Let’s talk about mistakes. While every mistake doesn’t lead to a public-relations crisis, every PR crisis begins with a mistake. Once you’ve dealt with the immediate fallout, you have to ask the most important questions: What role, if any, did you play in creating this mess? What could you have done to prevent the crisis or mitigate its negative effects? Why didn’t you?
Those questions are tricky, because it’s always easier to blame something or someone else than to take responsibility.
My biggest crisis was in 1988, when my first company, a messenger business, was forced into Chapter 11. For months afterward, I told myself I was just a victim of bad luck. Who could have predicted the stock market crash that wiped out a large portion of our customer base? And how could I have known that, about the same time, the number of companies with a fax machine would reach critical mass, eliminating the need for my services?
Eventually, I realized the real problem was my appetite for risk. I’d made decisions that left my company vulnerable to such developments. Otherwise, we would have had time to adjust to changes in the market. Because of something in my nature, I’d jeopardized both the company and my employees’ jobs.
Admitting that was painful, but only after taking responsibility did I learn the vital lessons. I adopted practices to slow down my decision-making process and to make sure I was getting advice from people with strengths different from my own. Without those changes, I would never have built the business that I sold for more than $100 million.
That’s the point. It does no good to get through a crisis unless you learn its lessons. That requires accepting responsibility for what you did but shouldn’t have, or what you didn’t do but should have.