Bernstein Crisis Management. Crisis response, prevention, planning, and training.

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2008 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 4,500+
Estimated Readership: 17,000+


If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.

Jeff Bezos -- founder, president, CEO of


Beware of Geeks Baring Goofs
By Jonathan Bernstein

Too many organizations have failed to learn from the experience of Arthur Andersen, a company that, in its corporate arrogance, refused to acknowledge even the possibility that any of its employees had erred. Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) stores, at least as represented by its Store #125 in Pasadena, California, appears to be one such organization. This is a story of how one Best Buy store manager was willing to stand by his employees even when faced with overwhelming evidence of their errors and one deliberate lie.

As my regular readers know, I'm a Geek, and proud of it. But I believe my billable time is best spent on my clients' needs and not on diagnosing and repairing computer problems, so I thought it made sense to bring my frequently crashing notebook computer to the Geek Squad. Bad call -- not only because they misdiagnosed my problem, but also because they were unwilling to consider the evidence that I out-geeked the Geek Squad when forced to do so by their inept non-repairs.

Here is the sequence of events of a two-week period:

Best Buy Visit #1: Turning in an HP Pavilion notebook that had suffered several "blue screen of death" crashes over a multi-day period, concluding with a complete refusal to return to either normal or SAFE mode. Paid $199 for their "Diagnostic & Repair" service. Told them that if reformat was necessary, so be it, I had everything backed up.

Best Buy Visit #2: Picked up "repaired" computer. Was told that they had been able to restore full function without reformatting.

Best Buy Visit #3: Brought notebook back to the Geek Squad after it frequently froze up and various programs malfunctioned during a short road trip. I expressed my frustration, politely. When I asked how long the repair might take, I was told their current backup was up to 10 days. I asked for and was hooked up with a supervisor, who agreed that since my computer had allegedly been fixed previously, it should go to the front of the line and would be ready within a day or two. Subsequently, after diagnosis, the supervisor told me that the notebook's registry was corrupted and they would have no choice but to reformat the hard drive, to which I agreed.

Best Buy Visit #4: (a couple of days later): I picked up the notebook and brought it home and, over a several-day period re-installed a number of my primary business software packages (e.g., MS-Office suite, QuickBooks). And then I noticed that I was still experiencing multiple unexplained program errors and computer lockups. Then I started to wonder what ELSE might be wrong with the computer versus what the Geek Squad had allegedly found. A little research on the lead causes of such problems resulted in two conclusions - a virus (which shouldn't be present on a reformatted drive) or bad RAM (the memory chips in a computer). I downloaded two well-known RAM testers and ran them - and BOTH found thousands of errors with my RAM!

Best Buy Visit #5: I brought my notebook and screen-prints of the RAM-testing results to the store and this time asked for a store manager. Enter manager Hector Perez. He brought a senior tech out from the secret back rooms of the Geek Squad and the tech claimed they had run a memory test. Hector said, "We need to be able to replicate your findings in order to do anything about this." The tech asked what I wanted if I was correct, and my response was, "I want replacement memory at no charge and reimbursement of the diagnostic charges, because I found the real problem, not you, and you never had to reformat my hard drive, so I'm also stuck with all of this re-installation work." It turned out that their memory testing program is the one of the two I used.

The next day the tech called to tell me that they had replicated my data and he couldn't understand why they didn't find it before. However, he said, manager Perez was only authorizing memory replacement - not a refund of the diagnostic charge - because, "our original repair was because you had 425 viruses on your computer!" I told him I thought that was impossible - I am rabid about my computer security AND my email is filtered through an enterprise system whose security would be envied by the CIA - and its flags would have gone up big-time if any files I emailed were infected. PLUS, the notebook was merely a traveling computer, and all of its files were mirrored on my desktop computer, which was exhibiting no problems. I demanded proof of the viruses when I came over to pick up the computer.

Best Buy Visit #6: Picked up the computer and asked for above referenced proof. I was shown a worksheet that said my computer was found to have 425 "Ad-Awares" - which a tech, when I called him on it, acknowledged were tracking cookies, NOT viruses. I asked for Mr. Perez and told him that not only had his techs erred repeatedly, one of them had actually lied to me, and I insisted on a refund of all charges. He refused. "I stand by my techs," he insisted. I told him I would escalate the complaint to his corporate office and at least get an article out of the situation. He said, "go ahead."

