Monday, August 18, 2008
PUBLIC RELATIONS IN TIME OF PR DISASTERS
By Armand Dean Nocum
Dean & Kings PR & Marketing Strategists
President and CEO
My Rotarian friends, the world has evolved so much that we are finally living in a world which communication guru Marshall McLuhan called a ``global village.’’
Technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Whether we like it or not, the world has shrunk into our television sets, computers, PDA’s and cellular phones. Although these immediate and real-time connections have brought us closer, it also pushed privacy as we know it to near extinction.
Gone are the days when individuals, government officials and private corporations can work alone in peace and not have their lives exposed in the 6 o’clock news, the tabloids, the attack-dog columnists; the You Tube and ever-increasing blogs. But among all these anti-privacy busters – the most common and damaging of all is the text messaging system.
Texting has not only brought down one President, it may also bring down another one. Texting is truly the equalizer, these days, no matter how high or mighty you are, you are just a text away from infamy and doom.
These days, with media becoming all powerful and with technology connecting us all globally, our reputations, accomplishments, positions, possessions, human relations and businesses are just a computer click away from destruction.
What used to take armies to bring down now only takes a computer mouse or a cheap mobile phone to accomplish.
Indeed, this is the age of communication and media crisis! The age of Public Relations Disasters!
More than ever, private and public personalities, public and private companies; and all entities that are not living isolated in Neanderthal or Jurassic age caves are seeing the need to hire public relations or crisis communications to protect their reputation.
These days, one needs to hire PR experts as one hires lawyers, accountants or guards to keep one’s safety and company stable and in good shape.
PR, which is defined as ``the management of reputation,’’ has been around for years now with American President Harry S. Truman once saying: ``All the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.’’
In no time is the PR’s relevance more appreciated than now.
What is Crisis Communication?
So, just what is communications crisis?
Media crisis is when you have a sexy Khorina Sanchez virtually waking you up with a call to comment about a scandal affecting you or your company. It is having Arnold Clavio knocking at your company door or seeing your name trashed in Mon Tulfo or Vic Agustin’s column. It is going home and finding your family crying over embarrassing news about you which they first saw on television.
In short, it is staring at a situation that could affect the name you build for years, the company you started from scratch and losing it all to an adverse or negative media projection. Worse, you find yourself clueless and immobilized in the face of such life-changing crisis.
Crisis may come as result of an act of God, business operations; corporate moves; legalities; rumors; staff; and scandals.
But here in country, there are far serious forces at work and they include corrupt senators and congressmen who use congressional in investigations to raise campaign funds; unscrupulous BIR, BI and BOC officials; corrupt policemen and barangay officials; and extortionists in media or pseudo-media.
Once the crisis has erupted, then any or all of these crisis factors are likely to surface to join the feeding frenzy. For example, a news report on your company’s labor problems could get unscrupulous media men blackmailing you; then you’ll have unscrupulous labor, revenue and customs officials looking at your books; and much later you found yourself being sued not only for labor violations, but smuggling and tax evasion as well.
Worse, enterprising lawmakers may initiate congressional hearings on your company. From experience, I can tell you this is pure hell because unlike the courts, basic parliamentary rules, procedures or decorum are rarely observed as solons scramble over each other to throw the most offensive and personal question so their faces will land in the TV Patrol or 24 Oras. As for the others, they will grill you so hard for you to remember their names when you decide to pay yourself out of the crisis.
What to do?
So what do you do the when crisis hits you?
The best way to fight PR crisis is to be prepared. You must have a crisis manager to consult. He must have anticipated the entire crisis that could hit you or your company; and as well as set up a detailed crisis strategy plan. Under this plan, a communication team is formed to contact executives, legal and audit officials anytime of the day.
This team will immediate appraise the crisis and issue press statements both to stakeholders and the media. The first 10 hours of the crisis is crucial. It is very important that the news – even a bad one – should come from you; otherwise, the media and those victimized by the crisis will fill in their own lopsided and negative information, thus fueling the crisis even more.
In cases like these, it is best to tell the truth, provided the lawyers are consulted before this is done. But then, don’t make the lawyer your spokesperson because in their desire to be legalistic, they may make you or the company appear guilty or to be hiding something. The best spokesperson is a family member of the owner and one who can show and display compassion.
In this case, showing is better than doing. Be with the victims right after the tragedy. Show compassion and you will see your company getting stronger and better right after the crisis.
After the Cebu Pacific plane crashed in 1998, their PR consultant lose no time in advising them to set up a place where relatives of the victims could go and the place had snacks, coffee and trauma counselors. The company also flew the relatives of the victims to the crash site in Misamis Oriental.
After the crisis, Cebu Pacific went on to beat PAL in the domestic market.
Per advice of his PR, Fernando Zobel did not just provide the victims of the 2007 Glorieta blast money over and above what the insurance firms provided for, but Fernando Zobel also visited relatives in the hospitals. On top of that, he gave them a million and residential houses.
Most of the time, it’s not the money or service you give but the act of giving it that counts. Of course, you do this with media knowing about it.
What not to do
After the do’s, now we go to the don’ts of crisis management.
The best way to illustrate the don’ts is to show you the PR disaster called the Sulficio Lines. This company did not only lose a ship, it lost all credibility and connection with its customers.
This include hiring lawyers first (no offense to lawyers) more than crisis managers to respond to the crisis. Where the PR could have advised them to immediately go out to face the media and the victims, the lawyers advised them to hide and make no comment to escape liability.
As a result, they blew away any credibility and public sympathy by showing – through their lawyers – that they only cared about their legal survival and have little regard for the victims.
Added to this, they also appointed a lawyer-spokesperson who showed no emotions. Thus, the offer of money from the poker-faced lawyer only earned them more criticisms.
And rather than tell the truth, their lawyers went on into a legal offensive blaming the weather, Pagasa, coast guard and everybody else, except themselves. The owners were also advised to hide the fact that the ship was carrying toxic endosulfan.
When they finally got the sense of getting a PR, this PR erroneously advised them to drumbeat their ``social responsibility,’’ but their failure to immediately respond to the PR crisis made this claim sound hallow, so they only got more beatings from congressmen who accused them of telling them lies during a congressional hearing.
Thus, as I end my talk with the advice that doing good is the best defense against a PR crisis or disaster. Acts of goodness or philanthropy on our part; or corporate social responsibility on the part of our companies would serve to earn for us a ``reservoir of goodwill.’’ This ``social credits’’ will come in handy in times of crisis because we can always claim that the tragedy is out of character with our companies’ consistent desire to do well and serve well.
If everything fails, follow the advice of book author and US Congress librarian Daniel J. Boorstin who said:
``Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.’’
This was the speech I delivered at the Rotary Club Grace Park last August 13. I hope you find this information usefull given this crazy times of communication revolution.