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Ask a Crisis Management Expert: How Would You Handle the Many Crises of ‘Succession’?

A cruise line scandal, congressional hearings, and a son publicly stabbing his father in the back—the Roys’ mess is enough to make longtime public relations professionals shudder

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

There’s never a good time to cope with a crisis—but right before a big corporate merger designed to save your company has to be one of the worst. In the second season of Succession, the Roy family’s biggest fears come to fruition in “Argestes.” Just as they’re about to consummate a deal with another mega media company, they learn that the Waystar Royco cruise line sexual assault scandal is about to become international news thanks to a meddlesome magazine that’s set to print the scoop.

Making matters worse—which really ought to be the Roy family motto—Logan and his ne’er-do-well scions troubleshoot the shitstorm on their own. Kendall wants to push back hard at the magazine and threaten to sue. Siobhan thinks that’s a mistake, and suggests taking a less aggressive approach and trying to cooperate. In the end, the situation goes from bad to disastrous—the magazine stays resolute in the face of Waystar’s corporate pressure, and within weeks the Roys are called to sit before Congress.

But if anyone at the company thought that this would be the worst crisis they’d ever face, the Roys proved by season’s end that there’s no such thing as rock bottom. With Kendall dubbed as the C-suite member who’ll publicly take the blame for the cruise scandal, he decides to go rogue: Instead of falling on the family sword as Logan instructs, he plunges the full-disclosure dagger into dear old dad’s back while the world watches.

Faced with deciding between prison and a press conference, Kendall realizes it’s no choice at all. And yet that does not mean he picked the less-dangerous path. “I think,” Kendall sums up at the end, “this is the day his reign ends.” Yeah, about that: It would have been smart of Kendall to revisit Omar’s sage advice about coming at the king before setting all of this in motion.

In the trailer for the forthcoming third season, we learn that while Logan might be on the defensive, he has not been deposed. Hell hath no fury like a megalomaniacal billionaire who has the voice of a McDonald’s pitchman and who’s been betrayed by the son he only sort of tolerates. “You tell him,” Logan growls into the phone while an assistant relays his message to an ever-anxious Kendall, “I’m going to grind his fucking bones to make my bread.” Kendall is naturally taken aback, probably wondering about the nutritional value of ground bone meal. The best rejoinder he can manage about “running up off the fucking beanstalk” only makes dad laugh—but not, as the assistant points out, “like nice laughing.”

And so yet again the Roy family finds itself at war with forces both internal and external. In addition to the ongoing criminal probe and the never-ending internecine wrestling match for control of the company and the attendant family fortune, the Roys will also face several new foes in Season 3, among them a billionaire activist played by Adrien Brody and an aggro tech CEO played by Alexander Skarsgard. Meanwhile, Kendall, Roman, and Siobhan are sibling frenemies who never know where they stand with each other; Shiv and Tom are in deeply unhealthy relationships with the company and each other; Roman and Gerri are … doing whatever it is that they’ve been doing; Cousin Greg is sitting on a trove of incendiary organization secrets he was supposed to incinerate; and Connor is deeply in debt after financing his call-girl paramour’s poorly reviewed passion project play while running a disastrous presidential campaign that everyone but him regards as a bad joke. Oh yeah, and Kendall and Logan are still accessories to a vehicular manslaughter. Can’t forget that one.

These are not happy times for the Roys. They have a lot going on, and all of it comes with a supersized serving of stress. The question is: How should they handle their individual and collective problems? There are no easy answers—only bad options.

To determine how to navigate the Roys’ sundry personal and professional dilemmas, I consulted a cadre of public relations professionals well-versed in crisis management: Terry Fahn, a senior executive at Sitrick and Company; Dan Hill, founder and CEO of Hill Impact; and Rachel Laing, principal of ThreeSixty Public Strategies. Each of them is a fan of the show and has dealt with sticky public relation situations in their careers—though, in fairness, none of them have been involved in something quite so messy or deep as the muck the Roys roll around in.

Let’s begin with Kendall’s press conference bait and switch where he calls Logan “a malignant presence, a bully and a liar.” What did you make of that strategy?

Fahn: In our world, we don’t typically like to go to a press conference. They’re more difficult to control and you’ll likely get less of a detailed story. You get more detailed reporting if you give it to someone as an exclusive. With that said, with a press conference and some major groundbreaking news, you can get a lot of eyeballs on it.

