Book Review: Strategies for Surviving Scandal in the Internet Age

Who would win in a media battle between a multi-billion dollar corporation and a watchdog blogger? According to a former Reagan staffer, when it comes to impacting public perception, social activists “have become more powerful than ever,” while large organizations “are shockingly vulnerable.”

Eric Dezenhall offered this perspective in his new book, “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal,” published by TWELVE. Based on his 30-plus years’ experience in crisis management and public relations, including some time with the Reagan administration, Dezenhall concluded, “It’s a lot easier to light a forest fire than it is to put one out.”

Drawing on a boxing analogy, he described how a small, agile boxer can defeat a tougher-looking fighter with one well-placed blow to his opponent’s weak spot (i.e., his “glass jaw”). So too can powerful entities with big budgets be felled by underdog advocates with minimal resources, Dezenhall argued.

With the advent of social media and the dramatic expansion of the internet since the late 1990s, whistleblowers, bloggers, and grassroots activists suddenly have an easily accessible platform for mass communication. In the internet era, tweets, blogs, forum posts, and leaked emails can sometimes make a stronger impression with more people than an expensive campaign sponsored by a well-known organization using PR traditional methods.

Dezenhall says this trend has both positive and negative implications. While activists now have an opportunity to publicize stories that might otherwise be ignored by the mainstream media, it also means that anonymous accusers or publicity-seeking writers can create scandals and spread “motiveless malignancy" (motiveless harm).

Groups or individuals can unwittingly be sucked into this “Fiasco Vortex,” a nonstop news cycle of gossip and outrage, just because someone online failed to check his or her facts. Once begun, countless commentators hungry for a scoop will inevitably deliver these stories to their eager followers. There is very little incentive for content creators to insure accuracy instead of quickly breaking a big story, Dezenhall said.

“When it comes to receiving information, consumers find accuracy to be a helpful seasoning but are more concerned with salivating effect of having been served a salty snack. Scandal memes are like potato chips, delicious in a short-term way but not good for you. So what, keep ‘em coming.” [Emphasis his.]  

This mentality can be harmful. A baseless rumor, repeated endlessly across the internet and on social media, can end up harming innocent people. Dezenhall described “reputational damage as an extremely tangible phenomenon that ruins lives, careers, and businesses, which are the concerns of my professional life.”

Dezenhall said that, in his experience, the companies and prominent people he advised rarely emerged as outright winners from their respective scandals in the short term. “The key is to get through scandal with minimal losses,” he argued. In the long run, however, Dezenhall said he has seen “[m]any scandal-plagued people and institutions survive and prosper” by patiently weathering the storm of gossip.

While responding to scandal is now more complex than ever, Dezenhall offered some insights for “surviving” these difficult situations. Ultimately, he acknowledged that some of the best strategies revolve around embracing common sense and integrity.

“We must look for redemption in the form of excellence in products produced, services rendered, skills practiced, policies pursued, and good works accomplished,” Dezenhall said.