Originally created 05/01/00

Public relations: Art of telling the truth

The Confederate flag has given South Carolina a bad name lately, and the state's public relations people are trying to minimize the damage.

Positive press, glitzy ads, political pressure -- the professionals have several tools at their disposal. But there also is much at stake. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked tourists to avoid the state until the flag stops flying atop the state Capitol, and exactly how much will be lost is hard to estimate.

"We can't even tell you what the long-term impact will be," says Lou Fontana, a spokesman for South Carolina's Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department. "We have just tried to stay on message."

Staying on message is an important part of dealing with any crisis. Whether it's a political squabble over a symbol, a presidential misstatement or a toxic chemical leak. The key, public relation experts say, is to have a plan in place and use it.

"Public relations is the first line of defense," says Mark Alison of Alison & Associates. "Every company needs a plan of attack. Something is going to happen."

The plan should include who is in charge and who is supposed to speak for the company, experts say. It should be updated regularly and readily available.

Acting and speaking with one voice is critical.

So is controlling information.

"The media environment is changing," Mr. Alison says. "Everybody's out to grab the headlines and they are more willing to expose problems."

But that doesn't mean the company should cover things up. Many experts say the best strategy is to tell the truth. Not necessarily the whole truth, but certainly, only the truth. The truth -- as painful as it might be to admit -- can help.

"The media and public are forgiving when you fess up," Mr. Alison says.

When an accident at General Chemical released 100 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air in 1998, the company did not contact Richmond County emergency management officials immediately.

Company officials were slow to respond to the disaster and when pressed by the media declined to comment. Ninety people were sent to area hospitals, and General Chemical was fined $26,000 by the state Environmental Protection Division.

"We were taken back," plant manager Don Dudley says.

In retrospect, he says, the company had a crisis plan, but it did not respond quickly enough. According to Mr. Dudley, the media accurately reported the facts, but it did not put them in the correct context. The chemical emission was not in big enough doses to harm anyone and the people who went to the hospital did not need treatment and were released.

Had he responded quicker, the public would have gotten his side of the story and might not have panicked. The company also might have benefited by practicing its crisis plan.

"The plan is only as good as its rehearsal," he said.

Sometimes, however, a reluctance to respond can deter a reporter.

"I have to admit, a lot of reporters will go away," says Augusta State University public relations professor Debbie vanTuyll.

The worst thing an organization can do is start lying, she adds.

When a lie is exposed, the company loses creditability, and after that, it has little hope of getting its side of the story out.

"You've got to have some creditability to start with," she says.

President Clinton's response to questions about his relationship with a White House intern is an example. He did not tell the truth and later had to repent.

Tobacco companies are experiencing the same problems.

Public relations experts are paid for their ability to get the public and the media to write about what the company wants. But they should not twist facts to do so, Ms. vanTuyll says. If the person speaking for the organization doesn't know the answer to a question, he should not just make it up.

A public relations professional, like a doctor, lives by the motto: Do no harm.

And that is what the public relations experts are trying to do in South Carolina. The tourism industry there is doing what it can to convince people that the state is still a nice place to visit. Some economists estimate the boycott already has cost the state as much as $20 million in lost tourism revenue.

About 120 conventions have canceled so far, and Serena Williams -- the sixth-ranked female tennis player in the world -- recently skipped the Family Circle Cup on Hilton Head Island because of the boycott. But the real work, PR experts say, will be to repair the damage when the battle is over.


Frank Witsil at 823-3352.

Here are some disaster containment guidelines:

Have a crisis management plan and follow it. You can't prepare for every possible disaster, but you should give potential problems some thought. A crisis is stressful enough, the last thing you want to do is try to figure out a plan.

Appoint a crisis manager. Decide who is in charge ahead of time. Knowing who is going to manage the crisis is essential, so is having a clear chain of command. Your organization needs to move in the same direction.

Speak with one voice. When the media and others call, have one person who will answer questions. Inconsistent responses hurt your creditability and undermine your ability to get your side of the story out.

Tell the truth. Always tell the truth. It will, as the saying goes, set you free. Sometimes it is best to come clean first; sometimes it is smarter to let information out slowly. But never, ever lie. One lie taints everything you might say. If that wasn't true, what else might not be?


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