Spin and Counter-Spin

Winter 2013

Soundings

Spin and Counter-Spin

By Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani, and Bill Guttentag

Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani are attorneys and PR consultants who have counseled numerous Fortune 500 companies, politicians, and celebrities. Bill Guttentag is an Oscar-winning documentary and film writer-producer-director whose films include Knife Fight, Live!, Nanking, and Soundtrack for a Revolution. From Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (Palgrave Macmillan). ©2012

In the moments after a crisis hits, it is very unlikely that you can ever be in a position to understand what has truly happened, be in possession of all the facts, appreciate the motives of all the parties, or be able to ascertain variables of which you may not even be aware.

Even in a situation where you think you have all the answers, it is usually the case that you do not.

Any answer you provide is going to be poked and prodded by the audiences you care about with an extraordinary level of scrutiny. And the slightest discrepancy will be seized upon and magnified. To be brutally frank, any response you provide will be examined with the rigor of a colonoscopy—without anesthesia.

At this moment, you need to ditch the spin—and focus on counter-spin. Communicating in a way that makes it clear you are not engaging in spin will help rebuild trust.

Instead of emphasizing the positive and de-emphasizing the negative, recognize the value of transparency.

Rather than releasing self-selected information to the public, commit to openness when you have information that is ready to be released.

As opposed to blanket denials, make clear that you are fully cooperating with any inquiry.

Unless you are in a position where you can proffer an explanation with the absolute certitude that it will be sustainable, it is almost always better to remember that less can be more when it comes to providing the initial explanation. This is because less information that is accurate is going to do far more good in addressing trust issues over the long haul than an in-depth answer that looks good on paper but does not hold up under the inevitable close scrutiny ahead.

The bottom line is that you simply cannot allow the pressure of the situation to lead to spin that does more harm than good.

We cannot even begin to count the number of times where we have been retained by a large corporation, high-profile individual, or major organization facing a crisis, where the introductory meeting begins with a proud walk through their “war room”—typically adorned with clocks for multiple time zones, a bank of television sets tuned to different cable channels, cutting-edge communications equipment allowing the principals from the far-flung corners of the nation or world to talk with one another, and massive screens featuring websites, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels—but those in charge have no understanding that what they need to do first is nothing—unless it is designed to accomplish the strategic mission of restoring trust.

We want to be clear: These communication tools can be enormously powerful in servicing and supporting the communication of information and ought to be deployed—but only when you have absolute confidence that the information you intend to disseminate on these platforms is consistent with restoring trust.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.