I have been involved in a number of crisis situations in my career - most notably, the Olympic Park bombing - and I am a strong and uncompromising advocate on getting my side of the story out quickly, concisely and correctly. Attorneys are critical components in a crisis, but they are only half the equation. They are there to protect an organization's legal position but there is not always equally effective counsel in the external environment to protect the reputation of an organization during a crisis. In my opinion, hiding behind a "No Comment" is tantamount to admitting guilt.
That is why I have established a chair in Crisis Communications Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia. I am hoping the next generation of business executives, non-profit managers and political leaders will better understand that it is not just the court of law that will judge an organization's guilt or innocence and impact its reputation; it is also the court of public opinion. We the People.
Arthur Page, the first vice president of public relations in the old Bell System, said it best some seventy years ago, "In a democratic society, all business begins with public permission and continues with public approval." It was true the year that Page first said it and it remains just as true today.
For those of us who have labored in the external environment, the Page Law is like a law of physics. It is absolute. No business, government body (including elected officials), regulatory agency or any other public or private organization can exist without public approval. You open the doors with the public's permission and you keep them open with the public's approval.
Now, throw the Yarbrough Rule into the Page Law equation. If the public perceives it to be, then it is and the public's perception has a lot to do with how you operate your business or organization.
By the way, there is no "public." Rather, there are a myriad of publics from customers to bureaucrats at all levels of government; regulators; legislators; special interest groups; the media; competitors; suppliers and last but not least, your own employees - all having different reasons for giving you their approval to operate and all having different perceptions of you. That is why communicating with them and not hiding from them is critical.
On top of that, we now have instant - and sometimes erroneous - perceptions being created via social media and 24/7 coverage by news outlets seemingly more anxious to scoop each other than to get their facts straight. The recent Boston Marathon bombing is a perfect example of that and is a harbinger of crisis communications challenges to come.
While the way communications are delivered these days is markedly different from the past, one thing has not changed: The publics you serve are the ultimate judges of your organization's performance and what they perceive is the yardstick by which you will be judged. How they see you depends on how well you communicate with them, especially during a crisis. In a democracy, you can win in the court of law, only to lose your hard-earned reputation in the court of public opinion. It always has been and it always will be.
Dick Yarbrough is retired vice president of BellSouth Corporation and was managing director, media and government relations, for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. He was named one of the "100 Most Influential Public Relations Practitioners of the 20th Century" by PR WEEK Magazine.