Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lead, Follow, or Sit There and Hope it Goes Away?

How to Handle the Press in a PR Crisis:

If you’re reading the news, it certainly seems as though Pope Benedict has a PR crisis he needs to deal with. You know, the ongoing (this has been happening for decades, though it’s out in the open now, comparatively speaking) scandals involving priests and allegations of sexual abuse of children.

As far as PR crises go, it doesn’t get much worse than this. There is not a more unconscionable act than raping an innocent child. The Catholic church has lost many followers because of this. How many more Catholics may be lost?

The Pope needs to make it go away. As soon as possible.

Of course, the church sex abuse scandal as we know it does not involve allegations against the Pope himself. But, as the leader of Catholics worldwide, he is expected to do something about it—or, at least, say something about it to show that he cares.

All I can hear is the squeaky chirping of a few demoralized crickets.

That’s understandable to a certain extent. What can even be said to help solve this problem?

(This just in--Church fights back, but still Pontiff is silent on the scandals)

Should the Pope say, “I’m so sorry this happened?” Yes, he should—we can all agree, however, that’s a relatively lame response. It will not do enough.

Should he punish the priests who’ve been charged with sometimes hundreds of  counts of sexual abuse?  If possible, sure. They certainly weren’t punished before, and the Pope needs to show that he’s serious about solving this crisis, that he knows how to take action. (Here's an idea: if he doesn't want to do this within the Church, then how about letting local law enforcement handle certain cases? That is, if statutes of limitations haven't yet run out.)

Should the Pope then make up some new rules for priests that will also help to protect children, and say something meaningful to assuage the public? Definitely. I hope someone is drafting a workable plan for action and a touching, heartfelt, public statement right now.

There are a million possibilities for how to end the church scandal, really.

Yet so far, we’re not seeing the Pope dealing with this at all.

A leader has to deal. That’s what comes with the job. Even if the crisis is not of the leader’s making, he or she has to eventually get in there and get messy and take charge of the situation. 

We saw the consequences of Not Dealing with this past fall’s Tiger Woods Saga.

From a journalistic standpoint, some people and I discussed the case (as did people everywhere, I think). There were disagreements about whether or not the disgraced golfer needed to make a statement.

I advised, “He needed to say something yesterday.”

Someone else disagreed. “He doesn’t have to say anything.”

Yes, technically, he did not have to say anything. But it all gets worse if he doesn’t talk. Then people fill in the blanks. Rumors are spread.

The scandal would be nipped in the bud, as it were, if the people involved would make public statements.

There’s nothing more devastating to one's credibility—from a PR standpoint—than a terse, “No comment.”

Hiding from the press makes the press think you have something to hide. 

(It also gives people more time to gossip and dig up dirt.)

When one does finally comment on a crisis, never lie. About anything. Ever.

Journalists can smell a lie, and a public figure’s credibility can be destroyed with one exaggerated, impossible-to-prove or Just Plain Wrong statement.

From a PR perspective, the best approach is quick, proactive, truthful, short and sweet.

“Tell the truth—the whole truth--and tell it fast,” as they say.

Explain what you’re going to do to fix the problem, whatever it is. And then simply do it.

People forget good things quickly, but bad memories of mishandled crises? Unfortunately, those linger for years.


  1. Mindy from CoatesvilleMarch 31, 2010 at 10:54 PM

    Do you still work in PR?

    What a line, what a way with words you have: "All I can hear is the squeaky chirping of a few demoralized crickets."


    And this is Easter week. I hope people don't stay out of church because of the scandals.

    Thanks, as usual, for another great posting.

  2. Thanks for writing, Mindy.

    I do some consulting, but what makes me think about PR so much is watching (and reading, in the news) and noticing how many people just don't seem to realize how important it is.

    A few well-chosen words and some quick, decisive action can save months of drama and grief for certain public figures.

    I can certainly see why people sometimes choose to try to wait for things to blow over--or, in the case of T. Woods, assume that the press won't try to get him because he has always controlled them before, not the other way around.

    Still, if you want to come across as decent, thoughtful, useful (whatever!), then you have to show that you are thinking about things and not avoiding them.

    The Church scandals make me very sad.



  3. We need to tell you what an amazing person and writer you are. What has been happening to you is so unfair. How do the people trying to hurt you live with themselves??? Everyone who doesn't help you is just as bad and they are cowards.

  4. To be complicit in the oppression of another is to be an oppressor oneself.