Client transparency in a crisis is essential, but the secret sauce is vulnerability

As a communications professional, I’ve come to accept — and joke about — the negative terms used to describe our profession. From the more genteel “wordsmiths” to the oft-derogatory “spin doctors”, “PR hacks” (and a few not publishable names), PR professionals probably have as many negative monikers as lawyers.

Years ago, finesse and spin were lauded as masterful and strategic, especially during a corporate crisis. As the public has grown more astute, transparency emerged. I’d submit a further ingredient is actually the “secret sauce” in effective transparency: vulnerability.

I once heard a Captain of Industry say that he found he was most effective when vulnerable. This was especially true as he rose up the ranks. It was disarming given his success. Business memoirs have grown popular for this reason. Oprah and Ellen have been beloved for years for it. Young adults expect it in ways almost unheard of before.

Now I don’t mean vulnerable in the sense that you coach clients to “air all dirty laundry” or verbalize all formerly unexpressed thoughts. What I mean is to guide a client to admit they might NOT have the answer — yet or maybe ever. Or, they might need to learn a thing or two. Or, they should share something that was once considered proprietary.

Examples include the politician who admits to leaving office to address an addiction — not using the “to-spend-more-time-with-family” excuse. The food company that decides to reduce sugar in products — while explaining it will take years of reformulation and sourcing. Or the nonprofit that admits the issue they were advocating has new scientific data, requiring re-evaluation.

These examples are transparent — AND vulnerable. They reveal a human frailty, an unanticipated change in taste, science and culture — or the reality that positive changes take time and money. They also tip off the competition.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you guide your clients toward vulnerability:

Vulnerabilities need to be real not superficial.

We aren’t talking humble brags or cheap “relatable” gestures. Your dentist client admitting to a sweet tooth is endearing — not vulnerable. However, admitting her preschooler has his first cavity because she’s caved to his sweet tooth, touches a nerve (ouch!).

Shedding light on an issue (vulnerability) usually makes you the beacon (leader/visionary).

One of the oldest but truest lessons of vulnerability happened in the Tylenol contamination case 40 years or so ago. The CEO was on never-before-treaded terrain as he kept the public abreast of every move made. That said, from that terribly vulnerable circumstance the brand became the standard bearer for safety. Tylenol leapfrogged competition at a time most assumed the crisis would kill it.

Communicating vulnerability should be done expertly.

Truth well told. Vulnerabilities shouldn’t be handled like an episode of Housewives of Wherever, showcasing the most shocking reveal. (Although, even this brand is now striving to communicate real (not reality-TV)-world issues.)

Vulnerability will often cause a new normal and an organizational culture shift.

Once an organization or executive has been vulnerable there will be changes — and likely the organization will never be the same again. It will mean adjusting and readjusting for quite a while. Other vulnerabilities will surface as well. It’s growth.

Vultures go after the Vulnerable.

Count the cost of vulnerability — but realize it’s usually far less expensive than a coverup or years of turning a blind eye. Vultures will arrive but being vulnerable doesn’t have to mean death. Escapes happen – as well as transformation if something must “die”.

Vulnerabilities happen.

Vulnerabilities happen. It’s ironic but take the case of the #Metoo Movement which hasn’t been without its own issues and vulnerabilities. How (vulnerably) well those who affiliate with the movement handle them will likely decide how long the movement is relevant.

There’s much to learn about how to convey vulnerability. Think of a tension cord. Too little tension makes it slack, ineffective — but too much tension causes it to break or boomerang.

Share your thoughts on communicating vulnerability in the comment section below.

Shelly Holmes runs Holmes Associates , a marketing/communications agency, and is PRCG’s Los Angeles affiliate. She has helped many clients effectively address ( or avoid) crisis communications issues locally and nationwide.