A Few Thoughts on Crisis Communications ...

Or, Would I Want to Be Michael Vick's Publicist?

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In the PR business, a crisis is something you plan for but hope to avoid. We all share the pain of our colleagues who have clients in tough spots.

Eric Webber Eric Webber
I have an admission to make, though: I get a certain amount of enjoyment out of armchair quarterbacking -- seeing a company or celebrity in a quandary and imagining what I'd do to help them. Any PR person who says they don't doesn't love their job enough.

There is plenty of material out there on good crisis management techniques. Plan ahead. Anticipate potential crises and train for them. Act quickly and decisively; be honest and earnest -- as much as your attorneys allow at least. Good stuff all of it.

But a couple of recent incidents caught my eye, and during my vicarious analysis I thought I might attempt to put a finer point on a couple of basic tenants of crisis communications.

The first was NFL star Michael Vick's press conference after pleading guilty to charges related to dog fighting. (I doubt there was a plan in place for this one. "Quick, get me the Dog Fighting plan!") Overall, I thought Vick did pretty well at his mea culpa. Unfortunately he lost much of his credibility with two crucial errors.

First, whatever you've done, minimize but don't trivialize. In Vick's case, he characterized his actions as "immature." Hey Michael, immature is when you make fart noises in math class. Strangling dogs is another thing entirely. Don't make a molehill out of a mountain. It made him look like he really didn't appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

My other concern is kind of touchy, but here goes. Vick made a reference to having found religion through this "situation." He very well may have. But he dropped it in almost as an afterthought. And that's the risk.

Unless God is going to actually appear with you at the press conference, leave him out of it. It's very difficult to use the religion claim without it sounding like a ham-fisted attempt to curry sympathy with the audience. I'm not making any judgment about religious beliefs; I respect them all. I just think there is danger in using it gratuitously.

The other incident was Idaho Senator Larry Craig's arrest for disorderly conduct. Senator Craig may have been looking for something other than religion in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport.

Again, I'm making no judgments. I mean, he did plead guilty (he's now trying to recant), but I don't really care. I'm merely commenting on his public responses.

First, did he think that the arrest of a U.S. Senator wouldn't eventually surface? If so, then he's certainly guilty of being naïve. When faced with a potential PR disaster, don't hide and don't be defensive, especially if you feel like you aren't in the wrong.

Mistake number two was not using the time since his arrest to hone his message, just in case it did come out.

Were I his PR guy, I would have used the time to subject him to my patented (trademarked? copyrighted?) process called the Does That Sound Stupid to You (DTSSTY) test.

It's simple. Find someone you know and trust. Tell them what you plan on saying to the press and ask, "Does that sound stupid to you?"

In Craig's case, he explained that he accidentally played footsie with an undercover cop in the stall next to him because he "takes a very wide stance in the bathroom."

I'm not saying it's not true, I'm just saying it sounds like something you would make up. In the 6th grade.

If he had run that gem through the Webber DTSSTY process, the response would have been, "Why yes, Senator, that does sound stupid to me."

And then I would have suggested something like, "Those bathroom stalls are pretty tight, especially when you have luggage. Maybe my foot slipped under the divider for a moment, but it was nothing more than that." Reasonable, plausible and reinforces his claim that this is all a misunderstanding.

There are plenty of other people to pick on, so you'll have to excuse me. I have to get back to my gossipy websites and TV programs to see who I can second-guess next.
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