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+


No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.

Edmond Burke


Social Media: Life Or Death For Advertisers
by Karen L. Mallia

Two advertising campaigns died untimely deaths in late 2008. They fell to consumers wielding a powerful new weapon: social media.

Much has been discussed in the advertising world about the brilliant promise of social media to reach and engage consumers in ways more meaningful than a traditional ad ever could. But the dark side of social media showed itself twice last fall: first when Twitter users attacked the J&J Motrin moms campaign, and again when bloggers bombed the Pepsi Max campaign launched in Germany.

Consumers have always had the power to complain to advertisers. But writing a letter to a company via snail mail that slowly navigates the inboxes of corporate bureaucracy pales in comparison to the power of instantaneous worldwide communication. Campaigns can now be brought down in days, if not hours. While print launched earlier, the new Motrin online campaign created by Taxi caught the attention of several influencers on Twitter Friday night, November 14, 2008, resulting in a weekend social media firestorm. The campaign was pulled November 16. Months of planning, ideation, developing and producing creative work were blown apart in one weekend. The underlying concept of the campaign was to empathize with moms over the back pain that results from "Wearing your baby," as with slings and infant carriers. Some Twitter users interpreted this as an accusation that women were using their babies as fashion accessories and were incensed, including the proprietor of an online children's store who created "Motrin ad makes moms mad," a video of Twitter microblogs she posted on YouTube. J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare pulled the Motrin website, and replaced it with an apology from its VP of Marketing, who also scrambled to e-mail direct apologies to bloggers. Perhaps there is no small irony in that the last time McNeil experienced such a massive public relations nightmare was the 1982 Tylenol tampering incident, a much more serious issue by comparison.

[Editor's Note: To view the offending images, you can download a PDF version of this story here.]

In the PepsiMax case, suicide survivors and friends and families of suicide victims were outraged by a campaign concept of depicting one lonely calorie (in quirky illustration) trying to kill himself. The print campaign was created by BBDO Dusseldorf and ran in one issue of one German publication. December 1 and 2, message boards and blogs around the globe were popping with commentary, almost all negative and emotionally charged-decrying the very idea of making light of suicide. As of this writing, the message board following the article had 51 comments; all but four were from the U.S. Never known for boldness in advertising, Pepsi immediately scrapped the ads, their spokesman agreeing that they were "totally inappropriate." Another campaign dead, mere days after it launched.

While I won't defend the merits of either carrying your baby as fashion or one lonely calorie committing suicide, these incidents do not bode well for creativity in the digital age. Of its very nature, work that is truly creative is provocative, unexpected, and in the words of David Ogilvy, "makes the client squirm in his seat." That kind of work gets noticed and jolts the consumer out of complacency. Work that is safe and acceptable rarely connects with people, or persuades. But creativity is a tender, fragile commodity. It thrives in an atmosphere of openness and possibility. It takes a strong, brave agency team to nurture, support, and sell unexpected answers to problems. Most clients have a hard enough time making a bold move without quantifiable support, so in an atmosphere of fear, bold creative ideas are even less likely to see the light of day.

Stretching limits has always been a difficult challenge, After all, only a handful of people have the talent to create brilliant advertising, but every layperson feels competent to judge and kill ideas. And while it takes every bit as much time and pain to develop a creative idea these days, social media make killing it so much quicker and easier. These two cases serve as a warning alarm of the frightening powering that social media may exert on creative content. Creating truly daring work may become impossible if a small band of "vocal" malcontents has the power to dictate what can and can't run. The only thing worse than letting a focus group dictate your advertising would be letting a few dozen bloggers do it.

Karen L. Mallia is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina. Contact:

Crisis Shorts
By Jonathan Bernstein

• Want to know if your server has the bandwidth to handle crisis-level visits? Check out the collection of calculators at Numion.

