Book Review: Glass Jaw – A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal

When I first heard about Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal, by Eric Dezenhall, I knew it was going to be “required reading.” The 24/7 news cycle has given birth to a new era of instant scandal (as the book title suggests) that can bring anyone in the communications business to his or her knees. Citizen journalism is now a cottage industry, with an unofficial mandate to ruin reputations; and journalistic standards for fair (unbiased) reporting, fact-checking (prior to publication) and the need (and value) of credible sources are waning. Old rules for issues management are showing their age in the digital communications era; and, unfortunately, new rules are not so easy to define. This book provides insights into some 30 years of scandals and offers a valuable history of how crisis management has evolved.

indexBy its own explanation, Glass Jaw “is about the changing nature of controversy” and the resulting powerlessness individuals and organizations experience when they get caught up in the “fiasco vortex.” Today, fueled by pop culture’s glamorized view of scandal management, Dezenhall points out that “reputational crises” are often misdiagnosed as mere “communications problems.” And, chief executives or those targeted just want PR to make it go away. Whether it’s the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s ill-fated decision to cease funding breast exams at Planned Parenthood facilities, Carnival Cruise Line’s Costa Concordia disaster, Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions or the corporate scandal of the day, Dezenhall reminds us of how they were handled and why or why not the chosen approach attained its goal. He explains how the emergence of the new “weapons of the weak” – the Internet, purposeful leaks, speed and reach – blend to deliver particularly devastating blows in record speed.

The book is a page-turner. But if you are looking for a “how to” guide for crisis management, this isn’t it, for Dezenhall clearly states that crisis management today is in a state of flux, has no road map, and surely no cookie cutter solution. Its instruction is in the hundreds of examples and observations about crises with which we are all familiar. He demonstrates how sentiments not facts matter more. He articulates the state of the media environment today—a far cry from evening newscasts and 60 Minutes. The Twitter cycle today, he says, “isn’t really a cycle at all, just an endless rapid-fire series of data bursts.” And, he cautions that Twitter is the new darling of crisis creation and rarely can be used effectively in crisis management (pay particular attention to the section on social media backfires in Chapter 6).

There are some healthy reminders too. For example, identifying “achievable expectations and ‘grown-up good judgment’”; understanding that legal and PR teams are often at cross purposes; the importance of working behind the scenes—below the waterline of the “controversy iceberg” as he describes it; and a heavy dose of common sense are all key elements of a solution. Every crisis is different, especially as technology fuels the spread of scandal and that there are people in business to clearly benefit from scandal. Dezenhall also has an interesting take on PR agencies and their role in crisis management.

I downloaded the e-book and highlighted many sections as reminders. But, I will likely purchase a hardcopy and dog-ear the pages for easy reference. Glass Jaw is easily the most comprehensive inventory of corporate, personal and political crises through the decades. With each example, the reader is offered valuable insights for consideration when faced with a corporate crisis on his or her watch.

My recommendation: Read it!

Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in the Age of Instant Scandal
By Eric Dezenhall
ISBN: 9781455558001
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Published on: Oct. 7, 2014

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