Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Treatment brings PR to the therapist's couch

Crisis management, meet therapy.

One of this week's episodes of HBO's In Treatment tackles a disgraced CEO's sense of responsibility and public humiliation in the wake of "a professional perfect storm:" his company has produced a tainted product that's killed people, and he's forced to resign.

As any PR person knows, the most famous example of crisis communications is Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol crisis in 1982, where seven people died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide. The perpetrators have never been caught.

After the crisis, Johnson & Johnson was praised for its handling of the incident - it pulled every bottle of Tylenol off the shelves, and introduced the tamper-proof version of the bottle that we still see today. And now, it's held up by PR practitioners everywhere as the "gold standard" for how to do crisis communications.

A contrary opinion

I've always maintained that Tylenol shouldn't be the model for crisis communications, as Johnson & Johnson did what any company would do when it's sabotaged.

Tylenol was "on the side of the angels," and how hard is it to get people to believe in you when you're the one who's been wronged? Not as tough as responding to something that your company has done - intentionally or not - that's hurt people. Think of this year's Maple Leaf Foods crisis.

I was happy to see that In Treatment episode 62 agrees with my thesis - or at least the CEO, Walter (played expertly by Frasier's John Mahoney) agrees.

In the episode, Walter says he did everything by the Tylenol gameplan by taking responsibility for the tainted product at the first sign of trouble. But, he points out, today's a different world - a more predatory world - than it was in 1982. Bloggers, the media, and class-action lawyers jump on the bandwagon, his company's stock plummets and he resigns.

He leaves Paul the Therapist's office, and there's some question about whether he'll be back next week - or at all. I'm eager to see where the storyline leads, but the corporate malfeasance storyline is certainly timely and ripe for the picking.

This episode included, season two of In Treatment has been stellar - as rich and deep as TV viewing gets. HBO Canada is showing five, new half-hour episodes every week. They run back to back on Mondays and at various other times throughout the week. Season one is now available on DVD - 43 episodes ("therapy sessions") for less than $40.

Now there's some great PR.

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