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A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal
Read by Kevin Stillwell
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In boxing terms, a tough-looking fighter who can’t take a punch is said to have a “glass jaw,” and so it is these days with targets of controversy. Down the rabbit hole of scandal, the weak are strong and the strong are weak. Just consider this slate of recent reputational body blows: Toyota, Susan G. Komen, Paula Deen, Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno, BP, the Duke Lacrosse players, Lance Armstrong, and Anthony Weiner. Glass Jaw is a manifesto for these times, written by crisis management veteran Eric Dezenhall, who has spent three decades dealing with some of the most intense controversies, both known and . . . handled with discretion. In the current digital age, the fundamental nature of controversy is viral, rendering once-mighty organizations and individuals powerless against scandal. In Glass Jaw, Dezenhall analyzes scandal and demystifies the paper tiger “spin” industry, offering lessons, corrective measures, and counterintuitive insights, such as: How there really is no “getting ahead” of a bad story (and other cliches from the media) The perils of navigating the “Fiasco Vortex” The art (and transaction) of the public apology Why a crisis is not an opportunity The Nixon Fallacy: if only he had just said “I screwed up,” the whole thing would have gone away (not a chance) How you are the enemy: the self-sabotage of selfies, tweets, emailing before thinking, technology creep, the privacy vacuum, and the industrialization of leaking. From the boardroom to the parenting messaging board, scandals erupt every day. Glass Jaw explains this changing nature of controversy and offers readers counterpunches to best protect themselves.
Table of Contents
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HOW SCANDAL HAS CHANGED (AND HOW IT HASN'T)
The Fiasco Vortex
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
—PHILIP K. DICK
In the mid-1970s, boxing fever had swept through the Philadelphia–South Jersey area, where I grew up. Rocky, which was famously set in Philadelphia, had just struck gold at the box office for Sylvester Stallone. Muhammad Ali lived in my hometown, Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott was a constant presence. Joe Frazier had long-standing ties to the region, as did Sonny Liston. Middleweight world champion Joey Giardello was a neighbor, and Mike "the Jewish Bomber" Rossman was making headlines.
Like a lot of teenage boys in the region, I had a brief delusion that I might be good at boxing. I accompanied a friend, Paul, who was a Golden Gloves champion, to the local Police Athletic League, a suburban boxing proving ground. I was relieved to see uniformed police officers there because without them the place would have looked like a Petri dish for the local rackets, which were at the height of their influence. I didn't feel especially safe.
Paul challenged me to pick out the best boxer in the place. My eyes soon fell upon a hulking man with thick muscles, black curly hair, and a little sunburn. He had just begun to dance around one of the rings with another boxer, who was smaller. The smaller man had brown, mousy hair. He wasn't skinny, but he didn't appear to have much muscle definition, either. He had pale skin, and looked as if he could be a stock boy at the hardware store down the street.
My prediction came easily: The Hulk was going to massacre the Stock Boy.
Paul nodded in ostensible agreement.
After what seemed to me like a lot of bouncing around, eventually the Hulk swung at the Stock Boy. I could hear the whooshing of his arm movements, but he hadn't connected with the Stock Boy, who wasn't doing anything impressive, just ducking away from the Hulk. I thought Paul had picked out a lousy fight for me to watch. I had been expecting Rocky versus Apollo. Cool moves. Mouthpieces flying out of the ring. This was about as third-rate an exhibition as I could imagine.
At about the same time that I lost my interest in the match, the Hulk went down. Hard. The punch the Stock Boy had thrown didn't seem particularly intense, but it worked.
Paul smirked and said, "Glass jaw." I didn't know what this term meant, but nodded because I didn't want to look like an idiot. I eventually gave Paul a quizzical look. "Glass jaw. A guy who can't take a punch," he said. "Usually a guy who looks like a badass."
Apparently, the Hulk was considered somewhat of a pathetic figure around this gym. A scary-looking guy who it would be unwise to tangle with in most circumstances, but who wasn't very gifted at what I was rapidly learning was a narrow discipline. The Stock Boy, on the other hand, who was nothing to look at, was well regarded in local boxing circles despite not having impressed me. Until he did.
The Hulk climbed out of the ring, dazed. I have a vague memory of hearing later about him having his jaw "wired shut" in order to heal. The concept of having wires in one's jaw was disturbing to me, but also exotic. It was one of those things that happened to a character in a Warner Bros. cartoon along with falling off cliffs or having anvils dropped on their heads.
