Plumbing repair and crisis communications lessons go hand in hand

As a career marketer, I can’t help but find lessons about marketing in odd, everyday circumstances. While I’d never have predicted it, I was recently reminded of five crisis communication lessons as I navigated a home plumbing issue. If you had asked me a week ago to define a “sewer lateral,” I would have had a few guesses. All of them incorrect.

Here’s how my foray into plumbing began. My wife called me from the car as she backed out of the driveway on her way to work.

Wife: You know that drain thing in the driveway?

Me: Mhmm.

Wife: There’s water coming out of it. Is that normal?

Me: I don’t think that’s water, and no.

I was right, it wasn’t water. That “drain thing” is a relief valve for the sewer and NOTHING is supposed to come out of it. EVER. A few phone calls and hours later, a plumber came by to take a look. He sent a very unlucky camera into the pipe and proceeded to tell us that our sewer lateral is cracked and roots are growing through it.

Plumber: We cleared it, got you up and running again, but the roots will grow back and the pipe will still be broken. This needs to be fixed. The pipe you have is way too small, was not buried deep enough, and there’s no way it would pass code inspection if you try to sell your house.   

Wife: Okay?

Plumber: That’ll be…. (scribbling, looking at the driveway, more scribbling) …. about [insert ridiculous amount of money here].

5 crisis communication lessons learned as I navigated a home plumbing issue

Know who can help

When you run into a problem is not the time to start wondering who can help. In some ways, my wife and I are lucky as we’ve had plenty of plumbers fix things in our house. And here’s what I have learned; they are not all created equal.
A few years ago we had an issue, didn’t know who to call, and called the first listing in Google Search. We thought they must be good, right? Wrong. They did do the work, they were nice, but a while later we learned the hard way that they did substandard work. At that point we found a great plumber, who does admirable work – so we knew exactly who to call this time around.

PR is no different. If you run a business, I recommend having a marketing or PR agency that you like on a short list. Even if you don’t need them today, if you build a relationship with them now, you’ll know who to call when a problem arises.

The unexpected happens, be ready for it

We didn’t expect our sewer lateral to fail. We had no idea it was not buried deep enough over 50 years ago when it was installed. We had no idea it was going to fail. But, we have had plumbing issues. We know our house is old. As my wife says, “Past performance is the best predictor of future performance.” Knowing our plumbing had mediocre performance in the past clued us into the fact that it might cause problems. The silver lining is that, because we know this, we were (sort of) prepared when this problem came up.

In business, you know things will happen that you cannot predict today. By being prepared, either with a plan, a budget or both, you’ll be one step ahead when the sh*t storm hits (pun intended).

Don’t put off fixing something you’ll just need to fix down the road

Our plumber told us we were ok for now, we could shower and flush to our heart’s content. But he also warned that things were not too far off from a bigger problem. And, as he said, we’d never pass a code inspection. So, we made arrangements to fix the problem. No, it was not fun to spend the money, but we knew that doing the work now would save us from a future headache.

In PR, when faced with a crisis, I have been asked countless times, “Can we just spin this and make it go away?” No, that’s not how it works. Always address the crisis head-on with honesty and integrity. Do not try to sweep it under the rug, because if you do, it will crawl back out and bite you in the ass. Maybe not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but it will happen.  

Recognize the long-term benefit of building/fixing

My wife and I are not selling our house anytime soon. But I know that if we do one day, it will be stressful. The last thing I want to worry about is needing to do the sewer work while also trying to sell, pack and move.  

When a problem comes up in your business, fix it. Fix it with PR, messaging, speed and a little duct tape if needed – but fix it while it’s fresh, so you don’t need to deal with it down the road.

Don’t let crisis upset the good stuff

On the same day our sewer issue rose to the surface (again, pun intended) I also had a great meeting and my son got an audition he was hoping to get. Sure, the sewer issue was not a fun curveball, but we tried our best not to let it ruin the other stuff.

When a PR crisis comes up, it can be tempting to drop everything and focus on it – and to it only. It’s true, you need to fix it in a wise and timely manner, but try to do that while also letting other things move on as possible. And take some time to smell the roses–there’s a good chance they’ll make the crisis smell all the better.

In the end, we made a few calls, did sewer lateral research, and signed on the dotted line. The work is starting and before long we’ll have a BRAND NEW SEWER LATERAL. Jealous? I bet you are. OK, perhaps not – but I’m guessing you’re thinking about crisis communications a little differently.