A prominent skin care company manufactured a supremely popular product. Regulators and the media jumped all over the skin care company regarding a false internet rumor questioning the product’s safety. As bad publicity devastated the company’s revenues, the CEO knew this situation was outside his team’s expertise and that outside experts were needed.
The CEO did what many corporations do when besieged by hostile adversaries –regulators, legislators, competitors, activists, media, trial attorneys – he hired a firm that specializes in high-stakes and crisis communications.
The high stakes communications firm that the skin care company sought out is Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., based in Washington, D.C. — a firm that helped create this specialized niche of public relations more than 30 years ago. Within a few weeks, Dezenhall had exposed a competitor as being behind the false claim, discredited the critics in the eyes of the media and got the skin care company back to regular operations, with revenues as strong as they had ever been.
Dezenhall distinguishes itself in the crowded marketplace of crisis management and communications by implementing an operational practice it brands as “Marketplace Defense.” In practice, this is a laser focus on getting its clients back to business when their business operations or reputations are under attack by what Dezenhall calls “motivated adversaries,” an individual or institution that can profit financially, in notoriety, or gain favor from perpetuating the company’s challenge. Motivated adversaries come in all shapes and sizes, but are most often regulators, competitors, politicians, the plaintiff’s bar, activist organizations and agenda-driven media.
Executive Vice President Steven Schlein, a political veteran who’s been at the firm for 17 years, says, “Dezenhall zeroes in on the business goal – saving a product, fighting off onerous regulations – and develops a strategic plan specific to that mission. Public relations firms focus on marketing communications and long-term reputational campaigns. Those are not the short-term solutions to targeted marketplace assaults.”
Debunking Public Relations Myths
The first thing to know about Dezenhall is that the firm doesn’t believe traditional public relations theories and tactics apply to the world of crisis communications and marketplace assaults. The firm says the public relations industry is still preaching 30-year old tropes that don’t apply anymore such as referring to industry’s antagonists as “stakeholders” that will come around if “educated” through a soft ad campaign.
In today’s public affairs, government relations and media environment, those traditional tactics are insufficient, largely because conflict is mistaken for a communications problem, according to the firm’s CEO Eric Dezenhall who has written three books about crisis management. In his latest publication, Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputation in an Age of Instant Scandal, he discussed some of the myths that traditional PR companies perpetuate in today’s rapid-paced world of communications.
Get ahead of the story: It is impossible to get ahead of anything if a crisis is sudden and unexpected. Dezenhall can think of no major crisis of the last 30 years that was solved by “getting ahead of the story.” Crises are managed by thoughtful consultants and attorneys that protect their clients’ interests not by creating more spectacles that only service the media’s needs.
Social media is the answer: Industry can use social media to gauge the state of play and share content if necessary, but it’s rarely the right field of battle for corporations. Industry’s critics have captured this space.
A crisis is an opportunity: Crises are damaging and often have lasting effects. It is rare if someone who suffers a real crisis emerges unscathed, and even if they do, they aren’t asking to return to the days of their near-destruction.
Change the conversation: It is easy to want to “change the conversation,” except that it can easily be interpreted as creating a distraction, making things worse. Generally, the only way the conversation will change is if something more interesting happens that people would rather talk about.
Changing with the Times
CFO Maya Shackley has been with Dezenhall since its early days when the firm was called Nichols-Dezenhall in the 1980s. Back then, the firm had a controversial reputation for being the street fighters of crisis management and public affairs. This reputation stuck through the 1990s. Shackley says that the past approach reflected the times.
Shackley told me, “We are still forceful advocates for our clients, but the firm has evolved as the culture and political climate has changed. Companies don’t want to be involved in fights, they want their problems solved.”
Like management consultants, Dezenhall starts with its clients’ ultimate business objective—usually to have the crisis or challenge recede, so they can get back to business as usual. The real problem solving begins when Dezenhall gives them an honest, comprehensive assessment of their challenge, an inventory of their motivated adversaries—their goals and an understanding of those adversaries’ core motivation. From there, they develop a politically savvy “campaign” that frequently brings allies to the fight, exposes hidden agendas, and directs activities at the people who can influence the outcome.
Dezenhall develops these political-style campaigns by relying on its staff of veteran Capitol Hill and campaign strategists, investigative reporters and producers, management consultants and political activists, as well as trade associations and corporate communicators. An example is Senior Vice President Josh Culling, who came from Americans for Tax Reform, where he managed state programs. He now assists Dezenhall’s clients with fighting state rules and regulations that hurt their business.
It’s All About the Pushback
Ultimately, Dezenhall’s unique method is to introduce risk into the adversary’s equation. These motivated adversaries must understand that if they continue attacking, they stand to lose something.
Senior Vice President, Anne Marie Malecha, a former congressional press secretary, noted, “Crises, regulatory and litigation challenges know no industry bounds and all can threaten a company’s reputation and ability to operate. Without pushback, our clients’ adversaries have no incentive to cease their attacks.”
And the pushback is done discretely. Unlike most public relations firms, Dezenhall doesn’t publish its client list on its website. “Bragging about our success stories is good for us, but not for our clients. Any firm that publicizes its client list is not in our business,” said Dezenhall.
In today’s regulatory and economic environment, Corporate America is forced to take more punches than the most prized fighter. Dezenhall does the punching back so that companies can stay focused on their business.