It Is Not Immoral to Defend Yourself

A Brief Manifesto on Crisis Management by Eric Dezenhall

Lessons of Spinning in Circles

The comedian Dudley Moore once asked his stage partner, Peter Cook, if he had learned anything from the mistakes he had made during his life. Cook answered, “I have, yes, and I think I can repeat them almost perfectly.”

I make my living communicating in hostile environments, mostly on behalf of businesses, institutions and public figures. Whether it’s called damage control, crisis management or high-stakes communications, it’s an ancient field of endeavor. But, like Mr. Cook, civilization hasn’t learned much since Moses’ brother Aaron first attempted to spin the Israelites on the joys of wandering in the desert for 40 years (“This Promised Land is gonna be great! Milk and honey! Oceanfront views!”).

History reminds us that for every glib spin doctor like Aaron, there needs to be a Moses willing to explore creative options to carry out his agenda; for every Thomas Jefferson who declares independence, there need to be revolutionaries willing to make sacrifices to uphold it; and for every Martin Luther King, Jr. who sees a mountaintop, there has to be a legion of climbers with the will and equipment to get there.

Nobody disagrees on the goals of high-stakes communications – sell a controversial product, win an election, defuse conflict and so forth. It’s in the execution where the modern business culture is still struggling to learn some of the basic tenets of self-preservation and survival. Indeed, as superb as businesses are at making innovative new products and services, why do they remain so uncertain about how to manage crises and, more importantly, the attackers who create them?

After 25 years of studying and executing persuasion campaigns in the most difficult circumstances, I’ve embraced a fresh mind-set that:

> Characterizes the crises and attacks facing business according to basic human nature and the lessons of historical power struggles;

> Dismisses cookie-cutter public relations dogma rooted in fictions such as “spin” and the utopian search for “strategic solutions”; and

> Rejects the canard that adopting the values and rhetoric of one’s critics will lead to peaceful coexistence.

Whose Side Are You On?

The enemy in blue will undoubtedly pursue, for that’s what you depend upon an enemy to do.
– Charlemagne, from the musical Pippin

In the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the muchloathed “Establishment,” weary from the opening salvos of what are now called “the Culture Wars,” decided that one way to resolve conflicts was to decree that there weren’t any. No, there were just misunderstandings that better public relations could ameliorate.

This led to the chronically uncool Richard Nixon attempting grooviness by appearing on the popular TV show “Laugh-In,” declaring “Sock it to me!” Shortly afterward, two young reporters named Woodward and Bernstein did.

Today’s derivative of Nixon’s futile gesture is the fashion in corporate communications of “initiating dialogue” and “exploring common ground” with one's attackers. It was in this vein that the chief executive of a prominent PR firm in a courtship with activists “pulled a Nixon” and posed for a photograph in a major magazine in the yoga lotus position, the message apparently being “Look! I’m a flower child, too.”

Contrived stunts like that are destined to fail because they ultimately insult audiences and confirm what critics presumed all along: That the powerful are grasping manipulators who haven’t the slightest idea of how to genuinely connect with the public. This cynical approach to communications also conveys the message that saying you’re sorry carries the same weight as being sorry. Rhetoric about the importance of ethics won’t alter the reality that it’s your existence your critics often oppose, not just your behavior.

The fact is, the life-or-death public relations struggles facing businesses today are not about information they are about power – specifically, the power of one tribal agenda to triumph over another. In power struggles, emotion trumps fact because emotions drive the desire for predominance – the triumph of “People Like Me over People Like You.” In other words, issue-driven struggles ultimately come down to the banal schoolyard question of whose side you’re on.

While many environmentalists are truly concerned about pollution, their end game is not just to reduce what’s pouring out of smokestacks. It is to control the smokestacks (their worries wouldn’t evaporate,they’d create new ones). Similarly, plaintiffs’ attorneys often use the specter of greed to justify claims against corporations. But is it really greed these zillionaires object to or is it that the wealth they seek is currently in somebody else’s bank account?

The belief in the power of information is comforting in polite corridors of today’s large corporations because it gives the executive in charge a sense of risk-free control and a false confidence that a tidy program, competently implemented (usually presented in an attractive binder by an even more attractive consultant), will win the day. Alas, such is not the case. Not in the schoolyard. And certainly not in business, or in the ever-growing enterprise of attacking business.

Regrettably, my track record of educating senior managers on the brutal realities of crisis management is not dissimilar to my experience as a habitually worrying parent in attempting to educate my young children on the ways of the world. Their eyes inevitably glaze over. I fail because my often painful adventures utterly fail to connect with their own still-blissful life experience.

Crisis-B-Gone® A Handy Damage Control Kit for U

"What went wrong here? – Reporter to Los Angeles public official after the 1994 earthquake

I get a kick out of the specter painted in the media culture of Big Business – the ruthless, faceless leviathan that acts relentlessly in its own self-interest. The hellion in me would like to have such a client, but I can’t find one. While corporations can be brutal when it comes to squeezing an extra buck out of something or someone, when the big bear of controversy enters the forest, no one clambers up a tree faster than the fabled beasts of commerce.

There’s a good reason why corporations run from controversy: It’s bad for business. Lawsuits, exposés, consumer panics and boycotts are costly distractions. Nobody ever made money by managing a tough situation, and few ever became CEOs by linking themselves with a debacle. Witness what happens when media outfits, known for proselytizing the “fess up” theory of crisis management, get in a public mess: They spin and stonewall as much as any industrial polluter. Desperation begs for relief, and relief invites hucksters.

