The critics are clamoring and the press wants a comment. Face it, you need help dealing with your company’s crisis. Enter Karen Kessler, a public-relations specialist who works to mitigate some of the toughest situations imaginable. (How delicate? Even the producers of TV’s “The Good Wife” have sought her out to consult on their show.) Writer Erin McDermott recently spoke with Kessler, the co-founder of Evergreen Partners, about silencing Twitter fights, avoiding the drip of bad news, and the absolute worst thing a business owner can say to the media.
EM: How did you get into crisis management? Were you always the girl who kept the coolest head when you were growing up?
KK: In many ways, it fit who I was, it fits who I am, and it fits what makes me feel comfortable. I’m dealing with people in very high-stress situations. I think if you can offer people some comfort when they’re in those situations and get them to dial down the drama and dial down the impulsive behavior, there’s a sense of relief for them in that. And if I can offer that sense of relief, it’s really very comforting and satisfying to me. That’s the psychology of it.
I kind of backed into it. It never was a field you could study when I was in school. I started out in a fairly traditional public relations background and then was hired as vice president of corporate communications at the New York Stock Exchange. I reported to Arthur Levitt, who went on to be the head of the Securities & Exchange Commission. In the course of that I worked with companies who were publicly traded and they had responsibilities to report changes in management or organization that might impact their stock price. I learned a lot about how the public reacts to news and when they react. When I started my own business, I found there were a lot of companies that started out thinking they had good news to share—but when you peeled back the layers, there was other stuff they weren’t sharing.
KK: Most times, we get our clients through attorneys that are working with companies and think that whatever’s going on has the potential to be unmanageable, either with customers, the public, the media, or potential jury members. Other times, they come directly to us because they’ve heard of us or are referred.
The very first thing we do is ask to sit down with them. After we provide a little bit of comfort, we ask them to tell us everything that’s going on. Let’s talk about anything that can come out later so that we can begin to put together a plan to mitigate it. And what we find is, despite our request that it all comes out at once, it generally comes out piece by piece. Most people have a very hard time acknowledging what’s going on in the most direct fashion.
EM: Is really possible for an organization to think ahead about damage control?
KK: Absolutely. Can you envision every scenario that could possibly come and be prepared? No. But are there certain kinds of things and information that you can pull together—certain kinds of approaches you can instill in your employees, or values that you can emphasize or written policies you can put in place that will help you in these situations? Absolutely. Do most companies have them? Absolutely not.
EM: Social media must have seriously altered the landscape for you.
KK: It did. It’s more voices, and no deadlines. Now, it’s a race to get it up online. As we’re talking, they’re typing.
EM: What’s the worst thing a company can do in a crisis like this?
KK: Use the phrase ‘no comment.’ That’s our least favorite thing in the world. If you say ‘no comment,’ you might as well write the word ‘guilty’ on your forehead.
KK: With small businesses, it’s often public missteps that might come off as tone-deaf—it’s not intentional on these kinds of things. It’s not earth-shattering, like putting out a product that’s going to hurt people or make people ill. It’s just a misstep or something that doesn’t work out. Or it’s a dispute with an employee—something between two people that gets escalated.
Right now, we have a very small organization we’re helping in which two people, one of whom is a former employee, are in a Twitter fight. Neither of them recognizes that this isn’t like 30 years ago, when you both just picked up the phone and yelled at each other. When you’re in a Twitter fight, it’s a public situation. We see these things all of the time now. Take 10 minutes and walk away before you decide to jump on your keyboard, because then it is forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.