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What Dead Romans Can Teach Marketers about Crisis Management

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Anyone who read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school (myself included) probably had to write some kind of essay on the famous eulogy scene between Brutus and Mark Antony (classic examples of good oration). Perusing the play just the other day, though, I realized that the scene is more than just brilliant public speaking – it’s also an example of smart marketing. While Antony may be a smooth talker, Brutus understands public relations – in fact, he’s very strategic about crisis management.

For those who aren’t familiar with the play, the climactic eulogies are given by Brutus and Antony, respectively, right after the murder of Julius Caesar. Caesar has just become Rome’s first emperor, and though Brutus loves him dearly as a friend, he conspires to murder Caesar to protect Rome’s freedom as a republic. This stirs up public outrage, of course. Undermining established leadership is never a smart move – in fact, it’s destructive to almost everyone involved. In Shakespeare’s literature, however, the characters’ dialogue drives the action of the play, and Brutus skillfully employs a few classic crisis management tactics to quell the storm.

1. If you can’t prevent, prepare. Brutus sees Caesar’s death as unavoidable, but he takes every precaution to identify the risks and minimize the potential damage. He also takes care that his entire team (fellow conspirators) clearly understand their roles in managing public response (ie, making Caesar’s death seem “necessary and not envious”).

2. Once the crisis hits, act fast. Rather than waiting for accusations or arrest, Brutus makes a full confession and apology to Mark Antony within minutes of Caesar’s death, and goes out to meet the crowd shortly after that. By acknowledging the situation right away, he ensures that there are no mistakes or exaggerations about what happened, and reinforces his own reliability in the bargain.

3. Take responsibility. Brutus comes clean about his deed – and if the deed is unwise, at least the public understands that Brutus’ motives are honest. Trying to excuse himself or cover things up would have undermined his credibility and caused an even more negative reaction.

4. Follow up, and make amends in any way you can. Having explained his actions openly and honestly, Brutus gracefully surrenders himself to the crowd’s judgment – in fact, he offers to commit suicide if they demand it. He also repeatedly begs anyone to come forward whom he has “offended” by murdering Caesar.

These strategies aren’t just clever stage writing; they’re best practices for any smart public relations manager. This brings up a question, though: if Brutus is so savvy about crisis management, why does he ultimately fail and end up dying in the play’s final battle?

Part of that hinges on Antony’s public charisma: he knows his audience, and his eulogy pushes all the right buttons to stir up a vengeful mob after Brutus. And, of course, killing a legitimate leader always stirs up greater offense than it prevents. The rest of Brutus’ failure, however, involves a few important Don’ts of crisis management:

  • Don’t panic. However hectic or dirty things may get, it’s crucial to maintain credibility as an organized brand (and one that can fix the problem).
  • Don’t get defensive. Always to try to view the problem through the eyes of the public outside your brand, and understand that their reactions may change.
  • Don’t leave your audience in the dark. One initial apology isn’t enough. Once your crisis goes public, keep communication open so that followers don’t vent on channels you can’t control.

Brutus leaves the scene just before Antony begins his speech to the crowd. Had he stayed, he might have been able to curb or even prevent Antony’s damaging influence (much of which was false), and reinforce the public favor he’d won earlier with his own speech. He also might have gotten a deeper sounding of the mob’s real attitude, and prevented future discontent. Instead, Brutus and his cohorts are reported riding “like madmen through the gates of Rome” to prepare for battle – a denial of responsibility and implication of guilt that undermine the honorable reputation Brutus has managed to build (as well as reminding Shakespeare’s audience that assassination – however nobly motivated – is never a victory).

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