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PR crisis comes in various forms; whether the CEO is involved in a personal scandal or the brand faces backlash for a controversial tweet, most businesses ultimately will face a PR crisis at some point in time. Fortunately, John Deveney, President and Founder of marketing agency DEVENEY, is a bonafide PR crisis expert and has joined today’s episode to unveil how to best navigate during times of turmoil.

ImPRessions Episode # 2 Transcript

Jenn: At 07:00 a.m. On a Monday morning, you pour your first cup of coffee, and before the caffeine kicks in, you get a phone call from one of your clients stating the four words PR specialist dread: We have a problem. Whether the CEO is involved in a personal scandal or the brand faces backlash for a controversial tweet, most businesses ultimately will face a PR crisis at some point in time. Today, we’re fortunate to speak with John Deveney, president, and founder of marketing agency Deveney, an expert of gracefully handling a PR crisis. John, thank you so much for joining us on Impressions today.

John: So glad to be here. Thanks for the honor.

Kalli: Of course. So, over 20 years ago, you founded Deveney, the marketing firm that specializes in area of crisis. What made you want to start your own firm especially?

John: I think we see this in working with business owners. There’s a fire in the belly of people that want to own their own business, they want to build their own business.

I think there is something fundamentally different about entrepreneurs and people that want to go at it on their own, just like all the businesses that you’re a great firm and we represent. I had that affliction.

Jenn: I feel like there’s a big difference between a crisis and a crisis. So, I assume there are various levels of urgency. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you personally define a PR crisis?

John: Well, and especially to differentiate between the crisis lower case and the crisis in all caps, as you described it, crisis is one of the practice areas that we’re we specialize in, health care is another. And so, I’ll turn to healthcare’s definition. The definition in healthcare between major surgery and minor surgery, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, major surgery is if it’s happening to you or loved one and minor surgery is if it’s not. And that’s the reality of crisis is when it’s your crisis, it’s all caps. That’s an important lesson because, as you said in the introduction, all businesses face that morning that they dread that they have a problem, and our business is no different.

And I think having gone through a crisis that was with my own company was really helpful. It reinforced lessons that I knew. It taught me others and part of it is to be really compassionate towards the people that are in the midst of it, that their lives and their work are disrupted and affected by this crisis. It also taught me that when it’s your crisis, you need someone else to help you with it.

Kalli: That’s a really interesting perspective, and I think probably one that most people don’t really understand. Can you give us an example of a crisis that your firm experienced and how you helped improve the situation for your client that was dealing with this and their capital crisis?

John: Absolutely. First, I’ll share the crisis that we went through. It was for our agency. We did a holiday card at the end of the year, actually for the new year. It was a beautiful piece of creative and as part of it, there was a background piece.

It was a multilayered print piece that was hand produced. And as a background piece, there was just a random pull out of copy. And the overall theme was Eastern, and this was copy that was written in another language. And I asked what the background piece said, I didn’t speak the language. What did it say? And the lead on the project said, oh, it’s just an aesthetic piece. It’s really just background. It’s not to be read. I said, well, we should know what it says, and got to the point where a couple of thousands of those pieces were produced. And even though I’d asked the question three different points, it never had been looked into. We’re a member of WorldCom and I had the very first time pointed out that we have a partner that specializes in translations. We also have several partners, and we have partners all over the globe. We have several that could translate this for us. The junior most person on the team took the piece, sent it to a WorldCom partner, got it translated, and it came back, and it was jump piece. It was a continuation of an article, and it talked about the justification for countries to have nuclear weapons talking specifically there was conflict or a potential conflict between Japan and another country and that nuclear weapons were effective means of deterring terrorism.

Jenn: On a New Year’s message?

John: Yeah, on a New Year’s message you can imagine we don’t want to talk about nuclear weapons, terrorism, none of that.

Kalli: Wow. Yeah. Not really the holiday sentiment you are going for.

