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Damage Control Doesn’t Have to Be Made for Cinema
In the mid-1980s, I worked on one of my first major corporate crises. It involved allegations that the Audi 5000 sedan took off like a rocket of its own volition, causing murder and mayhem. The syndrome — and a syndrome was needed to sell it — was called “sudden acceleration,” and it destroyed the Audi brand in the US for about eight years.
At the time, the scandal was hard to avoid. 60 Minutes ran a segment featuring the wife of a minister recounting how the Audi she was driving took off and killed her young son. The distressing interview was supplemented by relentless coverage in local media markets. There were lawsuits and congressional hearings. The phenomenon was discussed in bars and at family dinners. It was a viral story decades before “going viral” had entered the cultural lexicon.
Years later, investigations determined that the Audi 5000 did not suddenly accelerate as if possessed. Rather the drivers’ right feet had been pressing the accelerator, however unwittingly. No matter, the brand vanished until memories receded and Audi designed a new generation of appealing, sleek vehicles.
As I look back almost four decades, I can’t help but think of the variables that have changed in the damage control realm, the biggest one being the nature of the media transmitting controversy. For one thing, journalism in the 1980s, however flawed, was more in-depth than it is today. The televised “debates” between villain and vindicator were unfair, but the designated corporate villains at least slipped a few words into the conversation. There were gatekeepers that understood there had to be at least the appearance of a fair fight. “Objectivity” as a journalistic goal was the prime example.
Corporate scandal coverage has gone from the post-Watergate era of in-depth investigations (Love Canal) to the sensational hit pieces of magazine TV shows (exploding GM pickup trucks, WalMart, and child labor) to today’s nano-scandals (BudLight and Dylan Mulvaney). I am convinced that a single image of an explosively beaming Mulvaney holding a BudLight launched that crisis more than the degree to which the brand was truly committed to the promotion.
Today’s controversies are overdetermined and performative. Every crisis is now immediately declared to have been mismanaged rather than be allowed to play out. Cable business channels demand the CEO’s head, and TikTok and Twitter take over with memes. Sure, there are crises that have been explored in depth, such as the negative effects of social media and the opioid epidemic, but things are now trending toward the shallow and mimetic. Headlines read “X Sparks Outrage,” whether they have or not.
Companies are flailing to respond, hiding in the syrup of unctuous virtue signaling and hoping the specter of crisis doesn’t darken their own doorstep. They are slowly — very slowly — learning that sometimes less is more and that timing responses may be as important as their content. They aren’t so quick to put their CEOs on television, knowing that the correlation between such interviews and employment termination — for all parties — is near perfect. Giving crises oxygen with rapid but poorly thought-out responses isn’t the best way forward. After its 737 Max planes began crashing a few years ago, Boeing suggested solutions to the problem would be forthcoming in weeks. It took months. More bad coverage ensued.
Finally, companies are learning to hyper-target the audiences they care about with discrete communications rather than trying to reach all mankind by bombarding “old” media. When you try to speak to too many people, you’re no longer communicating as much as you are aggravating.
Any business that’s being realistic knows there is a slim chance of explaining anything exculpatory to the media, so they load the dice with advertising they can control and messages on YouTube and Instagram.
My biggest admonition for companies facing crises in 2023 and beyond is to become disenthralled with the notion that damage control needs to be cinematic. The goal is not to win a PR industry award. Yes, there are awards given out for crisis management! The firms that win them tend to be those that both buy advertising in the sponsoring publication and conform to the biases of the judges, which include some combination of woke self-praise and Mother Goose softball (“Look, we briefed the media and were rewarded for it!”). These awards also assume that the only tactics that can be used in a crisis are those that can be openly discussed. What won’t be — and shouldn’t be — publicized are the essential behind-the-scenes efforts such as lobbying, litigation, challenging adversaries, paying settlements, and discreet stakeholder communications designed to defuse tensions.
For every organization that has maneuvered swiftly and loudly to no avail, there are ten that moved deliberately and discreetly and were rewarded for it in the form of a cessation of hostilities, which is the goal. As the late Professor Martin Stoller of Northwestern University once said, “The aim of crisis management is to stop the attacker.” Let’s commence the challenge with that thought in mind.