I had been "training" on my own, which meant shadowboxing in front of my basement mirror, lifting weights, and hitting a makeshift heavy bag that I had crafted out of a duffel bag. I had grown impressed with my own abilities and had the kind of thought that teenagers with little life experience had: Wait till the world gets a load of me.
After the Hulk went down, I climbed into the ring with Paul. My next memory was of being on my back staring up at a skylight while Tweety Bird did the can-can around my head. Paul's concerned face hovered above me. He said, "You okay?"
Recognizing that I had failed to differentiate between sparring with a mirror, which didn't hit back, and fighting a Golden Gloves champion, who did, I ended my boxing career, 0-1.
My lesson of the day: You never know who's a real tough guy until after the fight.
I had assumed, based upon my general athleticism and untested performance, that I would either not get punched or be able to absorb one. It was the kind of foolishness one might expect from a teenager who had seen too much of one movie, but the lesson had been learned, and the term "glass jaw" has stingingly stuck with me: "A guy who can't take a punch. Usually a guy who looks like a badass."
I hadn't thought very much about the term "glass jaw" until about twenty years later. A client and friend named Harry, the communications troubleshooter at one of the largest chemical companies in the world, told me that he knew it was time to retire when his new boss alerted him to a chemical spill and said, "Get up here, Harry, we have a PR problem."
Harry's point was that when he was coming up in the business in the 1950s and 1960s, chemical spills were considered complex incidents of which the public relations function was just one component. You cleaned up the mess, compensated the community, alerted appropriate authorities, and put in new safeguards to prevent future such incidents. The curative process was long and painful, involving multiple disciplines, plenty of missteps, backtracking, and improvisation.
But make it look good? Or convince people not to be outraged? These were the things Harry's boss was now expecting of him.
In the 1990s, as cable news and the Internet were expanding, hostile coverage of corporate and political messes was becoming uncontrollable, but there was an expectation that the PR department could reach into a mythical bag of tricks and put a shine on a pigsty.
Harry shrugged and said, "Who the hell would believe that one of the biggest industrial companies on the planet couldn't take a punch?"
I didn't answer Harry's rhetorical question at the time, but will now: Like the Hulk whose downfall was so seared into my memory, powerful people and entities themselves are oblivious to the bogeys creeping around the ring and overestimate their skills to battle them. I have grown accustomed to the snickers of the unblemished who mistake their current fortunes for superior life management. The truth is that nobody who gets coldcocked believes they provoked or deserved it.
Glass Jaw is about the changing nature of controversy. The thesis of this book is that individuals and organizations that were once thought to be indestructible are, in fact, uniquely fragile in the face of reputational attacks from conventionally weaker adversaries. David has become Goliath, and Goliath has become David. Today's attacks increasingly have life-of-their-own properties that fall beyond the reach of "management" in the sense of command-and-control direction. Some of this powerlessness is due to a basic diagnostic error: The tendency to address reputational crises as if they are "communications problems" versus something larger and more structural, not to mention aggravated by the viral pathology of the controversy surrounding them. In fact, the image-making industry that purports to have cures to reputational attacks is every bit the paper tiger as those it claims to be helping, and it richly deserves demystification.
The glass jaw concept—the idea that the powerful are brittle under certain conditions—begins with a common misjudgment. Just as I had based my incorrect assessment of a boxer's ability on a cognitive bias that mistook the appearance of fighting ability for actual skill, Harry's boss was abetting failure by conflating a complex event, a chemical spill, with one that could be materially affected by PR tactics. Part and parcel of this misdiagnosis was the false expectation that there was something to "win" for Harry's company when the real objective was to cut their losses, an unattractive pitch you'll never hear from an ad agency.
Harry's boss incorrectly estimated the level of control the company had over public opinion, perhaps believing that someone of Harry's talents and connections could "spin" things with the same ease and authority that one might phone in a pizza order.
The media landscape is littered with an expanding universe of glass-jawed protagonists. Down the rabbit hole of scandal, the weak are strong, the strong are weak, and this Wonderland is populated by odd and fierce characters and unpredictable vectors.
One of the better artistic renderings of this dimensional change occurred in the HBO film Phil Spector, about the legendary record producer who was convicted of murdering down-on-her-luck actress Lana Clarkson. Al Pacino, portraying a fictionalized Spector, shows up to his murder trial in a huge blond fright wig. On the eve of trial, "Spector" lashes out during a court preparatory session, admonishing his legal team about who he is and, more important, who his accusers are—nobodies. "Spector's" lawyer, played by Helen Mirren, wisely decides not to let him testify, and when "Spector" shows up at court in the fright wig, she becomes physically ill. To "Spector," he is Zeus, but to the court, as the judge's expression betrays, he's just a murderous little freak.
