In 2016, when a tsunami of sexual harassment claims first started to whirl around Roger Ailes — the then-chairman and CEO of Fox News and the Fox Television Stations Group — his first wave of calls went to lawyers and other advisors. The next went to Karen Kessler, a co-founder of Evergreen Partners, a Warren-based public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications, reputation management, litigation support and issues management consulting.
“Crises seem to come in waves,” Kessler said. “For a time, financial crime was in the news, then corruption, and now sexual harassment. We’re usually engaged by attorneys, and our first step is to investigate the matter, to see what caused the issue. We have to find out, as quickly as possible, what really happened. Then we assess where we are, and work on putting a strategic approach together. We have worked on behalf of the most prominent law firms in the region and our policy is to not divulge clients unless asked to speak on their behalf.”
Typically, Kessler and her team will speak with internal employees and business partners and get a feel for public reaction if the matter has reached that point already.
“We consider who the audience is and the best way to reach them. But a client has to be upfront with us, or we can’t successfully assist them.”
In the case of Ailes — who resigned in 2016, and then died in May — “there was a serious divide between the way Roger wanted to handle things and our advice, so we left the assignment,” according to Kessler.
Silence is generally not a strategy, she added.
“We tell clients that one way or another, they have to issue some response. If they don’t, it’s like admitting you’re guilty as charged,” Kessler said. “That goes for every client, including athletes, celebrities, politicians, executives, and academics.
“Unfortunately, by nature many people are slow to acknowledge that they’re in a crisis situation and need professional help. They may try to resolve it themselves, and will talk to too many people and will often be too quick to issue a denial. They think their reaction will be kept within a small circle of people, but it won’t. Then they try to hide from the press, issue misleading statements or refuse to comment, but it all catches up, especially in today’s digital environment where anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can get an audience.”
What if a client wants to bare his or her soul and admit they did something wrong?
“One vexing issue is knowing how to apologize and acknowledge wrongdoing and issue an apology, but doing so in a way that won’t jeopardize your legal and other standing,” Kessler said. “For example, you can undermine your own position if you start out admitting that something happened, but then you either change your story in a bid to look better, or try to claim that other people have done worse things. That’s what happened with Sen. Al Franken, who tried to deflect criticism about his inappropriate actions by pointing to another politician, Judge Roy Moore.”
Companies and high-profile individuals should periodically take steps to fortify their good reputation, even in the absence of any scandals, advised Rich Tauberman, executive vice president, corporate communications at MWWPR, an East Rutherford-based full-service public relations agency.
“It’s important to polish your reputation before a crisis,” he explained. “You can have a crisis management plan, but if your stakeholders already see you in a positive light, that can help a lot, so make it a habit to engage with your stakeholders on a regular basis and pay attention to activities like corporate social responsibility.”
Businesses should have crisis plans in place, “with specific people authorized to issue responses,” he added. “It’s also a good idea to have a kind of general template statement, so you can quickly modify it and get your side of the story out quickly.”
If bad news does break, “be proactive, transparent and accountable,” he suggested. “Today, between the internet and social media, everything moves at warp speed. It used to be that your actions in the first hour of a news break were important, but now it’s the first minute.”
Also, taking responsibility if something went wrong can help to rebuild trust and goodwill, Tauberman said.
“When Target suffered a credit card breach in 2013 that affected millions of customers, the company took a lot of heat for holding off for weeks before disclosing the hack; and then, several times it needed to increase the number of consumers that it reported were impacted.”
MWWPR handles crisis communication and issues management for businesses across a range of industries including aviation, food products, health care, manufacturers, financial/professional services and oil and gas companies.
“A major issue we see is a lack of preparedness,” Tauberman noted. “A crisis occurs, and suddenly they’re looking for an agency such as MWWPR to help them with their response strategy and materials. We try to keep our current clients up to date with regular reviews of their crisis communications plans and ongoing training.”
In some cases, a crisis actually can help a company to beef up its reputation.
“A natural foods product company we represented had a great reputation with a loyal customer base,” he detailed. “But it turned out that one of their processing machines malfunctioned, and there was a chance that some small pieces of plastic might have made their way onto the food. We worked with the company to immediately issue a voluntary recall and offer refunds to anyone who had purchased the affected production run. It did this even though the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had not ordered it to, and an investigation soon revealed that there was no contamination. The company’s quick reaction, and the fact that it was upfront about the matter, generated a lot of positive response and further cemented its customer loyalty."