Three Step Self-Defeating Media Relations Strategy

By George Merlis Friday, September 11, 2009

For two decades I’ve urged my media training workshop clients to be candid with the press. In fact, the fifth of my Five Commandments of Interviews is: “Thou shalt not lie, evade nor speculate.”  (Only five commandments?  Yes, I haven’t the temerity to come up with ten.)

While I teach this candor lesson to all clients, it is particularly important for business people. The public is more tolerant of rides down the primrose path of near truth when the driver of the vehicle is a politician than it is when he is a businessman. Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” came up with a word for what politicians speak: “Truthiness.” According to Colbert, as quoted in Wikipedia, “truthiness” is “something that seems like truth -- the truth we want to exist.”  (I recommend the Wikipedia article about Truthiness; it’s both entertaining and informative.) It can be found at:

When you lie or evade and -- inevitably -- the media finds you out, you’ve destroyed your credibility. Perhaps because politicians start with so little credibility -- see “truthiness” -- the bar is a lot lower for them than it is for the rest of us.

I was reminded of this the other day when the lead parliamentarian of German’s Green Party, Jurgen Tritten, told Chancellor Angela Merkel,  “Your policy has been: cover up, deny, and when nothing else works, apologize for that which you previously disputed.”

Now while Tritten’s context was a political debate over foreign policy, his statement was a perfect formulation for a media disaster (although it would have been even stronger had he worded it: “Your policy has been: deny, cover up, and when nothing else works, apologize for that which you previously disputed.”)

Often, we are tempted to deny unpalatable facts. Once denied, the inconvenient facts must be covered up to “prove” the denial. We are now two lies into the morass and when the facts emerge there is nothing left to do but apologize. The public will suspect that you’re sorrier about the unfortunate fact being revealed than about the fact itself. Cutting out the denial and the cover-up; getting straight to the apology after acknowledging the fact, goes a long way toward keeping your credibility.

Studies of public response to crises have repeatedly found people can handle bad news. Falsehood, on the other hand, is only a notch below evasion on the intolerable scale. Also, a quickly-delivered apology is much more effective -- and believable -- than a long-delayed one.

The rapid and candid response of Johnson & Johnson in the “tainted” Tylenol incident in 1982 remains a textbook case on how to handle bad news. Six people in the Chicago area died after taking tainted extra-strength Tylenol and there were fears that some of the pain relief medication had been contaminated in the factory or in shipment.

Johnson & Johnson went into full-disclosure mode, pulling all Tylenol off the shelves and reaching out to citizens, hospitals, doctors and others, urging them not to use Tylenol. Ultimately, it turned out that the “tainting” had been done in area drug stores as part of an elaborate murder scheme and was in no way caused by any lapses by Johnson & Johnson. (The FBI thinks the murderer was trying to make it appear his target was simply a random victim in a group of people poisoned in a widespread accidental contamination case. In other words, he killed six to get at one. The bureau is said to have a prime suspect, but it never gathered sufficient evidence to charge him.)

During the scare, J & J recalled and destroyed about $100 million worth of Tylenol products. The company’s response, while costly, was characterized by proactive candor. And, partially as a result, Tylenol quickly regained its market position as the nation’s number one pain-killer.

From a media relations point of view the choices when there’s bad news for your business are:

A: Deny, cover up and apologize when the facts come out.

B: Acknowledge, apologize and explain why this will never happen again.

There’s really no contest, is there?

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