This post is part of an ongoing series.
Like many in our profession, I sometimes feel like the guy at the circus juggling plates on the ends of sticks. It looks precarious, but like the guy under the big top, I am happiest when there is a lot going on.
Over the past several years, I’ve had three primary jobs: 1.) Chairman and Founder of Fifteen Minutes, a Los Angeles-based PR firm that specializes in consumer brands, entertainment and crisis/controversy clients; 2.) Vice Chairman of Reputation.com, the largest and category-creating online reputation management company; and 3.) Network and cable broadcast news contributor, providing my take on the reputational events of the day.
My PR and crisis work often involves people and companies seeking to prevent or assuage a whirlwind of damaging press.
If negative news has already created an ugly online blemish, that’s where my work with Reputation.com comes in. And when celebrities do or say the wrong thing, either online or off, I often appear on TV to discuss what happened, explain whether it’s a speed bump or a sinkhole, and offer suggestions for reputational recovery. I’ve found that wearing multiple hats allows for new perspectives that play a role in strategic planning for clients.
For instance, a few years ago I represented a client who was going through a contentious celebrity divorce. Most of the mainstream media outlets were asking him to do interviews, but I knew that once we did one or two, future interviews would be limited. Further, I imagined the interviews being cut down to their juiciest moments with limited time for my client to define himself and talk about his future.
Rather than putting him on a network or cable news hot seat, I suggested we secure a credible journalist, shoot our own interviews and post them on YouTube.
We ended up with three segments of 4-5 minutes each. The first defined my client as he was before the marriage, the second answered a series of questions about the marriage and break up, and then finally, my client got to talk about where he would go from that point on.
When we released the interview to the media, the segments received wide-scale pick-up on just about every major entertainment news outlet. It was a rousing success and proof positive that owned media channels can be just as effective at clearing a client’s record as smearing his/her public image.
We used a similar strategy when handling the historic coming out announcement of Michael Sam, Missouri football star and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, prior to entering the 2014 NFL draft. Granted, we weren’t creating and distributing our own social content. But we still took the ‘less is more’ approach by doing only one taped broadcast interview and one print interview with credible national journalists. This allowed us to stay the course, control the message and allow Michael to own his story, which was of utmost importance to everyone involved. The resulting coverage was extraordinary and ignited a positive national discussion around a courageous, trailblazing announcement.
A few things to consider when seeking to create, own, distribute or control the media around a client crisis, controversy or declaration:
1. Be credible.
Work with an interviewer, journalist or outlet that will tell your story the way it should be told while also asking the tough questions.
2. Think like a journalist.
Use your anticipatory PR prowess to prepare your client for a five-minute recorded piece as you would for a 60 Minutes interview. The way you answer the difficult questions will end up defining your interview and your client’s perception from that point forward.
3. Tell the truth.
Do not divert or obfuscate. The fastest way to public forgiveness is to communicate authentically and sincerely. That means owning up, being earnest and learning from your mistakes.
4. Less is often best.
By droning on and on during an interview, you’re creating more opportunity to veer off message, say the wrong thing, come across as insincere or lose your composure. Donald Sterling and Lance Armstrong have mastered this art.
5. Integrity above all.
Lastly, and most importantly, both your integrity and your client’s integrity are on the line. A disingenuous interview not only worsens your client’s reputational problems, it makes the adviser (you) look bad too. Work with integrity and know when to walk away from a crisis client when continued involvement may harm your good name.
As PR people, and particularly crisis PR people, we have more options than ever when our client is on the ropes. It’s up to us to come up with the strategic solution that makes the most sense for them. Keep your wits about you and remember: integrity above all.
Howard Bragman is Chairman of Fifteen Minutes, an LA-based entertainment and lifestyle-focused public relations and communications agency.