4 Refreshing Public Relations, Crisis Communication and Media Relations Phrases

police chiefBy Gerard Braud –

In the past three weeks there have been three big public relations crises that have lead to unprecedented crisis communication. In these crises public relations professionals used phrases we should all say more often to the media, to our employees, and to our stakeholders.

They include:

I Was Wrong.

I Made a Mistake.

I Apologize.

We’re Going to Make this Right.

The cases involved the accidental shooting of Eric Harris by reserve officer Robert Bates in Tulsa, the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore Police, and the drone strike that inadvertently killed an American and an Italian hostage being held by terrorists in Pakistan.

In Tulsa, the officer went on the Today Show and in a live interview while surrounded by his family, he confessed to the accidental shooting and apologized to the victim’s family.

In Baltimore, the mayor and police chief stood before the media in a news conference where they said the death should have never happened and that they would fully investigate the matter to make things right in the community.

In Washington, D.C., President Obama stood before the media in the White House briefing room to take responsibility for the deaths caused by the drone strike. He apologized to the families and he said that the U.S. government would pay restitution to the families.

What is amazing is that in each instance, words were used that lawyers never want you to say. Legal advisors consistently warn people in a crisis to never use words that could be used against them by the plaintiff’s lawyers when you get sued.

The fight between lawyers and public relations experts is as old as time. We have competing interests. The lawyer is trained to get paid to fight a case in the legal system, while the expert in public relations is trained to mitigate the damage and make the crisis go away through effective communications.

Theoretically, the lawyer makes more money by letting the crisis continue if they have to see it through trial. That seems like such a conflict of interests, which could lead to flawed decision making. Is the legal expert giving advice that is in the best interest of the client or in the best interest of the law firm?

When I was a television reporter, I interviewed countless people who were suing an offending party. An incredible number of the victims and family members said to me, “If they had only said they were sorry I wouldn’t be suing them. But they never said they were sorry.”

Morally and ethically, I think saying you are sorry and taking responsibility is the right thing to do. There is a huge financial cost and liability to screwing up and causing a crisis. But there is also the possibility of settling out of court and making the crisis go away so that your institution or company can begin restoring its reputation while mitigating the impact on revenue.

Legal spin is spin and spin leads to distrust. Conversely, honesty leads to trust and trust leads to healing. Both have a cost to reputation and revenue.

As a war room veteran in many crises, my advice to clients and executives has always been to take the high road and to do the right thing on behalf of victims. Sometimes I win the argument and sometimes they listen to their lawyers. On numerous occasions, my moral compass has instructed me to terminate my working relationship when the best interest of the client is lost because they want to follow their lawyers. Sure, I make less money, but I feel much richer knowing I’m true to an honest goal and a principle of fairness.

Experience tells me that having these discussions during a crisis, while in the war room, is the worst time to be making such critical decisions. The best time is to talk it out and establish policy on a clear sunny day before your crisis happens.

Consider scheduling a meeting with your executives and leaders to discuss this one day soon. Another option is to test the decision making and arguments in a crisis communications drill. In many of the crisis communication drills I conduct for clients, one of my goals is to force executives and lawyers to hash it out during the simulation, so that we can evaluate the discussion and decision making during the evaluation phase of the drill.

Try saying these words to determine how comfortable you and your organization are with them:

I Was Wrong.

I Made a Mistake.

I Apologize.

We’re Going to Make this Right.