Book Review: It’s an issue Jim, but not as we know it

Last October I read an interview with Eric Dezenhall on the changing dynamics of issues management that piqued my attention.

Dezenhall, who was promoting his new book: “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal”, was incredibly pragmatic about how the combination of technological and social trends have changed the nature of a crisis.  Furthermore, he believes that the idea that there is a magic PR potion that can solve any reputational issue is nonsense:

"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?"

I finally got to read Glass Jaw over the break and I’d recommend it.

In a world where the physical and virtual book shelves are filled with Harry Potter-esque tales of social media hocus pocus, Dezenhall provides a pragmatic, real-world view of how the world has changed and reputational risk has changed along with it.

 

For me, a good business book combines opinion, insight and knowledge that ultimately combine to provoke the reader to think. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with the author throughout – and there are some elements of his thesis that merit future discussion – but on the whole it’s a recommended read, if only to challenge you to think harder about how you approach issues management.

As you would expect, Glass Jaw presents a pretty grim picture for people responsible for the positive image and reputation of their employer or client. The emergence of social media and the associated culture of overreaction, coupled with the changes we’re seeing more broadly in society are combining to create a difficult issues environment.

It’s interesting to note that PR people aren’t exactly helping themselves or their colleagues either. I completely echo the author’s sentiment that you can’t work in issues management and not have a ‘deep empathy’ for people fighting a reputational issue.

This makes it all the more surprising to see the rise of the ‘self-invented pundit class that declares the controversy to have been mismanaged’.

He acknowledges that ‘in most crises, there are things that could have been done better, and reflection is constructive. Most high stakes situations include experimental actions – some effective, some not – and we do our best to make more good decisions than bad ones’.

Let me digress from the book for a moment. Having spent a lot of time dealing with a wide array of issues – large and small – I really don’t have any time for the ill-informed armchair pontification that accompanies a reputational issue. Anyone who has been embroiled in a real issue knows that it’s complex, challenging and often surprising. To think that someone sitting comfortably in their pajamas with no knowledge beyond what they’re reading on Twitter – and often not even that level of knowledge – can judge someone’s work is just wrong. In my opinion these ‘pundits’ are the PR profession’s equivalent of ambulance chasers.

Back to the book.

While the author does paint a great picture of the changes taking place that impact how effectively you can manage an issue, there are some things I don’t agree with.

For example, Dezenhall believes that ‘social media is of marginal value and often a disaster’ in crisis management. I both agree and disagree with him. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide when and more importantly when not to engage in social media, but I don’t agree it’s not a tool or channel that can help in the right circumstance – of course correctly identifying that timing and circumstance is the key.

He also believes there is no ‘trust bank’ and that commitments like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) while worthwhile, do not inoculate against controversy. I agree that operating responsibly doesn’t give you a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but I’d also point out that if a company is committed to shared value, operating responsibly and meeting its commitments, it inherently reduces risk through more responsible decision making which in turn will aid organizational recovery.

There is always a risk when you’re reading a book about how the world of crisis communications is changing that you’ll finish it having lost all hope.

But there is hope. The world has changed. We deal with more issues today than ever before. Every issue is different, every issue has different dynamics,  we no longer have the luxury of a simple cookie cutter approach to successfully addressing an issue. Instead we must evaluate each issue on its own merits and act accordingly – in the knowledge that success is not guaranteed.

Glass Jaw is a welcome addition to this discussion. Just don’t be too depressed reading it. It’s not that bad :).