Once upon a time, I crossed over to the dark side, leaving journalism for a stint as a public relations manager.
During the dotcom craze in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I went to work for a mortgage industry tech firm that blew through $30 million of angel-investor cash in two years before crashing and burning after Alan Greenspan removed the punch bowl in early 2001.
One of my tasks was to accompany company executives when they were interviewed by journalists. My job was basically to kick them in the shin under the table when they said things that were, well, not quite falsehoods, but let’s say robust exaggerations of the company’s products and capabilities.
I learned during those two tumultuous years the value of crisis PR. That is, anticipating bad news and having a plan to deal with it. For instance, close to the end, the founding chief technology officer jumped ship to join a trade association. Since his departure signaled big problems at the company, we needed some way to blunt this potentially bad news.
So, ahead of his arrival at the trade association, we put out a press release congratulating the group for its wise and forward-thinking decision to hire our very own top tech guru. We congratulated ourselves for being on the cutting edge of our particular technology and looked forward to working with our former CTO as he guided the industry in his new capacity.
Crisis PR has been on my mind ever since ProSales published a story in its September issue about a lawsuit involving 84 Lumber and some contractors in New Orleans. The story was the second along similar lines that made 84 look bad.
You’ll read 84 Lumber’s letter to the editor in this issue, taking us to task for our story. We’re glad to publish the letter. We tried several times over the month or so that the article was being written to contact the company, to no avail.
I understand a company’s reluctance to talk about pending lawsuits. The lawyers say “Don’t talk.” So they don’t. But when a reporter calls seeking comment about some potential bad news, it’s not necessarily for a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges. We try to be fair and balanced and give both sides the opportunity to make their case.
In the 84 Lumber story, we were left to rely on the company’s court filings and anonymous comments from someone close to the company who had first-hand knowledge of the situation.
Much better would have been comments from 84 extolling the company’s installed sales record around the country and an acknowledgement that, yes, sometimes problems arise, but the vast majority of customers are happy with their projects.
Next time, let’s talk.