So I did. After a few false starts trying to find the right contact at Best Buy's corporate offices, I mini-spammed a few different people in their public relations and corporate communications department, wearing two hats - consumer and editor. That elicited a very polite and sympathetic call from Best Buy Consumer Advocate Michael Arrighi, who listened to my tale and immediately authorized a refund. He said that was not the way the corporation intended to do business. He agreed that the amount of time I had spent on this matter was well worth the refund and the free memory (approximately $400 total). At my billable rate for all the wasted time, they got off very cheap.

The biggest crisis prevention lessons are:

Never defend your company and/or its employees "at all costs" - Humans make mistakes, everyone understands that. Mature businesspeople acknowledge their mistakes, quickly make appropriate apologies and amends, and often save the customer/client relationship.

You never know how doing a disservice to a single customer can backfire on you because of the power of the Internet. It's bad enough when people without a legitimate complaint make waves on sites like RipOff Report, but when the complaint comes from a credible source, the damage can be considerable and often not fully reversible.

...and as for any lessons about using The Geek Squad for repairs - I'll let my readers reach their own conclusions!

Xenophobia And The Case of Poor Government Communication And No Leadership
By Evan Bloom

The recent horrific xenophobic attacks by South African township residents on foreigners from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, Malawi and Nigeria have once again highlighted the lack of crisis leadership, crisis planning and management capabilities in the Government of the Republic of South Africa.

"While many commentators correctly looked at the Government's inability to take control of the situation and communicate, best practice crisis management requires that once the crisis is over, a detailed post mortem of the events as they unfolded must occur to identify the root causes of the problem. The next step would be to put in place measures to ensure the crisis never happens again. Government would be well advised to reconsider its management of the Zimbabwe and Mozambican borders, its Home Affairs policies on refugees and the alleged general corruption in various Government departments involved in the crisis," says Evan Bloom, MD of the Crisis Communications Consultancy.

"In any business crisis, it is the role of the CEO/MD to take control of the situation by activating the crisis management plan and proactively communicating openly and honestly with all stakeholders, internal and external. Keeping quiet allows the rumour mill to spread rapidly; it permits the media to take control and report on the events and, most importantly, it makes management look like it has lost control of the situation. This is exactly what happened to the Government during the xenophobic attacks," adds Bloom.

Not one Government minister had the courage and foresight to take charge of the situation from day one. In any civilised country where accountability reigns supreme, heads would quickly have rolled.

The following case study will look at the timeline of events as they unfolded and will also discuss what Government should have done to establish control of the situation.

The background:

The following timeline has been created simply to show in which areas and how long ago the attacks started (The Mail & Guardian, May 23-29):

March 17: Gauteng: Choba, Tshwane

March 19: Gauteng: Atteridgeville, Tshwane

March 31: Gauteng: Dieplsloot, near Sandton

April 11: Gauteng: Dieplsloot, near Sandton

April 14-17: Gauteng: Mamelodi, near Tshwane

May 5: Eastern Cape: Near Uitenhage

May 11 onwards: Gauteng: Alexandra near Sandton, the East Rand and parts of Johannesburg (Cleveland, Reiger Park, Primrose, etc). May 11 was the date when all out attacks against foreigners began.

May 20: Kwa-Zulu: Umbilo near Durban

May 20: Mpumalanga: Leslie and Secunda

May 21: North West: Oukasie near Brits

May 22-23: Cape Province: Du Noon near Tableview (The Star, Friday 23 May 2008)

While the entire situation was tragic, one event grabbed the hearts of South Africans. On May 18th in Reiger Park, a gang attacked a Mozambican and beat him up. They then took a blanket, covered it in petrol, threw it over him, set him alight and looked on as a bystander burst out laughing. The man later died of his severe injuries (The Star, 19 May 2008).

Finally, on May 21, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was called in to support the police. The violence started to decrease and work began in earnest to sort out the horrific events.

By Thursday 22 May, The Star newspaper gave the grim statistics: 42 dead, 15,000 displaced and 400 arrests in 11 days of violence. On Saturday May 24, The Star reported that after 13 days of rioting, 43 people had died, 23,000 were displaced, it was estimated that the cost of dealing with the crisis was R100 million and 531 people had been arrested. By Monday, May 26, The Star reported that there were now 25,000 refugees. The figures continued to climb with the Mail & Guardian (June 6 - 12, 2008) reporting that since the xenophobic attacks started on 11 May, there were 37,500 foreign nationals displaced, 19,453 from Gauteng province, 14,144 from the Western Cape province and 1,700 from Kwa-Zulu Natal province. Across South Africa, 34 refugee shelters were set up and since the start of the attacks approximately 37,000 foreigners fled South Africa.

