Story Circle: Notes on a Scandal

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John F. Kennedy once said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” History is full of crises. Good crisis communication can mean the difference between opportunity and danger. Judy Smith, president and CEO of Smith & Co., shared her experiences as a crisis communicator and revealed lessons learned. She focused on how organizations can anticipate and mitigate the reputational risks before, during, and after a crisis. Smith has guided corporations and heads of state through some of the most notable crises of our time, including the Iran Contra investigation, the Los Angeles riots, the impeachment of President Clinton, the congressional inquiry into Enron, and the response to the SARS epidemic. She served as deputy press secretary to President George H. W. Bush and has consulted for several well-known companies on a wide spectrum of public relations matters. Most recently her career inspired the hit ABC show, Scandal.

1. When dealing with a crisis, look at its landscape–the back drop and playing field—in order to understand the context of the crisis. Businesses or individuals facing a crisis will often react before they understand the full picture.

2. Make sure your company has a crisis management plan in place before something happens. As part of that plan, the company should identify the right person and right message when reacting to the crisis, especially when addressing the media and social media posts. The plan should also call for directors to receive media training.

3. A piece of advice when facing a crisis: Pay attention to the “little signals” before something happens. There is a 75 percent success rate in a crisis when you pay attention to such signals. And don’t take for granted the importance of transparency during a crisis. Truth is always going to come out; it’s just a matter of when. If you don’t tell the truth, you lose the opportunity to frame the story. When you don’t come forth with the truth right away, you wind up at the mercy of the media or, in some cases, activist shareholders. And you wind up being on the defensive.

Judy A. Smith
President and CEO, Smith & Co

This summary provided by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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