This past spring I had the opportunity to help a pretty well-known national membership organization out of a crisis. Had any part of their situation involving a member gone public, the organization likely would not be around today. That’s not hyperbole. The issue that brought them to me, could have, in a matter of days, ended their existence.
Had they not called me (or someone in PR), I am not sure they would’ve done the right thing. How do I know? By the first question they asked me. Not coincidentally, this was the same first question the family of Joe Paterno asked the PR guy THEY called the week the story broke about Sandusky. If you don’t know that story – check out the HBO movie about it featuring Al Pacino as Paterno. In the scene when the PR guy arrives at the house, the family asks him, “What do we say?”
And he told them exactly what I had told my client. That the right thing, in this very first moment, is not what you SAY, it’s what you DO. Paterno needed to resign he told them. My client needed to let a member go, and several other things.
What the Paternos and my client didn’t know, as most companies do not seem to know, is that no one will hear a word you say during a crisis, let alone, believe it, until you right the wrong.
When this organization called me, they were looking for talking points. But what I gave them, at least initially, was a plan of action. Step one is always stop the bleeding. Fix the problem. Then, and only then, will the words have actual meaning and truth.
I’d like to be able to say this client took action first, as I advised, but they did not. They chose to make a statement first, while the wound continued to fester. And, not surprisingly, they got slammed for it.
However tough the lesson, my client realized they were going to need to do the work first and fast in order to win back confidence and trust, before they could say anything anyone would believe. By the way, Paterno also hesitated to act. He did not resign, and in that void, his employer, facing the same crisis, took THEIR necessary action and let him go.
Just like many company leaders think they can talk their way out of a crisis, many also think public relations is just words you use to make you look better. It’s not. Public relations is behavior. So whether in a crisis, or on any given Sunday, it’s your actions, not words, that count most.
Photo Credit: The Penn State Collegian