Telling the truth

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

Back to Facts as Facts

Facts should be facts, not means to an end. Separating facts from opinions and advocacy is a step toward credibility.The saying "facts are facts" no longer seems to be widely accepted. For some, facts are merely bits of information, means to an end.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is the leading contemporary practitioner of the Big Lie. He has galvanized Russians against Ukraine by claiming the government in Kiev has been overrun by Russian-hating fascists. When a commercial passenger plane was shot down over the portion of Ukraine patrolled by Russian separatists, Putin speculated Kiev was responsible, not the Russian-supplied anti-aircraft artillery he sent to fight the fascists.

People who bend or spin the facts sometimes seem to get away with it. However, believing people are gullible – at least over the long haul – can be dangerous to your reputation. People have a habit of getting to the bottom of what's going on. The digital age has made it a lot harder to hide the truth – or another point of view.

Managing an Issue, Avoiding a Catastrophe

Managing an issue is harder and takes longer than just responding to one, but it can save your reputation, avert a catastrophe and protect your hindquarters.Circumstances such as angry neighbors, pesky protestors and petition drives force many organizations to respond to public issues, even when they are ill prepared. 

Issues management can mean the difference between a crisis turning into catastrophe. Issue management is the phrase PR professionals use to describe the process of anticipating a messy public process or debate and taking proactive steps to respond.

Issue management isn't rocket science, but it takes discipline and a forward-looking approach. Hoping the problem will disappear or fantasizing the fuss will blow over aren't strategies with much long-term prospect. Here are some basic tips that can help save your brand, reputation and hindquarters:

Back to the Facts

Conservative commentators question whether news spinning by the likes of Fox News mislead their audience into believing Mitt Romney would win in a landslide.Expecting the truth is an important as telling the truth, as evidenced by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's apparent shock that he lost an election he thought was in the bag.

Right-wing political spin-masters convinced themselves — or chose to believe — that credible polling and poll analysis, such as provided by The New York Times' Nate Silver, was "lame stream media" misinformation. They snarked that it was foolish, based on what happened in the 2010 elections, to use polling samples showing more Democrats voting than Republicans.

They were dreadfully wrong.

Era of Post-Truth Politics

A political commentator observed after the first presidential debate that we have entered the "post-truth era" of politics in America, where facts are less important than narratives.

Time Magazine featured a major story called "The Fact Wars," which concludes that presidential candidates are battling over alternate universes, charging each other with lying, while avoiding their own accountability for sticking to the facts. Time says political fact-checking fills much of the nightly news and print news columns. But that doesn't stop the distortions from continuing.

Much of the criticism of President Barack Obama's debate performance centered on his failure to call out misleading statements by his GOP challenger Mitt Romney. On the other hand, Romney was lauded for directly confronting Obama during the debate, often with claims that have already been discredited.

Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, lamented in her blog what she called "the decline of facts."

"Researchers have theorized that people tend to seek out validation of their existing beliefs rather than neutrally research some objective truth," Cripps wrote.

The tsunami of information rushing through the Internet overwhelms the instinct to slow down and scrutinize what is true and what is BS. "Ensconced in our media bubbles," Cripps said, "we are used to having our beliefs validated for us and often aren't subjected to serious critiques of what we think." 

Telling falsehoods didn't just start in this election. Time notes that in 1796 supporters of John Adams spread tales of Thomas Jefferson's alleged atheism and loyalty to France, while Jefferson's aides concocted stories about Adams' monarchist sympathies. In fact, the campaigns descended a lot lower than that.

Cripps observes, "The decline of facts is by no means limited to politics. University presidents report that plagiarism on the part of students is on the rise. So, too, is fraudulent scientific research." She could have added bogus advertising claims, falsified media interviews and the myriad of Ponzi schemes that have fleeced retirees, investors and average citizens of billions of dollars.