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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2009 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 5,000+
Estimated Readership: 18,000+


Sometimes I feel like a professional 'Chicken Little,' which I suppose is better than being an amateur ostrich.

Jonathan Bernstein


It's Not Just Peanuts
How Rapid Customer Response Can Protect Your Brand
By Rob Duncan, COO, Alpine Access

Peanuts. Who would have thought that the negligence of one peanut manufacturer would result in the deadliest food contamination outbreak in the past 20 years? The Food and Drug Administration considered peanut butter a low-risk food. Yet, to date, 683 people in 43 states have become ill from salmonella after eating contaminated peanut products, and nine have died. This salmonella outbreak, which was traced back to the Peanut Corporation of America in September 2008, has affected hundreds of companies, led to the recall of more than 3,200 products and could ultimately cost the U.S. peanut industry billions of dollars (Reuters, 3/12/09).

Companies in the industry raced to protect themselves as peanut butter and peanut product sales dropped 25 percent. Many companies used independent third-party tests to prove salmonella didn't exist in their products. Still, people weren't satisfied. With the public demanding accountability, the only shield most companies had was their brands.

J.M. Smucker Company, makers of JIF peanut butter, ran an ad campaign reinforcing their focus on safety. Others issued press releases or posted notices on their websites. However, the majority of companies had to rely on quick, efficient communication to defend their reputations, strengthen customer loyalty and restore consumer confidence. But with just days to prepare, how could they possibly find enough experienced people to handle the unavoidable onslaught of customer calls?

The Peanut Recall: How Rapid Response Customer Care Preserved One Company's Reputation and Brand

Forward Foods, LLC, produces and markets high protein energy and snack bars. Its line of Detour Activity Bars has won numerous quality awards and leads the industry in terms of convenience and taste. Unfortunately, a few flavors of the company's energy bars contained roasted peanuts manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Although all Detour Bars were thoroughly tested by an independent third-party and verified to be safe for consumption, Forward Foods voluntarily recalled all products containing peanuts from PCA.

Costco was a significant distributor for a few of the identified products. Therefore, part of the recall process involved sending a letter to Costco's membership base with a phone number to call for information on product disposal and refunds. Two days before the letter was to be received by consumers, Forward Foods realized their internal customer service department would be unable to handle the expected increase in call volume. At 3 p.m. on Monday, February 2, 2009 Forward Foods called Alpine Access, a company that provides highly-skilled, home-based customer service professionals to handle in-bound calls of all kinds including tech-support, sales, customer support and collections. Two hours later they were a new client. Alpine Access immediately tapped into its large pool of available employees and within one day created a team of skilled Customer Care Professionals (CCPs) to handle the expected call volume. By 9a.m. on Wednesday, February 4th, the Alpine Access employees were trained and on the phones answering questions from Forward Foods' customers.

Over the next few days, CCPs talked to over 1,100 customers and company executives received real-time updates that helped them stay on top of the crisis. Forward Foods was amazed with how quickly a virtual contact center could respond to such an immediate need. The director of marketing was thankful to have partnered with a home-based customer care center saying, "Alpine Access was highly professional and responsive to our needs for a quick call center set up. They made my job a lot easier."

Customer Service and Crisis Planning

The recent peanut crisis should make all companies take a hard look at their current crisis plans or lack thereof. In addition to business continuity planning, have you thought about how to take care of your customers? They are, after all, your biggest asset. In times of crisis, home-based contact centers can help you respond quickly and deliver quality customer service that will reinforce the reasons consumers trusted your brand in the first place. With a little planning and the right partner, your company can not only survive an unforeseen event, but emerge with a stronger brand and more loyal customers.

Rob Duncan is Chief Operating Officer of Alpine Access, Inc. a Denver, Colorado-based provider of call center services using home-based customer service and sales employees. Alpine Access clients include EDS, Office Depot, the IRS and a number of Fortune 100 financial institutions. Duncan can be reached at 303-279-0585. Additional information about Alpine Access can be found at

PR Strategies For Dealing With A Negative Blogger
By Frank Strong

By all indications, we were having a successful technology product launch. We had pre-briefed select media, analysts and influential bloggers and publicly announced an innovative product at a Gartner trade show. The buzz was, in fact, the buzz was great.

We had validation from customers and industry analysts — a fact that was reflected in the media coverage, which was both high in volume and quality. "Forward thinking," "innovative," has "leap-frogged the competition" were just some of the favorable reactions we saw in the public domain. A PR dream, right?

