In July of last year, when consumer activists urged Ford to recall cars fitted with Bridgestone/Firestone tires, the tire maker went on the offensive. Despite the fact that Bridgestone/Firestone had been aware of an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for at least two months, the company slammed activists for trying “to rush our company to issue a recall” based on “the hysteria they are trying to create and not the facts.”

Three weeks later, of course, Bridgestone/Firestone did issue a recall of 6.5 million tires. By then, the tires had been linked to 46 deaths, and the company’s reputation was already in tatters. In the ensuing months, the company would lose 47 percent off its stock price as its market cap declined to its lowest level in five years. Senior executives were called to testify before Congress, and consumers began asking for any brand of tires except Firestone to be fitted to their cars.

One can’t help wondering whether someone at Bridgestone/Firestone had picked up a copy of Eric Dezenhall’s book Nail ‘Em, in which Dezenhall stereotypes activists as either malicious troublemakers or maladjusted losers. “I don’t like attackers,” Dezenhall writes, “but my job has taught me that they’re not all evil. They can be the people next door who complain about chemicals in food or about fat in popcorn and muffins. Once I strip away the rage, I find a desperate person looking for credit, recognition, or celebrity. I find an exile from an exciting world that has passed him by.”

Or maybe someone from Bridgestone/Firestone had attended one of the speeches Dezenhall and his partner Nick Nichols make at industry gatherings, like the one Nichols have to the National Pork Industry Forum a couple of weeks ago in which he urged companies to adopt “attack technologies” when under fire from activists, to “tear down their mantle of virtue.” Denouncing what he called “capitulation counseling,” he urged attendees to “get in the trenches and fight” and “take no prisoners.”

Nichols went on to quote Al Capone—“You can get more with kind words and a smile and a gun than you get with kind words and a smile”—and his partner, Dezenhall: “If you live by the sword, you may die by the sword, but if you live by the olive branch, you may still die by the sword.”

Nichols-Dezenhall was founded in 1987 by Nichols, a former investigative reporter who earned his crisis management stripes as a senior media spokesman for the State Department’s Cuban-Haitian Task Force the 1980 Mariel boat lift, and Dezenhall, who served in the Reagan White House, holding positions in the office of communications and the office of presidential personnel. 

While the firm focuses almost exclusively on helping clients handle media crises, it eschews the “public relations” label, and its principals are dismissive of what they see as public relations responses to crisis. Nichols, for example, told the pork producers that activist attacks “are not public relations problems,” and that public relations relies on a “feel good” strategy that is akin to “taking a poodle to a rottweiler show.”

In his book, Dezenhall uses another analogy: “Two people are walking down the street side by side. One is a crisis manager. The other is in public relations. A sinister-looking character in a trenchcoat emerges from an alley, draws a knife and asks for their wallets. They both say no….

“The PR person’s interpretation of this encounter is that there are poor communications. He begins to explain to the attacker why the wallets are not forthcoming. ‘We need our money.’ ‘You’re breaking the law.’ Apparently, the PR person believes the attacker needs to be better informed. Perhaps if there is an exchange of views, a dialogue… the attacker will understand why the wallets are not changing hands.

“The crisis manager does not believe there is a communications problem. The crisis manager believes there is a conflict. He explains this to the attacker: ‘You want my wallet and I want my wallet too. You can have the PR person’s wallet. After all, you only have a communications problem with him…. With me you have a conflict and a new problem.’

“The crisis manager reaches slowly into an inner pocket. Now it’s time for the attacker to ponder several trenchant questions: ‘How badly do I want this guy’s wallet? Is this crisis management guy psychotic? What the hell does he have in his jacket.’”

It’s clear that Nichols and Dezenhall are very good at telling corporate CEOs what they want to hear, at appealing to the sense of machismo that is almost a prerequisite for landing a corner office in corporate America. It’s no surprise that they are popular speakers at events staged by the National Pork Producers Council or the Grocery Manufacturers of America or the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association. 

And it’s no surprise that they’re equally popular with reporters, who prefer confrontation to conciliation any day, and have become darlings of the conservative media. In recent months Dezenhall has appeared Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and written in The Washington Times comparing the attacks on attorney general nominee John Ashcroft with those on corporate America.

In The New York Post in March, Dezenhall warned that “surrender has never been a winning formula for nations or corporations” and compared companies that attempt to compromise with activist groups to “British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who proudly announced in 1938 that his appeasement of Adolf Hitler brought ‘peace for our time’ a year before Hitler started World War II…. Too many corporations are heeding the advice of public relations capitulation counselors and are going to extraordinary lengths to please attackers who do not want to be pleased. In the end, appeasement usually fails to stop attacks. It simply encourages new ones.”

Nichols-Dezenhall is something of an anomaly among public relations firms. For the most part, corporate clients don’t turn to PR firms when they go on the attack. They funnel money into think tanks and other non-profit organizations like those run by Stephen Milloy, operator of the website and author and adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute. Since those groups are notoriously tight-lipped about where their funding comes from, corporations rely on them to say the kind of things they might be embarrassed to say themselves.

Sheldon Rampton, editor of PR Watch, which monitors corporate public relations activities from an activist’s perspective, says that while major public relations agencies are capable of attack-dog tactics, the preferred corporate strategy is more akin to the good cop, bad cop approach. “I think if you look at an organization like the National Smokers Alliance, which was set up by Burson-Marsteller, it uses the language and the rhetoric of the attack dog approach,” he says. “But we find that many companies will reach out to the activist community through their PR firms while paying someone else to go on the attack.”

