Adversarial Reputation Crisis

Most communications crises that arise are a one player game. Some event has occurred and the client is working to manage the situation. There are certainly many people involved: stakeholders, customers, employees, the media, regulators, etc, but generally, none of them are actively working to make the situation worse.

But what if they are? The most dynamic and dangerous situations are those at which there are multiple players at the table, what we call an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. It is vital not only to consider the likely results of any statement or action, but the countermoves of the party seeking to do you harm must also be considered.

As I worked on the team fighting to protect Wicked Faire and its thousands of stakeholders, we had a Adversarial Reputation Crisis.

The basic situation was relatively simple. The owner of the company had been accused of inappropriate behavior and had stepped down from the company with an apology. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the existential threat to the organization, but there were actors with a more comprehensive agenda. They did not merely want their concerns heard, they wanted to take down what he had built.

Our moves faced countermoves. Complex and organized misinformation campaigns were working to counter our communications. Individual members of our team were facing character assassination and threats.

It was only by being more organized and thinking more moves ahead that we were able to prevail and run a highly successful event.

Your Opponent’s Objectives

Before any kind of planning or response can be effective, you must understand your opponent’s objectives. Why are they doing this? Adversarial Reputation Management situations are quite rare outside of politics because it takes a great deal of time and energy to attack a reputation.

Most often they occur because an individual or group of people feel that a person or organization has done something wrong, and they feel that they have the duty to create “justice.”

This can happen because of actual wrongdoing. It can happen because of a misunderstanding. It can also happen because of a PR response so catastrophically flawed that it inspires people to take action against you. This last reason is why it is so important to have good plans in place and to work with crisis communications experts when a situation arises.

The objective may be limited, such as getting restitution for a person who was wronged. It maybe punitive, in the sense of punishing a person or company for what they did. Usually, even the parties involved are not completely sure what they want, but they know they really want it.

The objectives can also change, especially if you mismanage the situation. A situation, that could have been solved by a sincere apology early on, may reach a point where it can only be addressed at great expense and loss later in the process. This is often exacerbated by lies early on, which is why we advise that you should never lie under any circumstances.

Always look for those easy solutions early.


If a party is trying to hurt you, they are seeking to hit you where it hurts. If you are up against a big, muscle-bound bruiser, a poke in the eye, punch in the nose, or even stepping on his toe, will take him down just as fast as any other opponent.

There are many places where you are invulnerable to assault, but there are others where you are highly vulnerable. You must quickly assess where those weaknesses are and be prepared to defend them.

In the case of a convention, for example, the vulnerability is hotel room bookings. The event could run if it lost some speakers or some vendors, but it cannot run without a venue. In a convention at a hotel, if the number of booked rooms falls below a certain point, the organizer must cover the difference.

Thus, a campaign to shut down an event could focus on the hotel, convincing reservation holders to cancel their reservations.

Situational Awareness

It is vital to know your assets in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. What resources do you have in cash, public relations platforms, contacts, allies, supporters in the public.

You must also know the situation. What is the terrain? Where is people’s attention focused? What do they want to hear? What outcome do they desire?

It is here that many companies stumble. By failing to understand what the public is upset about, what they want, they lose goodwill while wasting time and resources pursuing the wrong course.

If you can understand the desires and objectives of various stakeholders, as well as perceptions and misconceptions, you may find that the solution is quite apparent. This goes back to understanding the objectives of those who are aggrieved.

Transmitting Information

Situations may also arise in which you have actually done what the public has demanded, but you have failed to inform them. You may think that you have informed them, but they have not received and embraced that information.

This is another element of situational awareness: know what people know, and know how to get information to them. Much of this comes down to knowing where their attention is focused and then placing your message there.

Some audiences will not read closely, meaning that they may read your statement or letter, but they may not take from it the message that you intend. Many people read the first paragraph or two and then skim. Likewise with video announcements. They may only watch the first minute or two.

Often, others will then interpret your message for them. In some cases, it is an unbiased third party such as the media. In other cases, especially in an Adversarial Reputation Management, individuals with an agenda may interpret your message for you, co-opting your communication and rendering it ineffective.

You must find communication channels which will reach your audience, and due to the constantly shifting media and digital landscape, the solution to that question may be different by the time you read this article than it was when I started writing it.

This is another reason why it can be very important to work with a crisis communications expert who is versed in identifying the best channels and platforms to carry your message.

The great majority of reputation management crisis situations do not involve other parties actively seeking to harm your reputation. Should you find yourself in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis, we can help. Contact us.

Never Lie – Rule #1 In Communications

Never lie in Crisis Communications. It will destroy your credibility.

Whether in general PR and communications or in crisis communications, everything that you do is built on a foundation of trust and credibility. It does not matter what you say if you audience does not believe it. Even a single lie will destroy that credibility.

This is one of those lessons that you hopefully learned in kindergarten and can serve you very well in your professional life. When you lie, whether it is a big lie or a small lie, it permanently and irreparably damages your credibility.

This is why the first part of the Rotary Four Way Test is “Is it the truth?” When creating a set of guiding principles for business people of integrity to follow, truth was paramount to the leaders of Rotary International and should be so to you as well.

The Truth Always Comes to Light

Most people do not need an analytical explanation for why lying is a bad idea. However, there are those in business and politics who will suggest that there are times when the truth is not an option because of the consequences it would bring. Here is why that idea shortsighted and misguided.

Sooner or later, the truth always comes to light. It is impossibly naive to believe that a secret can be kept forever, especially in a corporate or political context. Each person who knows the truth has their own interests and agendas, and it is only a matter of time before one of them decides that disclosure is in their best interest.

