When it comes to crisis communications, there aren’t many people better to sit down with than Robert Zimmerman. He’s served as the Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications, Media Relations, and Public Affairs – one of the longer titles out there – at World Wrestling Entertainment, as well as Vice President of Public Relations at Fox News, where he positioned the brand well enough it to be called one of the “Top Ten Hottest Brands in 2004” by USA Today.

He’s the Managing Director of Zimmerman Strategic Communications, and serves as Adjunct Faculty at NYU as well.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Rob:

Would you say that all crises are unique, or that many have similar characteristics?

Well, each crisis comes with its own unique set of circumstances and challenges. Certain principles and/or tactics that are appropriate to employ in one situation, may not be for another – even though on the “public” face of a crisis it may seem similar to another. In addition to public relations or perception challenges, there may be legal concerns or strategies that ultimately will supersede employing certain crisis communications tactics. While those legal concerns or strategies might temper how ultimately a person or company is perceive by the public or the media, they are probably necessary to reduce or eliminate any legal or monetary actions that can be taken.

​What would you say the keys are to good damage control?

Transparency above all. Being truthful, even if it makes one look bad, is the quickest way to reduce the length of time spent by media covering an issue or the length of public outrage exhibited on social media. By not telling the truth, the media and public will continue to seek it out, thus prolonging the public attention and exposure of a crisis. Ultimately if a company or person is found to be “lying” the truth will come out.

Admit the mistake. Everyone is human; that goes for companies as well. If it was an honest mistake, the public is willing to accept that. But don’t give a “far-fetched” reason as to why the mistake occurred. People are not stupid. In the case of Brian William’s recent gaffe about his false claims of being shot at in helicopter in Iraq, stating that his memory was foggy severely hurt Williams, as it was too unbelievable of an excuse.

What’s the next step?

Establish a proactive plan to help “right” the wrong that was committed. Or, demonstrate how one has learned from their mistake and is using the platforms available to them to help others or the community as a whole also learn from their mistake. Make public the course of action and execute it. People want to see contrition in action, otherwise it is just perceived as spin.

If a person or company was grossly negligent or intentional in its action – especially if others were harmed – crisis communications counsel would have to work hand in hand with legal as to what crisis communications tactics can be employed as noted above.

Do not lie or hold back details from those that one has hired to provide strategic crisis communication and legal counsel. To effectively create a proper course of action, one’s team must know all the facts. Not being completely truthful can greatly affect the crisis communication plan established to limit damage.

What do you think most people get wrong when they’re apologizing for a public mistake?

Ego and hubris get in the way, and comes through in their words, demeanor or actions. They feel they are smarter or better than everyone else and “above the law.” They might be able to skirt legal action if they have a great legal team, but the public won’t forgive egotists.

When admitting a mistake, providing the real reason why one did what they did is just as important if not more important than the admission. When reality sinks in, it can get ugly. People feel they can obfuscate the real reason because they ultimately don’t want to “face the music” or realize how stupid they were in their actions – again, look at the Brian Williams example.

Another thing people get wrong: not willing to accept reality and the gravity of their situation. Or, they try to “justify their mistake” — they are accept the reality but aren’t willing to face the consequences that they will ultimately have to face, so they try to justify their actions.

Demonstrating ignorance of how your actions or words hurt others.

What’s the best way to gracefully recover from a personal branding pitfall?

Depending on how bad the gaffe is, that will have a major impact on the potential comeback strategy. Assuming one did not do physical harm or several affect others lives, the old adage that time heals all wounds does apply. Pee Wee Herman’s a great (though dated) example. The time it takes to recover depends on how they initially dealt with the gaffe.

Usually it is best to let things die down and fall out of the public spotlight. Then seek out those you may have hurt with your words of actions. Learn about how the offended parties may feel by “walking in their shoes.”

If the gaffe concerns addictions or illegal activities, one has to personally “do the time” to repair themselves, be it in recovery or jail. Once emerging from those, stay true to the lessons learned and convey them to others that engaging in such activities will only have negative consequences for not only one’s self but one’s family and friends.

Be willing to talk about your mistake(s).

Do not use your fall from grace as a news hook to regaining your career. Let those requests come to you. Yes, one can go out and say they are back in the game and demonstrate the success or the road one is taking back to success, but let the media bring up the gaffe and be willing to talk about it.

What’s the key differentiator between people who can lift themselves out and recover gracefully versus those who don’t? And how do you prevent the snowball effect?

You have to be immediately responsive. The quicker you are to respond and try to be transparent as possible, the better. Whether people are going to believe you is another thing. But the quicker you can get your message out there to the media or bloggers or the world of social media, the better you are.

The reality is now everyone is a content producer, everyone has a platform on which to express their opinion on social media. Everyone is his or her own little news outlet. IF something happens, what’s going to prevent you from going on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and posting or commenting? That’s how things can snowball.

A perfect example is the Justine Sacco scenario. Though she was a public figure as a spokesperson for IAC, pretty much she lived as a private citizen. What was meant as a joke, in poor taste or not, was still blown up. She’s not Sarah Silverman – if she were, she probably would have gotten away with it. That’s just the way it’s set up. But if it were just you and me, we’d never get away with it because ‘How dare you?’ So, as a regular private citizen, unfortunately the game has changed with social media, and the best thing to try to do is never make a mistake in the first place.

You just touched upon social media. Do you think that social media, overall, does more harm than good to the typical person’s brand?

To the person who’s just going to and from work, they don’t really have a brand. If your goal is to build a brand, yes, social media is necessary because that’s where employers, partners, and investors are looking. But you have to be very cognizant of what you’re doing on social media. What you might say and think to be an okay opinion, someone else might think is a horrible thing. You’re being perceived through everyone else’s filter.

The reality is, it’s part of society you have to deal with it. The Millennial generation – everyone lives on social media now, and a lot of the decision makers are getting younger and younger, and a lot of people feel like it’s a constant necessity that they need social media, that if they’re not in the game they’re out of it – which is pretty much true.

By the way, just because you’re young, doesn’t mean you know about social media. There are still marketing principles that go back, and theories that construct the matter. It ties back to business strategy. Is it still smart, engaging content?

Want more from Robert? You can find him on LinkedIn, or connect with him on Twitter.