Character Study: Understanding the Root of All Crises

October 13, 2016


Labor Day may be just behind us, but I’ll bet editors of the PR trades are already compiling a list of the major PR crises of 2016. It’s as certain as Ryan Seacrest counting down the last 10 seconds of the year, and the next day’s heartwarming stories about New Year’s babies.

It’s Groundhog Day every year, as we all hash and rehash how some hapless company or institution screwed up. It’s usually because their PR people didn’t get ahead of the story, which, of course, is step one in the crisis communications playbook. Everyone knows some version of the four A’s: Acknowledge the problem, Apologize for it, Act quickly to fix it and make Amends.

But few stories about last year’s PR disasters will focus on the real problem: Almost every PR crisis starts as an ethical lapse of some kind. In each case, the crisis occurred because someone cheated, failed to consider the consequences of their actions, didn’t take adequate care of operations or tried to game financial disclosures.

Most PR crisis plans focus on how to handle communications after the poop hits the fan. But the most effective PR counsel occurs long before, far from the front lines, in the organization’s most senior councils. That’s where an organization’s character is shaped. Character is more than the company’s reputation. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree, and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

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