The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCrisis CommunicationsThe Old Founder Who Allowed the Media to Destroy Him

The Old Founder Who Allowed the Media to Destroy Him

There's the reported story — and then there's the real story.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

I met an old founder who allowed the media to des­troy him.

Many years ago, I got an email about a com­pany in a severe crisis. The email was sent from a wor­ried and con­cerned fam­ily mem­ber to the founder and act­ing CEO. 

I knew about the com­pany since the crisis had been plastered all over the news for a few days. I remem­ber read­ing the news­pa­pers, think­ing that “this com­pany is neck-deep in crap.”

So, I called the old founder up. He was an older man who star­ted young and built the com­pany from the ground up. He seemed very con­fid­ent and not startled by the com­mo­tion around his com­pany; how­ever, he felt he could use pro­fes­sion­al help to man­age the media storm. 

A PR col­league and I jumped on a plane. 

I was feel­ing a bit uneasy about the whole thing. I help organ­isa­tions com­mu­nic­ate bet­ter for a liv­ing, and that’s a good reas­on to get up in the morning …

… but would this be a case of help­ing evil forces evade what’s right­fully com­ing to them? 

According to the media reports, people’s lives had been at risk to save money and increase profits. And the old founder seemed dir­ectly implic­ated. But the old founder had­n’t offered any com­ments, des­pite being chased by numer­ous journalists.

I thought about all the defence attor­neys of the world:

Everyone, even the bad guys, has the right to a sol­id leg­al defence. And we’re all bet­ter off for it because it safe­guards our leg­al sys­tem and democracy.

Is every­one entitled to a rhet­or­ic­al defence in the spir­it of free speech and open­ness? I thought of myself as a defence attor­ney not in the court of law but in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. It was a romantic idea to make me feel a little bit easier.

Admittedly, I was also excited. Crisis com­mu­nic­a­tions as a PR prac­tice can be thrill­ing and emo­tion­ally powerful.

We arrived at the old founder­’s home, and the fam­ily mem­ber who had sent me the email led us upstairs to a make­shift con­fer­ence room. The old founder was a no-non­sense man; he asked us to lay out our plan for man­aging the crisis.

Perhaps I had hoped for a cof­fee first, but as a seni­or adviser, I know when to get down to busi­ness and dis­pense with small talk.

First,” I said, “we must get the facts and estab­lish trust in our small group.”

The old founder seemed to appre­ci­ate my open­er, so I kept going.

Then, based on facts, we must devel­op a nar­rat­ive that works for us. And with­in that nar­rat­ive, we must find a lead. Change the lead, change the story.”

I con­tin­ued: “We will also bring onboard leg­al coun­sel. If there’s any respons­ib­il­ity to be taken, we must pub­licly get out in front of the issue. This will include speak­ing with the media as soon as pos­sible. It’ll likely be a good oppor­tun­ity to empath­ise and acknow­ledge any pain and suf­fer­ing — even if we can­not acknow­ledge any leg­al respons­ib­il­ity. In any case, we will make sure that you are prepared.”

The old founder was still calm and col­lec­ted. I added:

When the silence is broken, we’ll need to push for a par­al­lel intern­al pro­cess in which your com­pany takes a series of actions. Breaking the silence and speak­ing with the media will be tough, but speak­ing alone won’t be enough. We must demon­strate that your com­pany is also doing some­thing because of what’s happened. Actions speak louder than words.”

I felt that I had the floor, so I pressed forward:

With the silence broken and your com­pany tak­ing action, our focus will be to ride the wave and make sol­id tac­tic­al decisions based on sound judge­ment and con­stant media mon­it­or­ing. It’ll be tough, but you’ll ride out the worst storm by being pub­licly avail­able and accom­mod­at­ing. Once out of the imme­di­ate storm, we begin restor­ing the brand’s trust.”

The old founder gathered that I was about done, so he cleared his throat and got ready to say some­thing, only to be inter­rup­ted by the par­ti­cip­at­ing fam­ily member:

She was upset.
And she went on to explain what had happened.

As it turned out, the old founder was­n’t guilty of malice. It was an employ­ee who had broken the rules by mis­take. Not for per­son­al profit or gain, just a mis­take. It could be eas­ily proven, too. The employ­ee had been loy­al for dec­ades, with only months to retire.

However, the news media had already gone two- or even three full circles, rip­ping the brand and the old founder to shreds. In the eyes of every­one read­ing a news­pa­per, the old founder was guilty.

I quickly glanced over at my PR col­league, and I’m sure her thoughts were roughly the same as mine. In my head, it soun­ded some­thing like this:

So, we present evid­ence of the mis­take and dis­proof any alleg­a­tions of malice or undue prof­it­eer­ing; that’s our new lead. We apo­lo­gise and com­pensate those affected, and we fire the employ­ee. We estab­lish new pro­to­cols to ensure the same mis­take can nev­er hap­pen again. And then we take it from there.”

But the old founder, almost as if he was able to read my mind, finally spoke:

No,” he said.