John: Not at all. Right now, the right next move is obvious to me. But the lead on the project said if we take that page out, the whole piece might fall apart. Budget, timeline, all these issues and I’ll tell you, I started thinking that well, then maybe removing the page is the wrong thing. Again, it was the junior most person in the room said what would we do if this was a client? What would we tell them to do? And that question was absolutely clarifying.

Jenn: It was spot on.

John: Yeah, all that, everything else out of the way and we tore out the page. The piece did not fall apart. But I’ll tell you, the idea of losing all the money I spent so far to start over the time, the idea, well, how many recipients might speak, all those things clouded and were real obstacles for me to think clearly and make the right decision.

And that has been so helpful and instructive. You asked about a crisis that we handled for a client. If you remember, there were really tragic revelations about skiers that had been molested by their coaches and the people training them, right?

And there were ice skaters, gymnasts, wrestlers, karate. Looking back, you might see a pattern that there were these tragic revelations by sport over a period of time we worked with swimming, it was a tough situation. What we did was we recognized that this pattern was not natural. It was happening because there was a group of attorneys and what they would do is they would focus on a sport and create a class action group, get a lot of public attention about the tragedies that happened, and then litigate the cases.

So, in our strategy, we recognized that and counseled for things that we actually set up a system that worked really well, that made it easy for anyone that was being disturbed or molested or bothered to confidentially get help. It made it easier for us, for the industry, to spot monsters and to protect children and have resources in place to support the victims and the loved ones of the victims. We also were able to identify and negate those opportunities where the interest would have been to just create publicity around it. We also talked to a lot of doctors that specialized in helping people through such trauma to make sure that the publicity wasn’t helpful or healthy, that public element of it wasn’t helpful for their recovery or things.

And we basically would block the opportunity for attorneys or others to publicize it to their advantage. Some of it meant some really tough decisions, half of the clients and initially, there were times they said, no, that’s not right, that’s not fair. You know, this has nothing to do with that. Why should this person or these people suffer or not get something because of it? And I’d been there, so I knew. And so, we said, okay, Art stood by our council and said, here’s what we think will happen.

Here’s why we think this is the best course of action. And in one instance, it took about three months, and then they came back and said, we want to do it this way. We’d like and what they did was they repeated what our initial recommendation had been.

And it was important, I think, for several things one, for us not to say, I told you so, or but really to be present, to recognize that they were making not just a smart decision, but they were making an important and difficult one that had cost and sacrifice to it. And they were doing it for the very best reasons. They were doing it because they knew it was right, not because Paid Council had recommended it right. I think having gone through that holiday mailing is nothing when you’re talking about potentially being harmed in the future or having been harmed.

Boy, that I’m grateful for that situation, because to this day, it’s a great reminder about the really important aspects of what I can and should do when I’m someone that’s going through a challenging situation.

Jenn: I can’t imagine. Again, just to sort of pivot to another topic that’s a little unfortunate is some of the work that you’ve done in New Orleans for our listeners, your agency is based in the city, and the city has certainly experienced its fair share of turmoil. Tell us a little bit about how you let the Onsite Communications during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita.

John: It was quite an adventure.

Jenn: I bet.

John: Louisiana has had more than its fair share, as you’ve pointed out, of challenges.

And it’s amazing to see how resilient people can be. The natural leadership that comes from people facing adversity. And not just the leadership, but the compassionate and the care that comes out the human species, from what I’ve been able to notice, can handle anything with grace and success. The one thing that I think affects us like a toxin is the unknown. We are so challenged when we can handle a tough situation, but the unknown is so very difficult. And as you mentioned, it was unprecedented. So, what was next was confusing. At the time, there were so many challenges and there were so many additional challenges that were unnecessary, created by a lack of mature thought or compassion in the situation. As you may remember, there were people in national leaders in Washington DC that were questioning whether do we need New Orleans? Should we bother to with this many years retrospective? It’s almost laughable.

Jenn: Yes, definitely.

