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Review: Eric Dezenhall’s Glass Jaw – A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

glass jawThis review was first published in the Nov. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal

By Eric Dezenhall

Hachette Book Group

$30

David doesn’t needs a slingshot to take down Goliath in 2014.

He only needs a Twitter account.

Thanks to social media, David and Goliath have traded places.

“Technology has made us more self-important, empowered and promiscuous in our ability to injure targets,” warns Eric Dezenhall, founder of one of America’s leading crisis management firms and author of Glass Jaw.

“Individuals and organizations that were once thought to be indestructible are, in fact, uniquely fragile in the face of reputational attacks from conventionally weaker adversaries,”

Attacks by social media’s bathrobe brigade can trigger coverage in mainstream media where scandal is Grade A clickbait guaranteed to deliver an audience.  Chasing the story is a new generation of journalists steeped in what Dezenhall calls “the traditions of celebrity-fueled career advancement.”

Prolonging the media coverage are pundits with their  play-by-play analysis on how the crisis is being mismanaged. “All parties involved gain from the perpetuation of hostilities, and consumers of news are not innocent bystanders.”

What we end up with is a reputation-shredding Fiasco Vortex. “The Fiasco Vortex is one part crisis and three parts farce, the farce encircling the crisis and whipping it into an exponentially destructive beast beyond mitigation,” says Dezenhall.

So what’s an individual or organization to do? Dezenhall cautions against public relations firms peddling crisis management cure-alls  that can prolong the pain and even inflict irreparable harm. “I believe the cookie cutter counsel about crisis management is what’s wrong with the whole enterprise. The development of cures begins with getting the diagnosis right rather than promoting superficial salves and palliatives.”

Dezenhall calls foul on eight crisis management clichés.  Getting ahead of the story comes in at number one. Believing that your act of full disclosure “will be greeted with prim appreciation as opposed to being used as a weapon against the principal” is a dangerous and naive assumption. “The next time you hear someone recommend getting ahead of the story, ask them how and play out each scenario associated with that recommendation with respect to human nature and the Fiasco Vortex.”

Dezenhall also questions the perceived wisdom of responding immediately to a crisis, telling your side of the story, educating stakeholders and changing the conversation.  While Twitter may have gotten you into a crisis, don’t bank on it getting you out. “When it comes to crisis management, social media is of marginal value and often a disaster.”

Unfortunately, there’s no proven gameplan for escaping the Fiasco Vortex. “The new crisis management road map is that there is no road map because there is no road, at least not yet. The road is being built, destroyed and rebuilt every minute.”  What worked for one organization may not work for yours. What worked 25 years ago won’t work today thanks to a technology-driven change in the conductivity of controversy. “Crisis management is an improvisational art, not laboratory science. And sometimes the improvisation works; other times it doesn’t.”

From experience, Dezenhall says organizations that stand the best shot at surviving a crisis have a battle-hardened leadership team at the helm who’ve weathered controversy before, are committed to resolving the crisis at hand, possess a clear-eyed view of their organization’s shortcomings  and have a credible counter-narrative. An unfettered budget also helps.”The realistic objective of crisis management is to endure controversy, not escape it.”

Think of a crisis as an iceberg, says Dezenhall. What you see above the waterline are the much-hyped PR and communications tactics of crisis management, the majority of which are of no value whatsoever. “What remains unseen is often more important than what is seen, and the best damage control efforts are often resolved discreetly. Most crises that are successfully resolved are resolved due to business and operational considerations.”  Smart organizations keep these considerations quiet. You won’t find their tactics laid out in case studies and showcased at conferences.

This isn’t your book if you’re looking for how to manage a crisis in 10 easy steps or need reassurance that a crisis is an opportunity.  But if you want to survive your darkest days and emerge with your battered reputation still intact, Dezenhall’s brutally honest facts of life memoir is required reading.

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