This review first ran in the March 25th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
By Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag
Maybe it starts with a tweet or a Facebook post. An errant email. A candid comment behind closed doors that’s caught on smartphone and posted to YouTube. A confidential and damning report that’s anonymously slipped to a reporter.
However the fuse is lit, you find yourself caught in a crisis. Your credibility is on the line and restoring trust is your one and only mission.
So you move into all-out damage control mode. You offer up a heartfelt apology to the core audience who’ll decide your fate. You commit to full disclosure so a real or perceived cover-up doesn’t become the crime. You admit that mistakes were made. You make amends. And you do everything in your power to prevent the same crisis from ever happening again.
But you don’t just play defense when it comes to damage control. You should also be ready to go on the offensive and drop the gloves in a crisis.
“If you go to bed at night and you are not in a deep hole, and you wake up the next morning to find yourself peering up out of a deep hole, you can safely conclude that someone spent the night digging that deep hole for you – and to their benefit,” say crisis communication consultants Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani and journalist Bill Guttentag in their book Masters of Disaster: The 10 Commandments of Damage Control.
“And you simply can’t curl up and go into a fetal position – you have to climb out of the hole, stand tall and fight back against those who are trying to take you down.”
When a crisis hits, take a hard look around. Are there hidden agendas at play? Who gains from your pain? Why are they stirring the pot and how are they fanning the flames?
The authors recommend adopting the no free layups rule of legendary NBA coach Pat Riley. “If there is someone with unclean hands benefiting from the damage, you must publicly expose their conflict, put them on the defensive and hit them where it will hurt.”
At some point, self-interested parties will overplay their hand. They’ll accuse you of sins and crimes you didn’t commit. Use provable inaccuracies to undermine your opponent’s credibility and shift the spotlight from you to them.
The burden is entirely on you to connect the dots and make sure the whole story gets told. “The moment your opponent puts forth a misrepresentation is the moment you seize on a discrepancy, turn the tables and limit the damage to your reputation. By showing your opponents have engaged in a misrepresentation, you will undermine their credibility and create a favourable compare-and-contrast dynamic with your own credibility.”
But be absolutely certain you’re right and they’re wrong. The authors caution that in a crisis, you’re putting your credibility cards on the table and playing all in. “But if you have the cards, and play them right, this is a highly effective route to damage control.”
In today’s media environment, it’s virtually guaranteed that every event, every comment and every activity will be reported online, on air and in print. Add the speed at which information moves whether from mainstream media or your neighbourhood bloggers and citizen journalists and crises have now become our natural state.
What’s more, all of us are caught in a unrelenting cycle of “skeptics reporting skeptically to a cynical audience that consumes the information cynically, perpetuates itself – and deepens the skepticism and cynicism by creating an enormous feedback loop of distrust.”
In this feedback loop, it’s not a question of if your organization will get hit with a crisis. It’s only a matter of when.
To help you prepare for the inevitable, the authors draw from real life case studies to outline three guiding principles and 10 commandments for surviving a crisis with your credibility intact. “A crisis is like a knife fight in a telephone booth. And to come out on top, you will need to become your own Master of Disaster when it comes to the art of damage control.”