John: Yeah. But they made for them to make these statements while there were so many people living in the situation, struggling day to day and the conditions were beyond even what sometimes people have experienced in war. Exactly after the flood, the hurricane, and then the flooding happened and with all that water and there being the unknown and a lot of reporting on that, the water was a toxic super which is brew, that if you came in contact with it, you needed to report to the military immediately and being quarantined. So, our agency had, as you can imagine, well developed and thought-out evacuation strategy. And I had to pull back a core team to return to the city as first responders and live in those conditions where you’re bathing, washing your hair, brushing your teeth with bottled water that to get to it. You’d need to have the access and authority to both leave the region and return. And that trip at the beginning could have been 6 hours to get was 6 hours to get to Baton Rouge, which would normally be an hour and ten minutes.

Wow. So really challenging.

Jenn: And we live through Sandy here in New York, which had its a similar travesty behind it for many people. But so, you know, Kalli and I can somewhat understand what the people of New Orleans went through during Katrina and Rita, and it’s devastating.

And we’re just glad that you were there to help, and you made it out safely.

John: Louisiana was asked and put together a small delegation to go up and help with Superstorm Sandy. I was part of that, and I saw again, just heroes, real champions. It was just so inspiring the way people came together, the determination, the resilience, and their motivation. It’s incredible to be part of this human family and to see the way people respond to such utter destruction and loss. It’s inspiring.

Kalli: It really is. And I know from my experience, when Hurricane Sandy hit, I was actually at my first PR agency job and we had worked with a few local non for profits on Long Island, where there was quite a bit of destruction. Like you said, it’s really amazing to see how people come together, the people that were able to have electricity – “What do you need? How can I help you?” And really showing how, especially during those types of crises where it impacts so many people, the importance of clear communication, to be able to get the things that your basic needs, like you said, to get water to find your food and things like that. So, thank you so much for what you’ve done in those crises because I’m sure that the people that you’ve helped will be forever grateful. Going into how you help people, when a client is experiencing a PR crisis, whether it is something like a hurricane or even an email and letter that isn’t going out exactly the way that you have planned it to, what is your first step in your plan of action to navigate and potentially handle or try to remedy the situation? How do you even start that thought process when you’re in the midst of the situation?

John: I want to differentiate between when it’s a crisis that you are handling, in other words, when you are participant, when your part of the crisis, when you’re one of the affected is very different than when you are counsel to be affected, when you are serving in our professional capacity. And again, I’d say that you can never be at your best if you are both.

My experience has been and that’s why there is, I believe, that rule that a surgeon can’t operate on a family member. It’s a recognition that one of the limits of us as human beings are we can’t paint the plane and flight across the country at the same time. Two different tasks. So, focusing on our professional capacity when you’re counseling those people that are impacted, the people that are actually going through the crisis, communication is absolutely key. It needs to be clear, needs to be abundant. That is particularly challenging, because things change so quickly when your company is affected by it, you need a leader from representing the company to step forward and to share what the situation is. I would highlight the fact that communicate accurate, as transparent as possible, timely communication is the most important thing. We also manage the BP oil spill for the State of Louisiana and city of New Orleans. One of the things that we do is we study what is the reality that is creating a context for this situation to happen. And we don’t just look at the geographic or demographic that’s affected. We really look at the world that it’s in and at the beginning of the BP oil spill, there were also terrible floods in Tennessee. If you recall, it was floods that Nashville and other places had never seen before, and it was terrible. We also studied those situations to see what we can learn. And I bring it up because there was a lot to learn in that situation. One of the things that the people going through the floods in Tennessee experienced was they said one of the most destructive things more than the floodwaters themselves, was the fact that all that national and international attention that they had on the floods disappeared the lead story for about two days, and then nothing.

Or that’s how it felt to them. And this isn’t just a feeling, the reality is media coverage is both an indicator of and a creator of public awareness. Public attention and public awareness and public attention drive things like legislation and funding.

