Listening to Bruce Hennes’ talks on crisis communications for utilities, I was reminded of a long-ago quip attributed, as best as I could recall, to Pierre Salinger (right), former press secretary to President John F. Kennedy and a print and broadcast reporter.
“The truth can be complicated,” I remember reading him saying. “Sometimes, it’s easier to lie.” He was reflecting, many years after the fact, about his work as the White House press secretary when confronted with questions about JFK’s health, the president’s extra-marital affairs and the Cuban missile crisis.
Salinger died long ago, but the sentiment animating his wisecrack apparently is alive and well, judging from the recent lie-driven scandals that have engulfed prominent individuals like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, among others, as well as organizations like Uber, Fox News, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo.
Utilities also have had their share of scandals and crises, probably no more and no less than other businesses, but the localized nature of utilities typically keeps those scandals from going national. One exception is the natural gas pipeline explosion that rocked San Bruno, California, a few years back, and the subsequent assertions that Pacific Gas & Electric scrimped on safety in order to hit its earnings numbers.
Crisis Communications: Tell the Whole Truth Right Away
In separate talks last year at two conferences sponsored by the American Public Power Association, Bruce Hennes (left) noted that a company’s reputation is its largest uninsured asset. Although 97% of filed cases against companies never go to trial, he continued, companies are subject to potentially enormous reputational damage if they don’t handle crises successfully. That is especially true for publicly traded companies, including utilities, where shareholders often vote with their feet after a scandal or crisis erupts. “The court of public opinion is always in session,” he quipped.
So what does this low-key, plainspoken, affable Midwesterner recommend when a crisis hits? Bruce has a six-point plan animated by one simple yet eternal truth: Don’t lie.
- The truth always comes out
- Lies ruin reputations
- Don’t deny the obvious
- People scan headlines, they don’t read articles
- Avoid media filters by getting your side of the story out first, and
- Understand that telling stories, rather than gathering facts, is a reporter’s main job description
In a Crisis, People Remember Story Frameworks, Not Facts
That last point deserves further elaboration. Bruce asserts that reporters are, of course, interested in facts, but they often try to fit those facts into comfortable and easily-recognizable “story frameworks.” Typical story frameworks include:
- Hero stories
- Stories of honor — and dishonor
- Stories of redemption
- Overcoming the odds, and
- Villains, victims and vindicators
Think about the controversies you see on your social media feed, the nightly news or in your newspaper (if you read one). Here are some easily recognized story frameworks:
- People who responded to last year’s hurricanes in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, or who responded to the Las Vegas shooting, were profiled as heroes by the news media.
- The sexual misconduct scandals that engulfed Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Al Franken, et al, all followed a familiar story arc: powerful people who fell from grace.
- When he was running for president, Bill Clinton’s narrative was about a young boy who overcame the odds of a difficult childhood to earn degrees from some of the world’s most prestigious universities and run for the highest office in the land. After becoming president, he, too, fell from grace.
- Villain stories abound, at the personal, governmental, corporate and institutional levels.
Communications Tip of the Month: A company’s reputation can be a safety net or an albatross during a crisis. When bad news hits, utility communicators need to be truth tellers, apologizing for bad deeds and saying what is being done to make sure those deeds don’t happen again.
First Step in Crisis Communications: Saying “I’m Sorry”
Bruce told his APPA audiences when the facts don’t fit an easily recognized story framework, people tend to ignore the facts and hold fast to the frameworks. In practice, that means a person’s or company’s past good deeds are overlooked when they are engulfed by scandal. For example, did Harvey Weinstein (right) green-light some of the best and most popular movies in the last 20 years? Yes. Did it save him? No.
If a crisis or scandal erupts, Bruce urged utilities to truthfully accept responsibility by saying “I’m sorry.” He also discouraged attorneys from speaking for utilities “because they too-often start off as the villain — even when they’re not.” And when people and companies really foul-up, Hennes encourages “ ‘fessing up and fixing up.”
“Simply saying ‘I’m sorry,’ instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ is the fastest way to not only begin the process of reputation rebuilding but can also dramatically reduce future damage awards,” Bruce told his APPA audiences.
Crisis Communications: Lessons from Kindergarten Still Apply
A non-attorney who teaches attorneys, Bruce understands corporate legal departments often recommend saying nothing when reporters call about sketchy behavior by employees, accidents, institutional failures or controversial issues. “Be the truth teller,” he urged his audience. “Don’t let the CEO or the company’s lawyer try to shut down inquiries with ‘no comment.’ ”
He recommended attendees consult the website Sorry Works for stories where companies were able to shorten their recovery time and rebuild their reputations by saying, simply, “I’m sorry,” and then committing themselves to fixing the problems that caused the crisis.
Preventing Your Next Communications Crisis
For utilities, some communications crises stem from unpredictable external events like severe weather. Others are self-inflicted wounds that derive from internal organizational issues. Skillful communicators may be able to contain crises once they erupt. But wouldn’t it be better—less painful, less costly, easier—to try to prevent them? Many communications crises can be prevented with careful planning and purposeful action. You can take this quick self-assessment to see where your utility stands and consider your next steps.
Download the self-assessment here.