THE BLOG
01/21/2015 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

The Digital Explosion and the Scandal Industry

Harry, a client of mine years ago, was the crisis management point man for one of the world's biggest chemical companies. He told me he knew it was time to retire when, after a chemical spill, the CEO called him and said, "Get up here Harry, we have a PR problem."

A PR problem? Harry knew the world had changed from the days when damage control meant that you cleaned up the mess, compensated the community and implemented safeguards to prevent future spills. Make it look good? That was beyond his -- or anyone's -- skill set. So Harry retired rather than fight his corporate culture's mistaken priorities.

The present climate features many heavy hitters in distress. From the recent troubles for Lena Dunham, Bill Cosby, Sony, the Centers for Disease Control, the recall of eight million vehicles with Takata airbags, the NFL and General Motors, the news is replete with glass-jawed protagonists whose reputations seem to go down on the first punch. The consensus is that these public relations crises could have easily been handled better but, for some unknown reason, were not.

Archetypal Goliaths control everything, the conventional wisdom goes. This includes the government with a challenge like Ebola. But, in reality, scandal figures are shockingly powerless once they are sucked into what I call in my new book, GLASS JAW, the "Fiasco Vortex," a phenomenon where the strong are weak and a few moms on Facebook can huff and puff and blow a conglomerate's house down.

The minute a crisis breaks, a spontaneous industry emerges to perpetuate the conceit that the crisis represents mismanaged public relations at its worst. To a lesser extent, it becomes an example of fumbled public policy: With Ebola, if government officials don't take draconian action, they botched it. If, like New York and New Jersey governors Cuomo and Christie, officials take assertive action, well, they botched it, too.

The Fiasco Vortex is a digital age problem where media, technology and vested interests combine in a vicious, inescapable circle. In the Fiasco Vortex, all crises are mishandled, those cast as victims are granted final moral authority, whoever goes on TV to defend the enterprise will probably get sacked and evidence of malfeasance ticks like a nuke on somebody's iPhone. The NFL's current troubles, while anchored in the distress of domestic violence, were triggered by the promiscuous presence of cameras in an elevator.

Contributing to the Fiasco Vortex are the "old" media, which have metastasized into a slightly less hysterical version of social media. And social media, which nips at the heels of network and cable news, is a dispersive technology: It exists to spread. Crisis management, conversely, is a containment discipline: It exists to pause and stay executions, which is why its failure is nearly certain when it faces the hyper speed of the Vortex.

The Fiasco Vortex begins with a resonant allegation against a scandal principal. It may be true, false or just true enough. Outrage needs a vessel, which is the most plausible and powerful person or institution in range. Take Chris Christie. We've recently learned that the blame he took for the Fort Lee lane closures was grossly disproportional to his actual involvement.

Similarly, Roger Goodell was widely -- and wrongly -- assumed to have seen the video of Ray Rice punching his girlfriend. According to the report by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, he did not.

No matter, in the Vortex, corroboration of an allegation only needs to be fast and plausible, not true. This ignites social media to cry KILL! KILL! KILL! Bloggers and pundits pile on, demanding an apology from the principal. The resulting apology is always declared a misfire, like the Christie and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell examples.

Next, talking heads speculate on whether the scandal principal will resign (Translation: He should resign because that's what's best for the Vortex). Congressional hearings may ensue; short sellers drive down the principal's stock price; talk show "experts" invoke the irrelevant and mythological 1982 Tylenol tampering case as the template for crisis management; former FBI director Louis Freeh is hired to throw a virgin into the volcano; people lose their jobs -- bad people and good people; then, alas, some big shot comes out of nowhere, says something racist and a new Fiasco Vortex is born as the old one flames out.

A core misassumption is that a crisis is a known strain of bacteria with a proven antidote. In reality, a crisis is a catalyst that collides with cultural conditions and investors that aid and abet its perpetuation. The farce plays out online, in the media, in the courts, in popular culture, with motivated adversaries and in politics.

Today's scandal principals are forced to deal with both the crisis and the farce that surrounds the crisis. Farces are unmanageable because they must, by their very nature, drive toward a pratfall or lynching. The challenges posed by real crises, on the other hand, can be met, albeit not with the immediacy the Fiasco Vortex demands. BP eventually plugged the leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and the NFL has established programs to address domestic violence.

When Toyota and GM were in the Vortex, everything the companies did was labeled a debacle. Toyota recovered from the 2011 allegations of sudden acceleration -- vindication coming from NASA, no less -- with a fraction of the fanfare in which the company was besmirched. That recovery, however, took a few years, and only after the farce collapsed of its own weight.

Ironically, just as the practice of crisis management is being torn apart by vicious crosswinds, its reputation for wizardry is at its peak via mainstream entertainment such as ABC's Scandal and Showtime's Ray Donovan. Never has a discipline been so overestimated at the same time in which its true influence hurtles toward oblivion.

As long as there is damage, there will be a need for damage control. Yet while today's conception of crisis management is rooted in misdiagnosis and quackery, tomorrow's will demand fewer gurus and more grownups.

Meanwhile, most worthwhile enterprises, especially those with major resources, survive controversy. Toyota sales are way up, GM is rebuilding and Chris Christie, at this writing, is back on the upswing.

Surviving the Fiasco Vortex increasingly requires riding out waves rather than fighting them. Treading water, holding one's breath and surfing currents requires extraordinary -- and unheralded -- skill. CDC and Ebola remain in the Vortex, but don't judge a patient's health mid-surgery.

As my old client, Harry, used to say: "If you can clean the mess enough to get back in the game, well, there's your win."