• I have written recently to contacts at a couple of Twitter-related services that I thought would be useful to readers, only to receive no response whatsoever. They had the opportunity to be publicized free to 18,000+ readers interested in crisis management, and blew me off. You have to wonder how businesses like theirs survive.

• If you have a crisis management-related blog that is active (at least three posts per week), we want to trade links with you at, which has a page rank of 4. Write to my blogmeister, Erik Bernstein,

Review: Crisis Management Guidebook
By Jonathan Bernstein

PR News has published Volume 3 of its "Crisis Management Guidebook" series, featuring organized collections of articles by what it calls "seasoned" crisis management professionals. I like that term, "seasoned," versus "old." Particularly since I authored one of the articles in this guidebook.

Chapters include:

  • Media Relations
  • Internal Communications
  • Reputation Management
  • Issues Management
  • Digital Communications
  • Litigation PR
  • The Crisis Plan

Great stuff, all of it. But, I have to say that I'm nonplussed by the $399 price tag for a 150-page publication.

I asked PR News Vice President and Group Publisher Diane Schwartz about this, and she replied: "We compare our guidebooks to PR counsel where the hourly rate far exceeds our "rate" for providing a wide range of expert opinion on the topic. If you compare our guidebook to a book you'd find in Barnes & Noble, then it is true that this guidebook (is) more expensive."

A Public Service Announcement:
Don't Let Your Crisis Planning Slip During This Economic Downturn

By George Hayward

Tomorrow, one of your oil tankers could lubricate the entire Alaskan coast (including adorable, photogenic baby otters).

Tomorrow, your CFO could show up in a YouTube video slamming down Singapore Slings in Belize while tucking your shareholder dividends into the waistbands of festive, indigenous dancers.

Tomorrow, your product could be scientifically linked to that strange disorder that makes couples on those TV spots climb into separate bathtubs and gaze at the sunset for no apparent reason.

Tomorrow could be a really, really bad day. Or not.

How does that affect your decision to invest in a crisis PR plan today?

To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.
—Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and author

Recently, we discovered a video of two Domino's team members who thought that their acts would be a funny YouTube hoax. We sincerely apologize for this incident.
—Patrick Doyle, President, Domino's Pizza

A 19th century poet, author and raconteur. A 21st century pizza magnate. What could they possibly have in common?

It could be argued that both are, in their own way, acknowledging a fundamental truth about modern crisis communications. As Mr. Wilde postulated over a century ago - and Mr. Doyle affirmed just a few weeks ago - if we don't expect the unexpected, our contemporary crises could be played out and streamed live to millions.

The Domino's incident - a video showing two employees performing unspeakable acts to some unsuspecting customer's meal - is just the latest case of an unforeseeable crisis impacting a brand. There have been enough of these high-profile blowups that most of today's business leaders and communications professionals don't need to be lectured on the need for communications during a crisis. But it's one thing to intellectually recognize this need, and quite another to address it with time and resources. This gap yawns particularly widely now - in a tough economy, as the evolution of technology changes the face of communications almost daily, and the hard-dollar costs for things that "might" happen don't seem quite as important as the certain, urgent here and now.

Crisis communications planning is directly related to that business buzz phrase for "doing what's right": corporate social responsibility. It's doing what's right for those you care about most - your customers, your employees, your families. And while most companies believe that they can and will do what's right, those great intentions can be derailed within the first hour of a crisis by simple lack of planning. Until you can get out in front of the situation, the media will get its information and its sound bites from your families, your customers, your vendors, maybe even your partners. You can HOPE they say the right things. But if you haven't thought about the who, what, where, how and when of a crisis - you can lose precious minutes in a news and information cycle that is part media, part consumer and entirely immediate.

