Lessons from a New York “crisis communications warrior”

A spicy profile of Risa Heller has lessons that every comms pro should read.

Shortly after Risa Heller started handling media for U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 2004, she chewed out a reporter who wrote something she called “scummy.” Schumer made her call back and apologize.

“You need him more than he needs you,” he told her, according to a profile of Heller in New York magazine.

What do Jared Kushner, former CNN President Jeff Zucker, former New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chef Mario Batali, former New York Gov. David Paterson, Harvey Weinstein and the voice of Sesame Street’s Elmo have in common?

They’ve been clients of Heller, a “crisis-communications warrior” and president of her namesake, 18-person New York firm. Among her current clients are the parents of Samuel Bankman-Fried.

The story by staff writer Shawn McCreesh is worth reading as an excellent example of a profile: filled with anecdotes and strong quotes while conveying Heller’s outsized personality. It also captures the flavor of the world of New York media, where PR people and reporters can butt heads like angry rams yet still be friends. For example, what New York Times political reporter did Heller host a book party for last year? You’ll have to read the story.

But for the price of a magazine subscription, the 5,200-word story should be required continuing education for anyone in public relations, not just crisis communications. Schumer’s advice is just one of the lessons it offers about dealing with the news media.

Many of the lessons and insights in the story correspond with advice and techniques we use in our crisis communications and planning practice. But it’s nice to hear someone else say it.

Experts mostly agree on the elements of effective crisis communications. The challenge is putting those principles into practice amid the heat of harsh, rapidly changing events, said Nick Lanyi, crisis communications consultant at Ragan Consulting Group.

“The relationship between client and consultant is crucial,” he said.

Here are five insights you’ll learn from reading the story, with a couple of comments from Lanyi.

  • “She’s got one rule,” Zucker said. “She wants you to tell her everything, no matter how bad it is, and she’s not going to lie to the press.”

Lanyi: “As a crisis consultant, you need all the facts, and you need to feel secure enough to tell your client the truth — even when it’s difficult to hear.”

  • Heller: “I spend a lot of time saying to people, ‘You cannot kill a story.’ You can if it’s untrue, perhaps, if it is based on something that is fundamentally incorrect, perhaps, but it’s very hard to get a story killed. It’s like a unicorn. You almost never see it.”
  • Heller says her job is “adding context” to a story. She gives reporters facts and contingencies to try to generate reasonable doubt about their stories.

Lanyi: “The media is searching for a narrative. Good consultants can help shape that narrative if they’re trusted with the facts and can tell a credible story.”

  • Reporters want to find the truth, but the story that gets told is the one with the most sensational and persuasive details.

Lanyi: “If reporters don’t believe what you’re saying, the narrative will be negative.”

  • McCreesh says that PR people tend to assume the personality of the people they represent. They become argumentative if their clients are combative, whiny if their clients are complainers. Schumer’s people dig into the details. (Heller worked for the senator from 2004-07.)
  • Emily Jane Fox, national correspondent at Vanity Fair, said, “All the best flacks are psychologically profiling reporters all the time.”

Lanyi: “The ability to ‘read’ reporters — or at least, their intentions for your story — comes with experience.”

What did Heller think about the story? She didn’t return emails and telephone messages requesting comment.

Tom Corfman is a senior consultant and Nick Lanyi is an affiliate consultant in the crisis communications practice of Ragan Consulting Group. They help companies create plans to communicate during a crisis and when a crisis strikes they help tell their side of the story.

Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your ESG storytelling with training, consulting and strategic counsel. Follow RCG on LinkedIn and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.


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