Sep 1, 2022 - Economy & Business

Ex-Theranos VP on managing a crisis

Illustration of a stack of newspapers with a siren on top.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Brooke Buchanan accepted the role as vice president of communications at Theranos just days after The Wall Street Journal published its first expose.

Why it matters: Crisis communicators are often given the impossible task of saving a house that is already on fire. Buchanan's time at Theranos was no different.

As part of Axios Communicators' “In the Trenches” series, Buchanan shares for the first time the lessons she learned during her nine-month stint at Theranos.

Flashback: When she arrived at the company, it was already under federal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, CEO Elizabeth Holmes was still carrying on with an earned media blitz and attorneys were fielding reporters' inquiries.

  • Her job was to manage communications around the fallout, by “protecting and defending — and to do it legally,” she tells Axios.

Here's what she learned in the process:

  • Demand to be involved. The best response is unified and action-based, and communicators must help craft it.
    • “I don't think anyone within Theranos was thinking about the long term. They were thinking about [The Wall Street Journal] story and not necessarily about the fallout to come,” Buchanan said.
    • This is why “communicators need to have a seat at the table, understanding that they have to work very closely with legal, investor relations and HR” to craft a messaging strategy that will stick externally.
  • Choose your messenger wisely. Sending lawyers to manage media relations signals blood in the water, Buchanan said.
    • “It is the worst decision that I think they could have made" in the beginning, she recalls.
  • It’s OK to miss a deadline. “If you don't know or don't believe what you're saying is true, it's not going to do your organization any good to respond.”
    • At times, Buchanan didn’t know what to believe. “I never wanted to put out false information. We missed deadlines because of it — and that’s OK.”
  • Consider hitting pause. Throughout the investigation, Holmes continued her media blitz, which Buchanan said was a mistake.
    • “We needed to shelter in place and figure out the defense … but throughout all of this, [many] still wanted her to be out there and do things and tell her story, but she needed to take a beat and pause.”
    • “When you double down in a situation like that, you have to understand what the consequences will be.”
  • Reporters are not the enemy. We're all professionals, and tense situations do not excuse rude behavior.
    • “Back in the day I was known for barking at reporters,” Buchanan said. “I learned that reporters have a job to do — and you have to respect each other and yes, sometimes it can get heated and I yelled at people way too much, but I don't do that anymore.”
    • “Communications is a small world and you're going to run into these people again, [so] make sure you treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Between the lines: To be a crisis communications professional, Buchanan, now executive vice president of crisis and risk at Edelman, said you need a steady hand and thick skin. Plus:

  • Dedication: “You need to go in with your hazmat suit on … and be willing to jump in and work all hours, day or night if needed.”
  • Agility: To effectively manage a crisis, you must “be intellectually curious and pivot very quickly.”
  • Mental toughness: “It is very fast-paced and you [might] be managing through some horrific, sensitive issues. You need to be able to compartmentalize those things.”
  • Empathy: When a crisis communicator is brought in, it's often “that [executive’s] or that company's worst day. And so it's your job to not only create the communication strategy but reassure who you're speaking with.”
  • Loyalty: Buchanan was loyal to Theranos leadership until the end, a trait she picked up during her time handling communications for Sen. John McCain — who first introduced her to Holmes.
    • “I understood what I was getting into. And as I started working there, I knew more and more about the volatility of the organization, but I still wanted to help Theranos' overall reputation and narrative. Looking back, it seems like a futile attempt."

The bottom line: You have to jump in feet first.

  • “If you're in an organization that is going through something difficult, raise your hand to volunteer and see if you're interested in it. Because it takes a certain gene … or maybe just a screw loose,” she joked.

Subscribe to Axios Communicators.

Go deeper