The real Spector is now in prison, most likely for the rest of his life. His fright wig serves as a symbol of the inability of once-mighty figures to transition between dimensions of scandal, largely because they can fathom neither how they are perceived nor how much power they have lost to the ghosts hidden within the scandal machine.
Other scandals with glass-jawed principals:
Toyota, which endured multiple recalls involving nine million cars in 2009–2011 after allegations that its vehicles spontaneously accelerated due to an engine defect, despite the eventual disproving of this theory;
The once-unassailable Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation, which was battered after announcing it would cease funding breast examinations at Planned Parenthood facilities;
"Lean finely textured beef," labeled "pink slime," a popular form of processed meat that was wrongly characterized as being an unsafe additive, which devastated sectors of the meat industry;
lululemon, the fast-rising yoga gear manufacturer and retailer that took a hit when its flagship brand of yoga pants was recalled due to an extremely visible defect;
Paula Deen, the southern-style chef who was pilloried in the media and lost lucrative business partnerships with the likes of Wal-Mart and the Food Network when she admitted in a lawsuit deposition to having used a racial epithet in the distant past;
A&E Duck Dynasty television series patriarch Phil Robertson, who imperiled his hit show when his remarks about how the Bible views homosexuality were published in an interview in GQ magazine;
Golf superstar Tiger Woods, who lost his marriage, several endorsements, and an estimated $50 million in annual income after a 2009 car crash that unleashed secrets about his private life, which stood in sharp contrast to his above-reproach reputation. Investors in the companies that endorsed Tiger endured a paper loss of $5–12 billion in the weeks following the crash;
Penn State and Joe Paterno: The arrest of child molester and former defensive Coach Jerry Sandusky crippled the university's storied football program and the reputation of Paterno, the coach who built it;
General Stanley McChrystal, who was deposed from his command in Afghanistan for making critical comments about Obama administration leadership, even though there was a big difference between what McChrystal actually said and what he was perceived to have said;
BP's catastrophic oil spill in 2010, which dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, did tens of billions of dollars in damage to the regional economy and habitat, and cost the company $25 billion to clean up the spill and help regenerate the economy;
Mitt Romney, whose 2012 presidential campaign was derailed by a video taken by a bartender working at a fund-raising event, which showed Romney characterizing 47 percent of Americans as unwilling to take responsibility for their own affairs, instead relying on government support;
The Duke University lacrosse players who, in 2006, were falsely accused of rape and were widely characterized by mainstream media as being guilty;
Martha Stewart, who was convicted of lying to the authorities in conjunction with allegations of insider trading in pharmaceutical stock, ImClone. She went to prison;
Movie distributor Netflix, which announced plans to alter its pricing structure—effectively a price hike—and spin off its DVD service, invited such consumer outrage that the company reversed its policy soon after announcing the change;
News Corporation, which endured a scandal surrounding illegal telephone hacking and bribery, leading to criminal prosecutions, top-management casualties, and a loss of $7 billion in market capitalization over a four-day period in 2011;
Carnival Cruise Lines, which faced both the capsizing of one ship (belonging to a subsidiary), the Costa Concordia, killing thirty-two people, and mechanical failures on the Carnival Triumph that left thousands of passengers stranded on a ship filled with human waste;
The reputation of Livestrong, the charity established by cycling champion Lance Armstrong to raise awareness and research funding for cancer, a disease that he survived, was rocked when Armstrong finally admitted to serial use of performance-enhancing drugs;
Entertainer Michael Jackson, who was accused and eventually acquitted of child molestation charges despite withering coverage of his travails;
Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame linebacker whose beloved girlfriend died of leukemia. It turned out that she did not exist;
Anthony Weiner, whose predilection for oversharing his nether regions online led to twin downfalls: the end of his congressional career and his campaign for mayor of New York City;
New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose presidential trajectory was knocked off course by charges that he deliberately ordered a traffic jam to avenge a local mayor who didn't support him in his recent race;
Consumer products and drug giant Johnson & Johnson, celebrated for decades as the gold standard of crisis management, was rocked by dozens of back-to-back recalls and a management shakeup tied largely to product safety and quality allegations; and
The National Security Agency and defense contractor Booz Allen, which were turned upside down in the spring of 2013 when contractor Edward Snowden leaked government secrets to the Guardian newspaper and touched off an unwanted debate about invasive government spying.
