Covid-19 Demands Corporate Experts Unbound by Modern PR Fetishes

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A client at a chemical company years ago told me he knew it was time to retire when, after a dangerous spill, the CEO called him and said, “Get up here, Harry, we’ve got a big PR problem.”

Prior to that call, Harry said crisis management was about evacuating endangered people and cleaning up the mess. Public relations came later. Harry looked like Wilford Brimley after a bar fight. So, when his employer put him before the cameras, they had low expectations that he’d get people to feel good about the chemical spill and the company responsible.

Crisis management has gone backwards in the age of COVID-19, because no sane person wants to manage a crisis that seems overdetermined. We’re not talking about right and wrong. It’s the raw human behavior, like an episode of The Wire where ambitious leaders collide with societal ills. 

1.      It’s in no one’s self-interest to tell the boss bad news.

The day after September 11, 2001 I had lunch with a former White House terrorism expert and asked him how a handful of zealots could have pulled off something so monstrous.  He snapped, “Telling a president you know the location of Osama bin Laden would be a career-ender.”

He was half-serious, adding that when you tell the boss you know where the terrorist is you place him in a bad spot because now, he has to act.  If he acts, no matter what he does, the criticism will be savage because there will surely be violent collateral damage and messy geopolitical implications. If he doesn’t act, he will confirm the trope always reported by the media during a crisis: Everybody knew, and nobody did anything. The shrewd move is to do nothing and hope the disaster happens on the next guy’s watch.

We’ve learned a lot about Donald Trump during the past four years, and we know he doesn’t care for inconvenient truths. It doesn’t mean this pandemic is his fault, but it does validate a leadership syndrome that I have repeatedly seen throughout my decades in the damage control business.

2.      It’s in no one’s self-interest to plan.

I once debated an academic, who had no real damage control experience, who said, “The moment a company hears about a hazard they should recall the product.” The problem with this advice is that those who preside over huge enterprises in an age of constant data hear about threats constantly. If they recalled a product whenever they got a negative report, all they would be doing is managing recalls.

When a hazard is reported, it must be vetted for its potential to cause big problems. Judgments must be made based on probability. The reality is that few compromised packages contain poison, few hurricanes are as bad as the Weather Channel projects, and few viruses turn out to be COVID-19. So, decision-makers ask themselves, “Is it better to risk my reputation and resources to go to war over what will likely amount to nothing, or expend my resources doing my regular job where the rewards will be immediate?”

This concept is known as “hyperbolic discounting;” Meaning people will often opt for the short-term rewards of doing little, over the dubious long-term rewards that require expending great resources and getting bubkes immediately. The answer is almost always to give lip service to planning yet devote no real effort or budget to doing it, because it just isn’t worth it.

We are seeing this play out in real-time today. In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded a National Security Council directorate responsible for responding to pandemics, a position that was created after the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015.

3.      The modern media apparatus: “Old” and “new” media are constructed to make matters worse.

Today’s crises are always deemed as botched because we conflate the existence of the crisis with mismanagement. News coverage is characterized by velocity, volume and venom – the worst news moves the fastest and is the most widely covered. The term “damage control” was made popular by the U.S. Navy upon the invention of the torpedo and meant: Try to plug the leak so that you could get as many sailors off the ship alive as possible.

Today, crisis management is judged as a PR game – trying to make people feel good about how something awful has been handled. Every journalist who calls me for comment about a crisis asks me to “grade” the crisis manager, often lobbying for my answer to be an F. Unsurprisingly, the pundits most likely to get TV time are the ones who’ll recommend that the person in charge be fired and quip a flashy sound bite such as, “This is the definition of how not to manage a crisis.” 

Top-flight people are being driven from leadership because the demand for blame exceeds the demand for cures. And no one wants to have their career destroyed because they chose to be out front. Cowards are rewarded, like a corporate spokesperson I knew who feigned throat trouble whenever a crisis began brewing and thus limiting his ability to speak. He kept his job and retired in comfort, as opposed to Dr. Anthony Fauci who now needs bodyguards.

The shrewd marketers of the public relations industry like to recharacterize crises as potentially cheerful affairs with glib but meaningless clichés, such as “a crisis is an opportunity” (it’s not), “get ahead of the story,” and “change the conversation.”

Instead, to solve daunting problems, crisis management – stopping a hazard -- must come before reputation management. Substance experts and scarred veterans of real disasters are better at this than politicians or resume-grubbers because they understand where the finish line is. 

BP’s crisis dropped out of the news when they plugged the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. AIDS cases were sharply reduced by discovering how HIV was transmitted and establishing clear barriers to risk. We don’t know how COVID-19 will be curtailed, but it demands substance experts and shot-callers unbound by the fetishes of the modern public relations culture. 

Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., a crisis management firm, and author of Glass Jaw: Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.

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