© 2008 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 17,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
The Three C's of Credibility
By Jonathan Bernstein
In Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual, I have a section called "Attitude is Everything." It explains the importance of non-verbal communication in ensuring that your audiences receive your messages effectively.
Since the last draft of that publication, I've started to emphasize this point even more strongly while media training my clients. I was taught, back when we all still used typewriters to compose a document, that up to 80 percent of communication was non-verbal - voice tone/quality, body language, etc. While there are differing opinions on that statistic, I believe that non-verbal communication plays a particularly important role in how an individual's character is assessed by observers.
Digging further, I even found an incredibly useful and insightful publication, The Nonverbal Dictionary, with definitions available online.
How does this relate to media interviews or public presentations during times of crisis, where spoken message delivery becomes so critical to the welfare of the organization or individual in crisis? I came up with a simple way to remember the non-verbal attitude which should accompany the spoken message.
The Three C's of Credibility
During a crisis, effective spokespersons must, primarily through their non-verbal cues, leave their audiences with the impression that they are:
Think "Rudy Giuliani" on and after 9-11. It was his attitude, his non-verbal cues, which gave his audiences comfort. If he had delivered the same messages in a stereotypical governmental manner, the amount of fear and anxiety felt by listeners would have been dramatically higher. Instead, what they clearly felt, for the most part, was "However horrible this situation is, Mayor Giuliani is going to get us through it, he's doing the right thing, in the right way." He actually delivered little substance, initially, because so little was known. But he won over his audience (not to mention laying the groundwork for his future ventures).
If stakeholders perceive you as Compassionate, Competent and Confident, they are far more likely to believe your messages. In fact, if you're really good at projecting the "Three C's," you can get away with some messaging errors and still win over your audience.
Why Can't We Learn From The Mistakes of Others?
By Judy Hoffman
St. Petersburg, Florida holds very positive memories for me. Mymom and dad both grew up there. Even though our family moved to Pennsylvania and, later, New Jersey, we spent our summer vacations in St. Petersburg visiting family.
Therefore, my attention was caught when a friend pointed me to a story on the Web about a crisis brewing in St. Pete. It seems that people who live near a Raytheon facility in a residential community known as the Azalea neighborhood have recently learned that there is a huge plume of contaminated groundwater under their homes and the near-by park. Irrigation wells have shown significantly elevated levels of vinyl chloride, 1,4-dioxane, and trichloroethylene (or, as humor columnist Dave Barry calls it, "methyl/ethyl/lucy badstuff). All of these named chemicals have been labeled as carcinogens, which means they have been found to cause cancer, at least in laboratory animals fed large quantities.
To say this has promoted fear, anger, concern, or outrage among the citizens would be putting it mildly. And when one of the citizens of St. Petersburg happens to be the governor of the state, you can imagine that there will be significant coverage of the story! Class action lawsuits have already been filed on behalf of the residents of 900 homes in the area.
What can we all learn from this developing story?
How Did Citizens Learn of the Contamination?
They read about it in the newspaper! Ohmygoodness... Why, oh why have companies not yet learned that they would be much better off if they were the ones to communicate this type of information? Sure it's going to make people concerned when they hear that the water they have been spraying on their lawns contains chemicals that have been determined by environmental protection agencies to be above safe levels. But the company could have coupled the announcement with a lot of information to help residents put this into perspective. They could have emphasized that it did not have an effect on the community's drinking water (which comes from the City). They could have expressed their empathy for the residents - recognizing that this would naturally upset them - and laid out their plans for dealing with the situation. When the problem is, instead, revealed by the media, the company immediately becomes suspect, with people assuming they have been trying to cover it up. The "black hat" of the villain gets placed firmly on their head and will undoubtedly prove very difficult to dislodge.
How Long Has This Problem Existed?
If it were just discovered, people might be willing to cut the company some slack. But the newspaper pointed out that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been aware of the pollution on this site for the past 17 years! (A whole other e-zine could be written about the problems that the folks with the governmental agencies are going to have as a result of this situation.) The site was owned by another company prior to Raytheon's purchase of it in 1996. However, it appears that this predecessor company was also related to the Raytheon corporation. Besides, a good "due diligence" study carried out before the purchase would surely have pointed out such an environmental issue.
The current owner has been using a third-party company to test the wells on the company site since 1996. But the final report on what they found hasn't yet been published! And the company didn't offer to test the wells of neighboring residents until March and September of 2007. If you could have obtained access to the DEP records on that testing, you would have seen that tests at three residential wells showed the totals exceeded safe levels. There is no escaping the fact that neither the company nor the DEP saw fit to notify the neighbors until the newspaper got hold of the information a year later. Wouldn't YOU be mad if you lived in that area?
What Should the Company Have Done?
I can just imagine some of the conversations that took place within the management board rooms. Hopefully the main concern wasn't "This is going to cost us a lot of money to fix!" While that was probably a factor, I think it likely these were the sentiments actually expressed: "Let's not start a panic." "We should wait until we have ALL the facts." "We need to do a second round of tests just in case the results of the first one aren't right."
