“I learned many things from that period…I learned for example, that when you’re in a PR crisis the one thing that you can’t hire is a PR crisis company”. Julian Wheatland, ex-CEO Cambridge Analytica, in “The Great Hack” documentary, Netflix, 24th July 2019.
One fairly well-established principle in crisis communications theory goes something like this –
“Much of the really hard graft is done when things are going swimmingly and the company seems to be doing well. That’s the time to do your prep, sort out your comms infrastructure, stress test your pressure points and implement any learnings that emerge so you’re in reasonable shape for when a crisis does occur…or at least until your next test exercise.” (me, 28th July 2019)
In the real world, as Cambridge Analytica found out, things sometimes don’t work out like that.
In this case it fell to a talented and tenacious journalist, a few disenchanted employees and an aggrieved academic who wanted his data back to reveal the widening cracks which eventually brought down the company and caused tremors which are still being assessed and felt today.
Nine times out of ten crisis management is a damage-limitation exercise but the issues at Cambridge Analytica were SO huge that the real damage had been done before the lies, the denials and the data scandal were made public and destroyed the company.
They’re not alone either.
Many organizations only realise they have a crisis on their hands when it’s staring them in the face or, it they’re lucky, lurking just behind them giving them at least a little time to turn round and tackle it.
Snake on the loose
It seems in Cambridge Analytica’s case that one or two people at the top kept the poisonous issues to themselves, leaving colleagues blissfully unaware that there was a deadly snake in the building while they tapped happily away, glued to their screens.
The only sound they could hear were the $$$s stashing up for the company not the hissing of an impending crisis.
Attempts may have been made in the early stages to keep a lid on the story but if it’s likely to store up a bigger problem for the future then is it really worth putting off the pain?
Often one of the key challenges of any crisis – as I’ve written before – is someone at the top actually realizing you’re in one and then sharing it with a trusted colleague.
Listen for the hiss
Don’t get caught out by not keeping your ear to the ground as the slithering and often silent snake edges its way towards the heart of your organization.
An open, accountable and transparent business will hopefully have the flexibility to tackle at least some of the issues before it develops into a crisis.
Otherwise it could leave you in the unenviable position of Julian Wheatland from Cambridge Analytica whose brand became so toxic that no crisis communications company would go near it.
We’ll leave the last words to him.
“We spoke to tens of PR crisis companies that listened intently, went back to think about it and came back and said ‘I’m sorry we can’t associate ourselves with your brand’…and actually I thought that’s what they were there for…and so it became impossible to get a voice.”
(54m 46s – The Great Hack).