So, what the people in Tennessee experienced was that media coverage evaporated so quickly, and that led to public awareness and a public attention evaporating, and that led to funding legislation and help evaporating as well. That made the whole situation so much worse.

Jenn: Absolutely.

John: And what was important in that is that’s the same context and reality that we had to manage with the oil spill. So, we had elements in our strategy that gauged media coverage, public awareness, public attention. And when we started to see that they might be dipping a bit, we had tactics and strategies in place to buoy them and to refocus public awareness and public attention, which would lead to support through accurate media coverage.

So, the value of communication cannot be overrated, especially in a crisis. It drives so much. Also, the insurance industry has told us that because they gauge the cost of crises, that crises are so expensive. And we always hear the news coverage about the dollar value of these tragedies but, what the insurance company has even identified was the expensive part is frequently not the triggering event. It’s not the fire, it’s not the flood. It’s not the bad act. What makes it really expensive is the poor choices, poor decisions, and poor acts that happen. So, you might have, as you mentioned in the intro, you could have a corporate leader that does something wrong, it’s the cover up. It’s the behavior that’s done to try and make that seem like it’s okay, that’s the thing that is so destructive and expensive.

Jenn: Absolutely. I’m kind of glad that you brought that up because as PR professionals Kalli and I were on twitter, we were just talking before you joined about the airlines and just all of the terrible negative coverage that we’re seeing on social media.

The airlines are just canceling flights, and they’re losing luggage, and they’re doing all of these horrible things to customers, and it makes you cringe. As PR people, you just see all these horrible things going on. Have you ever witnessed, like, a PR crisis in the media that you felt was handled poorly? I mean, I can assume that you probably also look through social media and see a brand that makes a statement, and you just cringe at it. You’re like, why would you do that? Anything that comes to mind?

John: Yeah. And this example is oh, it might be 17 or 18 years ago, but there was a restaurant a little bit outside of New Orleans in Louisiana, and there was a tragedy that they had with they were serving stuffed peppers, and there was a problem with stuffed peppers. Several of their patrons got very sick, and at least one patron died from it.

Jenn: Wow. From a pepper. That’s interesting.

John: From a stuffed bell pepper.

John: Now, my only knowledge of this is sitting on my couch watching TV. So, I don’t truly know behind the scenes or what happened, but as I was sitting on my couch, the restaurant’s spokesperson was their attorney. And for anyone not in PR that’s listening to this podcast, that’s not a good move. Not necessarily your first choice in this situation, needs to be your attorney.

Kalli: No, my face cringed. Yeah.

John: And also, the way news is produced, I did not hear the question that the attorney was asked but here, 17 or more years later, I remember what he said. He said the restaurant name is not a breeding ground of botulism and death, and if it were, it would have been closed a long time ago. Now, I’m certain that he was a very good attorney and that he may have been masterful in the court of law but at the moment, he was not before the court of law. He was before the court of public opinion.

Jenn and Kalli: Right.

John: Joe and Mary Six Pack and John Deveney sitting on our couches, what we heard was the name of the restaurant and then breeding ground of botulism and death and then should have been closed a long time ago. Now, in a court of law, you’d pull up the record and you’d say, he said that it was not that. And if it were, then it should have but, that’s not how the court of public opinion works. That stands out as an example where the selection of the spokesperson probably a lack of media training, were really unfortunate choices because that changed from people in the immediate area of that restaurant knowing about the tragedy to a much, much, much greater audience knowing inaccurately. You know, everyone that heard that broadcast walked away with a strong impression, and it wasn’t an accurate one. And it was really because of some basic missteps in how it was managed.

Kalli: Yeah, definitely not exactly the words that you want to use, because like you said, those are going to be the ones that people remember. On the flip side of that, are there any brands or instances that come to mind where a crisis was handled flawlessly? That you were like, there’s nothing more I could have done to make this a better situation?

John: That is such a tougher question because those situations where the crisis was handled so beautifully, I never hear of. You never hear about.

Kalli: That’s a great point.