What Glass Jaw lacks in magic tricks to make events such as these vanish, it will seek to make up for in no-nonsense insight into minimizing the chances of becoming ensnared in controversy and negotiating it if you must. Think of it this way: If you find yourself in a foxhole surrounded by shelling, it may be of some comfort to have the field notes of someone who has been in one before.
None of Us Is Immune
Nor are the mighty the only examples of glass-jawed targets. The news is replete with examples of everyday people who, due to foolishness or bad luck, find themselves on the receiving end of disproportionate humiliation. From the cavalcade of folks who implicate themselves in crimes on social media to the victims of bad breakups who find salacious rumors and photos of themselves on the Internet, to innocent bystanders who have been identified by major news outlets as murderers, few of us are exempt from getting ensnared under the wrong collision of circumstances.
Have none of us ever made a snide remark about an acquaintance, written an email on a sensitive subject, forwarded an ignorant joke, made a flirty comment, done something stupid in college, been in a situation where we'd rather not be photographed, opened a raunchy or peculiar Internet link, made a poor decision that we'd rather not have memorialized, or made an enemy who remains motivated to hurt us? (If not, you are surely a special individual.) Prior to current media conditions, we sinners could deny things, discreetly repent, or move on and reinvent ourselves. Today, the worst aspects of ourselves are suspended in digital museums for the world to behold and recoil from forever.
Despite the sheer number of messes like those highlighted in this book, the fallacies surrounding the origins and nature of controversy are getting further and further off the mark. When Lance Armstrong's career imploded in late 2012, I received countless calls from reporters, virtually all of them asking me why Armstrong was botching his handling of the mess. I declined to provide commentary because I knew some of the players on Armstrong's team and respected them. I had no intention of joining the Greek chorus of pundits whose main qualification for declaring Armstrong's crisis to have been mismanaged was their willingness to go on TV and say so. I had worked on athlete doping cases before and knew that vindication was very, very rare. And I couldn't believe that otherwise sophisticated reporters thought the key issue in Armstrong's implosion was the inability of his team to stop the hemorrhage of terrible media coverage and litigation, as opposed to his original sins: the decades-long doping and cheating conspiracy.
My point in Glass Jaw should not be misconstrued to mean that giant corporations and influential people will no longer have power. Of course they will; oil companies will continue to drill for fossil fuel and computer companies will develop faster microprocessors; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will continue to ameliorate hunger and promote conservation; and celebrities will continue to appear on magazine covers and walk down red carpets. However, when it comes to the narrow pathology of reputational and marketplace attacks, these behemoths are shockingly vulnerable to agenda-driven and organic disruptions beyond their control. At the same time, those who were once thought powerless—individual consumers, issue-driven activists—have become more powerful than ever and sometimes even qualify as conventional powers in and of themselves.
The word "reputation" carries with it a whiff of narcissism, as if concern about one's reputation is a vanity that exists separate from the practicalities of everyday living. However, this book views reputational damage as an extremely tangible phenomenon that ruins lives, careers, and businesses, which are the concerns of my professional life.
This book seeks to define the new reality, one where "little guys" can injure "big guys" who don't have the will to fight little guys and don't even have the tools to do it. I think of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) encounters a fearsome Arab warrior who elaborately demonstrates his lethal capabilities with a sword and a sinister laugh so that Indiana knows the horrible fate that awaits him. With an expression of minor annoyance, Indiana simply grabs his handgun out of his holster and shoots the warrior dead. It never occurred to the swordsman that neither his immense size nor his swordsmanship were relevant when facing a smaller man with a revolver.
Attacks on conventional powers by "irregular" or "guerrilla" (literal translation "small war") forces are not new. What is new is the growing number and intensity of asymmetric forces combined with the powerful weapons now available to them: porous and incriminating communications devices like email and thumb drives, uncontrollable Internet communications and social media, and a geometrically expanding "mainstream" media universe that is catalyzed by damaging information—true or false—and hostile to nuance and context. We live in a period of chain reactions, which render many controversies self-compounding.
One element of this overdetermination is scandal coverage itself, which triggers a comparatively new, self-invented pundit class that declares the controversy to have been mismanaged, which, in turn, ignites multiple additional rounds of coverage, causing the vortex to spin even faster to its inevitable conclusion.
