Crisis communications isn’t a panacea

A couple of month ago, I wrote a post titled “You can’t plug up BP’s gushing problems with PR and “crisis communications” in which I posited the following:

“1. Crisis communications may be a good hammer, but stop thinking every corporate crisis is a nail.
2. Don’t dive into another guy’s oil slick. It makes you appear slimy.
3. Not even the most brilliantly executed crisis communications plan can compete with the impact of one photo of an oil covered pelican.”

My bottom line on that post was that “No amount of spin control could have, or will ever, help BP salvage the company’s or its brand’s ‘reputation’ in the U.S.”

It has been over 20 years since I have professionally advised clients on crisis communications, but I used to have a job that required me to wear a beeper and be on call to work with a client whose size and scope made them a magnet for controversies, big and small. Most of my theories of crisis communications are based on that experience — as well as doing all the required study and testing that allowed me to earn an “accreditation” by the Public Relations Society of America, which I must say, lapsed shortly thereafter.

While long, gone from such professional duties, because of that experience, I perhaps now observe the handling of communications during corporate crises like former college football players watch games on TV: with a cringing, painful understanding that might be overlooked by other fans.

My main complaint with the notion that “crisis communications management” is a solution to crises is the knowledge that every crisis is different; each with a unique blend of “chaos” and cross-purposed priorities that can never be anticipated. So, while it is important to plan for crises and to have a strategy, there’s a reason the expression “hits the fan” is applied to crisis situations: You don’t know which way things are going to fly.

In today’s New York Times, Peter Goodman explores the challenge to the conventional wisdom related to “crisis communication” (better “handling” of communication during a crisis will lessen its blow) that the BP and other recent corporate-related controversies have raised.

Goodman’s piece looks at both sides of the argument, but is one of the first times I’ve seen a main-stream organization like the NYT question the notion that poor “crisis communications” isn’t always the problem PR Monday-morning quarterbacks suggest it is when a crisis occurs. The problem can be the problem.

While I do not completely agree with him, I find that Eric Dezenhall’s quote in Goodman’s piece a refreshing challenge to the notion that the “standard playbook” is useless when the facts are sufficiently distasteful.


Mr. Dezenhall is particularly scornful of the classic imperative to “get out in front of the story,” as if swift disclosure provides inoculation against all ugly realities. When the facts are horrible, he argues, the best P.R. fix may simply be to absorb the pounding and get back to business, while eschewing the sort of foolish communications gimmicks that can make things worse.

If you’re in PR or are fascinated with this topic, I recommend reading the entire piece.

As for my own beliefs on this topic, just to be clear: I believe crisis communications planning and execution are good things. I just don’t believe they are a panacea some PR people want us to believe. Most important thing I believe: I’m glad I hung up my beeper 20 years ago.