilt.  Since a PR professional should always counsel its clients to be ethical and truthful, my advice to Bashara, Kwame Kilpatrick or any convicted felon who continues to deflect blame would be the same:  Admit your wrong doing, seek forgiveness from those wronged and then shut up and do your time.

A final question posed by the class that made me stop and think was the query of which types of crises were the hardest to handle.  And while virtually all such situations – with reputations and careers often on the line – have at least some degree of difficulty, it really gets down to whether the CEO or person in charge is willing to accept your counsel; the, you can lead a horse to water dynamic.  As PR guru Jason Vines puts it: “PR should serve as the conscience of any organization.” It is something many top managers should consider carefully (in good times and in bad) and a role that those of us in the field should never take lightly.