How to Avoid a PR Crisis
By Aaron Broverman
A crack-smoking mayor, a brothel-visiting pop star, an n-word-spouting chef, a blood-doping cyclist and a repeatedly sexting congressman are just some of the most prominent scandals to hit the front pages in 2013.
Though it may seem like only the fictional crisis manager Olivia Pope from TV’s hit show Scandal can dodge PR disasters like these, communications consultant and media trainer Jeff Ansell, founder of Toronto firm Jeff Ansell and Associates, explains how to avoid media firestorms altogether in his book, When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media.
“Every situation is different, but if I’m going to speak generally, the key to handling any PR crisis is to take action as quickly as you can,” Ansell revealed in an exclusive interview.
Good advice, especially since we live in the world of the 24-hour news cycle and social media that makes it possible for bad news to spread like wildfire.
“’A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,’ as Mark Twain said so many years ago,” Ansell continued.
Given that, he recommends responding quickly and, depending on the nature of the crisis, asking yourself “What’s the right thing to do”? “You say, ‘Money aside, lawyers aside, accountants aside, what’s the right thing to do and you go from there,’” said Ansell.
Take the Rob Ford crack scandal, for example. It goes without saying that the right thing to do there started with a little honesty.
“He was repeatedly not honest on a number of issues. He lied repeatedly and his apologies started to mount up and each one became more and more useless and less trustworthy,” said Ansell who believes that the Rob Ford scandal goes way beyond just a communications issue.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said. “Because so many of these allegations later turned out to be true, ideally, what he really should have done, had he been determined to do the right thing, was to volunteer all the information himself. Let’s not wait to hear about the confirmation of the crack. Let’s not wait to hear about all of the other little aspects and being drunk on the Danforth. Come out and say it all, get ahead of it. People have a tremendous capacity for forgiveness and he would’ve been in a better position today had he been upfront.”
In addition to honesty, Ansell will tell you that the other best way to diffuse a scandal is to own your problems. “When bad things happen, you have to be the one who is the most upset, aggrieved and outraged by it. Owning your problems is, number one, the right thing to do and, number two, it makes them go away faster because if there’s a controversy out there, the story appears on page ten, but if you don’t own it, it moves from page four to page two, to page one above the fold and by the time it’s on page one above the fold, not only do you own the story, but you’re choking on it because it’s being pushed down your throat.”
These days perception is reality, so when controversies happen you must deal with them whether they are true or not. Ansell recommends not being so hard on yourself, but dealing with these things fast and with sincere transparency. After all, whether things get out or not is not within your control when everyone in this world has a smartphone.
“Human beings are human beings. None of us are infallible, nobody’s perfect and everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “The difference these days is, there’s usually an audience to see it; either someone has a smartphone to film it or it goes on Twitter and is around the world in an instant. If you’re a public person, you always have to imagine that there is a camera watching you.”
Sure, as a public person, you can try to hold yourself to a higher standard of behaviour, but even those who never intended to have a public life are not immune from scandal, so really, there are only a few calculated steps any of us can take.
“It comes back to getting it all out, telling it all and telling it fast. As my old boss used to say, ‘Get on the front page, take your shot in the kisser and it’ll be at the bottom of a birdcage by morning,’” says Ansell.
“Talking to the media doesn’t come naturally to anyone. It’s a very unnatural dynamic and part of the reason is, you’re only as good as your last quote, so people have to learn how to work with the media and tell their story.”