John: They’re managed so well academically. We could look at going much further back in history. We can look at the Tylenol tragedy, the fact that the entire industry was improved and protected. And that’s an example. But really, what might be easier to look for is what are those things that organizations have done that made the situation much better?

Jenn: Right? It inflicts some type of change. We could take a horrible situation like the Tylenol murders, and they still to this day, have no idea who did this. But you’re talking totally right, like they take a horrible situation, and they impose some type of crucial change to the world that that can’t happen again. People can’t tamper with it. There are labels on the bottles now saying, if the seal is cracked, don’t ingest the pills. And I think you’re totally right about the fact that we don’t really hear too much about the successful ways that brands handle. These types of crises are because it’s just not really newsworthy. They handle it, there’s a solution, and we move on from it. And it’s not like some of the negative things that we see where there’s a lot of backlash and a lot of customers having rash opinions about it. What I’m wanting to know, because being in this type of work, it’s very stress inducing, how do you stay calm and focus just when you’re maintaining a crisis of some of the statues that you’ve been dealing with in your lifetime, especially with Louisiana? And how do you help your clients stay calm and achieve a positive outcome in a very stressful and most times time sensitive situation?

John: I can’t take credit. I think it’s just the way I’ve made and wired. My composition is such that when there’s a real challenge ahead of me, I become more zen than I am in my everyday life and I’m able to focus. I also don’t expect, and I understand when clients can’t be calm in the situation and that’s when compassion is so important.

I’ll tell you what I have identified, and because I’m in PR, if you’ve come up with a kitchen name for it, the most important elements and what I call them the four hard Ks of crisis. And these are really what needs to be focused on. And the four hard Ks are quick, candid, context and consistent. They are absolutely crucial for managing a crisis situation. Well, quick. The first hard K is really one of the most challenging things for the leader, on the client side, for the CEO, because a crisis situation demands that.

What the world needs to see is that the organization that they think should be and that the world thinks should be in charge, is in charge. And what that means is the CEO needs to step up. She needs to get in front of the cameras and the mics, and she needs to provide an update.

Jenn: And that’s hard. So many people freeze. You know, they freeze in those types of situations. They don’t know how to how to act quickly. And that’s the beauty of PR and having a PR agency or a publicist kind of say, you got to do it now and have that push.

John: And it’s reasonable that they that that they freeze, and they don’t. The reason why is the CEO will she’ll tell you she’s happy to stand up and give an update as soon as she has the information, she needs to give that update. But it just exploded, and we don’t know what the detail and that’s the cruelty of that quick piece and why it’s the most difficult thing for the client to handle because it means they need to step up and say just what they know, only what they know to be true. Not what they think or what someone guessed at, but what they know and also let the world know it’s being investigated and when they’re going to hear more from us. It’s a challenging task, but it is even more crucial than it is challenging. It has to be done because when it’s not, someone else steps up, it could be a competitor, it could be a neighbor that never liked having the business there. Somebody steps up and they become the authority on the crisis.

And that creates so many more problems as no matter how absent of facts or accurate information that self-selected leader is, that’s who the world and the media will turn to for updates. Even if the client steps up and does their job, suddenly they’re now going to have to contend with a rival source of information. So quick is absolutely necessary, so difficult. The next one candid, that’s also challenging for the client, to be honest. There are there are certainly things that you that no one needs to share or learn, personal or personnel information that would affect your business’s competitiveness and are legally even protected from being shared. Those there are things that you don’t have to share, but you need to be absolutely candid. You need to share what you know to be true, even if it’s not flattering. Especially if it’s not flattering because, in a crisis situation, there’s only one coin, there’s only one thing that has value, and that’s credibility.

And we talked about, you know, that if a leader in a crisis doesn’t step up quickly, doesn’t satisfy, that the quick, someone else does, and that suddenly that person or that entity has credibility and will continue to have it and be a competitor for credible information even when they’ve been shown not to have accurate information.

