Truth telling in a PR Crisis

Posted by Sara Hawthorn

Recently, I watched a Twitter conversation unfold relating to truth telling in a crisis situation, the people involved held opposing points of view and both opinions spiked my interest enough to write about it here because it caused me to question my own position on this as the head of an agency.

Protect the client at all costs

One of the conversation participants took a position that I’m all too familiar with: The client pays us, ergo we protect the client at all costs. I can understand this. PR people are there to help organisations shine, not to drop them in it. Up to the last three words everything in that statement is accurate, but words are crafty manipulators of thought and the vagueness of ‘at all costs’ is subject to abuse.

It is dangerous because there is no defined line, no boundary which saves us from going too far. We are reliant on our own judgement in order to make these calls and, in a pressured scenario with press-ganging from c-suite level and millions or billions of pounds at risk, our judgement maybe be foggy and untrustworthy.

The statement is also too often put into action with historical intention. Protect implies shielding from impact, covering with armour, putting distance between the perceived victim and the attacker.

Crucially, what this point of view fails to consider is honesty as a means of protection.

In a modern PR world, protection should include lifting that shield and steering clients through the storm. Whilst we all wish that crisis situations could be avoided, life just isn’t that way inclined. Mistakes happen, whether software related or human error; we are not designed to be perfect, and we know this. We know this as well as we know how to breathe which makes denial, silence and deliberate manipulation of the truth in crisis situations exponentially worse.

I fail to see a situation where honesty through effective communications would not lead to a better outcome than misleading or being ‘economical with the truth’. The path of honesty and transparency is far from easy, companies are forced to hold a mirror up to their actions and behaviours, often that can be an unpleasant sight. The fact is telling the truth is hard work and a lot of effort and, in a crisis situation when things are already fraught, this makes it look like the bad choice out of all the options.

The need for ethics in crisis PR

It’s for exactly this reason we need a code of ethics in PR, especially crisis PR. Because when all the options are laid out and the truth looks like the worst choice it is up to the communicator in the organisation to explain why this perception is wrong and why the benefits and risks of honesty far outweigh the risks of withholding or covering up. Without an overarching industry code of practice that’s evidence-based and process-driven communicators have little to support their advice except personal morals and instinct for the right course of action which makes stakeholder or board level buy in even more challenging.

Purpose. Trust. Responsibility. Transparency. These are all words that are now commonplace in pro-active brand marketing, but in a crisis they are often too quickly abandoned and this can lead those same words to be used against businesses. And so we end up in a cycle with companies associating truth with greater reputational risk, instead of recognising the need for change and consistent honest communications across every facet of the organisation – including crisis planning and management.

Final thoughts

Our role in crisis communications is not to be dictated to, but lend our voice to the right course of action, based on our skills, experience and knowledge. To do that effectively, we not only need to know what the right ethical steps are and why they matter, but stand up for their use when the situation around us is pressured and could easily stray into grey or decidedly dark waters.