I sometimes find righteous, controlled and directed rage very moving. One of my favourite examples is a book from a year or two back called Dear Austen, Nina Bawden’s touching, long love letter to her husband who was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002 in which seven people died as a result of badly maintained points.
She recounts her experience of the way in which the firms responsible for the accident made a complete and utter hash of dealing with the situation in their efforts to manage their way out of it. I particularly recall Stephen Norris, then Chairman of Jarvis, the firm paid to maintain the track at Potters Bar claiming he had ‘prima facie evidence of sabotage’ of the tracks. This statement was quickly refuted by both the police and the HSE making it look as though Norris was trying to deflect blame from his own company’s failings.
This came back to haunt Norris during his mayoral campaign for London with Nina Bawden and other relatives claiming that he was unfit to be mayor. And rightly so.
Now then. The PR industry would like you to believe that it’s possible to ‘align your comms strategy’ to deal with this kind of thing. Indeed there is an increasingly prominent subset of PR called crisis management which claims it can help firms deal with ‘bad publicity’ of this sort.
As far as I can see, there are three golden rules to this sort of crisis management.
1. Don’t behave like a bunch of lying/ fraudulent/ money grubbing/ uncaring weasels in the first place.
2. Don’t expect people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. If you look like a weasel and act like a weasel, telling them you’re a pussycat won’t convince them. If you’ve done it, admit it – if you can – and change your behaviour.
3. Once you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Of course, making such common sense pronouncements won’t allow crisis comms companies to charge an arm and a leg for their consultancy. What these cases also highlight is a more general point about PR. As with so many aspects of marketing, PR is best used to highlight the positive rather than disguise the negative. It is good at drawing attention to the best aspects of a company or in influencing opinion on subjects, especially within the trade media. What it can’t do is disguise the unpalatable truth.