When facing a crisis, especially one in which the organization is implicated, many experts on crisis management take the approach that management or the firm needs to repent of its malfeasance or wrongdoing quickly, ask for forgiveness, and promise to do better in the future. This soft approach argues for engaging in careful communications and apologizing, if necessary. This approach it is believed is the best route to limiting damage and restoring the public’s confidence in the company and its leaders. In a new book, Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong (2007), authors Eric Dezenhall and John Weber argue that this soft approach is often wrong. According to the authors, if you are facing a lawsuit, a sex scandal, a defective product, or allegations of insider trading, experts may tell you to stay positive, get your message out, and everything will be just fine. But, Dezenhall and Weber conclude, this kind of cheery talk does not help much during a real crisis, and it’s easy to lose sight of your genuine priorities. If your case goes to trial, for example, you might want the public to think you’re a wonderful company, but all that matters is what the jury thinks. The authors support a political model of crisis management, which means you may have to fight back and defend yourself. When the company has done wrong, repentance is in order. When the company has been wronged, a strong defense is recommended. The authors recommend not admitting guilt and meeting each accusation with a counterclaim. They say this is how Martha Stewart turned her public image around after serving a jail sentence. In another example, they say this is how Merck, the pharmaceutical company, recovered from legal defeats and bad press as it began to portray plaintiffs as selfish opportunists. They also cite how successful the mobile phone industry was in mounting a defense against the consumer complaints that the phones were causing brain tumors. The key, they say, is determining when to be conciliatory and when to defend aggressively.
1. What are the relevant issues/criteria in this debate over the best response to a crisis?
2. Is it best to apologize, repent, and move on, or to stand firm and defend aggressively?
3. What is the downside risk of mounting a vigorous defense?