At some point, whether you’re ready or not, a reputational crisis will strike. It will threaten every aspect of your business and seep into parts of your personal life. It’s not a question of if a crisis will hit, but when. And when it does, there’s no time to stop and strategize. So, what’s your plan for survival?
In his new book, Under Fire, communication strategist, Wesley Donehue, breaks down the 13 rules for managing every communications crisis, and he provides an inside look at the scandals that helped him define a proven system for weathering every type of storm.
You need a crisis communication strategy now, before you actually have to use it. And no matter what industry you’re in or the type of business you run, the book teaches a framework that will enable you to be nimble, aware, and prepared for anything that comes your way.
Hey listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum, and I’m excited to be here today with Wesley Donehue, author of Under Fire: 13 Rules for Surviving Cancel Culture and Other Crisis. Wesley, welcome and thank you for joining. Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Wesley Donehue: Hey man, I appreciate you having me on.
Drew Appelbaum: Help us kick this off. Can you give us just a brief rundown of your professional background?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah. So I’m a political consultant by trade. I help run a number of political campaigns across the country, mostly on the conservative republican side. So, involved in a lot of US senate races, governors, congressmen, lots of super packs and other political groups. I also help corporations who have found themselves in some political hot water, and I think a lot of corporations are figuring out that some of these cancel culture, some of the PR crisis they’re finding themselves in is more of a political fight than a traditional marketing fight. So I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of work in recent years.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you’ve been in this business for quite some time actually. So why was now the time to share this story? Was there an “aha moment” for you, were you inspired by something out there?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah. So I’m 42, and I got my first political job when I was 15, so I’ve been doing politics for quite some time, more than half my life now, just went by really quick, and it’s weird how that happens.
Drew Appelbaum: Too quick.
Wesley Donehue: Yeah. But a few things, although the book was super important right now because you know, every day, you’re seeing some sort of a cancel culture story. We even got to the point where you’re seeing multiple stories a day. I think the book is just really pertinent right now because it applies not just to celebrities or political campaigns or big corporations, but it’s starting to trickle down to just everyday people.
Like, the small business person, or you might see a teacher or a principal who got canceled, or a local police officer, we’re starting to see those kinds of stories. But also, about three years ago, I went through my own cancel culture story, where the mob came after me. You would think that, as a public relations person, I could have avoided it but, unfortunately, they come for everybody.
I don’t think it’s really a question of if, but when it comes for you or at least someone close to you. We’ve had a lot of success in this field, specifically, with helping save Sea World. That’s probably my biggest success that most people know about, and I wanted to take some of the lessons we’ve learned at Sea World, and then my own story, and put them in a book so that we can help some folks out.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you were writing this book, in your mind, who exactly were you writing this book for?
Wesley Donehue: I think I was writing at first for corporations, like CEOs and the marketing folks and the communications folks. But as we got into the book, the book started taking a turn, written for more everyday small business people. Small businesses is really the backbone of America’s economy, and there are hundreds of thousands or more small businesses in America, millions really, than large corporations.
What I realized that my personal story, besides being in politics, I own a brewery and I’m a small business man and I got a local brewery with two locations. I started seeing a lot more local small businesses getting caught up in cancel culture, and I wanted to write something for them, because those guy can’t always afford a public relations expert like a large corporation could.
With a handbook, I can’t necessarily give them the tricks to survive their specific case, but I might be able to give them some generic rules that they could follow to help them out.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, as you mentioned, you’ve lived this, you do this on the day-to-day. When you sat down to write the book and put it in the format you put it in, did you have any major breakthroughs or learnings along your writing journey, maybe just by digging a little bit deeper into some resources or by turning the page and thinking a little bit differently on some of the stuff you normally deal with?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, I think so. I started really coming to terms with my specific situation and the emotions that I went through with it, because people forget that there are always humans on the other side of the story and that every human is just going through a human experience throughout their life. You can get on the Internet and you could start yelling obscenities at people and talk about how they should be fired from their job or how their company should be shut down and you forget, because this is all happening on the Internet, that there’s someone on the other side of that screen.
The digital age really has caused a real problem, I think, with humanity because we’re starting to treat each other like garbage, and you don’t do that when you’re face to face with someone. I think that’s a large part of what’s happening with cancel culture and every person that you’re yelling at, they have emotions, they have feelings and the thing they’re going through is a very difficult situation for them to be going through.
It’s difficult on them, it’s difficult on their families and, a lot of times, they’re just trying to survive. Because the mob doesn’t want to just cause you some business, most of the time, it wants to shut you down for life. They want to make sure you can never work again, that you can never provide for your family again. I think it’s a sad point that we’ve come to in humanity but I wasn’t expecting, as I was writing this book, to dive into that part of life.
To dive into that part of where we are as a culture, but the book started taking that turn as I was writing it.
What Is Cancel Culture?
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig into the book itself and let’s just set the foundation for us, if you will. I can’t imagine most folks haven’t heard of it but, in your mind at least, what is the definition of cancel culture?
