Sometimes The Damage Can’t Be Controlled

Oftentimes when we hear about a PR disaster, we look immediately to the person, brand, or company to detect whether a crisis plan is in place to minimize the damage. No plan, you say? Well that was stupid.

But even if you have a plan and you execute it as best you can, there are other factors, like the facts, that can get in the way.

In today’s guest post, Don Goldberg, partner at comms firm Bluetext, analyzes the limits of damage control. Goldberg spent a decade on Capitol Hill, was a senior member of President Clinton’s comms staff, and has worked with companies including GM and Halliburton. So he’s been around some damage.

Click through to read on.

The Limits of Damage Control by Don Goldberg, partner at Bluetext

Damage control in hindsight often seems so obvious. Why didn’t Joe Paterno preempt his firing by acknowledging that he should have done more when being told of the allegations against Sandusky? He could have resigned that day and left with his head held a little higher. Why didn’t Herman Cain concede that in the past he had been insensitive toward women, but that he had learned from his mistakes? He might still be a viable candidate.

Unfortunately, most scandals and crises aren’t this easy. For example, the Obama Administration’s handling of the Solyndra controversy doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix. First, congressional Republicans have been dripping out incriminating e-mails at a pace designed to keep the story alive. Second, and more important, the Solyndra debacle goes to the heart of one of the White House’s core policy initiatives—clean energy—leaving little room to distance itself from the now-bankrupt company.

Likewise, Rick Perry’s now-infamous 53 seconds of torture was an all-too-human moment. But he may never recover because those crickets reinforced the perception that he isn’t ready for the big stage. What’s more, his attempt to arrest his free fall—to go on as many news shows as would have him and make fun of himself—seems to have solidified this negative image.

Finally, consider the tragic explosion last April in which 29 miners perished at a coal mine owned by Massey Energy. (Full disclosure: I helped to manage the response for Massey.) I knew right away how the crisis was likely to unfold, and designed a strategy to address each phase of the aftermath. And yet, nothing could ultimately save CEO Don Blankenship from dismissal, because he had a long history of acrimony and controversy that he couldn’t overcome.

While those of us in the business often can see up front how each scandal will play out, that doesn’t mean we can design a quick fix once the damage is done. How to manage a crisis depends more on the specific set of facts and circumstances of the characters involved than on any set playbook that dictates cookie-cutter solutions. In the end, the facts are the facts—no amount of damage control can change that.

Trying to recast those facts—as Herman Cain has attempted so clumsily—isn’t the answer. Nor is relying on legal technicalities; arguing that Paterno met the state requirements for reporting sexual crimes against a 10-year-old boy may keep him out of jail, but it doesn’t meet the minimum moral demands that we place on our authority figures.

There’s nothing typical when it comes to crisis communications and damage control. It’s case-by-case—whether you’re a politician or a sports legend, a businessman or the guy on the street.