Public relations guru Howard Rubenstein had some succinct advice for chief executive officers who have to report negative information or manage a crisis — “Get the bad news out quickly.’’
“Don’t let the drip, drip, drip of the water torture take over,’’ said Rubenstein, president and founder of Rubenstein Associates, the New York public relations firm that has dealt with high-profile clients such as Donald Trump, George Steinbrenner, Linda Wachner, Naomi Campbell, Kathie Lee Gifford and Mike Tyson.
“If you have the facts and the facts are not so good, but they’re not damaging in a criminal or fraudulent way, they’ll come out anyway,’’ Rubenstein said. “Get as many of the bad facts out fast, and then try to get that story subdued.”
Communicating with company employees before potentially damaging information becomes public is essential, he said.
“The worst thing to do is to assume a bunker mentality, where all information is cut off and people don’t return the reporter’s call. Be cautious of your e-mails,” Rubenstein warned. “I’ve seen e-mails bury clients.”
He outlined several steps ceo’s should take before a crisis manifests itself.
“You should prepare,’’ he said. “Remember, often it’s not the crisis itself that will help take you down, but how you handle it that will determine the outcome.”
The first step is to create a skilled crisis management team that consists of the ceo, chief financial officer, an attorney and representatives of advertising and human resources. Then a hot line needs to be established so the crisis managers can be reached around the clock. In addition, leaders should be on the lookout and pay attention to early signs of a crisis that can start as a rumor from a reporter or someone inside the company.
When a crisis hits, the team must be brought together and facts gathered to decide on the right thing to do, he said. “Your publicity should reflect the right thing you do to correct something,’’ Rubenstein said. “Maybe you have been right. Then I ask a question that’s too often ignored: ‘What’s your good name worth?’ That will drag them, willingly or not, to do the right thing.”In a crisis, companies should have one or two spokesmen, otherwise too many individuals are giving out sometimes conflicting information. “Funnel all media calls into those people,” he said. When dealing with the press, Rubenstein said it’s important to set the ground rules, including getting an acknowledgement from a reporter when information is off the record. “I generally tell my clients don’t go off the record, because sometimes the note-taking isn’t particularly careful. Something you thought was off the record goes in and damages your situation very severely,” he said.
“Always involve your attorney in a crisis issue,” he added.
Rubenstein said there is a right and wrong way to speak to a reporter. In answering journalists’ questions, Rubenstein said, “A ‘no comment’ can be interpreted by the public that you’ve done something wrong. There are many artful ways of saying no comment. You can say, ‘We’re looking into it,’ or ‘We’re investigating it; we’ll have an answer soon.’ Respond quickly and accurately and don’t lie and make up an answer....” He said sometimes public relations people will make up an answer, and a reporter will go after them for lying.
“Studies have shown that corporations that manage a crisis aggressively from the start are better able to minimize the damage of the negative news. Even after the crisis, companies that communicated quickly, clearly and effectively demonstrated enhance stock prices, compared with those companies that mismanaged their communications,” he said.
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