In any scandal, a prisoner’s dilemma situation will develop in which each holder of the secret will realize that it is best if no one discloses the secret, but that if someone is going to do it, there would be a great advantage to being the first one to do so.

Once the truth comes out, the consequences for the initial misdeed come due with interest. The repercussions are almost always more severe when the public has to find out the hard way, in addition to the compounded costs of loss of credibility.

Remember, Bill Clinton was not impeached for having an affair. He was impeached for lying about it.

Errors, Lies, and Sincerity

We have become so accustomed to corporations and public figures lying to us that we simply assume it to be the way of things. Everything that they say is taken with suspicion.

In a crisis communications situation, developments may be occurring quickly enough that your information is not fully accurate when you present it.

It is okay to make a mistake, as long as you promptly own and correct it as soon as the mistake is realized. To ensure that your errors are not multiplied by deceit, consider these steps: declare uncertainty, promptly admit to errors, address all honesty concerns.

Declare Uncertainty

If you are not 100% sure of a fact that you are sharing, let people know that. Don’t say “I guarantee” or “I am confident” or “I am sure” if there is a chance you may need to take it back.

If you say “I am confident that no one in our office was aware of this situation,” and it comes out that someone was aware, then you have lied. The statement has two parts: “I am confident” and “no one was aware.” On the second part, you made an error and can correct it, but when you said you were confident, you were, in fact, lying. You were aware that there was a doubt and lied about your confidence.

You must never lie about anything in crisis communications. (And really, you should never lie at all.)

Instead, say “To the best of my knowledge, no one in our office was aware of this situation. We continue to investigate so we can be absolutely sure.”

Promptly Admit to Errors

In a crisis, information will be developing faster that it can be effectively managed, and you will make errors. To keep errors from being perceived as deception, you must be prompt and transparent in owning, admitting to, and correcting those errors.

In the example above, if you later find out that someone in your office did know about the situation, you must come out at the first opportunity and declare the error and the correction. “In a previous statement, I said that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in my office was aware of the situation. I have since learned that I was mistaken. We now believe that Mr. Smith may have been aware of it, and we are actively looking into this. I will share with you what we have discovered as soon as we have confirmed it.”

By maintaining your credibility, you are able to adapt to new information as you receive it, and because you are being prompt and honest about developments, the public should give you reasonable space to find the truth, which they believe you will share with them.

Address All Honesty Concerns

Your most vital resource is credibility, and that is built on the public’s belief in your honesty. Any allegations that you are lying or withholding information will undermine that credibility.

An allegation of dishonesty left unanswered can quickly metastasize into a rumor and then a belief and finally a “fact.” In the social media environment, you will have access to detractor viewpoints, so it is easy to recognize these concerns.

Once you are aware of a concern about your honesty, you should address it from your communications platforms in order to address it before it gains traction.

You should not engage in the comments or forums. Instead, you should keep all of your communications on your own platforms, maintaining your authority and integrity in your communications. You, or a supporter, may post a brief comment with a link to your official response explaining that their concerns are addressed in the linked article.

Never Lie

Benjamin Franklin tells us, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

There is no situation in crisis communications where a lie is every the correct move. It is not the right choice morally or tactically. There may be different ways to present and share the truth, but any one of them is superior to deceit.

Are you trying to get the truth out, but finding it overwhelmed by misinformation? We can help. Contact Us.

Speaking from Elected Authority

One of the biggest mistakes which elected leaders, especially municipal leaders, make in their communications strategy is failing to maintain an air of authority.

In my article on Crisis and Campaigns in the Age of Social Media, I explain the danger of getting down into the comments and arguing with your detractors. Social media is a very democratizing space. Everyone sounds equally credible in a discussion in the comments. This is good if you are an average person trying to break into the conversation, but it is very bad if you are a person of actual authority seeking to share the truth of the situation with your audience.

In my article, I discuss the concept of The Mayor, a fictional character found in many movies. The dapper, well dressed city leader who rules his city with high minded speeches from behind a large wooden desk.

The image of a mayor behind the desk.
This is the image of a mayor, in this case Jim Kenney as featured in The Business Journals. Arguing in the comments in inconsistent with this image. As a municipal leader, you should create this image in the minds of your constituents.

The Mayor sits behinds the desk. The Mayor gives eloquent speeches. The Mayor writes a column.

The Mayor DOES NOT scrap in the comments

Perhaps you are not able to draw large crowds to your speeches like the Mayor of Gotham City, but there are other ways to speak from authority. The easiest is a blog. You can either have a blog on the official municipal site, or, if there are regulations that make that complicated, you can create a blog on Blogger or WordPress.

Articles on an official blog have an authority that comments or even social media posts do not. They can be referred to as reference material. You are an authority, and you must communicate like one.

As an elected official, an article you write would even count as a valid source for Wikipedia!

In the event of a crisis communications situation, it is absolutely vital to have a proper platform from which to share your message. Having such a platform can prevent a crisis as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that is doubly true for information.

As an issue develops, people will find information somewhere. More often than not, when the public accepts erroneous information in a local issue it is not because they don’t trust authority. It is because the authority has not made the correct information easy to find.

People want the truth. They just don’t want to work very hard to find it. Make it easy for them, and make it easy for you. Share the facts from an official, central platform where you can control your message and share accurate information.

Do you need help connecting with constituents or crafting a message to ensure that truth wins out over misinformation? We can help. Contact us!