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Every now and then, somebody at a major corporation screws up, resulting in a major PR disaster. When it's the company CEO or founder who made the major misstep, a crisis team is sometimes called in, such as when Chip Wilson of Lululemon was ousted by his company for several high-profile missteps (including stating on public television that Lululemon's products aren't meant for people with touching thighs.)
This is where Jim Courtovich, who could be accurately dubbed a real-life Olivia Pope (with fewer outfit changes, we'd imagine), steps in. A Washington D.C. PR magician, Courtovich founded and runs Sphere Consulting, a public affairs firm specializing in corporate crisis management. After a career of 20-plus years in public affairs and global crisis communication, Courtovich opened up his own shop 10 years ago. Along with a team of 30, he's worked with countless major corporations to fix PR crises, and although his company's policy is to keep clients' identity a secret, Courtovich confirms he represents many in the fashion, retail, pharmaceuticals, finance, defense and telecommunication industry—most recently, Wilson. For a hefty sum—which can reach into the millions, depending on the company and crisis size—Courtovich sits down with his clients to devise a full crisis management plan of action and then walks them through every step.
"What we do is create a team that is focused on the issue and the knowledge of the issue," Courtovich told Racked. "[Corporations seek help for] anything from shareholder issues, management matters, a possible action by the federal government, legal issues, it's really across the board."
Word of mouth is how clients, including many Fortune 500 companies, find their way to Courtovich's offices, which are currently located in D.C., Buenos Airos and London. And while he says no PR crisis is too big for his team, they don't take on every company desperately seeking help.
"We prefer companies that have the credibility and focus of management that would be necessary to manage the areas," Courtovich, pictured right, explained. "It's about the quality of management, the focus they have. We say no to a lot of [people]. It's a sniff test."
When it comes to handling shitshows, Courtovich said there are no messes that are better than others. Whether it's sexual harassment claims, an executive embezzling funds or a CEO caught making racist remarks, the most important thing he looks for when working with a company is transparency.
"It's always easier when you have the full support advantage, internally… the full understanding of what matters, there are no surprises internally. It's more difficult when people just show up and say, 'we got a problem, solve it,'" he said.
Many times, companies will approach Sphere Consulting expecting them to clean up a mess without doing any actual damage control themselves—an attitude that Courtovich usually sees as a red flag. In one instance, for example, a major airline approached Courtovich regarding their PR mess involving airline pilots complaining because they couldn't speak English and therefore were unable to communicate with US airports. Upon their initial meet-and-greet, Courtovich inquired as to how the company would improve their pilots' English-speaking programs, to which the company aggressively told him not to micromanage their business. Courtovich declined the client.
"Our whole process is how to deal with the public affairs aspect of it while also dealing with management to direct the situation that's been raised," he explained. "You can't have a good campaign unless there's something that is being done to address the situation. You can't PR yourself out of a heart attack."
The crisis management plans his team builds are catered to each company's specific needs, but many revolve around the basics: recapturing a positive outlook and reputation, tailoring the public narrative, releasing academic and research studies (that work in the client's favor) and participating in dialogue on social media. Sending out press releases, Courtovich said, is a last resort.
"[We help them] get across what they are trying to say in a more credible way. We want to create research, online conversation or whatever it might be. We drive that conversation so we're reaching the people that are covering them," he said, explaining that content is key, but so is delivery. "It's more of what are the messages you're putting together, do they make sense, are you sending them out at the same time, are you sending it in the right tone?"
This field is certainly a place where enemies can be made: Courtovich said some of the harder moments of the job are when he has to be blunt with executives, and point out what exactly is flawed and has to be fixed. In one scenario, Courtovich had to explain to a client what was wrong with company board members meeting to discuss diversity inside a room which featured photos of "100 white guys in suits" hanging on the wall.
Dov Charney, founder and former CEO of American Apparel, who could use some spin doctoring after being fired for "misconduct."
"[These executives] have been surrounded by internal people who have been drinking the Kool-Aid," he said. "We're very blunt about that stuff, we can't chew things over. There's no magical wand that can take place. It's more understanding the matter and if there's not a problem, showing that there's not a problem and if there is a problem, addressing it and moving forward with that."
Since Sphere Consulting works with the most senior employees, Courtovich sometimes has to deliver a plan of action in an extremely delicate manner. While senior employees and company founders might want to stay involved in their company's cleanup, sometimes he'll suggest they step aside—for the sake of their image—which, of course, can be hard for a founder to swallow.
"[Sometimes, we'll say] 'we know you're right, but you as a message-deliverer might not be the best right now; let's find a credible academic source that can give credence to what you're saying.'"
The job of a spin doctor is certainly harder than it used to be. Whereas corporations could screw up twenty years ago and quickly heal their image by donating a library or throwing a charity event, now everyone has a digital footprint that is almost impossible to erase. (Remember Justice Sacco, the woman who, ironically, worked for a PR company and tweeted about her concerns about catching AIDS in South Africa, caused a well-deserved catastrophic mess?) Today, "Google has made recreating yourself much more difficult because there's an electronic history of your behavior," Courtovich said.
Still, for the Terry Richardsons, Wilsons, and Charneys of the world, Courtovich believes there is hope for anyone to repair their image—that is, with the right formula.
"You really can't change people. You have to work with them to figure out the best way they operate, what moves them that they can work in an evolving way to communicate. The campaigns need to very personal," he said. "But you can do it. You really have to figure out a way to rehabilitate yourself."