In the new blockbuster movie “Gone Girl,” America suspects that Ben Affleck’s seemingly dim-witted character Nick Dunne has murdered his pregnant wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike).
The press descends upon his Missouri hometown to scrutinize every aspect of his life and character. People camp in lawn chairs outside his McMansion watching the sordid spectacle unfold as if it were a live reality TV show. In some ways, it is.
Nick is transformed into a canvas for excitable cable news hosts and online bloggers to portray a character who is in essence a marketable product for entertainment and ratings. Stories about his college student mistress, reports on his credit card debt, video of his inappropriate grins, and awkward pleas for Amy’s return curdle into a public relations nightmare from which he cannot escape.
While ostensibly a commentary on modern marriage, “Gone Girl” also shrewdly explores the media environment in which we live. The court of public opinion convicts or exonerates long before a judge slams a gavel. Shiny cable hosts and their glib guest experts expound on Nick’s motives and narcissistic state of mind. Public figures join the fray, slyly marketing their expertise while helping the media sustain its narrative.
Amid all this chaos are essential lessons about crisis communications. Nick’s famed criminal attorney Tanner Bolt (played by Tyler Perry) advises his client, even before he’s hired, to “get out in front” of the story. Solid advice. Now here are some more public relations particulars that moviegoers may have missed while munching on their popcorn.
Prepare for the media. Nick initially appears unconcerned and untrustworthy in interviews and news conferences because he is improvising. That’s a cardinal sin. In a crisis situation, every move must be deliberate and, above all, strategic. Provide thoughtful, carefully crafted statements. Think like a journalist. Anticipate questions that will be asked and rehearse your responses. Expect reporters to be waiting outside your door and behave accordingly.
Tell your own story. Nick fails to communicate his version of events, so the narrative spins wildly out of control. The press develops its own portrait of the Dunne marriage.
Identify what your goal is, and craft messaging that supports this objective. Then tell this side in the press and argue the case. People crave drama and will naturally draw conclusions based on their own experiences and preconceived notions unless an alternative is provided early in the process. Be the authoritative voice driving the plot.
Call in the experts. Before Nick retains Tanner, he is clueless about how to handle both the police and the press. He foolishly believes that the innocent don’t need counsel. Tanner, however, turns out to be an invaluable ally, deftly helping his client shape his story, arranging the right national TV interview and weaving through the land mines laid by journalists and the authorities.
Lawyers and communications professionals have the knowledge and resources to protect reputations in complex crisis scenarios. As Tanner might say: Heed their advice or pay the price.
Come clean: Nick is a writing professor who had a been having an affair with a student. That incriminating information was bound to come to light once his wife disappeared and the media frenzy began. He thought he could hide this highly damaging fact, but watched in horror as his former lover spilled the beans and expressed tearful remorse on national television.
Despite one’s best efforts, the truth tends to come out. Establish credibility by taking responsibility and moving forward. When in crisis, rip the band aid off yourself. And act quickly before others do it for you, slowly and painfully.
Nick, like many unwittingly thrust into the spotlight, is a deeply flawed person with questionable judgment. His story is a fictional depiction of a real phenomenon. While the mistakes of the past and actions of others are out of his control, he’s able greatly influence perceptions by following some fundamental crisis communications rules.
Keegan Bales is a fellow at Levick, a communications firm in Washington, D.C. specializing in crisis. Gene Grabowski is a senior strategist at Levick.