Wesley Donehue: You know, it’s so hard to nail down what a specific definition is because this is all happening quickly. It came on the scene quickly, but it’s also changing every day. I think cancel culture is when a group of people, that I call the mob, is coming after a business or a person specifically, not just to silence them but to cancel them from existence.
I know that’s very intense because it doesn’t necessarily seem like that when you’re part of the mob, but when you think about what they’re really trying to do, they’re trying to ruin people, and I really think it’s gone beyond just trying to silence people.
Drew Appelbaum: You mentioned this before. This isn’t like they’re going in front of somebody’s face or is that part of it? Is there people who show up in person or is a lot of this done online? Is this done through media outlets, is it done through Facebook?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything. I think the large majority of it happens online. Now, a lot of it could be spurred on by the media. You see that with large corporations and celebrities and, occasionally, that does come down to in person protests and such. But you find that well above 90 percent of the communication, the activity, the yelling, the threats, that kind of stuff is mostly happening online.
Drew Appelbaum: Is this a new phenomenon? Was there a version of this 10 years ago, 20 years ago that just was less effective because there was less WiFi in the world?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, 100 percent. You know, it’s really funny, when we start talking about cancel culture, you know I’m a conservative and the cancel culture description or moniker typically gets applied to liberals and I think that’s unfair, to be honest with you. You see it on both sides. I would actually make the argument that it started on the conservative side.
I remember 10, 20 years ago, my church saying, “Hey, don’t go to that business because they don’t share our morals” or “They’ve done something wrong that isn’t Christian” for example. I bet, if we go back and look, the earliest examples of this actually started on the conservative side and with the church, which I’m a Christian, again.
But I think now, when you look at it, you do see it on both sides, but I think most of this activity is coming from the liberal side. I think it’s unfair to say that they started it. I also think it’s unfair to say that liberals are complete owners of this movement.
Drew Appelbaum: I also really want to clear something up too, is that I think in general, and feel free to correct me, but there’s people out there that there are actually really bad people and they should be canceled.
Wesley Donehue: 100 percent.
Drew Appelbaum: But you’re talking about others that get caught up in something way less sinister, and their life shouldn’t be totally destroyed that they’re homeless and penniless.
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, no, let’s get that very straight. Some people should be canceled, okay? I mean, Kevin Spacey, that guy is a creep, okay? Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein. I mean, you can go down this rabbit hole and there are plenty of people that are just horrible, horrible human beings, okay? That is different than sending out a tweet that you thought was a joke and you’re getting canceled.
That’s different than at a restaurant, one of your employee says the wrong thing that could be considered racist or homophobic and next thing you know, there’s a bad Yelp review and that yelp review goes viral and then all of a sudden, your business is racist or homophobic because your employee said something to someone, right? That I don’t think is fair.
I think people deserve grace, I think that we need a lot more empathy in this world, and people deserve forgiveness and second chances for the most part, for the most part. If you are a Harvey Weinstein type character, you’ve had your second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh chances, right? You are a habitual evil person.
That’s different than a person who just screws up or says the wrong thing or because the world has gone overly sensitive and people think that person should be cancelled.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dive back into you for a minute. So, when these types of crises, these tough situations and the drama happens, what is it about Wesley that just allows you to handle the situation, and why are you the guy we should be calling? Why are you the cleanup guy for everything that’s out there?
Wesley Donehue: You know, I talk a lot in the beginning of the book about my childhood. I like to say I was born into crisis and I was raised through crisis, and I know a lot people are like this too, where they come up on the wrong side of the tracks. I come from a very violent, broken family. Dad in prison, very abusive towards my mom since I was—since I could remember. My first memories are my sister and I hiding under the bed while my mom is getting beat.
Then after their divorce, being almost homeless and living in section eight, welfare at Medicaid, food stamps. Again, my mom in and out of drug rehab, eventually died of an opioid overdose. I come from a very rough spot and I think that’s enabled me to find calm in the storm because when your entire life is drama, you don’t know the difference. A lot of people in really tough emotional situations aren’t mentally capable of dealing with it, they freak out.
The whole first chapter of my book is about stepping out of this situation and trying to think logically rather than emotionally because it is very difficult, but when you come from nothing but drama, you’re able to weed through it a little better.
13 Rules to Survive
Drew Appelbaum: Now, in the book itself, you lay out 13 rules or guidelines, and that’s to help folks prepare for or really escape a situation they might find themselves. So, how did you break it down to these 13 specifically?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, I think that was actually the hardest part of this entire process, going through everything we’ve done for Sea World and other clients and try to fit it all into a nice little package. That was very difficult. What I did is, I just looked at every client and tried to find the common themes throughout each client, to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and eventually, after white boarding it out and having 16 different lessons up there, I was able to organize it into 13 buckets.
Writing a book is difficult, I think, because getting all your thoughts up on a whiteboard or somewhere so that you can even start writing is a really difficult thing to do. It is way more difficult than I thought. The writing, once you get it organized and figure out what you want to say, the writing is the easy part, and it’s the fun part. But, in the beginning, trying to brain dump everything into your brain and organize it is not something that’s very easy, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe you experienced authors have figured out a really good process, but I found at the beginning is the most difficult part of this.
