By Anne VanderMey
Crisis is everywhere. There are the national public relations fiascos: General Motors, Chris Christie, the NSA. And then there are the countless human missteps that plague companies every day: The reply-all email gaffe, the product defect, the affair. Be your crises big or small, these authors think they can help. Christopher Lehane and Mark Fabiani were dubbed the "Masters of Disaster" in a 1996 Newsweek profile for their work with Bill Clinton's presidential campaign (they also ran interference after his impeachment). In a new paperback, co-authored with director Bill Guttentag, the authors repurpose their lessons in political crisis management for the C-suite. "Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control," distills their best advice into 10 rules. We've, in turn, distilled those commandments into a handful of words. You're welcome.
#1: Full disclosure
Put the whole story out. All at once. Full stop. Otherwise, risk "getting completely run over by it," say Lehane et al. This advice is as ubiquitous as it is accurate. The classic example is Tiger Woods, who let rumors of his affairs brew in the press for days until he came clean. Instead of the awkward nonresponse, a swift and complete confession would have limited the damage. Bonus tip: Respond immediately to that errant reply-all e-mail.
#2: Speak to your core audience
Everyone in crisis has a target audience -- usually the people with firing power. For a school superintendent it's parents, for a college coach it's the board of trustees, and for a corporation it's shareholders and analysts. For one public company, the authors took a 10-page press release and distilled it into a three-sentence missive for shareholders, saying, "The company is pleased to have put this matter behind it once and for all." The stock price went up on the news.
#3: Don't feed the fire
See rule number one. The truth will out eventually, so disclose everything fully and quickly. The authors write, "The longer it takes you to get to the bottom line, the longer you will be in crisis."
#4: Details matter
Move fast, but not too fast. Meg Whitman was caught off-guard for detailed questions about her voting record when she announced her bid for governor in 2009. "She was not ready for her close-up," the authors say. The result was a gut punch to the campaign. Get the small facts worked out before the big reveal or disclosure.
#5: Hold your head high
The poster boy for this rule is Gavin Newsom who, facing reports of an affair, told the press, "everything you've read is true," gave a dignified apology, and didn't address it again. He revealed all, deflated speculation, and then "had the discipline to shut up."
#6: Be straight about what you know, what you don't know, and what you are going to do to fix the problem
This one is mostly self-explanatory. Instead of pretending to know it all, defer to experts. So, if you're a mining CEO and there's been a collapse, bring out the geologists rather than speculating on the mechanics yourself.
#7: Respond with overwhelming force
A few tried-and-true strategies: announce the formation of a commission, launch an internal review, or appoint a respected expert to overhaul the offending department. It's also important to have a company line and stick to it. Companies that are good at crisis management make sure every public-facing employee is relentlessly on-message.
#8: First in, first out
Minimize your role in the drama as much as possible. So, if you're a baseball player accused of steroid use, fess up, blame the sport's "loose culture," and make the story about something larger than yourself.
#9: Don't get Swiftboated
In 2004, John Kerry fell prey to the obviously politically motivated Swiftboat Veterans for Truth by refusing to dignify the smears with a response -- until the damage to his poll numbers was already done. It was a case study in the importance of refuting scurrilous accusations early and forcefully.
#10: They dissemble, you destroy
Seize on any errors or inconsistencies from the opposing side to undermine its credibility and change the narrative. For example, are your accusers politically motivated? Sounds like the whole thing might be a partisan plot.
This abridged advice is, of course, just a fraction of the wisdom offered in this smart, 257-page book. If you really want to learn from the "Masters," you can find it here.
Executives talk to different audiences all day, and sooner or later the exact wrong words are bound to pop out. It's smart to be prepared. Tim Armstrong: Take note.
FORTUNE -- It's a safe bet that when AOL chief Tim Armstrong's comment about the million-dollar price tag for saving "distressed babies" went viral, the resulting sound and fury sent a shiver through C-suites everywhere.
"This really proves that there is no such MOREAnne Fisher, contributor - Feb 13, 2014 11:06 AM ET
Life Flight team members Joshua Sparks and Ed Shoemaker discuss what it's like to provide emergency medicine on a helicopter.Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter - May 20, 2013 11:25 AM ET
The fast-food franchise owner has reeled from one PR disaster to another in China. How the company can bounce back.Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter - May 9, 2013 12:30 PM ET
Xi Jinping's legacy will not depend on whether he saved more lives in Lushan or contained the H7N9 bird flu, but on whether he can make China more open, democratic, and livable than it is today.Apr 26, 2013 10:24 AM ET
Keeping supply below demand has fueled Lululemon's impressive growth. How will it manage a demand shortage that's out of its control?Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter - Mar 22, 2013 2:16 PM ET
Johnson's strategy must first be grounded in the simple fact that J.C. Penney customers are not the same as Apple's.Mar 5, 2013 10:59 AM ET
Plenty of shamed high-profile personalities have found their way back into the hearts of fans and scored endorsements again. A few things Armstrong can do now.
By Harrison Monarth
FORTUNE -- Fifteen years ago, Lance Armstrong launched one of the most successful nonprofit organizations to address the needs of people affected by cancer. Since then, Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation has raised more than $470 million to help more than 550 organizations conduct MOREJan 18, 2013 11:31 AM ET
Looking after the likes of Union Pacific, Waste Management and former D.C. mayor Marion Barry has taught Judy Smith a thing or two.
By Anne VanderMey, reporter
FORTUNE -- Judy Smith, former deputy press secretary to George H.W. Bush, has run interference on some of the country's highest-profile scandals. She worked for Monica Lewinsky after her affair with Bill Clinton and helped the World Health Organization respond to the SARS outbreak. MOREOct 22, 2012 5:00 AM ET
In a business environment filled with corporate PR crises and mudslinging, does it ever pay to take the gloves off when responding? And if so, how do you pull that off? By Harrison MonarthOct 17, 2012 12:59 PM ET
|GM's recalled Cobalt was a failure from the start|
|Michaels hack hit 3 million|
|Wealthy investors flock to fine art funds|
|Why you should pay off your car loan ASAP|
|Americans have fallen in love with real estate once again|