By Their Silence Ye Shall Know Them

“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.)

–Bruce Benidt

7 thoughts on “By Their Silence Ye Shall Know Them

  1. dailytri says:

    What’s worse than feeling hamstrung by legal eagles who make twice the salary the PR counsel earns? There are few GOOD examples of forthcoming-ness. But the former CEO at Jet Blue did a fairly nice job of things last February during their mini-disaster.

    Point of clarification: Wasn’t Bob Cratchet’s motive at least to “make merry?” He was held back on the job because of Scrooge’s miserly attitudes. Perhaps the reference made was meant to be “Bob Crotchety.”

  2. jmaustin says:

    Couple of things…

    First, reflexively saying, “We’re sorry…” is almost as bad as not saying anything. It grates on me when PR people assert in any crisis that an apology is a mandatory element of a response.

    Absolutely, it clearly was lacking here (I agree with the sentencing handed out above), but sometimes NOT apologizing is the right thing to do. Very often I get called out by companies that are accused of doing something wrong but may not have actually done the dirty deed.

    Second, Neelman got fired for his efforts to recover from their winter meltdown (OK, kicked up stairs to the symbolic, non-operational post of chairman). I wonder if he wishes in retrospect he’d sent someone else out to do this “hang and kill” work.

    Third, I mostly don’t mind the lawyers making more than me; if I time the delivery of my invoices right (as in just after the client has opened the law firm’s), my fees look pretty reasonable.

    Austin

  3. bbenidt says:

    Yeah, brother Austin, I know. I learned a lot from you, when I was in the agency world and you worked for the friendly, noncontroversial little local airline, about not taking crap from reporters and about pushing back hard and firm when assertions against you were wrong. No question — reflexive defensiveness, turtle in the shell or mea culpas are all bad. Nothing should be reflexive. Should be thought out.
    I’m not advocating instant apology — just instant visibility and a recognition of a problem, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s.
    And I’m gonna remember that billing trick. Brilliant.

  4. If I’d been asked, I’d have given similar counsel to what Bruce wrote, and I think the club’s failure to make a more timely response was a mistake. However, I wouldn’t be so harsh in my judgment of the people involved. Here’s why.

    [Disclosure: I’m a former member of Minneapolis Golf Club. I know the Taylors, whose daughter was injured, and consider the club president a friend. While some of my comments are specific to MGC, I’m really speaking more broadly. I am not advising the club.]

    1. A golf club like MGC is not in the same league as a private country club like Interlachen or business clubs like the Minneapolis Club. It’s composed of mostly working families, not an elite who sit around in “clubrooms” making deals. It’s also not like a typical business or trade organization that is out advocating, trying to influence policy or public opinion. It doesn’t have PR expertise of any meaningful sort on staff or its governing board, which changes leadership annually, or through a formal agency relationship. The club manager is typically a hospitality manager come up through the ranks. He may or may not have had authority to speak for the club in this case without board approval.

    2. The accident occurred at the beginning of the long July 4th holiday, which is a slow time at the golf club. I know the president was out of town when it happened, and I’ll bet she and other board members don’t routinely leave contact information with the club.

    3. This was unlike a plane crash or product liability incident where the organization’s relationship to the victim was coincidental, and could be responded to without the complication of personally knowing the victim. The Taylors were very active club members and a number of people who had to deal with the response for the club likely had some kind of relationship to them. This may have affect the public response as they tried to sort out personal reactions and fiduciary responsibilities.

    4. Though there’s a board and paid staff, a private club is owned and run by all its members, most of whom have strong and diverging opinions on how to run things. The environment is highly political, rife with gossip and potentially contentious. Governance is more like in a university faculty association than a business. Plus, there is a disproportionate number of legal and financial types who tend not to view the world the way readers of this blog do. This makes it difficult for any individual to move decisively on behalf of the entire organization.

    Such an organization is extremely unlikely to have any process, institutionalized or embedded in its leaders of the moment, for responding appropriately to such a crisis. Out of the blue, the club’s leaders were simultaneously faced with a horrible injury to an “extended family member” and the prospect that it could mean the ruin of their beloved club. So maybe they froze or took too long to sort it out.

    Mistake? Yes. Understandable? I think so.

  5. jl says:

    When I was Press Boy for 400+ lawyers in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, I used to get a load of what Bruce is talking about. After getting my ass handed to me by them one time, I was hanging my moppy head. I mumbled to the attorney in the office next to me, “I understand, they can’t be expected to understand the public relations implications…that’s not their job.”

    This lawyer, a brilliant dude, strenuously objected. He said that his lawyer colleagues who were bad at navigating public communications situations are nearly always bad lawyers in general. He said legal work — negotiating, managing clients, coordinating legal teams, navigating depositions, preparing clients and experts to testify, working with judges and juries — is, like PR, all about reading audiences and crafting nuanced ways to persuade them. The lawyers who discount the importance of public persuasion and reputation management, he said, are usually lawyers that are crappy at large parts of their jobs. He maintained that lawyers, particularly government lawyers, who were bad at PR should be removed if they aren’t able or willing to work to get good at it.

    That changed my whole perspective on the lawyers v. PR guy dynamic. Just as PR people should be expected to value and understand the law and legal process, lawyers should be expected to value and understand public relations, and held accountable if they don’t.

  6. Memo to Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles:

    Read Bruce’s article above.

    Silence is not golden – and all the gold in California….

  7. ellenm53 says:

    Charlie Quimby: I can’t imagine the true pain this young girl, her family and friends have faced in this tragedy. Thank you for the background on this. As is said, there really are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.

    After practicing and teaching public relations for nearly 30 years, I have witnessed that the problem PR people often make is in NOT making themselves part of the trusted, inner-circle of management long before a crisis hits. If as the public relations person you become known as the good-time guy or gal who can throw together any event by the end of the week, produces a great web page and monthly newsletter to employees, and an annual report to stockholders, to boot, you’ll always be seen by management as a technician — not a valued professional counselor.

    Part of why legal counsel is so expensive is because it is seen as being valuable — it carries a perception, in other words, of worth. What is that “worth”? It’s limiting the client’s damage.

    And that’s what good public relations should do, as well. Not to try to cover-up a crisis (ask Richard Nixon how that worked for him) or to lead the “mea culpa!” choir, but to help the client through whatever he current crisis is so that rebuilding efforts with the public can begin.

    Lawyers practice in courtrooms. But public relations counsel should “practice” in communities.

    Ellen Mrja

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