What happened at an unnamed Los Angeles hospital recently illustrates the age-old conflict between public-relations advisors and corporate legal counsel. The typical scenario: the organization screws up, e.g., tainted product, financial malfeasance, breach of public trust, etc., and the PR folks call for full disclosure, an immediate public mea culpa and 24-7 media access. The lawyers, hearing this advice, go apoplectic as they conjure up visions of lawsuits or worse. The CEO sides with his legal team.
As a PR veteran of corporate crises I bear witness to the tension between the two points of view. While the legal team invariably can make the more compelling case, this is their business after all, I must agree with T.J. Walker on his Inside Communications blog whose instinct is more akin to JetBlue’s than BP’s when it comes to the value of apologies and candor.
In a crisis, nature abhors a vacuum of information. Fragile relationships hang in the balance. Relationships with customers, employees, shareholders, potential shareholders, partners, vendors, and the communities in which you do business. In other words, everybody your future depends on. The potentially irreparable harm of going dark in the precious hours and days after a major screw-up far outweighs whatever may occur in a courtroom in future years. And this is the choice. The formula for PR first-aid to stanch the bleeding isn’t easy, but it is simple:
1. In an immediate press conference starring the CEO, acknowledge and explain to the extent that the facts are known the scope of what has happened and what is happening. Then apologize for it. The lawyers will howl about implied culpability. But the public is already assuming that is IS your fault.
2. No matter how complicated it is, explain what happened in language that a 12-year-old can understand. Hey, Peter Lynch said he would never invest in any company that he could not explain to the satisfaction his seventh-grade son.
3. Announce what you have done or doing to ensure prevention of any recurrence.
4. Open it up to questions.
Walker details additional steps to take. But the above are the cornerstones. Insisting on them won’t make you popular with the dudes in legal, but the CEO will have minimized the damage.