Candor is also absolutely crucial, and it brings credibility. The world recognizes when something’s been shared that was not easy to share, and there is trust and credibility that comes with that. The third is consistent. The third of the four Ks is context. And while the first two I said were so difficult on the client, context can be tough for those of us counseling them. Context is putting the situation in its greater context.

In other words, if there’s been an explosion or a file at the plant and four employees were killed and six people were gravely injured, it’s tough to talk about the paper certificates that they earned for their safety record, but that’s absolutely crucial. And the reason why that’s important. It feels wrong to start talking about or start writing about those aspects because, you know, you’ve learned that one of the people that died just had twins. It’s so difficult. It’s so painful. You feel like you’re harming the survivors and disrespecting those that were lost. But it’s crucial. And the reason why it’s crucial is the world, the public – they’re determining, was this a tragic accident that could have happened anywhere because these things happen? Or was this a reckless death trap that people knowingly put other people’s lives and families in harm’s way?

Now, the truth is, there are more than those two options, but the public, the world is trying to determine which is this situation. And context is the information that’s needed so that people judging the situation, just like in the court of law, the court of public opinion has that process. It’s just everybody instead of a jury or a judge, they’re determining what is the situation and context is crucial. That’s an absolutely crucial piece of information that has to be accurately shared so that understanding about the situation can happen. And the last the four hard Ks is consistent. Consistent means do what you say you’re going to do. It means that that first press briefer where the CEO said, we’ll be back at this Lectern every 45 minutes for the next 48 hours with an update. That means that in the situation where it’s been 42 minutes, but there’s absolutely no new information and hopefully it’s not the CEO, you have another leader that you’ve selected to use. But that person says, I’m not going out there. I have nothing new to say to them. Well, we need to be consistent, we said we would be at that lectern every 45 minutes. So, for us to be credible, we have to be consistent. We have to do what we say we’re going to do. And that means going back to that lectern, repeating just what you know to be true, managing the questions, the pushback. But you have to be consistent. You have to live up to what you say you are going to do.

Another time where consistency is important is the client hasn’t media trained its spokespeople. And early in the process they share as part of their candor that there’s an internal investigation going on and they either volunteer or they’re asked, and they say yes, we’ll share the results of our internal investigation. The crisis lasted 12 hours, but the internal investigation took twelve months. Right. So now you’re at the point a year later where the internal investigation has concluded, and you have the report right here. And you said a year ago that you would share this. But the CEO says no one has thought about that tragic, horrible situation in a year. Why in the world would we dredge this up and ask people to look at our mistakes? Because you need to be consistent. The real answer is make sure that your media training your spokespeople, so they know never to volunteer, that sort of thing, or not to offer that, knowing that. But that’s a tough one.

If you said you were going to share it, then share it.

Jenn: Right? And to go back to what you said before, which was so spot on, its competitors or they’re not talking about it, but they remember, or that neighbor that doesn’t want your business next door to them anymore, they’re going to remember it will always come back. So, I think that’s such a great point.

John: You’re absolutely right. Even if that competitor or the neighbor can’t get a channel. To remind other people the next time the companies in a tough spot, it’ll come back then. And what it will cost them is credibility. It will tell the world we are not to be trusted. Remember when we told you this? And remember how you took us at our word and 12 hours later, the crowd, you’ve left us alone and everything was fine? Well, turns out you shouldn’t have trusted us because we said this, and we didn’t do this.

Jenn: Absolutely. Trust is more valuable than, it’s probably the most valuable component to a business and to customer loyalty to most things in life, most relationships in life, most anything in life, business or otherwise, It always comes down to trust.

John: It’s the only currency that exists in a crisis.

Jenn: Absolutely. John, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. This was really insightful and very valuable. And if anyone listening is ever in a crisis, they’ll certainly know who to call.

John: Thanks so much.

Jenn: Of course, thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you have any podcast or guest suggestions, please email impression@pollackgroup.com. We’ll see you next time.