How to Survive a Scandal

Corporate crisis guru Eric Dezenhall tells all.


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bill Clinton, and Paula Deen.
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow (Goodell), Scott Olson/Getty Images (Clinton), Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images (Deen)

As co-founder and now CEO of the crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources, Eric Dezenhall, 52, has spent the past three decades defending the reputations of celebrities and major corporations. He’s contractually prohibited from naming clients—although his role on Michael Jackson’s legal defense team is in the public domain—but they include Fortune 50 companies (consumer products, food and beverages, drugs, energy), large NGOs, colleges and universities, and the occasional public figure. He’s also written six novels—not to mention several books related to his profession.

His latest, out this week, is Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal. It’s not exactly general-interest reading, but I found his perspective fascinating. Just how do you defend yourself against a Twitter lynching? And when should you apologize, as opposed to strike back against your critics—or go into hiding? And should politicians really be bringing their spouses out on stage for those sex-scandal pressers? I caught up with Dezenhall, who cut his teeth as an aide in the White House Communications Office under Ronald Reagan, to chat (among other things) about the NFL, oil spills, and Larry Craig’s “wide stance.”

Mother Jones: “Glass jaw” is a boxing metaphor for the big, tough-looking guy who can’t take a punch. What are some examples of this in your profession?

Eric Dezenhall: There’s this phenomenon I call the “fiasco vortex” where you basically have crises now that are over before they begin. Toyota got hit very badly, GM got hit very badly. You have this lean finely textured beef—it became known as Pink Slime. In an instant these targets go down. You’ve seen it with Tiger Woods and with Donald Sterling. You’ve seen it with what the NFL is going through.

What’s different now is this combination of velocity, volume, and venom. Things go faster, there’s more noise, and the nature of social media traffics almost exclusively in negativity. Social media is dispersive and what I do is containment driven. It’s much easier to spread a controversy than put one out. Right as they begin, people take to the airwaves and say, “Well, so-and-so should resign.” One of the arguments I make is that we’re reaching the twilight of damage control, simply because there’s a lot less you can do.

MJ: In the book, you also point out that we treat scandals as a kind of spectator sport. But was that not always the case?

“You have these Mother Goose chestnuts: ‘Well, you’ve got to get ahead of the story.’ It’s kind of like saying, ‘Don’t get cancer.'”

ED: Now you have the crisis and then you have the farce. Nobody would dispute that domestic violence is a very serious thing—what’s going on with the NFL, there are some very real things there. But before Roger Goodell even gets on TV, you have people saying he’s totally mismanaged this.

Human nature hasn’t changed at all. What’s changed are the physics of attack. The new playbook of crisis management is that there is no playbook, because why would the biggest, richest institutions and individuals in the world consistently botch their crises if there were a playbook? You now have shows like Scandal and Ray Donovan where the spin doctor is one part magician and one part criminal. They’re just incredibly powerful. That’s a total swindle. The industry is really not that impressive. On the other hand, you have these Mother Goose chestnuts: “Well, you’ve got to get ahead of the story.” I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I have no idea what that means. It’s kind of like saying, “Don’t get cancer.”

MJ: So what are your clients’ most common misconceptions?

ED: Well, they sometimes believe the solution is hiring a consultant. [Laughs.] I only take 5 percent of the cases because most of them there’s nothing I can do. Which shocks people. Because what they expect to hear is, “This guy is so good—you watch me work, baby!” If I believe there is a counter-narrative to be told, that works. But one of the more amusing kind of clichés you hear [in PR] is, “We’re going to help you tell your side of the story.” A few years ago, I worked for one of the corporate sponsors of Tiger Woods. The pundits were saying, “Tiger needs to tell his side of the story on Oprah.” Well, wait a minute! What if his side of the story is, “What you’ve been hearing is the tip of the iceberg”? Not everybody has a good side of the story.

Another example is over-responding. An average case of mine these days is five moms on Facebook holding a conglomerate hostage. Then you have someone that works for a big PR firm who says, “We must respond on social media.” The problem is, every unit of response you offer when you’re under attack can metastasize. I had one client who responded on Facebook to a critic, and the critic proceeded to go on Facebook and say, “This company is spying on me online!” Which was not accurate.

“People in my industry would like people to believe we have ways to control social media. But that’s one of the great swindles.”

In fact, I argue very strongly in the book that social media is the problem, not the solution, in crisis management. It’s a problem if you use it to communicate in areas where you’re dealing with incredibly intense emotions and very deep conflicts. The NFL situation, for example, doesn’t lend itself to social media. People mistake their love of the technology for it being a solution. And the PR industry often recommends tactics for which they can bill, which is good for them but not good for the client. You’ve got to be smart about it.

