In Professional Services Crisis PR, Every Word Matters

by JD Supra Perspectives
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Crisis PR is an art akin to an F16 dogfight; it happens at lightning speed, there’s little room for error, and a decent percentage of those who know what happened may not survive.

You watched for the votes, waited out lackluster musical numbers, rated the gowns, or didn’t watch at all. But everyone who has a screen of any kind knows that the Oscars had a spectacular flub this week, courtesy of Big Four accounting firm PwC, formally known as PricewaterhouseCoopers.

I can’t even come up with an “oh-what-the-#*&%” analogy for BigLaw, though I am sure Tums-equipped BigLaw general counsel have thought of many. Compensation committee partner found to have embezzled from the firm? Confidential documents accidentally sent to opposing counsel? Epic conflict hidden from clients? Internal email discussing what a dupe a Top 10 client is for not recognizing padded billing?

Let your imagination run wild.

Crisis PR is an art akin to an F16 dogfight; it happens at lightning speed, there’s little room for error, and a decent percentage of those who know what happened may not survive.

For law firms that debate individual words in court and contract negotiations (not to mention lowly commas), absolutely every word matters.

Here’s PwC’s statement in part, delivered after the live broadcast, on Oscars.org:

“The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected.”

Uh, yeah, not so much. More than 32 million viewers saw no less than three ostensible winners deliver breathless thank yous before set managers rushed to the stage to announce the real winner for Best Picture. This took approximately three minutes. PwC’s statement came out hours later, in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Here’s the lesson, and it’s been played out over countless PR debacles (see my post on the Germanwings Lufthansa epic fail):

Don’t lose valuable time trying to determine what happened, especially if there are 32 million witnesses. It’s clear something went wrong. Apologize, unequivocally, as soon as humanly possible. Here PwC had an advantage, as key members of its executive team, and likely their PR arm, were on site at the Oscars.

Further, apologize in as few words as possible. Each will be scrutinized. Don’t claim you fixed things immediately. Don't claim it wasn’t your fault. Don’t claim you followed all protocols to the letter. Don’t even say you aren’t sure how it happened. Simply say you regret the action or error, apologize profusely to those affected, and pledge to work relentlessly to find out what went wrong. (To its credit, PwC did a much better job with its full statement of apology.)

See the difference here between PwC’s initial actions and the optimal response?

“Immediately corrected” is a CYA (cover your ass) move that seeks to gloss over the incident itself. And in this case, it’s just plain wrong. Most dictionaries define “immediately” as “instantly.” Three minutes on live TV is a lifetime.

By all means, delete the word “immediately.” Limit it to “the presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope.” That’s true and unassailable. More importantly, it’s too early in the gaffe to highlight efforts to correct it. And please, stay away from adjectives and adverbs that are open to interpretation.

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[Susan Kostal is an editor, writer, business development strategist and media coach with over 25 years experience on the beat and in the C-suite.  Susan's expertise includes legal industry trends, marketing, communications, and public relations.]

Image credit: Independent.co.uk

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