COVID’s handling offers lessons on how not to make a PR crisis worse

by | Apr 22, 2021 | Covid-19, Public Relations

Prior to joining Burson-Marsteller, my first PR job was with a political agency, where I learned on-the-job lessons not taught in communication’s schools about how to deal with the media and approach problems that could change on a daily basis. I have long said that paying attention to the happenings on the political scene provides a tuition-free Master’s Class in public relations.

Among the most important lessons, years before PR crises specialists advised clients to tell the truth (but not necessarily the whole truth and nothing but most of the truth), political PR operatives knew that trying to hide the truth often leads to making a situation worse. Remember “the cover-up is worse than the crime” commentary that became the vogue after the Watergate scandal.

President Nixon attempted to conceal the truth during the Watergate scandal. More recently, President Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinski. And President Trump was impeached for soliciting foreign interference to help his 2020 re-election and then instructing his colleagues to ignore subpoenas for documents and testimony, obstructing the inquiry. Obviously, not coming clean made these individuals’ problems worse. Telling the truth might have resulted in a mere slap on the hand.

All three examples had a similar theme

It applies to individuals and many business entities in a crisis situation: Trying to deny and then hide the problem only leads to drip-by-drip negative media coverage.

Some attempts to hide the truth during a PR crisis can result in negative media coverage for decades. Prime examples are the National Football League denying the science showing that repeated concussions can lead to life changing health problems and even death, and Big Tobacco denying that smoking can cause serious health problems.

Each year during the football season, and especially prior to the Super Bowl, the NFL receives negative media coverage regarding their concussion problems. A better strategy by the NFL would have been to admit to the problem when it was first reported and say they are looking for ways to alleviate it by cooperating with health experts. At least that would have provided the league with some positive coverage.

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered the link between football-related brain injury and dementia when examining chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame Center Mike Webster. In 2009, the NFL said there might be a problem. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the NFL officially acknowledged that there was a concussion connection with CTE. (A New York Times article on March 14, 2016, reported, “In perhaps its clearest admission that football can cause degenerative brain disease, the N.F.L.’s top health and safety official admitted Monday that there was a link between the sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease found in dozens of retired players).

Similarly, Big Tobacco saying that there was no evidence that smoking causes health problems has cast the smoke makers as a business that should not be trusted, even though many years have passed since their denials of a problem. (On April 15, 1994 the New York Times reported, “The top executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies testified in Congress today that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive, but that they would rather their own children did not smoke.”)

Trying to hide the truth when their PR crises first developed has made Boeing and Wells Fargo targets for negative press coverage because the companies first denied that there was a problem, then attempted to hide it and then misled the public and/or investigators about it. Similarly, whenever there is an oil spill, BP comes to mind. All failed, in their attempts to camouflage their problems, as did President Trump in originally denying that the U.S. had a devastating coronavirus problem.

In a “what was done, what should have been done” format, here’s how Trump turned a situation not of his making into a major PR crisis for himself.

The “what was done, what should have been done” examples apply to all PR crises. They are not a comprehensive PR crisis plan. It’s a primer on how important it is to answer questions truthfully during a crisis because history shows that not answering honestly will make a crisis worse.

Examples:

What was said:

When the news about the coronavirus first broke in January 2020, President Trump assured people “We have it totally under control.”

What should have been said: We are doing our best to prevent the virus from coming to the U.S.

Reason why: A client should never make a declarative statement unless the facts of a situation are under control. Declarative remarks indicate that something is definite. In the coronavirus situation it was far from definite that the virus would not travel to the U.S.

What was said:

The president, like high executives at Boeing and Wells Fargo, originally denied that there was a problem.

What should have been said: At the present time, we are having all our experts look into the matter so we can address any problem that we find.
Reason Why: Statements like the above provide cover for clients by admitting that there might be a problem. It prevents them from being labeled untruthful.

What was said:

President Trump, as did execs at Boeing and Wells Fargo, said that any problem would be easily solved and short lived.
What should have been said: It appears that it will take a little longer than we expected to fix the problem and will provide additional information in a timely manner.

Reason why: Statements like the one above would give the impression that President Trump, Wells Fargo and Boeing execs were not attempting to cover-up bad news.

What was said:

President Trump, like execs at Boeing, Wells Fargo, and BP blamed other people or entities for their problems.

What should have been said: While it’s our problem, it is not entirely our fault and we are leaving no stone unturned to correct the problem.

Reason why: Claiming that the problem was exaggerated or caused by others is never a good idea; it invites responses from those accused, resulting in additional coverage of the crisis.

What was said:

President Trump, execs at Boeing and Wells Fargo, continually said that they had the problem under control, which was not the case.

What should have been said; We are cooperating with the best minds in the health field, government agencies and private sectors to find a fast solution to the problem.

Reason why: Because that’s the way problems are solved.

What was said:

President Trump, Boeing and Wells Fargo execs, bashed the media for over blowing the problem.

What should have been said: Certain elements of the media are being unfair to us and are misreporting what is happening.
Reason why: That’s a statement that no one can deny. There is exaggeration in reporting by both the right and left wings of the media.

What was said:

Probably the biggest mistake in the coronavirus situation was when President Trump claimed the virus was a “Democratic hoax.”

What should have been said: This is a time for politics to be put aside, not to make political points.

Reason why: It would have positioned the president as acting in the best interests of the country instead of playing politics.

The lessons I learned during my time at the political PR firm are more important today than ever when dealing with media during a PR crisis. They were:

  • Treat reporters respectfully. Unlike some opinion columnists, beat reporters are not the enemy.
  • Always assume that everything you tell a reporter is “on the record” and nothing is ever “off the record.”
  • Never provide misleading information.
  • Always be truthful.

Obviously, the above lessons were not followed during the coronavirus tragedy and the Boeing and Wells Fargo PR crises and many other crises too numerous to name.

Statements by former president Trump, Boeing and Wells Fargo executives were proved to be untrue many times as new details regarding their PR crises were uncovered by the media and government regulators. Regaining the trust of the media will not be easy for them.

In the coronavirus situation, statements by President Trump changed so frequently that they were fact checked immediately. Many of the president’s comments were not accepted as factual because most of the science-based health experts disagreed with many of his remarks. His past record of speaking untruths came back to bite him.

There are important lessons to be learned that usually occur during every major and lengthy PR crisis:

  • PR people should learn from the action of the former president, the NFL, Big Tobacco, Boeing and Wells Fargo that not telling the entire truth will make PR crises worse.
  • And they should remember a phrase I coined many years ago: Unlike clothing, there is no one size fits all solution to a PR crisis.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

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