While it is impossible to effectively relay all the pain and suffering that occurred in this case study, consider this: People were hacked with machetes; assaulted with pipes, concrete blocks and pick axe handles; stoned; women, including pregnant women were allegedly raped; neighbourhood police stations became makeshift refugee camps overnight; refugees had their meagre possessions stolen; township business were looted; cars set alight and about 100 foreign and blind street beggars became refugees at the Jeppe Police station. Non-governmental organisations including the SA Red Cross, Salvation Army, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and Medicines Sans Frontiers, amongst others, mobilised to start feeding, clothe and shelter the refugees.

So what should Government have done to communicate and manage the situation effectively?

  • Take immediate control of the situation

    As soon as the unrest started, President Mbeki should have made an immediate announcement about the unfolding events (remember the golden rule is to tell it all, tell it fast and tell it openly). This would have helped him begin to take control of the situation. He should then have convened an immediate crisis meeting of his Ministers for Safety and Security, National Intelligence, Home Affairs, Defence and Social Services. A rapid plan of action should have been thrashed out, agreed on and rolled out. This plan should have also been communicated to the media, South Africans and all stakeholders to limit speculation and rumour mongering.

  • President Mbeki should have taken centre stage and been the key spokesperson

    The president should have communicated on a daily basis to the media and the country as to what the developments were and what was being done to manage them. The presidential communication corps should have set up TV interviews, one-on-one sessions with key print editors, the president should have been on national radio consistently. He should have been positioned and viewed as the person taking centre stage in dealing with the chaos. The president should have positioned himself as the head of the crisis management team to deal with the crisis and all of his overseas engagements should have been cancelled.

  • Use of third parties

    The president should have brought in the Ministers of Safety and Security, National Intelligence, Home Affairs, Defence and Social Services and had them on hand to also speak to the media. This would have positioned the president as being surrounded by a depth of management and it would have gone a long way to show the president and Government were serious about bringing the situation under control.

  • Being open and honest

    A critical component in solving a crisis is being able to accept that you are in a crisis situation. If the president had accepted very early on that there was a crisis and a range of measures had been put in place to deal with it, this would have diffused a lot of the criticism that the Government attracted from a plethora of people, organisations and the media.

  • Communicating far and wide

    Over and above the obvious communication with the media, President Mbeki should have visited the townships and police stations where the refugees initially sought shelter with the various Government ministers. He should have also invited all the ambassadors representing all the various immigrants targeted in the xenophobic attacks for crisis talks to explain to them what was being done to sort out the situation. The South African ambassadors in the various African countries affected by the attacks should have held media briefing sessions with local journalists to talk about the issues at hand.

    Investor confidence was also affected. The correct message would have been sent out by Government, showing that it meant business, if it had communicated consistently and dealt firmly and ruthlessly with the violence.

Finally, once it was all over:
  • Initiate a full inquiry into the tragic events

    The Government should have held a full investigation into the events as they unfolded. Public hearings should have been set up with immigrants and township residents to allow them to provide their own opinions. An independent commission of enquiry should have also been established to investigate the origins of the attacks, the actual attacks, how the security services conducted themselves and what Government's failures were and what was expected of them.

The commission could have also spoken to the ambassadors of the various embassies representing the different nationalities targeted in the attacks. The results should have been made public and the recommendations acted on so that measures could be put in place to ensure the crisis never happens again. Having Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya admitting the attacks were an embarrassment to all South Africans (Radio 702, 17 June 2008, 06:34:18) just does not go far enough.

The critical lesson is to prepare for all eventualities, including those events that are viewed as least likely to occur. Having a robust and enterprise-wide crisis communications plan that could have been rolled out within the golden hour would have helped the Government take control of the situation instead of the situation running away from Government and out of control. Remember, if you fail to plan then you plan to fail.


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.

Gerald Baron
Founder & CEO of PIER System and host of

"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, 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

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, 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.


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.


Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.,, 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


GUEST AUTHORS are very welcome to submit material for "Crisis Manager." There is no fee paid, but most guest authors have reported receiving business inquiries as a result of appearing in this publication. Case histories, experience-based lessons, commentary on current news events and editorial opinion are all eligible for consideration. Submission is not a guarantee of acceptance.


When I find a site that I think will be useful to my readers or site visitors, I put it on our Links page. If you have a site that would be of specific use to crisis managers and want to discuss a link exchange or other cooperative effort, please write to me,


All information contained herein is obtained by Jonathan Bernstein from sources believed by Jonathan Bernstein to be accurate and reliable.

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