HETRICK: If you’ve botched the job, don’t botch the PR, too

This column was originally published June 28, 2010. Bruce Hetrick’s column will resume Oct. 10.

Last fall, my wife and I drove to Madison, Wis., to visit my son Austin, a junior at the University of Wisconsin. While there, the three of us went to the Wisconsin-Fresno State football game.

We ended up sitting in the student section of Camp Randall Stadium. (Actually, we stood in the student section because no one sits down the entire game.) The young Badgers have several customs we’d never encountered before, including some cheers not suited for a family newspaper.

One chant caught our attention early. A defensive back from Fresno State was called for a penalty. It cost his team lots of yards. When the official made the call, thousands of Wisconsin students chanted in unison, “You f%#@*d up! You f%#@*d up!”

Since then, I will hear some story about blunder, neglect, corruption or incompetence, and I’ll quickly make like a Badger fan and shout, “You f%#@*d up! You f%#@*d up!”

Of late, there have been many such opportunities, owing to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and BP’s subsequent gaffes, Rep. Joe Barton’s much-criticized apology for the government’s “shakedown” of BP, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s dis-the-boss quotes in Rolling Stone, the Malian official’s botched call in the World Cup, etc.

But alas, my lot in life is not merely to criticize those caught in crises. Instead, because I’m a public relations guy who’s been through the fire a time or two, I inevitably get a call—asking for assistance or commentary.

Last week, the call came from Ed Wenck of WIBC-FM 93.1. He wanted to know whether BP’s CEO Tony Hayward committed a big-time PR blunder by yachting in Europe while the Gulf of Mexico gagged on oil.

Short answer: You betcha. Should Nero have fiddled while Rome burned?

Then, of course, Wenck asked me the proverbial follow-up: How should BP have handled this crisis? And because that’s about the 30th such request in the last 30 days, I’ll dish out my basic rules for countering crises.

1. Do the right thing. The best way to stay out of trouble is to never get there in the first place. Keep it clean and your need for legal and PR counsel will be far less.

2. Apologize. If you do wrong—or if things go wrong on your watch—say you’re sorry—and mean it. No excuses. No exceptions. No blame-shifting. Until you say you’re sorry, no one will hear anything else you have to say.

3. Empathize with victims and their families. You have to feel their pain. You have to show them you feel their pain. You have to help ease their pain. You can’t, like BP executives, call victims “small people” or wish aloud that you had “your life back” when victims and their families have lost lives, loved ones and livelihoods.

4. Ask those affected to work with you, not against you. Too often, crises become us vs. them. Crises should be all of us together vs. a common peril. Ask those affected to serve on advisory panels. Ask their input on decisions. Share their stories to show you care. Stand with them (not alone) at news conferences. Speak with one voice and with unified symbols against a common goal of repair and recovery.

5. Get all the bad news out fast and do it yourself (or it will be done unto you). In this age of 24/7 everyone’s-a-journalist saturation coverage, never assume that anything will remain secret or downplayed. Disclose all—honestly and completely—as soon as possible. If you hide, lie, sidestep, boast, exaggerate or let the truth trickle out in drips and drabs, the price will be costly and painful.

6. Explain what went wrong and what you’re going to do, in what order, and by when, to fix it. Sorry, but we’re impatient. On TV, everything’s wrapped up before the final commercial. We expect the same in real life. In times of crisis, you must set long-term and daily expectations. What are you doing each day to make it better? How long is the whole thing likely to take?

7. Demonstrate continual, incremental progress. Issue reports, every day, of what you’re going to do that day and what was accomplished the day before. Show action and progress—even if it’s boring.

8. Announce when the problem’s fixed, how you’re going to right the world for the victims, and how you’re going to prevent the problem from recurring. We want our epilogue, our restitution and the assurance that this won’t happen again.

There’s more crisis counsel where that came from, of course. But remember, if a crisis leaves you on the receiving end of Wisconsin’s favorite chant, every detail of your response matters. You can’t just board your yacht, abandon the “small people,” and sail away.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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