The most feared words in corporate boardrooms across America used to be, "Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes is at the door."
But as the United States prepares for the 21st century, the words striking fear into the hearts of CEOs is more likely to be: "Someone uploaded our secret files to the Internet and the lawyers don't want us to say a thing because we might get sued."
How to deal with such a crisis, according to a man who should know, is "first of all, kill all the lawyers." "They're all worried about you being sued, and I'm here to tell you you will be sued, so move on," said Thomas Hoog, president and chief executive of Hill & Knowlton, the international public relations and communications giant. Hoog, who has worked for such well-known names as Gary Hart, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, said hiding behind legal trickery could play against a company in the midst of a crisis. "You cannot contain the media in the middle of a crisis," Hoog told Wednesday participants in the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce's Economic Outlook Conference. "They will go around you and report the worst-case scenario, even more so in this day and age when anyone with a video camera and a computer is an independent news outlet. "You will be sued," he added, "but how you deal with the crisis could actually help you in court. The objective is how to manage that crisis to protect your corporate reputation to minimize the impact on your economic future." Hoog told the group that the "gift of the information age is the elimination of time and distance" and the ability to watch events live as they unfold. "George Orwell had it wrong in 1984," Hoog said. "There's a Big Brother, but there's lot of little brothers out there who can report on what's going." That ability and the information revolution, which has leapt ahead of the old guard when there were three networks and a couple of major newspapers, means corporations need to ensure that their private actions and public messages are one. "There has been a near-complete breakdown in trust on the part of government, business, labor, religion and the media," Hoog said. …