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PR: Honesty is always the best crisis policy

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Friday, September 01, 2006

As PR disasters go, perhaps few in history have been worse than the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

In 2002, John Whitney, a Jesuit, took over management of the regional order of Jesuits in Oregon and four other Northwest states just as sexual abuse lawsuits against several current and former Jesuits (as well as priests in the separate regional dioceses) were beginning to rain down. “I got the upside down rabbit’s foot,” says Whitney, who’s based in Portland

Whitney has overseen the settlement of several dozen cases already and still has more than 50 outstanding (most of them in Alaska). He’s tried to bring a measure of honesty and openness to handling his cases by sitting with victims and listening to their stories.

“I want to talk to them and see what a just solution is,” Whitney says. “If people just get money, there’s still bitterness and hurt. This isn’t a liability lawsuit, it’s a deeply personal hurt and the solution needs to reflect a level of a humanity.”

It’s a somewhat unconventional approach and one criticized even by some in his own organization, but one that is ultimately part of successfully tackling and eventually solving PR nightmares.

“I’ve always thought honesty was the best policy,” says Julie Edwards, of Davis Elan in Portland, who serves as director of public relations for McDonald’s of Oregon and Southwest Washington. “It’s about doing the right thing. If you try to be slick, it’ll blow up in your face.”

She advocates having a written resp-onse plan for emergencies (when “the client freaks out, and PR people tend to freak out”), but also has learned to feel out situations and not always navigate by a predetermined route.

For instance, doing the right thing in a PR disaster may mean keeping a low profile. Earlier this spring, a McDonald’s worker was fatally stabbed while on the job in Vancouver. Edwards says that after talking with the woman’s family, she decided the company should wait before making a gesture of support.

At other times, openness may mean taking some responsibility even when a PR nightmare only tangentially relates to your company. During a mad cow scare several years ago, Edwards chose to talk to the media about the disease and McDonald’s safeguards even though she says none of the company’s regional meat supplies were in danger.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when a Union Carbide plant spill poisoned residents of Bhopal, India, and Exxon botched the response to its massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, a whole industry of crisis man-
agement experts was spawned, along with a playbook on how to deal with major crises. The advice? Keep it honest and:

  • develop a crisis management team among top executives.
  • anticipate what sorts of things your business is vulnerable to and run through a few practice scenarios.
  • minimize any health dangers without delay  (see Bhopal disaster).
  • keep in touch with legal and communications specialists throughout a crisis.

Businesses can establish a good corporate citizen record through  charitable giving and volunteering, but a crisis is a moment of truth where a company’s true character is on display. “If the PR is rooted in an old-fashioned way of doing things,” Edwards says, “it’s always better.”

— Oakley Brooks



For more crisis management tips, go to

Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable by Steven Fink ($19.95, Backinprint.com)

Harvard Business Review on Crisis Management ($19.95, Harvard Business School Press)

Managing Crises Before They Happen: What Every Executive and Manager Needs to Know About Crisis Management by Ian I. Mitroff with Gus Anagnos ($19.95, Amacom)

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