Running a full page print advertisement in The Wall Street Journal or New York Times used to be part and parcel of any serious crisis response plan. The ad provided the chief executive officer of the company in crisis with an unfettered opportunity to tell his side of the story without any editorial interpretation from media, pundits or the average Joe.
But, those days are dead. They died when social media made each of us a citizen journalist. They died when CEOs such as Dennis Kozlowski, Jeff Skilling and Bernie Ebbers stole millions of dollars from their organizations. They died when once respected brands such as Johnson & Johnson, BP and Toyota were caught covering up their transgressions.
Nowadays, full-page print ads signed by the CEO of a company in crisis make me cringe. Take the one penned by J. Wayne Leonard, chairman and chief executive officer of Entergy Corporation (insert ad).
Petrified that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's call for a review of the Indian Point nuclear energy plant by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will result in its closing (and, possibly the closing of other Entergy-run nuke plants,) Leonard lists reason after reason why his Indian Point facility is safe.
Sorry, Mr. Leonard. But, I don't buy it. And, I doubt anyone else does either. That's because, like print advertising itself, Fortune 500 CEOs have little, if any, street cred.
Americans trust word of mouth. They trust family and friends. They trust influencers such as "Consumer Reports," J.D. Power & Associates and The Good Housekeeping Seal. But, they no longer believe the inside-out, top down 'C-suite speak' one finds in a paid print advertisement.
If I were advising Leonard, I'd suggest a much different approach. I'd begin by enlisting credible, third party ambassadors who do believe that next generation nuclear power plants are safe. This group could range from academics and authors to bloggers and informed individuals without a personal or political agenda (does such an animal still exist?). I'd provide these trusted sources with my facts and figures and encourage them to speak on my behalf (knowing that I couldn't control what they eventually write or say but understanding that's what makes their voice so much more compelling than mine).
I'd reach out to my employees and assure them they're not earning paychecks from an evil corporation that's building and maintaining death traps. I'd provide them with messages they, in turn, could share with their family and friends.
I'd also engage in face-to-face community relations in each and every market where my nuke plants are located. I'd hold town hall meetings and invite local leaders, activists, employees and the average Joe to attend and share their concerns.
There are probably other, even smarter strategies Leonard & Co., should employ. But, relying on a paid, full-page ad in the Times is not only old school crisis management, it's counter-productive. It's changed my mind from neutral to skeptical. And, that dear readers, is why smart public relations is the new king of the integrated marketing mix. When it comes to credibility, PR trumps advertising each and every time.