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What Could Corporate Execs Learn from Sun Tzu? (Part II)

This week’s article is part 2 of 2 by Scotts Marrs, Managing Partner at Akerman’s Houston office and our first guest columnist, on his experience and advice on corporate crisis strategy. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here. To submit a guest column, please email it to our Marketing Coordinator, Nicole Mailhoit at [email protected]

We continue our review of sage corporate crisis strategies as gleaned from Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old Chinese masterpiece, The Art of War. His observations are relevant in today’s volatile business climate which has been rocked by COVID, recession, inflation, continued supply chain disruptions, the war in Ukraine, political unrest, scandals, and governmental investigations.

Communicate Effectively – Internally and Externally

All successful crisis PR relies upon effective communication. Public relations provides the “gongs and drums” and the “banners and flags” to give your communications reach and clarity. As Sun Tzu recognized, “you fight a large army the same as you fight a small one. You only need the right position and communication.”

  • Communicate timely – shape the story before it shapes you.
    (In “confined terrain … you will die if you delay.”)
  • Form a “single united body” with a simple theme.
    (“In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there must be no disorder in one’s own troops.”)
  • Get out front, get ahead. Always return reporters’ calls before the deadline. Do your homework, know where the reporter will likely go, know the facts, and write down your talking points in advance.
    (“Bring the enemy to the battlefield and be not brought there by him … keep the danger in front of you and safety behind.”)
  • “No comment” is often perceived as “we are guilty” in today’s media vortex. Consider: “we are investigating as we speak … we are seeking answers and expect to be able to give you more details soon.”
    (“You can speak but will not be heard. You must use gongs and drums.”)
  • Develop succinct talking points and drop the legalese.
    (“Another general is weak and easygoing. He fails to make his orders clear”)
  • Consider: “it is important to stress that….”
    Have your talking points critiqued by another … how they sound is not always how they read (were you really misquoted?).
    (“You must master gongs, drums, banners and flags.”)
  • Always assume you are “on the record.”
    (“On dangerous ground, you must not camp.”)
  • Never lie… lest the “lie” become the story.
    (“No man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that ensue.”)
  • Your company website and social media platforms are important tools. Use them to inform the media with a timely and consistent message.
    (“You must master gongs, drums, banners and flags. Place people as a single unit where they can all see and hear. You must unite them as one.”)
  • Do not “Stonewall.” It alienates the public (including investors and stockholders) and your customers (those who control the viability of your products and services).
    (“In crossing salt-marshes, your sole concern should be to get over them quickly, without any delay.”)


Remain A Student of Effective Crisis Strategy

The sage advice contained within The Art of War takes on renewed significance in today’s business climate. Despite its title, Sun Tzu’s work makes clear that “the true object of war is peace,” and that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Good leaders understand the importance of public relations in protecting their client base, stock value, product viability, corporate reputation, brand awareness, and overall viability. Their level of success in achieving these goals may depend on the extent to which they recognize and adhere to these age-old strategies.

Scott D. Marrs ([email protected]) is Managing Partner – Houston Office at Akerman LLP in Houston. He represents clients in domestic and international commercial disputes, trials, and arbitrations.

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