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A friend of ours insists that public relations counselors fall into two categories: warriors and priests. The former, he says, are unabashed advocates of their clients’ positions, prepared to do whatever it takes to convince people that the client is in the right. The latter, he says, take a more objective stance, directing their energies first to counseling clients to do the right things, arguing that good reputation follows from ethical behavior. There’s room in this business for both, but our friend is an energetic proponent of the warrior school.
So is Eric Dezenhall, whose new book Nail ’Em (Prometheus Books) details some of the work he has done as a principal in Washington’s Nichols/Dezenhall, which specializes in crisis management. Dezenhall has done into battle for some high-profile clients, most of them under attack by a new breed of consumer and environmental advocate, intent on “nailing them.”
The book is at its best when it examines these cases, and Dezenhall’s attempts to level the media playing field. When it focuses on particulars, it is reminiscent of last year’s Spin, by Michael Sitrick, another unabashed warrior, in that it reminds PR people that there are times when compromise is not only impossible but also undesirable.
In fact, Nail ’Em teaches two important lessons. The first is that consumers and their advocates—regardless of what the media would have one believe—are not always right, and corporations are not always wrong. Indeed, activists are often quick to use unethical communications approaches—even downright dishonesty—because they are convinced of the purity of their purpose or the venality of their target. The media are unlikely to question the motives of consumer groups however, complicating the task for counselors who must defend the wrongly accused.
The second is that companies are often too quick to compromise. Faced with newspaper headlines calling corporate character into question, too many CEOs rush to apologize—the recent Coca-Cola crisis in Europe may have produced just this response—even when they believe themselves to be in the right. Dezenhall presents some powerful arguments for developing stronger corporate backbone, as Pepsi did during its own contamination scare, and standing up for what they believe to be right. Despite the obvious imbalance, Dezenhall makes the case that companies can win, as GM did when it tackled NBC’s Dateline over rigged safety tests.
“The crux of the difference between public relations and crisis management is that PR people want to educate and persuade attackers,” Dezenhall writers. “I want to stop them, which is a much bigger task.”
Dezenhall touches on a wide variety of interesting cases, including the attacks on Prozac, cellular telephones, and Tommy Hilfiger, each of which teach important lessons. He also looks at the role of the Internet in disseminating rumor and misinformation much more rapidly. All of this is both fascinating and useful. Unfortunately, it is surrounded by an analysis of the root causes of what Dezenhall calls “the culture of attack” that barely rises to the level of pop psychology.
When Dezenhall discusses the phenomenon of “victimhood,” and the kind of people who are likely to launch hostile attacks against major corporations, he sounds like a guest at one of those dinner parties where rich Republicans stand around decrying the moral failings of poor people. Despite throwing around historical references—there’s a lengthy examination of the Salem witch hunts—and psychological terminology such as schadenfraude, it’s clear that Dezenhall is looking at the problem from a layman’s point of view, and there’s little that is either original or useful about his insights.
The same can be said about what appears to be a hastily tacked on appendix examining the attacks on President Clinton and his response to them. One can picture the publisher urging Dezenhall to add a few paragraphs about such a high profile case, but his analysis of the president’s problems adds nothing worthwhile to the book.
Finally, it would have been interesting if Dezenhall has included some analysis of the impact of good public relations on the vulnerability of companies to the kind of attacks he discusses. His firm is clearly called in by most of its clients after the fan has been splattered, and his advice for managers who find themselves in such a tricky position is sound. But the reality is that there are things companies can do to either minimize the risk of attack or to invest in the kind of credibility that can make the task of defending themselves in the court of public opinion that much easier. Dezenhall barely touches on this kind of preparation.
These criticisms aside, however, Nail ’Em is a valuable addition to the literature on crisis management. It takes a long hard look at one of the troubling phenomena of our times and offers hope to corporate leaders who fear trial by media above all else.
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