Admitting fault can be difficult on both small and large scales, but when it comes down to it, if you screw up, it’s in your best interest to admit your wrongdoings to avoid further backlash down the road. That’s especially true for well-known businesses and organizations. In order to be successful (well, as successful as possible), in a crisis situation, it’s important for PR professionals to take a proactive approach, get ahead of the game, and shape the narrative before it is shaped by the public. In order to do that, a crisis communications plan is absolutely necessary. But not just any plan, one that is proactive and truthful, not reactive and falsely-motivated.
In 1906 Ivy Lee earned his place in Public Relations (PR) history with the development of the “Declaration of Principles”, a philosophy advocating for the “public right to know”. The Principles read in part, “In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.”1 Lee showcased his commitment to the declaration in response to a fatal accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad by urging the company to inform the public and reporters of the incident, instead of avoiding public acknowledgement. The policy of honesty built into Lee’s Declaration of Principles earned the trust of the press and public, who praised the Pennsylvania Railroad for their truthfulness.2
While multiple public relations pioneers paved the way for the current PR professionals, Ivy Lee’s development of the “Declaration of Principles” stands out considerably during times of crisis. When applied in hindsight to modern-day PR catastrophes like the Boeing 737-MAX system crisis and the Facebook data breach, the values of the Declaration of Principles would have accelerated the restoration of public trust, and counteracted negative public perceptions, instead of exacerbating the company’s depreciation.
In 2018 and 2019 the Boeing 737-Max experienced two major crashes causing a total of 346 passenger deaths. Boeing reported that the crashes occurred due to pilot error, which was eventually refuted by crash investigators who found the automatic safety systems at fault. It was later revealed that the pilots on both fatal flights had not received training on how to operate the systems in question, earning Boeing a harrowing public reputation.3
Had Boeing abided by Lee’s Declaration of Principles, acting with intent to provide the public with accurate information regarding the system flaw, the public response may have been lenient with the mistake, ultimately resulting in lesser long-term damage to both public opinion and sales. The Boeing Crisis teaches us that moral high-ground tends to benefit both the public and brand.
Facebook Data Breach
The Facebook data breach scandal offers another circumstance in which Lee’s Declaration of Principles could have been applied to save a company from harsh public scrutiny. After Cambridge Analytica admitted to accessing the information of millions, information previously thought to have been private, the public was rightfully upset. It wasn’t until the public found out that Facebook had known of the privacy breach for three years that public opinion seethed.4 CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded with a delayed statement, and hired an investigator to look into Facebook’s critics.
By acting in accordance with the Declaration of Principles, and taking the onus for the privacy breach, Facebook could have abated its position in extensive public contempt. Issuing an acknowledgement goes a long way with the general public, especially in comparison to the chosen path of continued, silent deception.
A Lesson From Shortfalls
Although Lee’s Declaration of Principles philosophy turns 114 years old this year, it’s core values of transparency and honesty in a timely manner remain fundamental in managing a crisis (whether public or private) to this day. With the expanse of technology comes increased public access to information — if Lee’s principles don’t resonate with regard to integrity, the looming consequence of inevitable exposure now applies. Lee’s philosophy can function as a guide for how to approach modern-day PR catastrophes while acting in the best interest of the brand, the public, and the press.