How Shooting Yourself In the Foot Can Save Your Ass in a PR Crisis

My wife and I have raised four children and one thing those kids have heard me say a thousand times is that the cover-up is worse than the infraction.

For example, if they had come to us proactively and admitted they tried to Krazy Glue plastic antlers onto the dog’s head, acknowledged what a bad idea it was with no excuses, apologized (to the dog) and promised to show better judgment moving forward, we’d probably all be good.

Instead, after realizing they did something wrong, they tried to cover it up and hid in their bedrooms, hoping we wouldn’t notice the clumps of glue in the dog’s fur and go looking for answers. It’s a strategy rooted in childish ignorance and ultimately speaks more to a lack of honesty and transparency than a lack of judgment. Long after the dog has been shaved, we still have to deal with the trust issues.

That analogy is applicable to companies and their relationships with their customers, shareholders, partners and employees.

The cover-up is often much worse than what wasn’t disclosed. And, Google is just the latest company with Krazy Glue all over its fingers.

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 12.14.43 PMThere was a data breach. But, that’s not why they’re getting heat. We live in a society that has become desensitized to privacy breaches. It happens all the time. It’s broadly accepted as the cost of doing business if you want to use the cool technology out there that we all love to use. Tech and privacy experts will take issue with this assertion, but to the majority of customers/users, they accept the risk.

No, Google is getting hammered over sitting on the privacy breach for almost seven months before the Wall Street Journal exposed it to the world. While people accept privacy risks, issues of perceived dishonesty can have ripple effects, especially if they continue to happen. Will this story hurt Google in the short term? Hell no. It’s a huge company. Like many people, I like Google products, pay for some and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I want them to continue to evolve and succeed. However, this decision to conceal information was not well thought out. Hopefully, it’s a one-time thing because history shows the mighty can and will fall given enough hits.

Facebook Privacy Scandal Congress, Washington, USA - 10 Apr 2018
Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

So, how many times does this have to happen before these companies realize it’s a better approach to get ahead of a potential PR issue and establish your own narrative before getting caught red-handed? This isn’t ground-breaking advice I’m giving here, folks. What Google did by concealing information was preventable and manageable. In fact, if Google executives had googled “how to get ahead of a communications crisis”, they would have found enough information to at least get them started. And, for any company to think it could keep something like this secret forever in today’s day and age is either arrogant or ignorant with neither of those options being ideal.

Facebook has lived this after trying to hide the fact it has “harvested” tens of millions of Facebook profiles for Cambridge Analytica. It ended with CEO Mark Zuckerberg having to eat a mound of crow in front of a U.S. Senate hearing. Uber is part of this fraternity. It tried to cover up a data breach and it cost them $148 million in penalties. And, Uber wasn’t being deliberate in the data breach – it was hacked! It was a victim. There’s no surprise in someone being hacked. After all, an 18-year-old hacked the Pentagon.

So, with these cases before them, there was no need for Google to follow suit. It’s disappointing because I expect them to be better than Facebook and Uber.

In many situations, these corporate strategies to not get ahead of a story are driven by lawyers who are simply doing their job: to legally protect you in a court of law. Their fiduciary duty, like your Board of Directors, is to protect the company’s best interests. Let me say that again. Their job is to protect the company. Not you. That lawyer isn’t your personal lawyer – it’s the company lawyer. And, I’ve been involved in crisis scenarios where the ‘pound of flesh’ given to the public and shareholders has been the CEO or a VP. Like a person with gangrene, they cut off the dead leg to prevent spreading and save the body to live and fight another day. I can’t overstate this. At the end of the day, it’s going to be your ass on the line. The company will likely survive and go on without you and you can’t blame them because they are doing their jobs and doing them well.

What I do – and what others like me do – is protect your reputation in the court of public opinion where there are no rules and where life isn’t fair and the world is mean. And in our world where the media likes stories about people rather than companies, my job is to protect the people’s reputations as they are the faces of the company. This isn’t a black and white world – it’s all dark shades of grey, where navigation in the shadows can be extremely challenging if you’re not well equipped.

man walking on floor
Photo by Umberto Shaw on Pexels.com

Look, this is a pretty basic rule of thumb. If your company has an issue and you assess the probability of it becoming public as greater than the probability of it not becoming public, make preparations to get ahead of that story.

