RULE 1: GET ALL THE FACTS OUT
The first and mandatory question is: What are the facts? And the best way for a crisis manager to get access to all the facts directly and reliably is to be a practicing attorney protected by the attorney-client privilege. (It’s not enough to do public relations and have a law degree—the courts require actual law practice and legal advice to obtain the protection of the “privilege.”)
This does not mean that public relations and political advisors aren’t needed. To the contrary. But ideally there are attorneys who can be a bridge between the two worlds—an agent for the PR team to convince the attorneys they need to get the facts out; and an agent for the attorneys with the PR team to be sure that what is said to the media is factual and complete and won’t carry legal risk.
Good examples of fact-gathering that could not have been done without the attorney-client privilege were the Martha Stewart and HealthSouth controversies. My first set of interviews with both Ms. Stewart and the CEO of HealthSouth, Richard Scrushy, had to be done myself, under the protection of the privilege. I knew there was a potential that a full accounting of the facts might lead to legal exposure in the case of each—so before I knew all the facts, I had to have the protection of the attorney-client privilege and then be able to decide what could, or could not, be disclosed to the media to handle the crisis—or whether to have any media strategy at all.
RULE 2: PUT THE FACTS INTO SIMPLE MESSAGES
Second, once the legal crisis manager has all the facts—meaning documents, emails, and other verification that the facts are true—the next step must be to craft a simple message.
The best way to approach this task is to write the message or messages as brief headlines for the story you would like to see written. Ultimately reporters are no different from members of Congress or even regulators: You have to simplify your facts into a concise, easy to-understand message.
For example, how do you summarize the message when a cruise ship loses a passenger in the middle of the night and the young man’s family hires a lawyer and accuses the ship of botching the investigation? The facts are complex and the cruise ship does not want to seem
insensitive to the grieving family, including the grieving widow, who lost her husband and their honeymoon cruise. So when the Royal Caribbean crisis tale is told, we will see that the message wasn’t easy to summarize in a simple headline. Then we found it—and once we did, we knew we had it. “We’re a cruise ship—not CSI.”
Once the core messages are developed, the attorneys must confirm verifiable facts to support those messages, with documents and sources that a reporter will find believable.
The end result for effective crisis management at this point is what we came to call “The Book”—core messages on the first page, then bullet points supporting each core message on the next pages, and tabs of documents supporting each bullet-point fact. Ideally, attorneys should approve the facts and media strategy. On one occasion I have violated that policy of working closely with attorneys—and in that case, as will be told in my tale about Martha Stewart, I regretted doing so.
RULE 3: GET AHEAD OF THE STORY
There are many techniques for getting the facts out, using “The Book” as your “fact box”—meaning, getting the messages and facts contained in “The Book” published, and limited to those contained there, since they have been approved by the attorneys and client and it is dangerous to go outside them.
When you have the luxury of proactively “placing” a story with a reporter, you are ready to place your predicate story. The advantage is not only preemption—giving all other reporters one place to go to read all the facts and understand the most favorable narrative thread—but the ability to take your time and work with a reporter to make the story complete and effective, since the reporter can take his or her time preparing the story without an immediate deadline. It also allows you to get your viewpoint—your “spin,” so to speak—into the story in a way that is credible, since that viewpoint should be a plausible argument drawn from the facts of the story.
A classic predicate story was written by the New York Times about the accusation that Macy’s Herald Square (the famous Macy’s store in New York City that is the sponsor of the annual Thanksgiving Parade) had been guilty of racial profiling of its minority customers when it came to shoplifting apprehensions. The Macy’s crisis tale describes the second-guessable decision to allow the Times reporter and a photographer access to the holding room for shoplifting suspects, together with cells and handcuffs. But the predicate story that was ultimately written by the New York Times proved the value of giving a reporter total access to all facts, individuals in the company, and the full context of the alleged shoplifting incident that was the basis of a racial discrimination lawsuit—getting an entire story written, all at once, with all good and bad facts summarized fairly and accurately.
Of course, if it is too late and the story has already broken, “The Book” will still be useful for responding to a deluge of questions in a “war room” or “rapid response” room of lawyers and PR consultants.
And it will not be too late to try to stanch the bleeding and dribbling out of information after a bad news story has broken by finding a reporter from an influential newspaper or Internet site to write the complete story and—the crisis management objective—get the story behind you.
RULE 4: FIGHT FOR THE TRUTH USING LAW, MEDIA, AND POLITICS
Sometimes, a single tool will not be effective to solve a crisis, especially a high-profile civil case or regulatory prosecution in Washington. Usually companies hire separate teams of lawyers to do the litigating, public relations advisors to talk to the press, and public policy or lobbying experts to deal with the politics of the crisis—addressing the concerns of various constituencies affected by the crisis, whether shareholders, voters, or even governments.
This multidisciplinary strategy is sometimes very risky, since lawyers and media strategists and politicians or diplomats in the international arena accustomed to secrecy may all be at cross-purposes. Two tales—one domestic (a U.S. CEO accused of accounting fraud and with suspicious facts from the start) and the other international (Hondurans caught in the middle of a coup—or was it a coup?)—demonstrate that the multidisciplinary approach done by one individual, while risky, is sometimes the best way to solve a crisis, or at least minimize the damage.
RULE 5: NEVER REPRESENT YOURSELF IN A CRISIS
It is all too easy and common for an individual in the middle of a crisis, such as a CEO used to commanding the heights and leading a major corporation, to rely on his or her own instincts and experience to solve a media crisis. This is a mistake—especially when it is the crisis manager who finds himself or herself as the subject of the media storm.
I learned this lesson the hard way, as one chapter of this book demonstrates. There was a story written about me in the New York Times in which I did not have a chance to present to the Times reporters all the facts up front, because I was working behind the scenes to assist the U.S. State Department in facilitating the exit of an Ivory Coast strong-man who had lost an election. I also was ill prepared to counter other characterizations of my previous clients that were not accurate. But in the final analysis, I had only myself—not the Times—to blame for violating all the crisis management rules that I advise others to follow.