How crisis PR hasn't kept up with the turbulent times

By Matthew DeBord
Sunday, July 25, 2010

The sun never rises for BP. Or so it seems. After it had finally stanched the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico last week, this week brought news that the "cap" it placed on the gushing wellhead might be producing "seepage" elsewhere on the sea floor. From triumph to tribulation, over the course of a mere weekend. BP's long PR nightmare continues.

But it is far from alone. If public relations is what companies do to spread the good news about their successes, then PR's evil twin, crisis PR, is what companies do to contain the bad. It's the realm of the total meltdown -- the grim concatenation of all things gone to hell. Until recently, it was seen as an indispensable aspect of business communications, a sort of black magic worth millions. But now, BP has a well-connected PR firm in Washington, the Brunswick Group, on the job.

A veritable deluge of crises since 2008 has shown that crisis PR is no longer up to the job. The BP oil spill, Apple's Antennagate, the fall of Goldman Sachs, Toyota's Great Recall, the sexual travails of Tiger Woods, the trysts of Al Gore, the loose lips of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- all these combustions would have been fixed, in the good old days of 2007, with a call to Burston-Marsteller or Sitrick and Co. The accepted wisdom was that you didn't want to be on the other side of a Mike Sitrick counterattack. Crisis PR wasn't just effective, it was feared.

But the new crisis paradigm is spinning hopelessly in the dark. By mid-2010, the stories were changing too rapidly to control, much less to revise. Like a violent postmodern vortex, the bad news sucked down all who struggled to escape it. Unsurprisingly, the Internet is to blame. But the phenomenon goes beyond the 24/7 news-and-comment cycle. It forces the PR world to confront something far more disruptive -- and something that will undercut its $700-an-hour fees.

The lesson now for companies that screw up is that you really have no chance: The currents are against you from the get-go. The courts of Twitter and online video sites, along with Facebook groups that deplore the transgressions, will overwhelm even the most elaborate crisis battle plan. The profession, quite simply, is at a crossroads. And it isn't in a position to ride out the bumps, because it's up against the kind of high-altitude turbulence that can shred the airframe.

The gulf spill and its impact on BP is Exhibit A. The Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent gusher caught the firm unprepared. "BP might have to change its name," says Ira Kalb, a professor of merketing at USC's Marshall School of Business. "Crisis PR can still work if it's executed properly, but in this case BP couldn't limit the scope of the damage because they didn't know the solution."

Other companies that have been clobbered by their inability to limit the damage can console themselves that they won't have to change their corporate identities, though this may be cold comfort, given the savaging of their brands.

After its recall of millions of vehicles for sudden, unintended acceleration this year, Toyota has had to reevaluate its core values. A tsunami of outrage didn't just catch the company off-guard -- it flummoxed Toyota's entire corporate culture. The vaunted "Toyota Way" couldn't absorb the punishment meted out by millions of critics with access to keyboards. By the time chief executive Akio Toyoda was hauled before Congress, Toyota was just hoping to cut its losses. At one point, crisis PR was all about aggression -- and to its (ahem) credit, Toyota did attack researchers who maintained that they had been able to duplicate the unintended acceleration under lab conditions. But it was fighting while in retreat, and defense isn't crisis PR's specialty.

For PR firms, the key is to get back to focusing on trust. "One you've lost trust, you've lost just about everything," Kalb says. "You can't put spin on it. You're dead if the public thinks you're spinning." Kalb stresses that it's important for companies caught in the crisis spiral to propose solutions.

Inside the profession, however, distributing blame has been more popular. Various crisis PR pros were so appalled by how Woods's handlers mishandled the scandal that they offered superior strategies, aimed at preventing the Striped One from losing his corporate endorsements. This kind of perspective isn't even too little, too late. It's blind to the new reality.

The meltdown of the most aggressive form of PR comes at a time when the profession has arguably never been more influential. The Economist has argued as much. As the advertising landscape has fragmented in the age of digital media, PR has come to be perceived as a cheap and effective way of reaching customers who TiVo'd away the timeworn 30-second TV spot. This was a moment of triumph for public relations, which ad-agency creative types have always treated with contempt.

Unfortunately, the forces that enabled PR to gain some respect -- the Internet and social media -- are the same forces that have placed its crisis counterpart at a profound disadvantage. "Social networking has made [the situation] much more difficult," Kalb says. He argues that PR firms are going to have to bring social media -- the relentless Twitter feeds, the spontaneous brand hatred that can explode on Facebook, the viral YouTube parodies -- into their services.

This could end up making crisis PR much less about seducing journalists and advising clients to engage in mea culpas and more about maintaining numerous online angles of attack on the Big Bad Story. The upshot is that crisis PR will be far less feared, but much more effective. That which almost killed it can make it stronger.

-- The Big Money

Matthew DeBord has written about the auto industry for The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post.

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