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This American Lie: Turning Crisis into Opportunity

Kelly Kautz

Earlier this month, the public radio program “This American Life” made headlines when it retracted an episode of its hour-long show. In doing so, it revealed how a healthy dose of transparency can transform crisis into opportunity.

The show in question, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” took a critical look at working conditions of Apple suppliers. It was based on a one-man show by performer Mike Daisey, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

The Invention of Lying


Since its broadcast in January 2012, “Mr. Daisey” had become the most popular podcast in “This American Life” history, with almost a million downloads to date. But when other journalists noticed inconsistencies in the story, Daisey’s story began to unravel.

Additional fact-checking revealed that Daisey had fabricated many of the details about Apple’s employees, from their ages to their work-related disabilities. In doing so, he joined a long list of writers who have taken liberties with the truth. He also sparked a PR nightmare for “This American Life.”

The Art of the Apology


Host Ira Glass and his team could have chosen not to respond. They could have issued a quiet retraction, and pulled the audio from their website. Instead they took ownership of the situation, creating a new episode that admitted fault, investigated the fabrications and revealed where the truth went slant.

“The episode is agonizing listening,” writes Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. “In an interview with Ira Glass … Mr. Daisey is evasive, obfuscatory and occasionally contrite in responding to questions about how his version of events differs from that of the interpreter.”

While Glass doesn’t downplay Daisey’s responsibility for the fabrications, he does take full ownership for the situation.

“I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter, we should have killed the story rather than run it,” Glass said on air. “We are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.”

Many appreciated this transparency. Listeners flooded the program’s Facebook page with support. Comedian Steve Martin tweeted, “A standing ovation and a boy scout salute to the dignity of ’This American Life.’”

Crisis Management at its Best


The show’s response boils down to three steps: acknowledge the problem, embrace transparency and take corrective action. By doing so, “This American Life” turned a PR crisis into opportunity: an opportunity for learning. For discussion. For more hard-hitting journalism.

Dan Marovitz of Time Back Management compares the show’s response to Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol scare: “swift, clear, unambiguous – clearly placing the interests of the consumer first. It’s a model of crisis management. And a model of leadership.”

But the power of these steps doesn’t stop at public relations. They can be applied to almost any area of business. Customer service. Human resources. Even marketing.

You don’t have to be responsible for a problem to find its solution. But you do have to acknowledge its existence. After that, transparency and swift action can help you take ownership of the situation and transform it into an opportunity for positive change.

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