“Glass Jaw” offers sobering critique of crisis management today


When the holidays slow the pace of business, they also slow the pace of attendant crises. Thus a crisis manager has a chance to read the latest book on the practice, in this case Eric Dezenhall’s Glass Jaw A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.

The book, by a nationally known crisis fixer who works mostly with high-profile individuals, is strongest in updating the crisis playbook. He does not confirm his clients, but they have apparently included Lance Armstrong, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, GE, Exxon and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

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We all know the world changed with the Internet and social media, and he does a good job in the book of adaptive reuse for crisis management. The latter term is one he says barely exists. He calls the whole situation “The Fiasco Vortex.”

“I don’t believe that the nature of scandal has changed because human nature is not any different from how it used to be,” he writes. “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.”

He goes on:

“Major businesses and institutions are gradually beginning to recognize that the basic physics of communications 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.”

This is true and worthwhile. The book is a useful update on the realities of crisis management in a social media age. But he is not without his critics.

According to his Wikipedia profile: Kevin McCauley from O’Dwyer’s PR Report called Dezenhall “the pit bull of public relations,” and journalist Bill Moyers, discussing Dezenhall’s firm’s involvement with the chemical industry stated, “I consider [his firm, Dezenhall Resources] the Mafia of the industry.” Dezenhall has been criticized for being a “spin doctor” who lowers the quality of public debate for the sake of protecting business interests. His effort on behalf of Exxon to pressure the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Greenpeace’s tax exempt status was condemned by environmental advocates. His efforts on behalf of traditional publishers to combat open access to scientific research have been an ongoing source of controversy in the academic community.

Advocating along all possible lines for a client is what crisis managers do. He apparently does that very well. And, he has his friends and enemies. EMA’s crisis management guru, Peter Kapcio, reviewed the book this way:

  • He makes quite a case that a new genre of reputational crises has been created by social media, and that these are not manageable using traditional strategies and especially cannot/must not be managed using social media.
  • These crises typically take the form of [a] political extortion or [b] arise and are propelled by things such as personal gratification, greed, groupthink, envy, disapproval, moralizing, self-aggrandizement, publicity-seeking, and other such unsavory human motivations.
  • Along the way, he makes a strong case that [a] apologies, [b] rapid responses and [c] factual rebuttals do not work in this new type of crisis, and instead will likely backfire.
  • He argues that client expectations in these new situations are dangerously unrealistic.
  • He seems to conclude that these types of crises by necessity will best be resolved out of the public eye, behind the scenes, in private. This challenges the entire notion of “closure” and what clients demand for crisis resolution.

I’m not ready to buy in so fast to his chapter The Eight Most Baseless Crisis Management Clichés, which Dezenhall lists as, “Get ahead of the story;” “Respond immediately;” “Come clean;” “We’ve got to tell our side of the story;” “Speak with one voice;” “A crisis is an opportunity;” “Change the conversation;” and “Educate our stakeholders.”

He makes good observations about the relative value of this list, but he’s far too dismissive for me. In trying to make the arguments that these efforts don’t work anymore, he fails to note their retained values, which are multiple.

Overall, however, this is an excellent book to recast the field and thrust it into accepting new realities.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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