If I was advising him, you can talk to a trusted reporter on a not-for-attribution basis—a source close to the family revealed X, Y, and Z. Put that out there and that way it’s not directly attributed to him.

Hill: Horrible. But for maybe different reasons than you’d expect. You can’t divorce yourself from that. This is your family. You’ve been intimately involved in all this. The idea that you’re going to roll your dad under the bus and somehow avoid it hitting you at the same time—that’s just not reality. I would never advise a client to jump out in that way. Especially if what you’re saying isn’t how things will be different. Especially when you’re talking about sexual misconduct. I would hope in any time period, but especially in this one, that kind of response and tactic would be devastating to him and the company. It would fail.

Laing: It was not clear to me what he was trying to accomplish. You just damaged your entire brand, and not in a way that couldn’t be undone by his father in a whole host of ways, not least of which is if he rallies his family around him. They could all basically gang up on Kendall. They could say he’s a drug addict and has damaged himself with his family so much and now he’s just lashing out. There are a lot of ways they could manage that if everyone is not on Kendall’s side.

Now we have an already irritable Logan who’s fully pissed off and backed into a corner. How should he respond?

Hill: There’s this whole thing right now, especially in PR, that the thing you need to do is respond immediately. I almost never think that’s the right thing. How can you process things that quickly? Anything you say, even the most perfect words, would be seen as disingenuous. The right thing to do is issue a statement saying “I’m aware of the comments and it’s something I’m looking into and it needs to be handled the right way. At the appropriate time, I will be coming forward.” Logan has to lay low and process. In the real world, you’d have a very robust response. There wouldn’t be a press conference. There’d be rolling out a plan and having it all packaged.

Fahn: His character is the most familiar to me in my professional practice. A lot of it depends on the underlying issues and whether the allegations by Kendall are true. If they’re not true, then you have a certain course of action from the company perspective. If there are other issues, they may call for an investigation. Did he participate in the cover-up? Was he aware of these issues? The devil is in the details. He can certainly come back at [Kendall] directly to refute the allegations and also undermine his credibility with whatever means he has at his disposal. Is he using drugs? Is he unhinged because he was passed over for the promotion to take over the company? Trying to get those stories out there could be effective in undermining what he’s alleging.

Laing: The first rule of crisis communication is not to make your hole any deeper. First thing you should do is assess who knows what, who’s on whose side. You have to have full situational awareness. You can’t act in a vacuum. Say nothing, first of all, and respond in no way whatsoever until you know exactly who’s engaged and on what level.

Kendall picked a fight with a powerful adversary who also happens to be his father. How should he handle a man who is eager to take everyone’s favorite early-pandemic hobby to its most violent extreme?

Hill: My guess is that he knew that was the fight he was in for before those words were said. He would have known that at the press conference, that he was in for a war. That’s one thing in business and brands and communication and reputation—you don’t pick fights that you don’t think you can win. You would hope that he would have already considered that and would be ready for it. The thing that wins today is not having done everything right previously, it’s having a very strong commitment to do everything right prospectively. He would have to be ready to explain less about how everything went down and more how it will go down going forward.

Fahn: Be prepared. I’d rather know anything he can foresee his father putting out there. Develop messaging and responses. For instance the drug use: Have his messaging in place; talk about how he went to rehab. If he’s attacked that he was disappointed that he was passed over, he could develop messaging that he’s always had the best interests of the shareholders. He has a fiduciary obligation as an officer of the company. His father is self dealing. He’s got a conflict of interest. Whatever. Come up with messaging. Be prepared because you don’t want to get a call at 4 o’clock from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal asking these tough questions and not having these responses ready to go.

Still looming out there is the Roy family’s Chappaquiddick. How does that play into the dynamic?

Hill: I want to make it very clear I wouldn’t work for any of these people. There are people, and I will name him, like Lanny Davis who either views this kind of crisis work as sport—like I don’t care if you’re [Harvey] Weinstein or a Libyan warlord, this is sport and I find it interesting to try to help horrible people—or you’re doing it for money. I simply don’t find it in my DNA to represent horrible people and spin them out of situations.

