The Publishing Industry’s Lame Crisis Management Playbook

April 20th, 2011

Greg Mortenson – author of now-in-question memoir “Three Cups of Tea” – is giving the public a real-time crisis PR train wreck situation to watch.  This past week, both 60 Minutes and venerable adventure author Jon Krakauer questioned the veracity of Mortenson’s best-selling account of building schools in Pakistan.  It ain’t pretty – Krakauer’s blistering critique is titled “Three Cups of Deceit.”

Many angry voices are joining this debate about the latest high-profile memoir scandal; after all, the media narrative has strong legs given the tremendous fallout from James Frey’s fabricated (and also best-selling) memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” Mortenson’s attempt at damage control is riddled with double-speak and thinly veiled “oops” which do no favors for his cause.

But we’re not here to talk about the fabricated content; rather, as crisis management observers, we’re interested in how Mortenson’s publisher, Penguin/Viking Press, responds to the public outcry.  Anyone can rightfully heap scorn on Viking for having first made a ton of cash and now examining Mortenson’s book for inaccuracy(s).  So, Viking’s claim that it will “carefully review the materials” is extremely flat-footed on the crisis PR front.

How about a stronger condemnation, discussing next steps specifically and improvements in the internal review process, and communicating grave concern about the damage this does to future memoirists?  Why isn’t this Viking’s standard crisis management plan?

Ideally big publishers will be careful with checking the accuracy of future memoirs, that is if they want to preserve any sort of credibility with this medium.  But even if they do review manuscripts for truth vs. fiction beforehand, what is the crisis PR plan they have in place when – not if – the next great memoir is revealed as a total flight of fancy?

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