I don't believe that the nature of scandal has changed because human nature is not any different from how it used to be. What's new is the conductivity of controversy. Multiplying media, the unfettered access to "weapons of the weak" such as the Internet, the industrialization of leaking, combined with the sheer speed and reach of these conduits, have allowed the conventionally weak to injure their targets with devastating efficiency. In the past, "long-form" journalism that examined issues in depth could alter the momentum of a chain reaction, but such journalism for larger audiences is by and large dead.
It may seem like the present ecosystem is conspiring against us, but I think of the conductivity of the digital frontier as having a "motiveless malignancy," a term the poet Coleridge used to describe Othello's Iago: It is not inherently agenda-driven, but its power strongly suggests a will to destruction.
I see no evidence that consumers of scandal care if the information they receive is accurate. There is very little outrage or sense of betrayal when information turns out to be wrong, as long as it resonates. In a story about political scandals, the Washington Post's Paul Farhi concluded, "By the time a more conclusive picture of guilt or innocence emerges… the coverage has often moved on, leaving the original impression largely unrebutted."
There is an addictive quality to the consumption of controversy as there is with other addictive activities such as overeating. Do we overeat because we truly need more sustenance or because we are driven by the habit of sticking something in our mouths regardless of its nutritional value? Processing negative narratives isn't about enlightenment, it's about stimuli.
I think of what's happening now as the "Fiasco Vortex" in the sense of snowball effects, vicious circles, and feedback loops that magnify destructive information and spread beyond the reach of available treatments. The Fiasco Vortex is one part crisis and three parts farce, the farce encircling the crisis and whipping it into an exponentially destructive beast beyond mitigation. Wrote Matthew DeBord in a Washington Post piece appropriately titled "The Crisis in Crisis PR," "The lesson for companies that screw up is that you really have no chance: The currents are against you from the get-go. The courts of Twitter and online video sharing and the forming of Facebook groups to deplore the transgressions of an enterprise will overwhelm even the most crafted crisis battle plan. The profession, quite simply, is at a crossroads. And it isn't in a position to ride out the bumps, because it's up against the kind of high-altitude turbulence that can shred the airframe."
Major businesses and institutions are gradually beginning to recognize that the basic physics of communication have shifted. A new study by Deloitte concluded that reputational damage represents the top strategic risk facing corporations. A Deloitte executive summarized: "The time it takes for damaging news to spread is quicker, it goes to a wider audience more easily, and the record of it is stored digitally for longer." As we will see, factors including denial, fear of career obsolescence, and false hope in volatile and unproven techniques like social media define the prevailing mentality in many big outfits.
Lighting a Forest Fire Versus Putting One Out
Glass Jaw is also an indictment of a flawed belief system, of category error. The misguided building blocks of this belief system are that:
1. The original sin or adverse event is somehow collateral to the fallout of that sin or event, as opposed to being its true catalyst. In other words, the idea that the scandal spun out of control primarily because of its handling;
2. The scandal protagonist or "principal" can control the controversy's outcome and the antagonists who are actively fueling it, especially with the help of an all-powerful image-making industry;
3. The resolution lies in adherence to public relations scripture—if the protagonist had simply implemented the accepted curative actions (that he or she failed to implement for some reason) then the situation would have been resolved and the negative perception dislodged from memory; and
4. There are "solutions," as we understand them to be, at all.
This is a "facts-of-life" book about the capricious and metastatic nature of modern controversy and scandal where the "facts" are based in my decades of experiences in the war rooms of crisis management. It is a memoir of insight versus autobiography and contains the kinds of observations I share with clients and students. I am hired by those who are anticipating or embroiled in controversy, who are enduring intense criticism—corporations, public institutions, prominent individuals—and they want me to shepherd them through the storm so they can return to their pre-scandal lives.
Throughout the book, I will make observations that I hope will have practical utility. I am, however, reluctant to characterize this as an advice book because I believe that cookie-cutter counsel about crisis management is what's wrong with the entire enterprise. Rather, I am seeking to offer wisdom through the deconstruction of complex phenomena. The development of cures begins with getting the diagnosis right rather than promoting superficial salves and palliatives.
In this spirit, more than one person has suggested to me that Bill Clinton should write a crisis management book. I disagree. Clinton, a preternatural crisis manager, would have no formula to add any more than actress Scarlett Johansson could teach us anything about being sexy. Clinton's crisis management strategy is being Bill Clinton. Scarlett's attractiveness "strategy" is that she's Scarlett Johansson. Their attributes are not replicable or scalable. As Johansson's character, Nola, in the film Match Point, said about the tendency for men to become obsessed with her, "Men always seem to wonder. They think I'd be something very special."
- On Sale
- Oct 7, 2014
- Hachette Audio