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In a Crisis, Ignore the Media

In a Crisis Ignore the MediaLike it or not, the media has a huge influence on you and your company and, in the age of social media, there are more ways than ever to dramatically impact your brand and your business.

Does that mean that, during a crisis, you should give in to the media drumbeat? Contrary to conventional wisdom, the answer is absolutely not.

Having been on both sides of the fence - as an executive and in the media - I've got a uniquely objective vantage point on the subject of when leaders should pay close attention to the media and when they shouldn't.

First, consider these examples of leaders and companies in crisis:

  • A business or political leader, like a certain congressman whose name is synonymous with a hot dog and a male appendage, for example, does something dumb like send lewd pictures, texts, tweets, or Facebook messages and then proactively lies about it to the media.
  • In the recent case of Urban Outfitters, the retailer was accused, tried, and convicted in the court of social media - the sentence included a call to boycott the store - when, in reality, the company probably did nothing wrong.
  • Toyota's "sudden acceleration" crisis resulted in a record recall of millions of vehicles, a 25 percent drop in stock price, and a nearly catastrophic brand meltdown. But, according to a subsequent report in the Wall Street Journal, drivers were "mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes."
  • Remember when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey took on President Obama with an op-ed piece entitled The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare? The blogosphere had a field day calling for the guy's head amid a massive campaign to boycott the grocer.
What I find really fascinating about these examples is that the media reacts quickly and mercilessly regardless of whether leaders, executives, or companies actually did anything wrong. So it's understandably difficult to decide when and how to react to this sort of thing.

Well, it is a complex issue with many variables, but fortunately, I've given this quite a bit of thought and have come up with these 5 Leadership Rules for Handling a Crisis. The rules are highest priority first, should they conflict, which they sometimes do:

  1. Stay on the right side of the law, your fiduciary responsibilities, and your company or organization's culture and code of conduct.
  2. Communicate openly and honestly with whoever your boss is - the CEO, board of directors, whoever - and obtain their support for your strategy.
  3. First protect, then communicate openly and honestly with your stakeholders - customers, shareholders, employees - as appropriate given the above guidelines.
  4. Do the right thing, according to your own and your staff's judgment, instincts, and moral compass because, well, it got you to this point, so it can't be all bad.
  5. Think long and hard about what you've said, written, and done; assume that everyone knows everything; then take the appropriate action.
Notice there's nothing about the media in any of the five rules. That's because, aside from doing so within the context of the above guidelines, you actually shouldn't react to the media in a crisis. No kidding.

Now, let's go back to the four examples at the top of the post and test that advice:

  • Anthony Weiner: He broke all five of the above rules - none of which are in conflict - and even tried to proactively use the media to somehow cover his tracks. Really, really bad idea.
  • Urban Outfitters: They broke none of the rules, issued a strong and definitive statement to that affect on their website, didn't give in to the media drumbeat, and suffered no consequences; the whole thing blew over in a few days.
  • Toyota: They did everything right, including erring on the side of protecting their customers (no. 3) and staying out of the media - which was in major attack mode - line of fire. I call that taking the high road, bigtime. As a result, sales returned, the brand recovered, and the stock hit a new high just before the tsunami hit.
  • Whole Foods: Well, Mackey himself caused the problem by sticking his neck out which, at the time, I said was gutsy but possibly ill-conceived. Still, he had the board on his side (no. 2), stuck to his guns (no. 4), ignored the media, and everything turned out fine.
Now, one final example that just came to mind. During the Gulf oil spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward was all over the media saying over and over that BP takes full responsibility for the spill and are committed to making things right. What happened? The media jumped on every dumb thing out of his mouth - yes, there were some real zingers - and crucified him and BP.

So, there you go. Not only is it not a priority for leaders to react to the media in a crisis, unless it's a means to carry out one of the five rules, in general, it's a bad idea.

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Image: jakesmome via Flickr