families in crisis

Families in Crisis: Often the Guilty are Very Innocent

April 26, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • Families and individuals who become caught up in a public scandal or personal critical moment will come under intense media and public scrutiny.
  • However, unlike many companies, families and individuals are rarely prepared for this kind of adverse publicity and their naiveté can make things worse.
  • Several of the same techniques that help corporations can be used by families and here are eight that we have seen work well in the past


In the middle of March 2019, the world of college admissions was rocked by revelations that 50 individuals had been indicted on federal charges relating to a scam involving college admissions. Consultants had been helping the children of wealthy, often well-known, families buy their way into top-tier colleges using doctored athletic profiles and by taking advantage of well-intentioned entrance exam rules.

Several people have pled guilty since March but while they may be guilty of the charges, they are also in a way, innocent.

We don’t mean that in the legal sense. Rather, we mean it in the sense that they are naive as to what is going on. They are in a wholly unfamiliar situation that has come at them very quickly and they have no idea what to do.

This brought to mind many other cases of high-profile individuals who find themselves falling from grace and end up getting the worst kind of media coverage. And it isn’t just high-profile individuals who can find themselves in this situation. Yesterday’s YouTube star can easily become today’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ on social media or a private matter can become a very public political football.

So we’re not without sympathy for people in this situation, even when there has been some awful behavior. Individuals and families in this situation have had their worlds turned upsides down and we have worked with enough people to know how traumatic and stressful a time this can be.  Their status, relationships and careers have all changed and may never be the same again. In fact, the range of emotions that we often observe fits the classic stages of grief.

All of this is made much worse by the fact that individuals and families rarely plan or think about this kind of situation.

Contrast that with corporations, most of whom will have thought about what to do if they find themselves misaligned with public expectations. They will have thought about what could go wrong, benchmarked competitors, or asked themselves, “What would we do if this was our situation?” as they read the news. Many will have done some planning and training. Some will have conducted crisis simulations. Most companies are therefore somewhat prepared if and when a crisis hits so they can respond quickly and begin to reestablish trust with the public.

However, preparing for a time when things have gone wrong doesn’t just have to be for corporations. Having had the opportunity to work with businesses of all sizes and several families in crisis, we at Kith believe that far from being powerless, families who find themselves in this situation can employ many of the same techniques a corporation can use, albeit at a different scale.

Here are nine things we recommend for individuals or families who find themselves thrust into the negative glare of the media.

First and foremost, get the right attorney. Something as serious as a felony indictment isn’t going to be something that just any lawyer will be familiar with. Particularly when there’s such high public interest. So any family facing charges of some kind needs an attorney who can help them understand their legal exposure as soon as possible. Ideally someone familiar with the challenges of a case being tried simultaneously in court and in public. Not only is this essential to understand the gravity of any legal action they face, but an attorney will clarify any court orders that relate to speaking to the press which will help everyone determine what and how they will communicate publicly.

The second thing is that they need to get a media advisor. This is someone who will help them manage the media tsunami, working with the attorneys to create messages and statements that are appropriate, accurate and don’t interfere with the legal proceedings. Even if people are used to working with the media, this is a very different situation. They need someone managing the communications aspect of the crisis, similar to how they have a lawyer managing the legal aspects. Importantly, the media advisor is not only responsible for outgoing messages but will also act as a focal point for incoming inquiries, shielding the family from the press demands. (I’ve written about how families and individuals can use a spokesperson effectively here.)


Stepping back from the media can be a difficult idea for higher-profile individuals: they are used to being in front of the press and might bring up examples of other celebrities who handle the communications themselves. But communicating during a crisis is not the same as a media junket to promote a movie or the fall fashion line: the skills and demands are very different. The people who can do this themselves are definite outliers and many of these individuals have significant communications teams supporting them in the background. The number of people whose ‘DIY’ approach fails still vastly outweighs the number who can pull this off.


Third, have a plan. Families shouldn’t expect the situation to resolve itself without decisive, deliberate action. Similarly to how they will be working on a legal strategy, they need to work with their media advisor to develop a clear communications plan. This can include an apology, contrition and any restitution required by the legal process.

The fourth thing is to call a close friend. The family needs trusted advisors, not from their immediate family, who can provide clarity and advice. But in addition to the legal, communications and other expert advisors they need in their ‘cabinet’, the family also needs a trusted friend to act as a go-between. Unlike the attorney or media advisor (who will likely have no prior relationship with them), the close friend will know enough about the individual or family to offer guidance.

We have often been in situations where we have relied heavily on this individual to help us understand how the family operates and to give us a clear, unvarnished perspective. Similarly, only they can deliver tough love to the family or individual as they have their best interests in mind. Critically, they are not a decision-maker: they need to preserve their role as that of honest broker or mediator between family and advisors. This is a hard balance to strike and finding someone who can fulfill this role isn’t always possible but when you do, this friend will be invaluable

Fifth, gather the facts and prepare an exact timeline of what happened. This will be critical when the time comes to tell the family’s story publicly. It needs to be truthful and honest but memories and perceptions of events shift over time. Writing things down as accurately as possible, as quickly as possible is key. However, the legal elements of the situation have to be kept in mind so the media advisor must work with the lawyers to develop an appropriate timeline to use when it is appropriate.

It’s often easy to think that all this will blow over and be forgotten quickly. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case so the sixth point is for the family to prepare for the long haul. Not only will the immediate media interest last for weeks or even months, but things live on the internet forever. The story will crop up for years to come and may never really go away. The concept of a ‘new normal’ for their relationships and reputation needs to be realized.

Seventh, they need to think before they speak. No matter what the situation or the support they have, the key thing is to think before anyone speaks. This is not only important for the accused, but also for family and close friends, who may feel compelled to react publicly or be drawn into the public discussion.

Family members have to make sure that they don’t let their emotions carry them away. They must remain disciplined in what they say, particularly when it comes to social media. Sometimes there will be nothing to say: there’s very little of benefit that someone can say when he or she is being walked into a federal courthouse. At other times, people will have the opportunity to tell their story and to issue an apology. The key thing is that when they do speak, what they say ought to be carefully considered and genuine.

And don’t forget that the wider family and circle of friends should also be discreetly asked not to become involved. Even a well-meaning tweet from a supportive friend can backfire. And media will try to get anyone in the family to comment. Ensure that they have the media advisor’s details so any contacts can be properly coordinated and managed.

The eighth point can be very challenging: avoid social media. Families will want to understand what’s being said about them and others on social media but it will be highly stressful and tempt them to break their silence. Our advice is to leave this to the communications lead because a good communicator will understand how to read and use social media effectively in a crisis. They can monitor the situation and report back relevant findings.

Finally, and most importantly, the family or individual needs to look ahead and start to repair the damage. Alongside any legal restitution, they need to figure out a way to begin to rebuild their personal reputation, to apologize and to make amends. It’s certainly important to do that with the public, but it’s essential to do it with friends, family, and business colleagues. People will feel hurt, betrayed and let down so this is something that will take time. But a sincere apology, a demonstrable willingness to change and concrete steps to undo the damage are a good start.

Even though the contrast between corporations and individuals is very clear, individuals and families caught up in a high-profile crisis will come under similar scrutiny. Fortunately, families can also use many of the same techniques and practices that large organizations use. This will help them weather the storm, tell their story when it is appropriate and begin to rebuild their reputation.


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Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.