Damage Control: Know When to Fold Them

In crisis management damage control is a matter of knowing when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away and when to run. Don Schlitz’s lyrics in the song popularized by Kenny Rogers clarify the process perfectly. This post is a follow-up to one I wrote recently on Frank Rich’s description of “analog arrogance in a digital age.”

Having made a mistake or committed a misdeed that has been exposed, how does an individual or corporation limit the damage, manage the crisis it brings and start to repair reputation? Crisis manager Eric Dezenhall in his book Damage Control says, fix it. Explain your actions, apologize and make amends. This is what it means to be a responsible company, and public accountability is essential.

Dezenhall is noted for his in-your-face recommendations so this conciliatory approach carries extra weight with me.

He also says it’s best to act while the controversy is in its infancy. Making concessions and talking with the aggrieved early on works best, before antagonism grows and attitudes harden.

When the accusation comes from a sympathetic member of a core constituency–employee, consumer, shareholder, community member or another who is essential to the work of the corporation–Dezenhall says, deal with it. They can do the most short-term and long-term harm. This is the time to fold ’em, I think. He writes, “Don’t eat your own.” (p. 158)

He says a key challenge is to make concessions early enough to have real impact because the escalation of a crisis “does not rise at a steady 45-degree angle. It can accelerate suddenly, and often unpredictably.” (p. 159)

This recalls the handing of the recent controversy about sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor. Regardless of your opinion about them, Jeremiah Wright’s sermons on YouTube overtook the Obama campaign like wildfire. Wright’s fiery preaching was not unknown but once the YouTube spark ignited dry tinder, the wildfire exploded.

I’ve witnessed plenty of prairie wildfires growing up in the Great Plains. When a little grassfire touches a dry red cedar the tree literally explodes into a ball of flame. This creates its own wind, lifting up burning shards that carry the fire to other trees and grasslands. I’ve seen fires jump four-lane superhighways in seconds.

Barack Obama not only did the right thing, he did it supremely well. Remarkably, he wrested control of the crisis. The crisis that threatened to undo him was contained, but even his deftness, honesty and skill did not leave him unscathed.

In a bit of descriptive inelegance Dezenhall says, “In a category five crapstorm, make no mistake about it: The crisis is controlling you.” (p. 47) I prefer my analogy to Dezenhall’s, but the point’s the same.

Obama risked damage within his own constituency as well as in the wider audience. The folks who care most are also most outraged when things go south. If they feel betrayed and their outrage takes over there is no more powerful emotion, Dezenhall says.

Obama took a direct hit but he did not “eat his own.” Instead, he took a risk and talked about race and its importance to all of us and in doing so mitigated further risk. Further, he did not attempt to spin his audience. Dezenhall says you can’t spin an audience that doesn’t want to be spun and angry supporters don’t want spin. My own observation is they want truth, and if they feel they’re being handled, they want blood.

If it comes to this point, it’s time to run because you’re no longer in position to explain, apologize or ameliorate. You’d best duck and get out of the room because the roof is about to come down on your head. So, if possible it’s clearly better to fix things before they devolve to this point.

It comes down to this: you need to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, or when to run.

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