Of course when something does go wrong there is a whole set of public relations experts, crisis communicators, ready to swing into action. Crisis PR manages public perception following industrial accidents, the public uncovering of adverse effects of a product, and corporate mistakes. In their literature these crisis experts frequently cite the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez ship wreck, which spewed tons of oil over pristine arctic wilderness, as a prime example of public relations gone wrong. The aftermath they refer to is Exxon’s fallen reputation rather than the oil soaked coastline and marine life. In the world of PR, problems arise from the failure to communicate strategically, not from wrongful activity. The hundreds of articles in PR magazines and books that cover the Exxon Valdez accident almost invariably focus on how Exxon could have handled public relations better. However, as journalist Craig Mellow points out; “For all the stress on strategic counseling, no one talked about whether Exxon should have had better hiring or emergency-response policies beforehand.”
The advice that crisis communicators give, is therefore aimed at restoring reputation rather than preventing reoccurences or fixing the physical consequences of the disaster. The problem is not reality but the perception of reality. The sort of advice that is given to companies for dealing with a major incident includes firstly ensuring the top company executive goes to the scene of the accident immediately to show that s/he cares: “Images of strong emotional responses must be captured (for which the chief will be trained by a crisis communicator). Executive hands and shoes must be soiled for the camera.”
Corporations are also advised that television cameras should be kept away from meetings between the company and the aggrieved community to avoid mass broadcasts of angry citizens. Company representatives should dress to identify with the community and if at all possible the company should be portrayed as a victim, suffering as a result of an accident it could not prevent.
Harold Burson of Burson-Marsteller also advises that is important to ‘control’ media coverage and arrange employee interviews: “Failing to make witnesses available will lead to media efforts to obtain interviews on their own, either outside the gates or at the local watering hole. Control is the important element here.”
Hill and Knowlton advised Terminals P/L when there was an explosion at the chemical terminal Coode Island in Melbourne in 1991, released toxic gas. Following the explosion environmental activists were blamed for sabotaging the plant. Police annnounced at a press conference:
that they had evidence that stainless steel pipes had been cut with oxy-acetylene cutting equipment. Whilst it emerged that they had questioned no environmentalists, they speculated that this had been the work of environmental protesters. The fact that oxy-acetylene torches cannot cut stainless steel was ignored. Years later Brian West, of H&K Australia revealed at a PR conference that H&K had been advising Terminals Pty on how to handle the crisis. He used the case as an illustration of how in the field of crisis management PR practitioners must strive to portray their clients as victims rather than perpetrators in order to win public sympathy.