Drew Appelbaum: It’s very difficult. And some people are also—the editing process is also a lot for new authors. You think you’ve handed in something golden and then it has to be revised, often times many times, but when you take the 13 rules and guidelines and when you’re putting them to use, you’re navigating a crisis, do you use all of these 13 rules every time? Is this like a checklist for people or is there you deploy some here and some there, just depending on the situation?
Wesley Donehue: I would say more some here, some there. But these are more—you know, that was another thing. Do we call them rules? Do we call them lessons? Do we call them guardrails? What do we call them? That was probably, of all the things here, that might have been the biggest debate, that one word. We ended up going with rules, but guardrails is also another one.
This isn’t a checklist to say, “To survive you must do this, then do this, then do this, then do this” because, again, every single public relations situation is different. So you can’t write a book that’s a checklist. This instead says, “Okay, as you’re going through this crisis, here are the phases of a crisis and then through those phases, here is what you should and shouldn’t be doing.”
Then, obviously, I’m a business man, so if you want me to help you with your specific situation, give me a call. We’re all entrepreneurs, right? In the meantime, if you don’t need me, then hopefully this book can at least give you some rules to follow that can help you out.
Be Prepared for Difficult Situations
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what impact do you hope that the book will have on a reader? And for folks who finish the book or making their way through it, are there any immediate steps you hope they’ll take in their own life?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, I think the very first thing I hope you will do is start mentally preparing themselves for tough situations. That is what chapter one is all about. It is about mental preparation. Because the people that don’t make it through a cancel crisis scenario are typically the mentally weak people, because they can’t see the forest through the trees, because their house is on fire and they’re in the house, right?
They are still in the house. So instead of getting out of the house to put the fire out—you don’t put the fire out while you are still in the house. You got to get out of the house then you put the fire out, right? It is the same thing mentally. You have to step away from your own emotions. You have to remove yourself from the situation to be able to handle this. So I think the first chapter is the most pertinent because it talks about, “What can you do today, that sucks, that helps you through the suck?”
For me, I ran a lot of marathons. I run a lot of ultra-marathons. I am training for a 100 miler right now. I meditate every day. I take cold showers because there is nothing worse than cold water for me. I hate it, right? What can you do today that just—David Goggins, he wrote an amazing book called, Can’t Hurt Me. Love the guy, right? Because I’m an endurance athlete, he is too. He talked about callousing the mind.
Just like you would callous your hands, how can you callous your mind? Because, whether it’s cancel culture or something else, you’re going to go through some real crap in your life. If you learn anything from this book, it’s that mentally tough people survive, mentally weak people don’t. None of the other lessons in this book apply, none of the messaging, none of the communication, none of the public relations, none of those things matter if you can’t first step away from the situation.
Because, if you are trying to enact the other 12 rules as an emotional train wreck, it will never work, and that’s what happens with people. They start getting attacked, they take it all really personally, they get emotional, they freak the hell out, and they fail.
Drew Appelbaum: It seems like they can only make it worse at that point.
Wesley Donehue: Exactly, you see it all the time. You see celebrities, you see politicians, these people freak out. They start tweeting all kind of random things, you know? They just end up digging, but you can’t get out of a hole with a shovel. You don’t keep digging. And that is what you see people doing. But there is a lot of other specific public relations examples in here, but that is a lesson I can apply to you today, before it even happens.
It’s like having car insurance where, hopefully you don’t get in a wreck, but chances are you’re going to get a wreck in your life. It might be a fender bender, you might total your car, you might actually get seriously injured. You want that insurance there, no matter how big the situation is.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you also have a companion website with the book. Can you tell us where to find that and then what folks can find there?
Wesley Donehue: Yeah, so underfirebook.com is the place to go. We’re putting up all kind of news as far as how the book is doing, when I’m going on book tours, I’m going on a speaking engagement. I’m going to be on the news a lot. We have a weekly podcast, where we have a lot of fun. We just recorded our 55th episode where, every single week, we talk about the crisis of the week and what we would do if we were advising that person.
It could be, again, it could be like Delta Airlines or it could be Johnny Depp and Amber Heard or it could be this small little dentist office that just went through a little Yelp crisis that you have never heard of, in some random state like North Dakota. We try to cover across the board so that people can find some really useful content there.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, Wesley, we just touched on the surface of the book here, as we said, all of the steps are inside, you’re going to want to read them. I just want to say that putting this book out there, to help folks manage these crisis that they don’t even think of but what comes, and when it comes is going to be completely overwhelming, is no small feat. So congratulations on being published.
Wesley Donehue: Hey man, thank you so much.
Drew Appelbaum: This has been a pleasure. I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Under Fire, and you could find it on Amazon. Wesley, besides checking out the book, besides the website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
Wesley Donehue: I am addicted to Instagram, so that’s probably the best place to connect with me, just Instagram @wesleydonehue.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Wesley, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book.
Wesley Donehue: Hey man, thanks.