Let’s play a game.
We’ll call it “Talk or Don’t Talk.” Simple enough.
To start, close your eyes, hold your nose and select a character piece from the game box. Your choices and the charges threatening their well-heeled brand name include:
- Bill Cosby, Alleged Serial Druggie Groper
- Prince Andrew, Alleged Underage Groper
- Tom Brady, Alleged Cheater
- Alex Rodriguez, Alleged Cheater but Real Jerk
- Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, Spineless Scaredy Cat
- (Insert Name of Your Own Favorite Deer In the Headlights)
The object of the game is to traverse from your home base of “Hallowed Ground” through a mysterious and murky path — known as the “Crisis Communication Corridor”. The goal is to reach the finish line without having your reputation torn to shreds. Along the way are placed various pitfalls, obstacles, help lines and aid stations. As you land on each one you must decide at that point whether to “Talk or Don’t Talk” – to the media, to your customers, to your fans, to your stockholders, to your family, whomever. Depending on how well you play the game, there are basically three endings: 1) Character Redemption; 2) Bloodied But not Bowed; or 3) Nice Knowin’ Ya.
Your character rolls the dice and lands on one of the many black “Pitfall” squares, things like: Allegations First Revealed; Witnesses Speak Out; More Witnesses Speak Out; Colleagues Disassociate Themselves; Supporters Disappear; Ad Sponsors Dry Up; Text Messages Revealed; Video Footage on TMZ.
But don’t despair. You also have the chance to land on rose-colored (get it?) squares to offer succor to your battered name: Family Comes to Your Defense; Friends Chime In; Media Hype Bores Audience; Good Looks Sway Cynics; Media Discredited; Witnesses Discredited; New Political Scandal Deflects Public Attention; Snowstorm Occupies Media Like a Cat with Tinsle.
In real life the answer of whether to “Talk or Don’t Talk” is not the same for any two people. Too many circumstances come into play in any given scenario to categorically say how any one person – not to mention plastic game pieces – should react. Conventional wisdom in these days of rampant social media, instant and constant news coverage, pervasive radio & TV talk show blather, and armchair jurists demanding transparency is heavy on the “talk immediately” side of the debate. And more often than not, this truly is the best course of action. But it’s not an absolute.
When to talk publicly about salacious claims depends on many factors, not the least of which are: the credentials of the source making the accusation, the degree of the offense, the scope of listeners, the severity of the punishment/backlash, and the status of your actual guilt or innocence. Publicly responding to an unflattering accusation, even if untrue, can have the troubling effect of perpetuating the complaint in the public eye, even spreading the original criticism to new audiences who were otherwise blissfully unaware. Tsk Tsk. In some cases, it’s better to swallow hard, grit your teeth, and move on with your business/life.
However, for our own intrepid game pieces trudging down the Crisis Communications Corridor, they face not trivial grievances but serious and legitimate accusations, with consequences ranging from possible jail time to good old-fashioned shunning. In any event, their reputations are at stake. So, Talk or Don’t Talk?
The basic response we recommend is: Talk. At every square. Especially once a storyline has reached a foothold in social media circles, your client base or the basic media, it’s time to tell your side of the story in a well-thought-out and well-crafted way. And do it in person, not through your spouse or your lawyer or your underling. In cases where the potentially ruinous accusations are true, and our protagonists are in fact guilty, the narrative is more delicate and difficult to convey. Consideration must even me made for possible legal ramifications. But silence (or plaintively shaking your head, as some regrettably chose to do) is not an option. Rightly or wrongly, silence signals guilt. When in doubt, adhere to the adage: Either manipulate the media, or get manipulated by them.
So who among our game pieces will end up with their reputations redeemed, their names cleared and their critics contrite? And who instead will be forced to issue a mea culpa, atone for any wayward ways, but live to reap future rewards? And, finally, who will go down fighting, burning bridges, futilely holding to the vestiges of a once proud or promising legacy?
Let the game begin.
(P.S. Please take steps now to get your own crisis communication plan in place to avoid being the game pieces in our next edition of “Talk or Don’t Talk.”)