I’ve worked on crisis communications cases for more than 25 years, including many of the biggest issues, some of which are taught in university public relations classes today.
Today, when I walk into a chief executive’s office whose company is under siege (and sometimes the chief executive as well) I always tell them that your priority audience is your customer and prospective customers. It’s not the media. This usually requires a very long discussion because the media coverage is typically top of mind, but to put it simplistically – it’s not what the media are saying, it’s what your customer is thinking that really matters. If your customer trusts and has confidence in your company and or brand, then you can weather the media storm. This requires good brand equity to begin with, but it also means that communicating with your customer base during a crisis is most important.
Mark Penn reportedly stated to his employees at Burson-Marsteller that the media coverage of his demise would dissipate in a few days and everything will be ok. The media coverage prediction may be true (although they’ll do their best to keep it alive a little longer now that they’ve heard this). But only time will tell what the impact will be on their current and prospective customer base.
I have some clients, for example, who believe their businesses would be impacted negatively if a democrat got into the White House. I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy if they saw that I was trying to make it happen. Magnify my business a zillion times to Burson and one can only imagine the potential fallout. It wouldn’t be obvious. Prospective opportunities that may have presented themselves at one time won’t be there anymore. Clients with contracts expiring may find it easier to move on.
If there ever was a situation that called for a leave of absence in order to work on a separate project, this was it. But it’s too late now. One has to wonder what the top brass at Burson were thinking when they allowed Penn to continue to run the company while also being the chief strategist for the Clinton campaign. That Clinton was a slam dunk for the White House, maybe?