Where were the public/community relations professionals and the corporate communications staffs? Why wasn't someone standing up in those board room meetings and yelling, "Put yourselves in the shoes of our neighbors! Would you want your own family treated like this? These people have a right to know about the problem. And we need to tell them what we are going to do about it. If we don't grab this bull by the horns, we are going to be gored by our neighbors, the elected officials, and the public in general. Let's DO the right thing!"
I don't pretend to know what the "right thing" is, technically, to deal with this situation. (One neighbor surmised that the company could install filters on the well pumps. Sounds reasonable, but I'm sure I don't know if that's feasible.) I do know that - when groundwater contamination was discovered on my own company's site in New York back in the early 90's - our president moved swiftly. He convinced the DEC that we should be allowed to voluntarily implement a "pump and treat" operation that contained the plume to our site until we could work through an extensive clean-up operation under their regulatory oversight. He and I and other managers attended several meetings with local officials and area residents to inform them of the problem, tell them what we were doing about it, and honestly answer their questions. There was obviously concern. But there was no panic -- and there were no lawsuits.
Unfortunately, Some People Have to Learn the Hard Way
Time and again we have witnessed instances where people find out things that upset them from a source other than the one central to the situation. Critics and extremists have ample opportunities to frame the story, painting a bull's eye on the company's back. The company already is presumed to be guilty of something terrible because they tried to hide it.
Of COURSE it's going to be uncomfortable to sponsor a meeting where a lot of concerned citizens have tough questions for you or to go personally knocking on your neighbors' doors to inform them of a situation that affects them. But you need to balance these probabilities against the almost certainty of having the company's name dragged publicly through the mud by local newspapers whose stories are often picked up by the national news wires. Add to that how such sensational stories spread like wildfire through the Internet, complete with blogs and chat room chatter that characterize your organization in the worst possible terms. I hope you will see that your choice is clear.
Note: For more details, go to www.tampabay.com and search for "Plume Spread, Word Didn't" published May 23, 2008 and related stories.
Judy Hoffman is author of "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat: Dealing Effectively with the Media in Times of Crisis." The 2008 version of her book is now available at www.judyhoffman.com and adds discussion of the Duke lacrosse alleged rape situation, the Virginia Tech tragedy, the debacle of Hurricane Katrina communications, the Chinese toy recalls, and the Sago Mine disaster.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Keeping the Wolves at Bay 3.0 Reviewed
"Keeping the Wolves at Bay" is much more than another media training guide - it is perhaps one of the most concise, insightful, useful and savvy guides to strategic thinking about reputation issues available.
Founder & CEO of PIER System and host of Crisisblogger.com
"It's like a Swiss Army knife -- lots of cool tools in a compact package. In case of emergency, grab this."
Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
Publisher, About Public Relations
In addition to individual and business usage, the manual is now being required as a textbook at Seton Hall University, Grand Canyon University, and Singapore Management University, amongst others. It is available in both PDF and hard copy formats at www.thecrisismanager.com, with reseller arrangements available for collegiate bookstores.
Jonathan Bernstein also offers on-site media training worldwide, using this manual as the basis for training. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internet Counter-Intelligence CD-ROM
In a one-hour teleseminar recorded in December 2007, search engine optimization expert Diana Huff interviewed Jonathan Bernstein, a pathfinder and innovator in the field of Internet-centered crisis management, who described how a wide range of companies have been damaged by the Internet's virtual terrorists, and how some companies have been responding effectively.
In this one-hour session, you'll learn how to conduct your own Internet vulnerability audit; develop strategies for identifying your foes -- activists, disgruntled employees, or unhappy customers -- and tracking Internet chatter; build the case within your organization for ensuring someone is monitoring the blogosphere, news, and Internet forums every day; plan for an Internet crisis and, when one hits, assess the situation to determine an appropriate response; develop the action steps you can take to neutralize attacks, including starting your own blog and developing collateral such as brochures, video, podcasts, and Web links to other reputable and informative sites; and effectively use search engine optimization tactics -- not just because you want customers to find your products -- but so you can beat these guys at their own game!
Available at www.thecrisismanager.com, as are our other titles.
Disaster Prep 101
Bernstein Crisis Management is pleased to present one of the most comprehensive and user-friendly family preparedness texts available today. "Disaster Prep 101." by Paul Purcell, goes above and beyond the simplistic "72-hour kit" concept and provides simple, yet detailed educational material that will drastically improve the ability of any family to respond to all manner of disasters or emergencies. This preparedness package contains over 400 pages of well-organized, original preparedness material written in an easy-to-understand, non-panic format; 80 pages of family data forms and worksheets (many of which are also useful to the employer); and a 2-CD set containing two interactive and searchable links collections for additional educational sources; all the family data forms and worksheets in softcopy format; and a complete emergency reference library of over 450 additional books and training manuals! US$59.95. Available here.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. has formal or informal co-promotional and mutually beneficial business associations with a number of the services we mention periodically in this newsletter. No, we can't go into details because that's confidential, proprietary, etc. But our relationship is NOT "arm's distance" and you should know that, since we regularly write about these services as we use them for crisis and issues management or other purposes. That said, you should also know that Bernstein Crisis Management sought the relationships because its staff is convinced that these services are the best of their kind for Bernstein Crisis Management's needs and those of its clients. If you have any questions about these relationships, please contact Jonathan Bernstein, (626) 825-3838.
ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to email@example.com.
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