If you screw up, admit it: Tell the truth in a crisis

Automotive PR legend Jason Vines' recent book is a must read for every communications professional interested in learning how to deal with crisis PR situations.

Call me a philistine or blame it on my notoriously short journalistic attention span, but I’m not a big fan of business books.

It will no doubt come back to haunt me if I ever get around to writing one myself, but in general I’d rather watch paint dry or grass grow than endure the torture of yet another missive exhorting me to "find my excellence" or "empower my inner strength," usually in seven easy steps.

(All of which reminds me of my favorite joke. Two journalists are in a bar having a drink when one says to the other: "I’m writing a novel." To which the other replies: "Neither am I.")

Anyway, I digress. The reason I bring this up is because I read a great business book during the holidays about PR by automotive communications legend Jason Vines that, for once, kept me gripped from start to finish and that I couldn’t put down.

What Did Jesus Drive? Crisis PR in Cars, Computers and Christianity is particularly relevant to me as I prepare to head out to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, which begins in the Motor City on Sunday.

The headlines when this book first came out were all about Vines’ phone being bugged during a C-suite leadership battle while he was working at Ford. And, to be sure, that is a good tale.

But the real story for me is Vines’ commonsense and down-to-earth advice about dealing with PR crises that is relevant to every PR pro, in whatever sector they operate. (Parental advisory: this is very much written in the author’s voice, and if you are offended by curse words then this is not a book for you.)

Vines treats us to a rip-roaring ride through a 25-year-plus career that has seen him deal with some of the largest reputational crises in the auto industry, at companies including Chrysler, Nissan, Ford, and GM. From the Ford/Firestone tire crisis to restoring Nissan’s image from the brink of bankruptcy to the GM ignition switch disaster, Vines has been on the front line at all of them.

The stories of each of these high-profile events not only give the reader a boots-on-the-ground insight into what it’s like when you’re immersed in the cauldron of such crises; they also crystallize the practical communications lessons that can be taken from them.

If there’s one overarching lesson to be learned it’s that companies and organizations must tell the truth if their reputation is to survive and thrive. They must be straightforward in their communications and think of their customers first, and they must not bow to the demands of lawyers.

You might think this sounds simple, but time after time history shows this doesn’t happen, especially in the auto industry. And time after time it results in further trouble after the event because of the obfuscation.

This trend first came onto Vines’ radar at Chrysler, when he was pitched into a PR role looking after safety, regulatory, and high-tech issues. In his first week, the company’s lawyers presented him with a draft release they had written (yes, the lawyers wrote the first draft of these types of release…) about a recall on the Dodge Dakota pickup due to a wiring issue that could cause "a thermal event."

When he asked what "a thermal event" was he was told "the vehicle could catch fire," to which the astonished young Vines boldly replied, "holy shit, why not say so then?"

This led him to his first crisis lesson:

1. Tell it like it is, clearly and succinctly. The art of being clever or linguistically illusive will compromise the integrity of your organization.

Vines notes that it is an inevitability that crises will come along sooner rather than later in every PR pro’s life, which means teams have to know how they are going to respond before the event, the critical roles they play, and the most important work each of them must do. "Establishing your guiding principles in the midst of the crisis is not just dangerous – it’s foolish," he adds.

This leads us to lesson number two:

2. In almost every circumstance, the number one guiding principle must always be protecting the safety and/or satisfaction of your customers.

As Vines shows in his illustrative case studies, this lesson has also been ignored in the auto industry time after time, usually because of the pressure exerted by legal departments afraid of potentially expensive lawsuits. But, as he points out, if you let legal or financial matters trump the best interests of your customers you will likely make decisions that will hurt or destroy your brand.

For Vines, it is far better to communicate openly, honestly and only with the facts. "Speculating is a hand grenade and, of course, lying is suicide," as he succinctly puts it.

Put your customers first at the beginning of a crisis and don’t prolong it. If you are upfront with the facts and admit genuine mistakes when they happen, the news agenda is much more likely to quickly move on to something else. "People will forgive human frailty – they won’t forgive outright deception," adds Vines.

Commentators on PR issues often talk about what a cliché "having a seat at the table" has become. But sometimes clichés are just that because they happen to be true, which leads us to Vines’ lesson number three:

3. The PR team needs a seat at the table before, during, and after a crisis.

This isn’t a lip service issue either. Once they are at the table they have to have the guts to stand up to senior management and tell them when they think something is wrong or ill-advised. "PR people that are ‘yes’ people are worthless and do a disservice to any organization," is Vines’ way of putting it, especially in our now-remorseless 24-hour news cycle.

Employees are the first line of external communications and the best-placed ambassadors to rebut misinformation about your company or organization, especially in a crisis, so be sure to keep your employees properly informed. An information vacuum is quickly filled, and usually not with the truth.

The need to have a seat at the table is especially important when dealing with the legal department and smart PR pros will always try to foster a solid working relationship with their legal counterparts prior to a crisis – again, during the crisis is too late.

Don't have any illusions about dealing with the C-suite by the way. You will learn about the vicious leadership power struggles within the automotive sector that can put an end to a PR career no matter how well you have performed. If your champion within the company is canned, you are very likely to follow.

You may even find your ultimate superiors are briefing the press diametrically against the exact external messages you are trying to establish and propagate. As discussed, you may find your phone being tapped or room bugged.

You will learn that not every company plays by the ethical and sensible crisis PR tenets that Vines outlines in his book, and that the battle can become exceptionally dirty when you are down in the trenches.

This leads me to the final crisis lesson I will quote from Vines’ book:

4. If your communications organization is kept in the dark, is manipulated, is minimalized or is solely being used to clean up after the elephants in the parade, your organization will step in it eventually.

But let’s not end on a negative note. If you read the book you will also discover that doggedly sticking to the overriding principle of telling the truth most often results in a positive outcome, or the least-bad outcome, which plays a big part in making PR one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs in the world.

Because, to return to a debate much-aired in PRWeek’s portals last year, Vines abhors the term "spin doctor" with a passion.

He believes it says bad things about what some people in PR do, and what some people expect them to do: "PR people out to ‘spin’ are nothing but liars. And, just as important, leaders that leave their PR people in the dark and then expect them to clean up afterwards by ‘spinning’ are no better."

I won’t steal any more of Vines’ thunder, apart from to say that the book is packed full of many other useful tips like the ones mentioned above, backed up with sensational real-life crisis PR stories to illustrate them (buy it, it’s great – it should be taught in PR schools.)

Ultimately, it all comes back to telling the truth - and it shouldn’t be as difficult as it unfortunately is.

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