MJ: In this era of Twitter lynchings, when should the subject of a scandal lay low and when should he push back?

ED: If there are allegations that are false and defamatory, social media can have some value, particularly if you are linking to something substantial—if you’re filing a lawsuit or you have a comprehensive news story. The problem with social media is that people respond therapeutically. It is therapeutic to hit back against your enemies, but it is not necessarily strategically wise. McDonalds and JPMorgan opened up Twitter conversations that were taken over instantly by their detractors. People in my industry would like people to believe we have ways to control it. But that’s one of the great swindles.

MJ: You write that you’ve been increasingly disillusioned with a lot of corporate behavior. In what sense?

ED: This trend toward insipid self-congratulation—using pasteurized, sanitized words that don’t mean anything. I had a client call me a few week ago, and I said, “Before I meet with you, you might want to huddle and figure out what your approach is going to be to this problem.” So they called me back—this is the general counsel of one of the biggest companies in the world—and said, “We came up with the theme for our response.”

And I said, “Would you like to tell me what you came up with?”

Dead silence. And then I said, “transparency.”

And he said, “Yeah.”

And I said, “Let me tell you what else you came up with: diversity, tolerance, corporate social responsibility, sustainability”—those are words you use for self-congratulation.

And they’re like, “Yeah.”

“Now, why are you fighting labeling legislation for your products in all 50 states? That’s the opposite of transparency.”

“Well, we can’t have that labeling legislation.”

“Then you can’t embrace transparency as your ethic!”

Most crises are not resolved through rhetoric. They are resolved through operations. What’s more ethical, doing what Exxon did and recognize after Valdez that the PR war was over—and then they spent 25 years investing in double-hulled ships and radically overhauling their safety procedures, and they’ve never had a major incident since—or do you do what BP did and spend half a billion dollars saying you’re a wind and solar company? In a prior book, a few years before the BP spill, I pointed out that if there was ever a spill, there would be hell to pay.

So what’s better, doing the right thing or using the right rhetoric? I’ve got a phone problem that Verizon cannot fix, but when I call and I’m put on hold for five hours, they tell me they deeply value my business. There’s no more aggressive capitalist than I am, and I want to throttle these people!

Eric Dezenhall Amy Raab

MJ: Have you ever found yourself counseling someone you know has done something very wrong? And in such a situation, do you view yourself as a defense lawyer of sorts?

ED: No. The Constitution gives you the right to a lawyer, but it doesn’t allow you the right to a good reputation. I reserve the right not to work with clients I don’t feel comfortable with. I turn down business constantly. A few years ago, a company had a fire. Dangerous waste was dumped into a river. And then somebody down river said, “Hey, nobody’s going to know the difference between their waste and our waste, so why don’t we dump ours?” I didn’t take them. They said, “Hey, don’t we have the right to a defense?” I said, “You have the right to a legal defense. You don’t have the right to me.”

But I made mistakes: When I was in my 20s, a client had a safety issue. I asked if it had been resolved, and they said, “Yes, we put in precautions.” And then I made assurances in a public forum that the problem had been addressed, and it hadn’t. I looked like the Machiavellian spin doctor. It’s one of those things, even though it happened 30 years ago, you wake up at three in the morning thinking it just happened.

That said, there’s a spectrum of guilt and innocence. For example, I do a lot of pharmaceutical work. I have clients whose drugs have side effects. I am unapologetic about working with companies that I believe have fundamentally good products. But there’s a difference between a company that has a problem and one that decides to do something bad and then say it is other than what it is.

MJ: Like when a pharmaceutical company covers up bad clinical trials.

ED: Yeah, I think that’s an example of where you’d have a problem. By the same token, I’ve worked on plenty of cases where a drug hits the market and out of 1,000 people who take it, 300 do really well, another 400 do a little bit better, and maybe 10 or 12 have a really bad reaction. That doesn’t mean the company went into a room and said, “Let’s knowingly and willfully hurt a few.”

MJ: Can you think of any cases in which someone has turned a short-term reputation crisis into a long-term win?

ED: The Martha Stewart case was interesting. One, when she was going through it, the pundit class was saying she needed to apologize. Well, her position in court was that she was not guilty. You can’t say, “Let me take this opportunity to apologize for that thing I totally didn’t do.” The other thing, it happened at the same time as these big corporate scandals—Enron, WorldCom—and she dominated the news for a $40,000 trade. These people who made tens of billions disappear didn’t get the coverage that she had.

