In defense of crisis PR: An open letter to Rachel Maddow

The MSNBC host lambasted crisis PR counselors, calling them (among other things) an “open sewer.” The author takes issue with Maddow’s commentary.

Dear Ms. Maddow,

I am a fan. I figure I should get that out of the way at the outset. Unlike many of your peers on both sides of the political spectrum, you lay out a reasoned, well-thought-out argument. My high school debate coaches would hold you up as an example of how to make a solid case.

Thus it is all the more regrettable when you characterize the crisis communication corner of the public relations profession with language like “disgusting,” “mercenary,” “open sewer,” and (my favorite) “the most morally repellant, indefensible thing out of American corporate culture,” words you used during a segment on your Aug. 3 report.

Whether crisis PR has a place in politics is not what I’m interested in discussing. At least, not today.

Contrary to you view—which, by the way, mirrors the views of a large segment of the population who have neither the resources nor the professional obligation to check their facts—crisis communication is not about shining up the image of a company that wants a quick fix to public reactions to repugnant behavior.

For most people in the business, crisis communication is about getting clients to make the right decisions not just for the company, but for everybody affected by the crisis. Company reputations aren’t salvaged with spin. They are redeemed through actions and behaviors that earn back the public’s trust.

Before we go down that road, let’s start with a higher-level perspective. True professionals in PR are bound by explicit codes of ethics to which they adhere in which they believe. This is why Dan Rather told an audience earlier this year that, when public relations operates at its best, it helps more than its client or employer. It helps the general public.

“This country needs you and your work right now, your best work,” Rather told the group. “It is through communication and clear understanding that we can, we will, restore a sense of responsibility and public trust.”

Of course, not all PR practitioners represent the best. But that’s true of every line of work, where you’ll find people who are unethical, lazy, amateurish, mercenary or stupid. It’s true among doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, engineers, and architects. It’s even true among journalists.

Calling out the miscreants in crisis communications is fair game—and I applaud it. However, painting the entire crisis communication profession with that same brush is not just inaccurate. It’s unfair. It’s unprofessional. It’s beneath you. And for me—somebody who appreciates your work more than any other commentator in your field—it’s hugely disappointing.

I wonder if, before launching your attacks on crisis communications, you ever read a book on the topic. There are several excellent volumes. My favorite is “Now is Too Late,” by Gerald Baron, who also authors Crisisblogger, a valuable review of how organizations handle their crises.

Have you ever attended a crisis management workshop? Sat in on a webinar? Listen to any podcasts that address crisis management (like this one)? Have you even so much as asked a crisis communications expert to explain himself or herself?

Or, based on the behaviors of a few, do you just label all of us an “open sewer” and move on?

This isn’t the first time I’ve found my jaw dropping at the wholly inaccurate portrayal of crisis communicators you share with your audience. I’m glad you included a clip of your 2009 commentary in your report, since I wrote about that, too, agreeing that practitioners need to know when to turn down an assignment that crosses the ethical line.

Alas, no certification is required for the practice of public relations that would ensure only those who are committed to ethical behavior can work in the profession—just as there is no such requirement for journalists or political commentators. I’m sure you would agree that there are people in your line of work who embarrass you. I’m equally sure you wouldn’t, as a result, declare the entire profession an open sewer.

I know I shouldn’t be so agitated. After all, such is the state of fact-checking among much of the journalism profession these days.

Still, because I do admire you and your work as much as I do, I feel compelled to make some meager attempt to influence your opinion.

When a company experiences a crisis—which, by the way, is defined several different ways—it must communicate with the public. The public gives companies their license to exist; they can as easily take it away through any number of actions. Given no communication counsel—or bad counsel—too many companies clam up and issue “no comment” statements. They get defensive. They shift blame and take no responsibility.

All of this is far less likely to happen if business leaders seek the advice of a professional crisis counselor. We know that the reputation of a company in crisis depends on its openness, candor, and actions (about which nobody will know if these actions are not communicated).

You may be interested in a 15-year-old study from Oxford that compared crisis responses from companies segmented into two categories: those that told the truth, admitted their mistakes or misdeeds, and committed to actions in order to rectify the situation and ensure it would not happen again, and those who lawyered up. Those that responded well saw their share value initially drop 4 percent, then rebound and remain 7 percent above their pre-crisis close. Those who responded badly (that is, did what their lawyers told them to do) experienced initial declines of 10 percent with share prices remaining down, closing the year 15 percent below pre-crisis levels. That’s a 22 percent difference.

Without crisis communicators, Ms. Maddow, most companies would succumb to the counsel of their attorneys, who advise them to say nothing at all since that’s the easiest way to minimize further risk pending legal action.

(You can find documentation of that study in a Wharton School document that offers additional insights into the real world of crisis communication.)

Many leaders also are inclined to hunker down in response to a crisis; effective counsel helps them recognize the need to be available and to relate to the various publics affected by the crisis.

There is far more to crisis communication than making sure companies do the right thing. Crisis specialists ensure the right people, information and resources are accessible to the media and other interested parties. They ensure a steady flow of updated information is available. They address the waves of misinformation and disinformation that can accompany a crisis as competitors and critics use the event to their own advantage. And most importantly, they work proactively with companies to establish practices to prevent those crises that are preventable from ever happening in the first place.

And this just scratches the surface. There’s a lot more that crisis communication experts do about which you just couldn’t have a clue without making even the smallest effort to learn about the subject before labeling its practitioners as a “repellant,” “mercenary” and “disgusting.”

This work stands in stark contrast to your characterizations of shining an image and cleaning things up. Anyone who thinks these superficial tactics actually work don’t last long in the business. (Perhaps they wind up moving into politics.)

In the Gap story you cited, it was a Gap subcontractor that hired slave labor. Should Gap have been more vigilant in overseeing its subcontractors and sub-sub contractors? Indeed. How did Gap respond when they found out? They canceled the order from the subcontractor, committed to destroying the goods that were produced by children, launched an investigation, and called an emergency meeting with all regional suppliers to clarify their requirements for subcontractors. If this is disingenuous polishing of an image, I can’t imagine what expectations you would have for an appropriate and meaningful response. Even the journalist who broke the story, Dan McDougall, said he was satisfied with the response.

According to one report:

“Gap has a larger social compliance program than most companies. They employ 90 internal social compliance staff to work with their supply chain, including suppliers in India. They report having ceased relationships with 23 suppliers last year due to labor standards concerns.”

The fact that this particular subcontractor’s abhorrent behavior slipped through the cracks is symbolic of the challenges large companies face. When such mistakes are brought to light, companies are not only entitled to get help explaining themselves and their responses, they are wise to do so.

It seems clear that Gap wanted, contrary to your report, to clean up the actual problem, not merely the image problem created by the problem. And they did so with the assistance of crisis communication professionals.

The fact is, there are many hard-working people in this field whose efforts are based upon honesty and transparency, who perform to the highest ethical and professional standards, whose recommendations lead companies to take the right actions, and who don’t deserve the offensive and inaccurate labels you have attached to them.

I would hope that, the next time you have cause to report on a crisis communication effort—no matter how badly executed or ill-advised it may be—that you bring the same rigorous research, attention to detail, and journalistic integrity to this topic that you do to the other issues on which you report.


Shel Holtz, ABC

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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