In the murky world of corporate affairs, the public relations guru must be a jack-of-all-trades: a salesman, a spin doctor, and sometimes a fixer. Edward Segal, a 30-year veteran in crisis communications and journalism, has been all that and more. We recently brought him into the newsroom to brief our staff on how PR professionals maneuver to control bad press—and how savvy journalists can counter the dark arts of flackdom.
We also asked him if he would share some of his secrets with readers. Here, he pulls back the curtain on his symbiotic relationship with the media, reflects on how #MeToo has changed the PR playbook, and offers some practical advice for Elon Musk.
Fast Company: What’s the most shocking scandal you’ve ever been involved in managing?
Edward Segal: I’ve dealt with dozens of scandals ranging from the arrest of a corporate officer to allegations of sexual harassment. The most shocking was an unusual crisis that could have affected the organization for which I was the CEO. The Sultan of Brunei, who owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and with whom we had signed a contract to hold a major event, said he was going to impose harsh punishments on his people—amputation and the death penalty—for adultery and homosexuality. The sultan’s plans created international headlines and led to a boycott of the hotel by Hollywood celebrities and others.
I didn’t want the organization to get caught up in the controversy or become collateral damage by having to explain why we were still holding the event at the hotel after news of the sultan’s plans became known. I moved quickly to cancel our contract with the hotel and found another location for our event.
As I hoped, our organization was not mentioned in news coverage about the crisis. Sometimes the best way to manage a crisis—when you can see it coming—is to do what you can as soon as possible to avoid it.
You’ve worked as both a journalist and a public relations consultant. What’s the biggest misconception about how the media covers business?
The biggest misconception is that there has to be an adversarial relationship between news organizations and companies. I’ve found that many business executives believe reporters want to take down the companies they are covering—or least try to inflict some damage. The truth is entirely different.
In reality, both sides need each other in order to do their jobs. Companies need the media to help give their stories the credibility that comes with having news organizations tell their stories. Reporters need companies as sources of information and stories to tell. That’s why I counsel my PR clients to think of the media as partners, not adversaries, for telling their stories. The challenge for many business executives is that they do not have the skills they need for dealing with the media and do not understand and appreciate how and why journalists do their jobs.
There may be times when companies may not want the type of coverage that news organizations may be all too eager to give a company—such as when companies are dealing with a crisis. In these situations, the misconception is that “if we ignore the media, they will go away.” Ignoring the media during a crisis does not discourage journalists from reporting on the crisis, but it will deny companies an important opportunity to tell their side of the story to the public.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen an evolution in how companies address allegations of sexual misconduct, from the ouster of major executives to the backlash against NDAs. In your experience, how has the crisis playbook changed in the wake of #MeToo?
More so than many other crisis scenarios, I think companies are inclined to be more proactive in preventing sexual misconduct related-crises in the first place through education, training, and enforcement of transparent policies and procedures.
A best practice in crisis management is to put a crisis behind you as quickly as possible.
But #MeToo seems to have turbocharged corporate executives and PR people to move even faster, if for no other reason than to lessen the chance that social media will exacerbate matters.
The speed at which allegations of sexual misconduct are addressed can send an important message about how seriously companies regard these issues. A rapid corporate response can also help mitigate potential damage to an organization’s brand, image, reputation, profits, and relations with the public. Another need for speed is that the public can have very short attention spans. This means that the sooner a company can put a matter like sexual misconduct behind them, the sooner the public is likely to forget about the details of the crisis and focus their attention elsewhere. That does not mean, however, that there won’t be a lingering stigma associated with the company.
How are companies thinking about their responsibilities and messaging in the context of the coronavirus? What are the kinds of things that your corporate clients are concerned about, from a PR perspective, and how are they mitigating those risks?
The good news is that most companies are being very careful not to do anything that would prolong the pandemic or make matters worse. Some told employees to work from home or shuttered their stores to help protect workers and customers. Others used advertising to assure people that “we’re in this together.” Through their actions and words, many companies are sending the message that “we care.”
The bad news is the pandemic created a tsunami that drowned out the voices of many companies who were seeking to promote and market their products, services, or expertise. With some public officials predicting a resurgence of the disease, businesses will continue to face challenges in capturing the attention of the media and the public, most of whom are laser-focused on health, economic, and day-to-day survival issues.
I assume social media has made your job 10 times harder. Before Twitter and Facebook, you only had to manage media gatekeepers. Now you’re dealing with massive crowds of people—each one wielding the investigatory resources of a reporter and the potential reach of a major broadcaster—itching to amplify any corporate misstep to their followers.
The 24/7, never-ending news cycle means crisis managers must always be vigilant for tweets and Facebook posts that can quickly gain additional credibility and traction when reported by mainstream news outlets. Everybody is on alert and on edge as never before—citizen journalists who are looking for corporate misdeeds, trained reporters who are seeking stories, and crisis managers who are monitoring and tracking for early signs of possible trouble.
Social media has created an international echo chamber that can make it difficult to be heard or understood in a crisis. It has made it challenging, if not impossible, for crisis-related rumors, mistakes, and misstatements to be refuted. But unless they are immediately and effectively addressed, they can quickly become conventional wisdom and even harder to correct.
Donald Trump offers a perplexing case study in crisis management. In many ways, he eschews all of the conventional wisdom: He doesn’t apologize; he uses lies and misdirection and turns accusations back on his critics. More often than not, he generates new controversies too quickly for the media to linger on any specific incident. Has his conduct changed, in any way, the cultural landscape for companies dealing with PR crises?
I consider Trump—who treats every day at the White House as if it were an episode of a reality television show—to be an anti-role model. From name-calling to shirking responsibility, businesses would do well to avoid adopting his crisis management strategies, tactics, or techniques.
What works for him could not work for anyone in the world of commerce. Business executives are not elected officials, or politicians and would find it impossible to create the kind of ongoing chaos and confusion that Trump uses to try to shield himself from accountability. Indeed, companies who try to emulate Trump’s strategies, tactics, and techniques run the risk of damaging their company’s sales, revenue, and relations with clients and customers. And executives who try to mimic Trump’s behavior may quickly find themselves out of a job.
There are some CEOs who have adopted a Trump-like approach to Twitter. What advice would you give to Elon Musk, for example?
Twitter can be a dangerous tool and, like all dangerous tools, should be handled carefully by people who know what they are doing and why they are doing it. Twitter can certainly be a dangerous tool in the hands of CEOs who cannot or will not control their impulses or temptations and who disregard the consequences of their words and actions. Ill-considered tweets can do more than create bad publicity for a company—they can lead to a drop in stock prices of publicly traded companies, investigations by government agencies, and boycotts or protests by consumers.
Elon Musk has everything to lose and nothing to gain by tweeting. I recommend he cancel his Twitter account immediately and focus all of his efforts and energies on ensuring the success of his various enterprises and ventures.
Why did you write Crisis Ahead, your new book on crisis management?
I wanted to show business executives and their staff that there are effective, efficient, and strategic ways to prevent, prepare for, manage, and recover from a variety of crisis situations. It’s always better, of course, to learn from the crisis management mistakes of others than having to learn those lessons the hard way by making those mistakes yourself. Crisis Ahead provides readers with a road map to do that.
Edward Segal is the author of Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disaster, Scandals, and Other Emergences and a consultant with more than 30 years of experience in crisis management, journalism, and pubic relations.