“I’ve been on two calls today with two different clients where my question was, ‘Is there going to be an iPhone emerging?'”

She hasn’t ever returned to her height, but I think a lot of women felt, “You know what? With all these massive scandals going on, the attack on her is disproportionate.” I think a lot of women rallied behind her. And I think a lot of people felt that Bill Clinton was over-attacked. My theory was that people did not like the idea of a prosecutor looking into the president’s sex life. They wanted to hear about it, but they didn’t believe the president should be removed from office.

MJ: As far as political sex scandals go, we’ve also had Gary Hart, Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and many more. What factors determine who survives?

ED: One is, do you have an operatic story? With Larry Craig, you had an ultraconservative senator who had been against gay rights legislation having a “wide stance” in an airport bathroom. That’s hilarious, okay? It’s just too good [a story] not to do. It was such a farce, you couldn’t make it go away. He was allowed to serve out his term, in my view, because the people on the Judiciary Committee said, “Do we really want to take a bat to this hornet’s nest?”

John Edwards—to me one of the great sins is when you look at the American public and go [singsong voice], You’re really stupid and I’m a lot smarter than you. Edwards’ marriage was the ultimate John Hughes film—the good-looking guy marries the plain girl. And they traded on that marriage as a core part of the campaign: They’re madly in love and they’re renewing their vows. And he directly lied. Not only that, he had a cancer-stricken wife. I mean, you can’t survive that! Clinton survived because one, people like him, two, the economy was roaring, and three, would anybody like an investigator looking at our sex life? No.

With Senator [Robert] Menendez it ended well simply because the allegations didn’t pan out—the supposed underage escorts recanted. Spitzer obviously couldn’t survive, because this was a guy who brazenly prosecuted everybody for everything, and his whole brand was zero tolerance for picadillos of any kind.

MJ: What really bothers me is the way these guys trot out their wives for their mea culpa press conferences.

ED: I think it’s going to change. Due to its farcical nature, there is a discussion about the trotting out of the wives, and people will be asking, “Why are they doing this?” It’s excruciating. Watching Silda Spitzer’s face made me want to curl up into a ball. I think you’re going to see a lot less of it.

Elliot Spitzer announces his resignation as his wife looks on. AP Photo/Stephen Chernin, File

I think what’s changed so much is the existence of the camera. One of the reasons Edwards got in trouble is that he was chased with cameras. I’ve been on two calls today with two different clients where my question was, “Is there going to be an iPhone emerging?” That is now what’s driving this stuff into the vortex. Thirty years ago you could say it didn’t happen. You could stonewall. You could say, “It’s none of your damn business.” Now it’s on tape somewhere.

An added problem I face with my clients is the industrialization of leaking. Now, every case that I get, the chances are 100 percent that there is going to be an email chain where someone says, “I know we want to introduce this drug, but I’m a little worried about this side effect.” The truth is, you want there to be that debate. But the act of seeing that email: “Ohhhhh, they knew it wouldn’t work!”  

MJ: Let’s break down a few specific cases, starting with how Tesla responded to its critical auto review by the New York Times.

ED: I really admired how they handled it. The baseline is, they’re making a product a lot of people are really interested in. Even though I’ve worked for petrochemical companies, I’m really excited that there’s an electric car that seems to work. A few incidents have happened, and the Times made it seem like these incidents were extremely significant. Tesla hit back hard, and I think it was extremely effective.

“Apple consistently violates every basic cliché of crisis management, but they profit from it.”

But not everybody could have gotten away with it. One of the first things you learn in crisis management is that not all clients are created equal. Apple consistently violates every basic cliché of crisis management, but they profit from it. You’re not supposed to be secretive; Apple has always been secretive. You’re supposed to be empowering, and for years Steve Jobs was a pretty abusive guy. You’re never supposed to insult the customer, but when they had an antenna problem a few years ago, Jobs basically said, “Learn to hold the phone right, you idiot!” Any other company that did that would have gotten nailed. People like their stuff, so they can do things an oil company could never do.

Sometimes the solution is not PR. It’s your business operations. When the BP thing happened, I was on a show with some PR type who said what PR types always say, “You know, they really need to communicate better.” I felt like smacking them. I said, “Look, the problem isn’t that BP didn’t use Twitter right. The problem is that there’s a hole in the ocean! And there’s going to be direct and immediate correlation between when they plug that leak and this vanishing from the news”—and that’s exactly what happened.