Enter the public relations industry into the field of crisis management.

When Senator Trent Lott made his infamous remark about America being better off if the late Strom Thurmond had been elected President, I was invited to debate an executive from a well-known public relations firm on national television. My position was that Lott’s case was inoperable because of his political baggage on race issues. My debating opponent – let’s call him “Ted” – shared, straight-faced, his recommendation: Lott should assemble a “diverse coalition of civil rights leaders” to stand up for him.

Oh, really? And where might Ted have found this “diverse coalition” to save Trent Lott’s job? At the Ebenezer Baptist Church that delivered to us Reverend King? Not a chance, because the public believed that Lott had revealed his soul with the Thurmond remarks. Nevertheless, the TV show’s moderator did not question Ted, but rather nodded along because Ted’s idea, well, felt right. Nice fantasies make bad strategies, which gets to my core belief about high-stakes communications: One can persuade only audiences that, at some level, want to be persuaded. “Spin” cannot change certain fundamental realities: People hate the rich. Cars pollute. Consumers want effective pharmaceuticals but don’t want to pay for them. And, a conservative politician with a poor record on race relations will not be excused from making a bone-headed remark.

Still, a willful dodging of the immutable facts of life dominates business schools and public relations firms, along with other anesthetizing cookie-cutter chestnuts of crisis management advice such as:

> A crisis is an opportunity (tell that to WorldCom’s shareholders).

> Public apologies lead to widespread forgiveness (in church, perhaps).

> The Tylenol tampering crisis of 1982 should be the standard for all corporate communications challenges. (It’s easier to escape a crisis caused by a maniac than it is to defuse one where everybody thinks you’re the maniac.)

> “Ethical companies,” by virtue of their transparency and generous support for politically correct causes, will escape crisis and attack.

The Triumphant Enterprise

“Mr. Burns, you’re the richest guy I know.”
– Homer Simpson

“And I’d give it all up for a little more.”
– Mr. Burns. The Simpsons

The term “damage control” originated when the Navy had to grapple with a new technology: the torpedo, and its devastating impact on a vessel. Only in the recent media age has the term been applied to public relations and vulcanized to imply that a slick trick can undo the destruction of a metaphorical torpedos impact.

I haven’t found a way to un-torpedo a ship, and I admit that I’m still learning my business. But I do know this for certain: “Strategy” consists of the actions you do or do not take under your circumstances combined with the resources you have at your disposal. That’s it. There are times when it is appropriate to evaluate contradictory options, including fight, duck, confess, repent, bargain, divert, pre-empt, play dead, stall, advertise, campaign, camouflage, sue, politicize, protest or rally allies for a long campaign. To succeed, all of these approaches require the oversight of a small, discrete crew with express authority to prosecute the effort using the tangible resources within its grasp. These resources may include useful allies, diverse specialists, resonant rhetoric and the available communications technologies to convey it, and the funding to engage in the struggle ahead.

Following are a few unorthodox composites in my firm’s portfolio of how resources have been creatively deployed to defuse an attack and save a reputation.

> When a manufacturer was assaulted by Internet allegations that its consumer product was dangerous, the false charges were forensically traced to a cyber-operative tied to its competitor. The threat of legal action and media scrutiny made the issue go away.

> When a new pharmaceutical product came under fire prior to its introduction into the marketplace, patients whose lives would be improved by the drug overwhelmed the fledgling opposition.

> When a criminal cartel attempted to force a corporate client out of business, a strategy combining a law-enforcement sting with a journalistic exposé kept the company alive – and thriving.

> When a company wanted to fend off a hostile takeover, consumer advocates were enlisted to help keep the enterprise independent, on the grounds that the combined entity would gouge the public.

> When a tabloid television show was about to run a hostile story about the practices of a lodging company, the network was presented with evidence that its sources were tainted and that its story, if aired, would be libelous. The segment was canceled.

As perilous as modern communications may appear when facing unwanted scrutiny, there are unprecedented opportunities to defuse obstacles, work around them and shout above the fray – provided the will and resources exist to exploit these opportunities.

In the final analysis, there is no virtue – there are no ethical points to be scored – in being pristinely ineffective in the face of crisis or unfounded attack. When Ronald Reagan announced that U.S. nuclear security policy would be founded on a “trust but verify” platform, what he meant was “we’ll do the right thing but will never deny ourselves the resources to protect our nation and its citizens.”

As one of the original enterprises devoted solely to high-stakes communications and marketplace defense, we’ve quietly celebrated our victories but have learned much more from our follies. The most important thing we’ve concluded is that when you set aside fantasies about “spin,” the key assets are the resources – intellectual and tangible – that an institution will devote to its well-being.

It is with pride in our history and appreciation for the role our clients and friends have played in it that we invite you to continue your adventure with a wizened but still merry band that now flies under the new banner of Dezenhall Resources.

Eric Dezenhall is the President of Dezenhall Resources and the author of the communications study, “Nail ’em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses” (Prometheus 1999, 2003) and the damage-control novels “Money Wanders” (St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne, 2002), “Jackie Disaster” (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2003) and “Shakedown Beach” (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2004).

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