There sure are a lot of scandals these days, and I wonder if the field of public relations has simply fallen apart. Executives don’t seem able to make convincing excuses any more. It’s a new age of incompetent scandal defense.
Look – no matter what has happened, nobody expects organizations to come clean in a blubbering mess in front of five hundred cameras, confessing every possible wrong doing. But some coherence would be nice. Make a show out of it and perhaps try to keep the same message for longer than, say, twenty-two hours.
There is a pattern I have noticed in institutions caught in dodgy behavior. Their organizational message goes from apologetic to offensive in a matter of days, turning the public’s outrage from bad to worse.
Let us say that a former unpaid intern from ACME Corporation has taken a video of operations at their Puppy Grooming Superstores and thereby reveals that the cute little doggies are being butchered into component parts for luxury wallets, cat food, and whichever products call for high-quality puppy-based materials.
Within a day, five million people have seen the video on YouTube, 700,000 have shared the story on Facebook. and 25,000 mentions have been made on Twitter.
Here is the gameplan that I see when faced with such backlash:
1. Deny the allegations and in the calmest language possible, assert that the organization has everyone’s best interest at heart.
“The public is very upset about their perception that we at ACME chop up puppies for money. It is not that we were selling puppy skins and puppy internal organs – we simply wanted to increase the marketability of puppies worldwide. We love puppies and we regret the confusion.”
2. Dispatch proxies, usually below the level of top executives, to say – “HEY – there’s a good reason this is going on. WE’RE the victims of the person who leaked – and your ignorance of how the world really works.”
“As a lobbyist for ACME, I can safely say that Americans – abetted by the smelly, malevolent enemies of business- are clearly ignorant when it comes to the puppy treatment industry. For example, the puppy treatment industry makes over $30 billion dollars in revenue, resulting in over 30,000 jobs worldwide. ACME and many companies like it create jobs. JOBS. Everybody likes jobs, and our enemies hate jobs. Also, ACME is full of nice people.”
3. Dispatch second-order proxies to actually suggest that the leakers should be punished for their offenses against the institution.
“As head of the American Success Institute and former CEO of ACME, it is clear to me that Bolshevik communism is alive and well. The Trotskyite abuse of the very successful puppy treatment industry begs the question – do the leakers of the puppy parts distribution factory videos qualify as enemies of the state? Might they be sent to Guantanamo? I am simply raising the question.”
The institution goes from being conciliatory to predatory so smoothly, the public doesn’t realize that they did a 180 within a few short days. It makes the initial statements about how the institution is as concerned as the public completely invalid.
A note to those working at, or formulating communications for major organizations: Because giant bureaucracies tend to create an environment of groupthink, your perception of the world is likely bent. If your organization is rich and powerful, chances are that nobody is going to believe that you are a victim – even if you are one. You do not get the benefit of the doubt.
And if you are defending a scandal from a government agency, you should not receive the benefit of the doubt. You are responsible to citizens, not just consumers and shareholders, and that is a much more sacred trust.
If your message sounds like an attack, you will lose.