With that said, in the crisis world, the person with the most arrows in their quiver has the best strategy. The more different ways I can move things around, the better. In every way, you’re trying to shape the environment to get your position heard and to position yourself and the company. There are a lot of moving parts here and what we call “no fingerprints” so that it’s not you doing it, it’s other people doing it in ways that are helpful to you.

Laing: Logan also has culpability there. But Logan has the upper hand in this. He can claim that he didn’t understand what really happened. Both of them should steer clear of that one.

Fahn: It’s a double-edged sword for Logan, because if he participated in the cover-up or was aware of it, he’s an accessory to a crime. Those are the kinds of things you might want to back-channel to dad and say, “You’re at risk here, too. You don’t want to go there.” That’s fraught with its own danger. Sometimes, it’s best for both sides to leave certain things unsaid. However, he can convey that, either through another family member or someone Logan trusts: It’s fine we’re at war, but let’s not create a situation where it’s mutually assured destruction.

Kendall feels especially vulnerable to attack for all sorts of reasons. Should he be proactive with the drug and alcohol addictions?

Laing: The best thing to do when there’s an established fact about you that can’t be denied is admit you had a problem and you’ve been working on it. Be honest and apologetic. There’s no getting around it.

Hill: That whole story line has changed dramatically in recent years. [Addictions] are so uninteresting to people because it’s so commonplace. We’re fortunately in a time when mental health is something people are talking about. The stigma that would go along with having been an addict wouldn’t be as shocking; I don’t think it would move people as much. If that person is spiraling out of control still or had relapsed and it was somehow impairing their ability to function or putting others at risk—those things, yes. But that can backfire too. It’s enough for them to garner sympathy, whereas 10 years ago it would be a no-brainer way to do someone in. Not the case today.

In the Season 3 trailer, we see the FBI raid the company. That’s bad news for all of them, especially Logan. What’s his next step, aside from looking into countries with friendly extradition laws?

Hill: The boring answer is that when you’re a dad, which I am, and you have a family, that should be his priority. Let the company go. In keeping with the story line, with his ailing health and the state of play, even though divorcing yourself from the company won’t mitigate all risk, it’s certainly a huge step in the right direction. There are just too many things going on here for him to navigate his way out of it. Figure out what’s important to you. Is it business or family? I don’t think there’s any way to salvage either, so you might as well err on the side of salvaging the family.

Laing: It depends. Is his family on his side? Are the others on his side? He has probably set himself up, from what it appears, so that other people are poised in the right position to take the fall. He thought this through ahead of time. You saw this setting up. You saw he started putting people in charge of things to set them up. Like Tom. Poor, Tom. Bless his heart.

So while all this is going on, you have an activist billionaire and a tech CEO coming for Logan’s crown and corporation. What to do about these new threats?

Fahn: Activists are a real problem. We deal with those quite frequently. Sometimes they have enough power and shares to take over certain board seats. Activists are very good at what we call fight letters: they’ll send a letter to the company and it’s really meant for media consumption. They’re oftentimes very flowery in their language and they’ll make a case to take over that way.

Laing: Logan has a lot going on. At some point this guy should just throw in the towel. Seriously. No, I’m joking. If I’m advising him—jeez—when you have that much going on … he’ll never be contrite. You have to know your client. This guy is never going to ever back down. He’ll fight to the end. He never has to say a word to the media. He can just lawyer up and hide behind his lawyers. I would do nothing publicly with him. Ever. Have the lawyers out in front. When you’re playing at this level, all the dirty work that gets done—all the finger-pointing and all of that stuff—takes place behind the scenes with dark-arts PR people that are at a completely different level. There are those firms that are almost like ninjas, and they can cut you. He would be using those guys. Everyone already thinks the guy is an asshole, so he can’t look any worse. And he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t have a nice-guy brand to protect.

Hill: The activist investor thing is a real thing that’s happening these days. You look at Herbalife and [Bill] Ackman. What makes that whole thing interesting is that Ackman was interested in seeing Herbalife having adversity. So he hired a whole bunch of lobbyists in D.C. and tried to get them pinned as a pyramid scheme. [He] went to every regulatory agency known to man and it backfired. Family things—there’s kind of a scorched-earth side to family things in business. It looks like everyone is angling. It looks like everyone is a bad character, so you don’t really believe any of them. But once you get these external parties who, let’s call them more pure in the sense that they have a singular focus, that’s a real problem.

