Author Takes New Approach to 'Damage Control' While working on public relations issues in the Reagan White House, Eric Dezenhall learned how to make bad news go away. Now he's the author of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know about Crisis Management is Wrong.
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Author Takes New Approach to 'Damage Control'

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Author Takes New Approach to 'Damage Control'

Author Takes New Approach to 'Damage Control'

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If you're in the student loan industry or another industry under pressure, you may call on the services of our next guest.

Eric Dezenhall is in the business of making bad news go away. He's co-authored a new book called "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know about Crisis Management is Wrong". Mr. Dezenhall was initiated into the world of public relations in the Reagan White House, and he has some different advice for his clients about how to deal with the crisis.

Mr. ERIC DEZENHALL (Author, "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know about Crisis Management is Wrong"): One of my chief criticisms of crisis management is there are these rigid mother goose rules that the PR industry applies that are wrong...

INSKEEP: Such as?

Mr. DEZENHALL: Always apologize. Always show concern. Always instantly recall your product. This rigid dogma is simply wrong. Now, there are certain general rules that we follow.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just check on why they're wrong. They always apologize. That's something that's often said about politicians, for example. If you get in some scandal, just say you did something wrong, say you're sorry, get it over with. Don't let it go on and on and on. Why is that the wrong advice?

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, sometimes it's the right advice. But often, it's wrong. What we would like to believe is that apologies are effective. The fact is is we don't see a lot of evidence of that. The Reverend Jim Baker apologized, lost his pulpit. Imus apologized, lost his job.

INSKEEP: Don Imus, the radio talk show host, did say he was sorry many, many times.


INSKEEP: What should he have done, if he was going to you for advice?

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, first of all, I think he was toast the minute the words came out of his month. The track record of recovering from racial remarks is god awful, basically because corporate advertisers do not want to be in a battle with Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson - never ever, ever, ever - because they know they won't win.

INSKEEP: Well, talk a little bit about some of the techniques you do apply.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, I think in our culture, whoever attacks wins, whoever defends loses. If I came into your studio and I said, look listeners, I want everybody to know that Steve stole my wallet. Well, suddenly, all eyes and ears are on you.

INSKEEP: And even if I say I didn't steal your wallet, I'm still talking about stealing your wallet.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Exactly. Every crisis has the three characters. There is a villain, there is a victim and there is a vindicator. And the only way the story - the crisis changes is if you are able, and you're not always able, to change the characters.

Example: Wendy's, the fast-food company, was accused of selling chili that had a finger in it. The narrative of that story didn't change until it was revealed that somebody put a finger in the chili.

INSKEEP: Initially, Wendy's was the villain, somebody out there eating was the victim, and you're waiting for a vindicator - some investigation.

Mr. DEZENHALL: That's exactly right. And so a lot of times when you are not seen as the perpetrator of the crisis, you are forgiven far more easily than if you are seen as the villain.

INSKEEP: You mean, they held on long enough to get out of the perpetrator role, and maybe become sort of a victim after a while.

Mr. DEZENHALL: They were, essentially, a corporate victim. It's hard to be a corporate victim, but, you know, the pundits were saying recall the product and they didn't. And they were absolutely right not to.

INSKEEP: If you're truly innocent, you're saying fight it out, insist on your innocence because you may lose your chances otherwise. But I would imagine there are people who would take that advice, and even if they are totally guilty, they're going to deny it, stonewall, lie.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Well, you're dealing with one of the most sensitive points of my business, which is the clients I don't take. You can't take someone who is hateful and who is totally guilty and who has no interest in repenting and put lipstick on that pig.

INSKEEP: There must be colleagues in your business who feel otherwise, who might say, for example, even a guilty person needs a lawyer and maybe a guilty person also needs a PR agent.

Mr. DEZENHALL: And I disagree. I believe that the Constitution allows you a right to a legal defense. The Constitution does not allow you the right to a good reputation.

INSKEEP: Eric Dezenhall is the author of, "Damage Control". Thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. DEZENHALL: Thanks for having me.

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