Then, after a few days came one post from a particularly influential blogger, who casts himself as a skeptic of IT vendors and products. His headline flatly accused our company executives of smoking drugs, that our claims and our new product were a delusion. His post was merciless, scathing, and unjustified. He had published his remarks without speaking to us and, more importantly, without seeing the product.

Dealing with a skeptical blogger can be dicey. Collectively our team analyzed the problem and then laid out and executed a strategy. Of course it's important to reiterate that we not only believed in our product — the enthusiasm internally was overwhelming — but we could prove it with a demo and testimonials from our beta customers and experts that focus on this particular market segment. Here's what we did:

Is the blogger approachable?

We felt the answer was no. This guy wanted to be a skeptic and even if he did accept a briefing call, the outcome would not be positive. Therefore our strategy was to isolate this blogger by educating his peers and providing ample materials in a variety of formats to let people come to their own conclusions.

We put our own blog at the center

As a company, we never directly addressed this individual blogger or acknowledged his post; we kept all of our communications positive and professional. We posted or linked to the overwhelmingly positive coverage that already existed. In addition, we continuously updated our blog with new screenshots and used case scenarios. The visual elements were key: it's one thing to make a claim and quite another to demonstrate it.

Target the sphere of influence

Bloggers talk to other bloggers and often do so publicly by commenting on each other's blog or by cross referencing each other's posts on their own posts. These are people I think of as peers in the same sphere of influence. We identified other bloggers in our skeptic's sphere of influence — particularly those we felt would be receptive to a demo or briefing call. All we asked for was a fair evaluation: good, bad or indifferent. We set up six such briefings and the resulting coverage trickled out over the next couple of weeks — most was positive and some was neutral. None of it was negative.

Engaged additional analysts

We also targeted additional industry analysts from smaller firms — those other than Gartner or Forrester. In particular, we identified one analyst firm that we believed was especially Web 2.0 savvy and had some cross-blog chatter with the skeptic. We sponsored a recorded Webcast, which was basically an analyst-moderated demo. The analyst would not guarantee his commentary would be all positive prior to seeing the product, but that was just fine with us. First, that's exactly the credibility we wanted and, further, we believed our product would speak for itself...and it did. Second, the Webcast was posted to this analyst's own widely read blog and we of course had the rights to post it on our Web site and our blog. Another visual aid.

Not all was rosy

There was one incident that could have been prevented and was eventually stopped, but only after the damage had been done. One well-intended employee had logged on to the skeptic's blog as an anonymous commentator and published several impassioned rebuttals. This resulted in a sharp exchange back and forth between the blogger and our employee. Our employee's reaction was understandable — he had poured his heart into this product and he was upset by what we all considered a baseless and unfair assessment — yet we could have prevented this by doing a better job of communicating internally what was being done to address the matter.

So what was the outcome?

As other bloggers in the same sphere of influence began to publish their thoughts, which contradicted those of our skeptic, and as we added to the wealth of multimedia and posts on our own blog, subsequent comments by this skeptic were, well, notably less skeptical. He was the lone horseman. The only guy that hadn't seen the product and yet was providing a negative review. We believed his commentary had been simply wasn't credible.

Not all bad buzz is bad

This scenario reminds me that not all bad buzz is bad. The skeptic's comments threw fuel on what was already a firestorm of positive public contributions. His reaction drove traffic to our blog, Web site and related media articles or posts. In effect he provided overwhelmingly positive attention that otherwise would have been unattainable.

The debate encouraged people to take a closer look at our product, tune in more closely to the very public discussion and we believe actually helped us pull other fence-sitting pundits and prospects into our corner. Most proudly from a PR perspective, new articles and blog posts that characterized the new product in a positive manner continued to appear. It was certainly the most successful product launch in the company's history and in my own career.

Frank Strong, MA, MBA, authors the "Sword and the Script" blog, where I first found this article. He describes himself as PR & marketing guy full-time, infantry officer part-time, Pats fan all the time, political news junkie anytime.

Bernstein Blogging Update

You don't have to wait for another issue of Crisis Manager to continue to receive crisis management insights. Visit us at at the Bernstein Crisis Management blog. You can also express your opinions there, to include providing a handy, SEO-improving "backlink" to your own website. Some recent topics posted there:

  • Tour Ship Compared to Hospital Prison Ship
  • Tracking Public Health
  • Have Some Sense!
  • Damage Control

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Keeping The Wolves At Bay: A Media Training Manual


"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.

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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

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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


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