The employ­ee who had made a mis­take was one of the com­pany’s first employ­ees. The old founder refused to hang this loy­al cowork­er out to dry, espe­cially with only a few months to retirement.

The neg­at­ive media would crush him and his fam­ily,” he said. 

But I… I can take it.”

And take it, he did. New secur­ity pro­to­cols were imple­men­ted to ensure that such mis­takes could nev­er hap­pen again. Affected parties were hand­somely com­pensated. And dur­ing all this, the old founder took full respons­ib­il­ity, apo­lo­gised, and retired. He left his com­pany to young­er fam­ily members. 

And the employ­ee who made a mis­take got to retire with a large cel­eb­ra­tion and a happy family.

The incid­ent was dis­cussed in the news media for quite some time after­wards. And every­one was sure that the own­er was an evil older man — even later when the old founder was freed from leg­al charges.

Maybe the old founder made the right decision. Maybe he did­n’t. Who knows? It was his decision, not any­one else’s. Ultimately, he took the blame and shame into retire­ment and allowed a new gen­er­a­tion to start anew.

For a couple of months, my PR col­league and I did what we could to accom­mod­ate the old founder­’s dir­ec­tions. And that’s that.

So, why am I telling you this story?

When a media story is based on what people have told journ­al­ists, you can nev­er be 100% sure that what you’re being told is what truly happened. Some accounts are nev­er challenged.

We would all bene­fit from remem­ber­ing that there’s a real­ity behind and bey­ond the repor­ted media nar­rat­ive. Not all those por­trayed as dev­ils are evil. And not all those por­trayed as saints are good.


Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: The Public Apology

The Public Apology

A pub­lic apo­logy is, by nature, an ambigu­ous state­ment; it ranges from sub­missive remorse to a che­va­lier­’s trope of humbly express­ing that the out­come was all that one could muster — des­pite best efforts.

And the news media can­’t get enough of these dra­mat­ic statements.

The audi­ence won’t con­sider any­one’s pub­lic apo­logy until they under­stand why someone did what they did — and how they feel about doing it. This ambi­gu­ity is why it’s nev­er enough to say, “I apologise.”

Public apo­lo­gies func­tion as ritu­al­ist­ic pub­lic pun­ish­ment and humi­li­ation, rather than for­give­ness, to enforce eth­ic­al stand­ards for pub­lic speech.”
Source: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 1Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118

If we unpack the pub­lic apo­logy as a concept, we can dis­cern three cent­ral parts:

  • the apo­logy (“I apologise”),
  • the expres­sion of regret (“I’m sorry”) and
  • the explan­a­tion (“this is why”).

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a uni­ver­sal pub­lic apo­logy, only dif­fer­ent types of apologies:

  • non-apo­lo­gies,
  • deflect­ive apologies,
  • patho­lo­gic­al apologies,
  • mor­al apologies,
  • defeat­ist apologies,
  • char­ac­ter apologies,
  • cir­cum­stan­tial apologies,
  • sto­ic apo­lo­gies, and
  • trans­ac­tion­al apologies.

From a pub­lic rela­tions per­spect­ive, pub­lic apo­lo­gies are chal­len­ging. They must be craf­ted care­fully to have the inten­ded effect.

Learn more: When a Public Apology is Warranted — and When It’s Not

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PR Resource: Perception Management

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

No one is basing their atti­tudes and beha­viours on real­ity; we’re basing them on our per­cep­tions of real­ity.

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) pro­posed that our per­cep­tions of real­ity dif­fer from the actu­al real­ity. The real­ity is too vast and too com­plex for any­one to pro­cess. 2Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

The research on per­cep­tion man­age­ment is focused on how organ­isa­tions can cre­ate a desired repu­ta­tion:

The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activ­it­ies that help organ­isa­tions estab­lish and/​or main­tain a desired repu­ta­tion (Staw et al., 1983). More spe­cific­ally, OPM research has primar­ily focused on two inter­re­lated factors: (1) the tim­ing and goals of per­cep­tion man­age­ment activ­it­ies and (2) spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion man­age­ment tac­tics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Organization Development Journal 3Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. … Continue read­ing

Today, our per­cep­tions are heav­ily influ­enced by news media and influ­en­cers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, per­cep­tion man­age­ment is more crit­ic­al than ever before.

We are all cap­tives of the pic­ture in our head — our belief that the world we have exper­i­enced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974)

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118
2 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
3 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87. https://​www​.researchg​ate​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​/​2​8​8​2​9​2​5​9​6​_​O​r​g​a​n​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​a​l​_​p​e​r​c​e​p​t​i​o​n​_​m​a​n​a​g​e​m​e​n​t​_​A​_​f​r​a​m​e​w​o​r​k​_​t​o​_​o​v​e​r​c​o​m​e​_​c​r​i​s​i​s​_​e​v​e​nts
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo has nothing to do with public relations, of course. I share for no other reason that I happen to enjoy photography. Call it an “ornamental distraction”—and a subtle reminder to appreciate nature.

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