"Sometimes," says Eric Dezenhall, "you have to fight the altar boy."

For even altar boys can be wrong, and woe to the one who attacks any of Dezenhall's clients.

Dezenhall is a crusader against the crusaders and a defender of the defenseless. He's one of the PR industry's premier practitioners of "crisis management," the art and craft of countering public attacks on corporations and celebrities, and mitigating the damage from misbehavior, malfeasance and various other blunders.

Dezenhall, co-founder of Nichols Dezenhall Communications Management Group Ltd., a highly specialized and highly compensated public relations practice in Washington, concentrates on flacking for the bad guy, operating under the premise that the good guy is often wrong.

Dezenhall explains his innate suspicion of moralistic attacks by citing the example of the late Chicago prelate Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was accused of molestation by a former seminary student in 1993. The attack, widely covered in the media, demolished Bernadin's reputation and did not stop until Bernadin's lawyers took aggressive action and disproved the accusation.

"That's what modern crisis management is often about," Dezenhall said. "Fighting altar boys."

`The Culture of the Attack'

A relatively new spur of the public relations profession, crisis management is located at the extreme end of the PR continuum and grows larger every day. Dezenhall, 37, whose firm was founded in 1987 with partner Nick Nichols, his former boss at Porter Novelli, describes his business as a response to what he calls "the culture of the attack."

"Our firm really started to grow when attack journalism exploded, as the rules of decorum in our culture declined as to what questions can be asked and the hackneyed, gentlemanly response didn't get results," he said. "If it weren't for these things, I'd be sleeping on a grate somewhere."

Most public relations businesses are headquartered in New York, with mere satellite offices here. But Washington is the very nexus of the crisis communications business. With its concentration of government, regulatory agencies and trade and industry associations, the city has "become the center of the crisis-management universe," according to Ben Long, president of Travaille Executive Search, a firm that specializes in recruiting PR professionals.

Dezenhall and others who practice crisis management say its methods are distinctly different from those of what most people consider public relations. Whereas another PR firm might try to persuade the public that a client isn't wrong, or at least isn't so bad, a crisis manager's sole purpose is to stop the attack by whatever means necessary.

As Dezenhall puts it, "when there's a knife at your throat, you've got more than an image problem."

Dezenhall tends to get hired when another PR firm has gotten fired. "We are the last resort, the Navy SEALs of the communications business," he said. "Our only objective is to make the problem go away. We don't want to schmooze or be your friend."

Described by Doug Elmets, his former boss from the Reagan White House's Office of Communications, as "a dog with a bone when it comes to attacks," Dezenhall's outward appearance belies his reputation. He could be any thirtysomething tech executive or lawyer, an avid runner who is as comfortable with casual Fridays as with coaching his son's Little League team.

"When a 10-year-old kid says, `Gee, Mr. Dezenhall, you could use some Rogaine,' it really keeps you down to earth," he said.

But both his former boss and his former clients describe him as the man whom, in battle, they would want the most in their foxhole. Jean Statler, who in 1988, as vice president of communications at the American Plastics Council, hired Nichols Dezenhall instead of a mainstream PR firm to help deflect environmentalists' attacks, describes him as "the best in the business."

He rarely shows up on the public's radar, only occasionally speaking for his clients. He prefers to work in the background. He won't name his clients, though a search of press coverage of PR conflagrations produced some clues. In 1988, he worked for Avtex Fibers, the nation's largest rayon manufacturer, when it was accused of contaminating drinking water in Front Royal by dumping hazardous chemicals into unlined pits. He also represented the National Polystyrene Recycling Co. when McDonald's stopped wrapping its burgers in the material in 1990. And, more recently, in 1997 he represented Arco Chemical Co. in that firm's battle to keep MTBE, a petroleum additive designed to reduce air pollution, on the market after environmentalists in California attacked it as a ground polluter.

Dezenhall won't talk about specific cases involving named clients, but it's clear that the above cases were relatively low-key compared with some of the work he has done.

The methods used by his firm are relatively straightforward and, to the chagrin of PR firms everywhere, nakedly free of spin. Nichols Dezenhall employs, among other people, a small arsenal of ex-law enforcement personnel and investigative reporters; their first step is to "effectively do our own investigative stories on our own clients to determine what the truth is," he said. "In a situation where it's litigory, regulatory or a `Dateline NBC' type of thing, we find out everything we possibly can about the merits of the story. If we believe the accusation is wrong, we will use media resources, legal, regulatory, governmental -- anything we can do to make it harder to consummate that attack."

He did talk about one case that he worked on. A popular TV magazine show was about to run with a story alleging that employees of a hotel chain were routinely "peeping" upon their guests through a man-made hole in the wall. After having forensic experts disassemble the hotel room in question, the Nichols Dezenhall team determined that the telltale hole didn't go all the way through, rendering it impossible for anyone to peep on anything. The firm's legal experts also determined that the supposed perpetrators had a track record of extortion and using the media in their scams. The story never ran.