It may be that the influx of former political campaign operatives into the public affairs arena has led to greater acceptance of the rottweiler approach, however.

“Opposition research and ‘going negative’ are time-honored tools of the political campaign trade,” says Geoff Littlehale, head of MHI Public Relations in Washington. “They’re used because they happen to work. You can drive up the other guy’s negatives and win an election. Now former political hacks, working at PR firms, are bringing the technique to the PR profession because it’s worked for them in political campaigns. This technique probably can be employed just as effectively in the corporate competition arena, but the unintended negative consequence of going negative is that, over time everyone loses, because over time the audience comes to despise all the combatants.” 

That’s one problem with the rottweiler approach: it focuses all of an organization’s energy on the wrong audience. What the activist thinks about your organization is immaterial. In all probability, there’s nothing you can do to make him love you. Just as 20 percent of the people will support you no matter how socially irresponsible you are, so another 20 percent of the people will despise you no matter how hard you try to please them. It’s the 60 percent in the middle whose opinions you have to influence.

Dezenhall’s “mugger” analogy, while it must be appealing to CEOs—who probably feel as though their organizations have been mugged by the activist communities—is imperfect. The sinister-looking character who emerges from the alley isn’t wielding a knife; he’s wielding incriminating photographs or damaging documents. It isn’t a mugging. At worst, it’s blackmail, and the rules for surviving a blackmail attempt are very different from the rules for surviving a mugging. The first one is, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. And the second one is, credibility is everything.

Dezenhall mocks public relations people for treating a mugging as if it was “a communications problem.” But blackmail is a communications problem. In the end, whether the blackmailer’s allegations are believed will be determined by how credibly each party communicates. So the question for corporations is whether going on the offensive will result in greater credibility. The answer is that sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t. 

            And that brings us to the second problem with Dezenhall’s approach: his mischaracterization of public relations. Good public relations is not about appeasement, it’s not about compromise, it’s not certainly not about trying to make sure everyone likes you or your organization. Good public relations is about managing relationships with those upon whom an organization depends for its success, and leveraging those relationships for the benefit of the organization. (And it’s certainly about more than communication, which is only one possible end product of the public relations process.)

            Most of all, good public relations is pragmatic, not dogmatic. It depends on the ability of its practitioners to find the right strategy for each individual situation.

“Good counsel should help clients make the right decision on tone and response,” says Leslie Dach, who heads the Washington office of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. “The client’s counsel should be able to determine the right strategy and execute it, whether it be consensus building or war, war leading to consensus or vice versa. The client is not well served by one note advice, or vendors who know only one way to go no matter what the facts of the case.”

“There are times when the rottweiler approach is very useful,” concedes Joe Gleason, head of the corporate practice at international public relations firm Manning Selvage & Lee, “especially when critics are either without substance or unscrupulous. But there are also times when the best response may be to do nothing at all. I hate to think that we have been reduced to the intellectual equivalent of attack dogs.  Strategies should be based on achieving success, not on the limits of your strategists.”

The best public relations counselors don’t hide from conflict when conflict is the appropriate response, but neither do they seek out conflict simply because of their ideological perspective.

“Confrontation and accommodation are twin options for the company that is engaging critics,” says E. Bruce Harrison, a veteran public relations consultant who runs his own Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. “In both cases, whether fighting or appeasing, there are vital limits. You have to decide how far you want to go, or could go, without losing the support of critical stakeholders. 

“Investors, employees and customers want ‘their’ company to fight to protect their interests. Not responding to criticism—especially if that criticism is not based on the facts and if stakeholders and reasonable people think it’s unfair – looks like a cop-out. Stakeholders, if they’re watching, want to watch a winner, not a wimp or a bully.”

Bullying can certainly backfire: think of the Texas cattlemen who sued Oprah Winfrey for telling her television audience she wouldn’t eat beef. The lawsuit attracted much more attention than Winfrey’s initial remarks, and coverage of the trial—which Winfrey predictably turned into a media circus—spurred hundreds of additional articles about mad cow disease, turning an obscure European health issue into a household term.

According to Mark Schannon, who heads the Washington office of Ketchum, “The reason the rottweiler approach isn’t used more often is that, despite the emotional satisfaction it brings, it doesn’t work. As a former junkyard dog local political hack, I still have the attack instincts, but 25 years of being in this business both doing and studying crisis work have convinced me it’s most often a simplistic, stupid approach that does more harm than good.  

“Think of the chemical industry in the 70s and early 80s, think of the early Exxon response on the Valdez incident. The landscape is covered the corpses of companies who thought the rottweiler approach was the correct one.” Schannon points to research Ketchum conducted on behalf of a client that wanted to take just that approach. “They gave us the opportunity to conduct research to see if we could achieve their objectives without severely damaging their reputation. Three months later, we convinced management through very detailed quantitative and qualitative research that it was a bad approach.”

Rich Blewitt, who heads the crisis management practice at Weber Shandwick Worldwide’s Rowan & Blewitt, agrees: “Our experience has shown repeatedly that the public wants to see problems solved, products fixed, errors corrected. Escalating the debate by counter-punching attracts more attention from the media, government, special interests and other key parties. Remember one thing about scorched earth: it is very difficult to grow things there ever again.”