“We can’t stress enough that the club’s limited communication to you or the general public should not be misinterpreted as a lack of compassion.”
And we can’t stress enough our admiration for the fine job you’ve done of closing the barn door after the horse is three counties away.
A six-year-old’s intestines are sucked down the drain in a swimming-pool accident June 29, and the people at the Minneapolis Golf Club where it happens say nothing for two weeks. Until an email, part of it quoted above, to members July 13. The email from the president of the club’s executive committee, according to the Star Tribune, said “the club has been advised by its lawyers to limit what it says because ‘we do not have all the details yet’ and the accident is under investigation.” If the lawyers said “say nothing,” they should quit law and get a night job at SuperAmerica. If the lawyers said “say something but admit no guilt” and the club said nothing, whoever made that decision should be busted down to caddie. If it took a PR person two weeks to sort out the fear and advice and finally say something, he or she needs to get a new pencil box and go back to school.
You can picture the scene. This awful thing happens, the club bigwigs call their lawyers, who say, “You can’t say anything that looks like an admission of guilt.” “But,” says a bigwig, “we’ve got to say something, don’t we? We’ll look like cold-hearted bastards if we say nothing.” “Look, we don’t know what happened yet, and anything you say now will be used against you by those ruthless lawyers lining up to sue you on the family’s behalf.” “But,” says bigwig, “can’t we say we’re sorry it happened?” Apoplectic noises then heard from bigwig’s lawyer (see Loveland post on Sorry is the Hardest Word).
Result: the club says nothing, and the news stories say the club leaders didn’t return calls. They cower in their clubrooms when they should be doing what human beings do — saying something like “This is awful, we’re going to find out what happened, and we’ll do anything we can for the girl and her family.” But too many lawyers feel admitting something was awful, for example, could come back to bite you at trial. “Ms. Bigwig, you said in a media statement that this event was, and I quote, ‘awful.’ ” Like it’s going to be news to the jury — they didn’t think this was awful until the shrewd plaintiff’s lawyer pointed out that the bigwig called it what it was — awful. Come on, folks.
Admittedly, too may PR people don’t think about the legal case when they give communications advice. Too many PR people know nothing about the law and aren’t smart enough to partner with attorneys from the get-go to figure out what to say that reflects what happened, what’s real, what the organization believes in, and that won’t hurt the organization’s reputation or legal case now or down the line.
Crisis reveals character, always. Or lack of it.
3M, for example, in my mind used to be a stand-up member of this community, creating jobs, giving money to good causes, coming up with cool products. Now, with the way it’s been so tight-lipped and reluctant in its communications about the growing groundwater pollution problems in the eastern metro area, it appears as a timid, bunkered-down, lawyer-whipped, Ebenezer Scrooge kind of company staring paralyzed at its dwindling money pile. And shrinking reputation.
When something awful happens, get legal and communications advice instantly, look into your heart, step forward, speak up and behave like a decent and caring member of the community.
(P.S. No news story I’ve heard or read has explained clearly how these pool-drain accidents happen. Are these the drains at the bottom of pools or the intakes at the sides of the pools? Is water always being drained out of drains? Or only when pools are cleaned? Is the suction so fierce that it will pull in a kid who’s close, or does one have to sit on the drain? I know this is macabre, but there’ve been lots of stories and little information. If you are bringing a kid to a pool, the news stories give you nothing useful to understand how these accidents happen and how to avoid the problem. The only conculusion I come to is to stay out of pools or stop reading the paper.)