News & Politics

What the FBI Can Teach Companies About Crisis PR

The Convincing Company was cofounded by an ex-FBI negotiator.

Photograph courtesy of The Convincing Company.

On a recent afternoon in Northern Virginia, Adele Cehrs and her business partner, Chip Massey, stood before an audience of DC-area entrepreneurs and introduced themselves. “I’m a publicist, and he’s a former FBI hostage negotiator,” Cehrs said. “I didn’t think those skill sets would get together, but we have.”

Over the next 90 minutes, Cehrs and Massey turned a private room in the Tysons outpost of Maggiano’s into something akin to a Quantico training session, showing the assembled business owners how to apply the tactics of hostage negotiation—“emotional labeling,” “ ‘I’ messages”—to the world of commerce. “It’s learnable for anyone,” Cehrs later explained, “and can be highly effective in customer-service issues and in so many other business settings.” Cehrs and Massey have conducted similar sessions for Goldman Sachs, software giant SAP, and Prince­ton and Columbia universities.

Cehrs’s PR specialty is crisis management, and she has found Massey’s particular expertise especially useful in that area. When the two first met in 2019, Massey had retired after more than two decades in federal law enforcement, where he’d used his FBI training—as well as his prior experience as a pastor—to peacefully resolve all manner of standoffs. Cehrs, an ex-journalist turned PR consultant, quickly recognized the former G-man’s value in her work helping business leaders handle corporate firestorms.

In 2020, the two decided to form a DC communications-and-crisis-management firm, which they dubbed the Convincing Company, and they’ve also added a corporate-training wing to the business. The idea has taken off: They currently serve about 25 crisis-PR clients a year. “I don’t know how many executives have said to us, ‘I feel like I’m a hostage,’ ” Massey says. “And in many ways they are, because the same overall principles are in play. You feel like you’re restricted, you can’t make the movements the way you want. For you, it’s the life or death of the company.”

A persistent complaint among crisis-PR pros is that during times of turmoil, many CEOs are simply unwilling to follow their advice. The Convincing Company tackles this problem head-on. Once Cehrs draws up a media plan to try to extricate a firm from the controversy in question, it’s up to Massey to ensure that the executives actually do what they’re told—whether that’s issuing an apology, recording a video, or perhaps even firing an employee.

To do so, Massey deploys the same tactics he once used on kidnappers and would-be bombers. He offers “mitigation” to his embattled executive clients—“Hey, buddy, this could happen to anyone”—in order to reduce the stress-inducing chemicals in their systems and “get their executive functions back online.” Only then, Massey says, are they in position to execute the directives Cehrs has laid out.

“We’re handling both their emotional needs and their critical business needs,” says Cehrs, who will publish a book next year with Massey called Convince Me that explains their techniques. “If you don’t get the emotions right,” Cehrs continues, “they’re not going to listen.”

This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.