‘Glass Jaw’ is a book by the crisis managment expert Eric Dezenhall about how to deal best with media crises in an age of instant scandal.
The times, they are a-changing
In the past, scandals weren’t like they are today. They happened just as much as they do today, but they were covered differently. The media wasn’t 24/7 like it is now. There was no internet. Newspapers were only published once a day. And even TV didn’t broadcast during the night. This was the time when scandals, just like people, still went to sleep for a couple of hours per day.
Nowadays, scandals are non-stop and instantaneous. Through blogs, twitter, facebook and other sites, scandals spread like a wildfire. Speed is what matters, and being the first to report on a scandal became more important than reporting correctly on a scandal.
In our times of over-stimulation it has also become increasingly difficult to still reach people on an emotional level. That is why the media coverage of scandals (whether they are true or not) has become more and more outrageous, specifically designed to either scare or anger the public (since that is what spreads).
These circumstances are what leads to increasingly more scandals, since companies and individuals nowadays have more or what Dezenhall calls a ‘Glass Jaw’. This term, which originally comes from boxing, describes someone who seems strong, powerful or maybe even intimidating, but goes down very easily. He has a Glass Jaw. Dezenhall uses that term to describe seemingly big companies, powerful or influential individuals, or established people in the media who can have their reputation seriously harmed or even destroyed by scandals that are very easy to spread, but hard to fight against.
This is especially the case if a lot of people can profit from a crisis (which is usually the case when some person or company is publicly well known). Then there are plenty of stakeholders in this crisis: the media, the competitors, politicians, potential short-sellers, bloggers, whistleblowers, activists… If all these might profit from a crisis, it is understandable why it is so hard to fight a crisis all by yourself.
How to not deal with a crisis
As Dezenhall points out, everyone on the other side of a scandal has an opinion on how to best deal with one and what the person or company affected by one could have done better. There are a lot of platitudes floating around in these situations: “Get ahead of the story”, “Transparency”, “Apologize”, “speak with one voice”, “Tell your side of the story”, etc.
But all these are easier said than done. You cannot get ahead of a story for example. Scandals (if they are true) tend to be discovered. Getting ahead of that would mean to hold a press conference out of the blue and admit your sins. What a weird press conference that would have been if Tiger Woods called all the media together before his scandal and admitted all his affairs and cheating…
Also telling your side of the story is a tactic that only works if there is another side of the story! If there is none, it is better to keep your mouth shut than to get lost in more lies.
So don’t rely on these ‘quick fixes’: every crisis is different, has to be approached differently and can only be solved in a unique way.
The structure of a scandal
All scandals are different, and yet they all follow similar structures. There is usually a villain (remember, anger is one of the strongest human emotions and fuels a scandal like nothing else). If there is a villain, there has to be a victim of course. And then there might be a vindicator, coming to the rescue of the poor victim. But often the public sees itself as vindicator, making it its mission to fight the villain by spreading the message of how evil he/she is.
This triangle structure plays right into the way that mass audiences think. They have deeply ingrained biases and beliefs, which are tapped into during a scandal. Scandals are all about storytelling. It is not so much about who has the more convincing arguments or who is actually right. It is about who can deliver the most compelling story. This is the story that triggers the most preconceived ideas within its audience and therefore “clicks” the best.
Conclusion of Glass Jaw
Glass Jaw is a book that explains a lot of the current situation of instant scandals, but offers few hands-on methods of how to deal with them. But maybe this is exactly the lesson to take away from this book: we live in times in which there are no pre-defined solutions to a crisis anymore. The media, their audience, the entire world has become so much more dynamic that it is impossible to react to them statically. Being static and relying on things like power, influence or money in times of crises is exactly what gives people or companies a glass jaw. They should rather be flexible, agile, expect the unexpected and be prepared to be hit hard by scandals that they didn’t see coming.