I came across an article recently in Insurance Journal that shows just how prevalent the lawsuit mentality is in our nation. It’s a website from a Boca Raton-based company called WhoCanISue.com. Who Can I Sue is an easy-to-navigate website that offers the following wording: “There is nothing more frustrating than not having or being able to find the answer to a question that you have. WhoCanISue.com has been developed to help you find the answer to any and all legal questions.”
With drop down menus that target incidents like ‘nursing home liability’ then submenus for ‘bedsores’ or ‘walk away’ for those with seniors prone to wander, WhoCanISue is designed to let the masses find an appropriate attorney in their locale. I won’t grace this article with a hyperlink to the site, but you can go there yourself if you want to see more. This website leads me to my topic, risk management and public relations.
Because risk management is so closely linked to good public relations, I sometimes attend Public Relations Society of America meetings. Denise Tyrrell, a recent guest speaker, was the Metrolink spokesperson in 2008 when a Metrolink train accident killed 25 and injured many more. The engineer had sent a text message to rail fans just 22 second before the fatal crash, according to federal investigators. Although Tyrrell was later let go for her role in the handling of the media after the incident, she felt that she ethically handled the incident by admitting, early on, that something went terribly wrong. I’m not going to cover that here, but she did have some valuable lessons to teach about principled public relations, which she speculated rhetorically that just maybe ‘public relations’ was “an oxymoron.”
Here are some tips Tyrrell gave about public relations that can save companies a lot of grief without exposing them to additional risk.
Half truths and white lies, Tyrrell said, “Systematically erode our most valuable asset, our reputation with the media,” and of course, I might add, our public. “Public relations can be the ethical heart of an organization,” she said, but also added she prefers to think in terms of “integrity” rather than ethics, because integrity is internalized where ethics are a set of standards against which we benchmark our behavior. Eventually, she promised, the rubber will hit the road and the truth will come out.
PR practitioners, according to Tyrrell, “need to show that we do care” when bad things happen. She recommended going beyond developing a written, detailed crisis plan and ensure everyone, including board members, review and understand the plan.
According to Tyrrell, her journalism background taught her this: “It takes ten years to build a reputation and ten minutes to lose it. In this new media cycle, this can happen very, very fast,” she warned.
As I have mentioned in other columns, public relations and good customer service are the heartbeats that lure and retain customers and reduce litigation. Public relations is more than ‘damage control’ or ‘spin’; it is a way to prime the public to understand that bad news may be coming, according to Tyrrell. I started my career in insurance claims and coincidentally we were taught, when we thought coverage was questionable, to begin warning the insured that there may be limited or no coverage. That way, if and when we must deny all or part of the claim, they aren’t totally surprised. People dislike surprises and subterfuge. If a public relations strategy is subterfuge, it isn’t public relations, it is a lie.