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Hollywood’s idea of crisis management is a script for disaster, argues Isabelle Walker 

What’s the first rule of public relations and crisis management? Always tell the truth. Tell the truth and tell it fast. 

Of course, not all crises look or sound the same. Good PR means understanding the nuances associated with your client and their crisis, and dealing with the media, public and if necessary the government, accordingly. But for the most part, getting on the front foot with the story is your best bet. 

Then why are PR professionals, portrayed the way they are on the television or in movies? 

Why is it the “crisis management team”, “image consultants” and “spin doctors” are sometimes sinister people hell-bent on distorting reality for personal or financial gain? 

This was abundantly apparent in the final episodes of Orange Is the New Black season four. The American prison drama dealt with the death of an inmate, and the crisis management team charged with communicating the tragedy to the public sought to distort the situation by any means possible to let the private company that owns the prison escape accountability. 

The team was ready to throw any person – be it the dead inmate or the corrections officer responsible for the death – ‘under the bus’ in order to remain exculpable. These characters appeared to be cynical, uncaring, selfish and calculating. Their only concern was for the bottom line and seemed to disregard the tragic fact a young woman had died. 

Watching this, I felt a pang of anger. Crisis teams are called in for all manner of reasons. Sometimes it’s simply image shape-up after a small social media stuff up. Sometimes someone has been injured or killed as a direct result of negligence or human error, and people are out for blood. When dealing with cases resembling the latter, the people and emotions are real. You must navigate the situation to stem any further hurt or impact of the tragedy. You give your client the ability to talk honestly and openly about what happened, not shift blame and twist the truth to absolve guilt. 

Of course, you’d hope most people watching these portrayals of public relations specialists would know it’s hyperbolic, if not offensively inaccurate, but some might not. 
The fact of the matter is, the truth of telling the truth is painfully simple – in this day and age, you just can’t afford not to. And your crisis will be made a great deal worse when it’s found out that you’ve lied. 

While most crises may not be stuff of Hollywood movies, communicating honestly to the public can make or break an organisation, and mould your relationship with the average punter for years to come.