The three main siblings—apologies to Connor—are constantly shifting allegiances as it suits them. The dynamic between Kendall, Roman, and Shiv is deeply messed up. How should they approach this treacherous interfamily squabble?

Fahn: One of the things they might consider is discussing third-party candidates to take over. If they can’t play nicely, then none of them are going to get it. They’ll have shares and they can probably vote. It depends on how much power they have, given each of their stakes. But that’s why boards are involved in companies, so you don’t have these personal decisions. It would fall on the board to make these decisions, not necessarily Logan. I don’t know how closely the writers will tow to the realities of corporate formalities and legal requirements. But in the real world, that’s where the board comes in.

Hill: They’re all horrible people in every aspect. Roman, as awful as he is, doesn’t seem to actually believe anything that even he says. In a weird way, he might be the most trustworthy because he’s such a clown. And how funny that Shiv is her name. Family businesses are brutal. It’s almost always the siblings who are the instigators of many of the issues, and in this situation they obviously can’t trust one another. There is no alliance to be had. If they were my client, I would want to work for the most honest one who actually has an interest in turning the ship around and doing the right thing. I don’t see that in any of them. I think they’re pretty much all doomed.

Laing: The problem is that they’re all too emotional. As hardball as they seem, they have a complex to compete for their father’s love. I’d send them all to therapy. Seriously, though, crisis PR and PR in general is partially therapy. It’s reminding people what their obligation is to others. I think I would advise—jeez, I’d get the fuck out of there. It’s such a toxic, horrible place. That’s all I can think of when I look at this whole situation. My skin is crawling.

I keep thinking about Cousin Greg and how he was on the outside of the family and wormed his way into the inner circle. Now he’s sitting on this bounty of information that can buoy or sink anyone he wants depending on how he deploys it. What’s the smart play here?

Hill: I find him to be by far the funniest character. He was in a terrible situation personally, and he kind of just faked his way into the enterprise. He could emerge as the right guy, as young as he is, if he chooses to be the one that rises above the family dynamic and does the right thing by all the stakeholders and shareholders and regulators. But he is a dead man walking if he tries to play the game with these people.

Laing: Cousin Greg has the most power of everyone. He gets to make a decision about who lives and who dies, in a sense. He has the ability to pick his team and go bolster them with whatever it is he’s hiding on their behalf.

Fahn: Going back to objectives, what’s he ultimately trying to achieve? He could be subject to criminal liability for participating in this cover-up. He should talk to a lawyer.

While everyone is scheming and maneuvering and the fate of the family and the corporation are in flux, behind the scenes you have this dalliance between Roman and Gerri who are engaged in … let’s call it a unique relationship. This isn’t high stakes, compared to some of the other issues, but if, say, Page Six got hold of the gossip, what then?

Fahn: It depends on how that information comes to light and who is aware of it. If they can portray it as a consensual relationship between two adults and no power imbalance, they can be somewhat honest about it. They could say there is no ongoing sexual relationship—pull the Bill Clinton and be cute about it. That seems, to me, to be one of the least problematic issues faced by the company.

Laing: They don’t need to worry about it. Full stop. People will talk and a lot of people will believe it, but they would believe it no matter what you say.

Finally, we can’t forget about Connor—even though everyone seems to always forget about Connor. By the end of Season 2, he’s burning through half a million a week to finance Willa’s play and Logan refuses to lean on his media outlets to give it a good review. When Connor asks Logan for money, dad tells his eldest son they can discuss it—but only if he suspends his rickety presidential campaign. Help Connor out. He needs it.

Laing: Oh, wow. Connor. I forgot about him. I hate him so much. He should keep going until he gets the money. Obviously he’s not going to win a presidential race, so use it to his advantage with Logan. Everyone is always leveraging everything in that family.

Fahn: Realistically, if his campaign is failing and he’s got very little chance to succeed and he’s running out of money, he should take a hard look in the mirror and make the decision he needs to make. The writing is on the wall. That’s just a mature, professional way to handle it. Then figure out how to break it to Willa that the play is going to run its course, and they can move on to the next project together.

Hill: Oh, man. Broken record, but I wouldn’t help any of these people.