MJ: Yet one of BP’s PR strategies was trying to keep reporters away from the oil-soaked beaches. That seems like a mistake.

ED: Well, in fairness, the media tend to always say the best crisis-management strategy is making us happy. [Laughs.] I don’t always agree with this notion that if you’re just you’re nice and give the media what they want then they will treat you well. BP’s problem was that the optics were so ceaseless: You literally had a camera watching the gusher for over a month, to watch the animals washing ashore, to watch livelihoods being ruined. That’s an example of how, in the long run, you can manage the crisis but you can’t manage the the drama.

“In the Judeo-Christian sense, you apologize, but then you suffer. The problem I have with clients is nobody wants the suffering.”

The Toyota case was interesting: Their product was accused of sudden acceleration and they were vindicated by NASA, no less, with one millionth the fanfare with which they were attacked. It’s a classic example of how you can’t survive the fiasco vortex—but a year later, sales were up 73 percent. Just like with Roger Goodell, you couldn’t stop social media and the mainstream media pundit class from saying, “It’s being botched.” One of the first things I say to clients when I take them on is: “The objective is not to make this look good. The objective is to get back to business. But it’s not going to happen before the next commercial break.”

I have a chapter on the Three Apologies. The PR industry loves this concept that if you just apologize, the problem goes away. There are serious problems with that. Number one, I don’t see evidence of it. The concept of apology is known in the Judeo-Christian sense: You apologize, but then you suffer. The problem I have with clients is nobody wants the suffering. They want drive-through redemption.

Then there’s the transactional apology, such as Kobe Bryant’s: If you believe what happened in that hotel room is different from what I believe happened, I can understand how that might be upsetting to you, so here’s $4 million, and drop the charges. That’s not a Judeo-Christian apology.

And then you have what I jokingly call the “marital apology,” the one you give to get out of a hostile encounter. If you’re the CEO of Toyota, imagine what would happen if you went before Congress and someone asked, “Do you apologize?” And you said, “No.” But you have to pick what you’re apologizing for. You can’t apologize for knowingly making a dangerous product, because that’s not what they did. But you can apologize for letting your customers down, or something like that.

MJ: Or you could be Ray Rice, and publicly apologize to everybody but the woman you knocked out cold.

ED: Yeah. These apologies are fraught with peril.

MJ: So as you know, in 2012 Mother Jones obtained and posted that infamous video of Mitt Romney making some extremely damning remarks at a private fundraiser. It probably cost him the election, and he’s still trying to explain it away. Was there any way he could have responded to that?

ED: I think you got him! I don’t think there was a magical way to put it, because the content was so problematic. And by the way, I think he meant it. And, this gets to my own worldview, but I don’t think he was totally wrong. The question is, do you say it? But that was a kill shot, simply because it’s hard to run for president and also claim that half the country has its hand out. The original sin is what hurt him, not his handling of it.

The 47 percent video “validated what a lot of voters already suspected, which was that [Romney] was one of the Omega guys in ‘Animal House.'”

Part of the problem Romney had was that it validated what a lot of voters already suspected, which was that he was one of the Omega guys in Animal House. [Laughs.] You could sort of see Marmalard and Neidermeyer sitting around saying [adopts Thurston Howell affectation], “Well, you know, 47 percent of these people are on the take.”

MJ: Okay, so what about Greg Mortenson, the Three Cups of Tea author, who was publicly outed by Jon Krakauer for fabricating parts of his story—and then it turned out that he mishandled funds from his nonprofit that builds schools in Afghanistan. For a couple of years, Mortenson all but disappeared from public view. Was that a good crisis strategy?

ED: Yes. One of the biggest challenges I have with certain clients is convincing them to take a vacation—metaphorically. You’re dealing with egos, and with egos the answer to everything is “more me.” Sometimes the situation calls for less you. In a situation like that, he’s walking into a buzzsaw and I don’t think it’s winnable. One of the lines in my book is, “You can’t rebuild a house in a hurricane.” You can’t be going, “Yes, but…, yes, but…” Nobody wants to hear it.

Whereas the old crisis management strategy was counter-punching, a lot of what we’re doing more now is riding waves. The bad news is that you can’t survive the first wave. The good news is that most targets survive in the long term. Paula Deen, even though race is the cyanide pill of scandal, is an example of someone who could come back on a smaller platform after a while. It’s only a matter of time before Lindsay Lohan drives into a tree or a public figure makes a racist remark or Ferguson blows up or ISIS decapitates somebody, and we’re on to the next thing. [Laughs.] That’s the good news!