Dezenhall and those like him approach each case with one thought in mind, one that is often at odds with PR's marketing roots: The public isn't always right.

Take the time when a supermarket tabloid paid an ex-flight attendant $75,000 to tape a sexual liaison with sports announcer Frank Gifford, a classic case of Dezenhall's "culture of attack." Dezenhall's book, "Nail 'Em!," published this year, describes in great detail what he sees as a surging tide of such cases in which individuals profit by accusing or disgracing prominent individuals and corporations.

Of course, consumer-rights and environmental groups don't often view crisis managers as the guardians of truth. Jeremiah Baumann of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group characterizes them as "just another means that industry uses to mask their irresponsibility. It mirrors actions taken on Capitol Hill to undermine the public's right to know about toxic pollution and other environmental problems."

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader makes a more blanket condemnation. "They'll use any tool they can to minimize the damage and paper over the mistakes of industry and precipitous legislation," he said.

Turning the Tables

Dezenhall's tack is to turn the tables, essentially attacking the attackers, with the goal of making it too costly for them to continue to assail his client. Conversely, if the accusation is justified -- say a client did egregiously dump toxic waste or bed a teenage babysitter -- his advice is simple: Repent, show as much remorse as possible, and try to rectify the problem as quickly as you can. This is hard medicine for many clients to swallow, but Dezenhall refuses to counsel otherwise.

He said that compared with a dozen years ago, fewer of his clients are as guilty as their accusers say they are -- which makes it easier for him to be righteously indignant in their defense. Dezenhall says he sleeps soundly at night, one reason being that he won't lie or condone lying in any instance. He said he repeatedly turns down all tobacco, firearms and abortion work on both sides of those issues.

Paying close attention to both the media and business cycles aids his efforts to stop attacks in their tracks. Depending on the market, certain products are particularly vulnerable to assault -- gas-guzzling, heavy-polluting sport-utility vehicles in an oil crisis, for example. By timing both the economic and media cycles, determining when the media will have saturated the airwaves and newsstands with a story to the point where no one wants to hear about it anymore, Dezenhall is able to counterattack most effectively.

Dezenhall cites the case of another of his former clients, the maker of a food ingredient that an activist group and a doctor had claimed was hazardous. In the course of Dezenhall's investigation, he was able to ascertain several key facts: "Number one, the doctor had been short-selling the stock in the client's company and, number two, that the activist group was actually manufactured by [a] competitor.

"Well, the fact was these people were corrupt. But the cultural prejudice against businesses is so intense that the attacks on them are viewed as victimless. And their defenses are viewed by the very fact that they have the temerity to defend themselves, as being an extension of some kind of Nixon White House thing."

His formula for effective response boils down to switching around the traditional roles the media assign to groups and individuals during a story. For example, while the story above might initially portray the food ingredient manufacturer as the villain, the public as the victim and the activist group as the vindicator, Dezenhall presents the manufacturer as the real victim, the activist group as the villain and the public as the vindicator. And, he said, nothing sells better than showing the public how it has been hoodwinked.

Stars in a Growing Field

Dezenhall said he gets most of his clients from word of mouth. While there is plenty of competition for the work, jobs typically aren't put out to bid in the way of traditional PR or advertising contracts. The types of companies that seek crisis management are varied, but the majority are clustered in the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and automotive industries.

Another crisis-management firm in Washington with brand-name recognition is Rowen & Blewitt Inc., recently acquired by the communications giant Shandwick International as its exclusive crisis-management department. Understanding the business from the inside out, partner Ford Rowen is a former NBC correspondent who covered environmental topics such as the Three Mile Island incident. Co-partner Rick Blewitt came from a more traditional PR background, doing most of his work for chemical companies.

Indeed, the field is increasingly crowded. Crisis management is rapidly taking off, and most of the major public relations firms now advertise at least some expertise in the field. Only a few firms, however, are like Nichols Dezenhall, strictly specialists in crisis management. For the broader public relations firms, crisis management tends to consist mainly of preparing for crises, training the top tier of executives in a company how to react during a crisis and how to avoid crises in the first place.

For instance, Ogilvy Public Relations calls its service "brand shielding," while other firms such as the Ammerman Experience specialize exclusively in crisis training -- training CEOs and other executives in how to deal with attacks should they come.

As Ben Long of Travaille Executive Search points out, "crisis management hasn't even begun to fully realize the potential of the market and is just now starting to wander outside of the Beltway."

Which for Eric Dezenhall means one thing: more people to fight back against, even if they're altar boys.

Attack, Counterattack

Some well-known "crisis management" cases:

* "Dateline NBC's" truck explosion expose, 1992

When the prime-time news program showed GM truck gas tanks exploding in a crash test, the car company was able to prove the event was staged with explosive devices.

* Exxon Valdez, 1989

Company executives' two-week delay in visiting Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the accident damaged the public's perception of Exxon, feeding the impressions of an unfeeling corporate giant.

* ValuJet Florida crash, 1996

The company was so badly tarnished by its poor safety record that it changed its name, remaining in business as AirTran.