So, what do I mean by “get ahead” of a story? Well, it’s as simple as it sounds.

Rather than have the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CBC, Globe and Mail – or maybe an influential blogger – ‘expose’ you and your company as concealing important information, identify the best possible vehicle to put that story out there where you’re driving the narrative from the beginning – where you get to drive the main message and all relevant context from the outset. Maybe it’s leaking a story to a journalist who you know to be fair and measured — someone you have a respectful relationship with. Maybe you own it with a blog posting. Appreciate that there’s a lot of best practices, risk mitigation and nuance involved with how and when to do that communication (perhaps the content for a future blog posting here).

The main point is this: you don’t want to be “outed” in the media. If you’re defending, you’re losing. It doesn’t matter what you say, defending is losing.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk smoking cannabis on the set of the Joe Rogan podcast in 2018

Now, I’m not suggesting getting ahead of a story will ensure a pain-free process. Let me be clear: the hammering will come, especially if the issue is so hot that you are considering concealing it. What getting ahead of a story does is it increases the probability of overall long-term reputational success. The devil is in the details regarding knowing your message, your target audience, anticipating challenging questions, how to answer them and doing enough preparation that you’re confident when you go public.

The key benefit is you get to set the narrative with context and a strategic lens. So, for example, instead of a story about how Google hid important details from you and raising the spectre of what else they aren’t telling us, this could have been a story about how Google is the most transparent mega-company (way better than Facebook and Uber) and one of the most secure tech companies in the world that invests billions in privacy research and development each year to keep your information safe. However, as the narrative could have gone, hackers are evolving as well and sometimes they crack through. Luckily, we shut it down fast with our experts and learned from the hack to ensure your information is more secure than ever. Or something like that.

Another substantial benefit to proactively communicating a potentially negative story, as my friend and fellow communicator, Phil Andrews, pointed out to me as worth sharing in this blog, is that it allows you to control the timing and positioning of exactly when the story is made public — a huge strategic advantage. So, for example, although I hated this when I was a journalist, you could decide to push the story out on a Friday afternoon going into a long weekend. Typically these stories get lost in the domestic chaos of a long weekend and by the time the full-time newsrooms reconvene on the Tuesday after the long weekend, chances are the story is deemed stale or a dozen other more timely stories have happened since that require the resources of the newsroom. This is just one of many ways you can benefit from controlling the timing of a negative narrative. Any good and experienced communicator will have a toolbox full of tactics to use.

In challenging situations, always look for the opportunity in the crisis because there’s usually one to be had. What good can be taken from a bad situation? In Google’s case with the data breach, I’d say there was an opportunity to differentiate the company and its leadership from Facebook, Uber, Theranos, Tesla, and all the other companies who aren’t managing their issues management very well. Google could have come out as the transparent company that I trust my information with. Instead, the stories read like just another tech company hiding what’s really happening. Very unfortunate.

Getting ahead of the story also allows your communications professionals and lawyers to collaborate on messaging that ensures you are protected in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. Sometimes it’s better to self-inflict an inevitable wound if you can ensure it won’t be a kill shot. You can’t undo what has happened – what you can control is whether you are perceived as honest, open and transparent.

I will warn you now – in your boardroom, this will be an unpopular opinion for some. Maybe your Board Chair….maybe some VPs….very possibly your lawyer.

Like your siblings who didn’t want to tell Mom and Dad about the Krazy Glue and the antlers on your dog’s poor head, your job is to convince them that if there’s no avoiding this story from getting out, it’s best for all to get ahead of it and own it.

People will forgive something going wrong because shit happens.

But they can’t forget that feeling when they found out you weren’t honest about it with them. It calls everything you do after that into question in their minds.

And, it is 100-per-cent preventable. That’s the frustrating part. So, if you’re reading this and your company is keeping the lid on something big, hoping it won’t go public, it’s time for a frank conversation about probability — because ‘hope’ isn’t a plan. Remember, the company can survive an onslaught — but can you?