Modern crisis communications needs to reach all of your audiences; not just quickly, but simultaneously. In today's digital and wireless world, your customers and families are more than constituents. They are potentially the special guests sitting on the sofa in the big, nonstop, multiplatform, multidirectional talk show. Confronted by a threat to their loved ones or business interests, they will devour - and distribute - any information they obtain. And they'll do it in the span of a few keystrokes. So if you don't have everything you need (or most of what you need), locked, loaded and ready to go at the start of a crisis, things can quickly spiral beyond your control. Do you have a simple "fill in the blanks" press release template? And for that matter, do all essential team members know where it is on the server? Have you identified how you will get your news out and how to leverage your website as a "home base" for communicating with affected audiences? Who are your spokespeople? Have you been keeping up with the changes in social media and how that might affect your communications - both how you communicate information externally and how external audiences communicate about your brand/company back to you and others?

And there are some very simple logistics that often get overlooked. They don't cost money - just time and consideration:

  • You were smart enough to pre-identify your crisis spokesperson. Good thinking. But how deep is your bench? Crisis communications is a 24/7 operation in today's nonstop talk show. Do you have media-trained spokespersons ready to come off the bench when your CEO's been up for 24 hours and is spent?
  • Speaking of 24/7, are you ready to take care of your staff and affected audiences who might need some downtime after the initial adrenaline of the crisis peters out? If not, your planning better include phone numbers and a contact at a local hotel that will be ready for you when you call.
  • Those people get hungry, too. (Hey, let's order Domino's!) And depending on the crisis, they may need something warm to wear. All your crisis prep can be hindered due to gathering storms or growling stomachs. Do you have an emergency credit card stashed away to pay for those basic needs?
  • Do you have all of your internal information updated? Phone numbers for key partners, current listing of staff members and their emergency info, advertisers or community partners who might need to be contacted immediately? Is everything updated so you can be confident that you're not going to get disconnected phone numbers or be left scrambling for information at the onset of the crisis? Most importantly, how do you expect your constituents to get YOUR information?

News releases, websites and email lists are effective means to reach the wider audience of the general public. But even those are not enough when your vendors and shareholders are spread across the continent (or farther away), your clients are wondering if you'll be open tomorrow, and your families are outside your door. Social media lets you reach those people. Modern crisis planning means having social media tools in place already, with your key audiences plugged into them. Whether text or Twitter, even a note that "no information is available at the moment, it will come to you as soon as we have it" demonstrates a sense of corporate responsibility. In today's realm of instant information, that electronic compassion may be the only information media can report before your news conference.

Social media can be a two-edged sword. Within hours of the offending Domino's video appearing on YouTube, the blogosphere drove it from 20,000 views to 760,000 views. Ironically, it was the readers of a consumer advocacy blog that not only notified the corporate office, but also independently researched and identified the store in question. Soon the president of Domino's was online with his own apologetic video. But the damage was done.

Sometimes crisis planning is the easiest thing to cut during an economic downturn. Putting preparation and dollars toward the "what if" just doesn't seem important when resources are stretched thin. Can you truly afford to let your crisis plan lapse, or are there small, cost-effective things you can do to make sure you stay ready?

It's a lot to consider, especially for scenarios that you hope will never happen, and perhaps never will. Like me, you're already pondering the potential crises that could broadside you. Whether it's the economic meltdown, a hazmat or hostage situation, or misguided employees bringing a new, dark nuance to the phrase "hold the pepperoni," expecting the unexpected today isn't just a good idea. I think it's a responsibility.

George Hayward has more than 18 years of broad public relations experience in the military, aerospace, travel/tourism and heavy construction industries. His crisis communications experience includes no-notice crisis response to military aircraft crashes, public protests, a fatal accident on a major construction project, the shutdown of a $1.2 billion NASA program, and a mold infestation at a new $95 million hotel. To learn more, visit

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Now Available At The Crisis Manager Bookstore

  • Keeping The Wolves At Bay: A Media Training Manual (In Hard Copy And PDF Formats)
  • The Nastiest Media Tricks And How To Prevent Them (CD)
  • Crisis Management & The Law (CD)
  • Internet Counterintelligence (CD)
  • How To Conduct A Vulnerability Audit (CD)

Jonathan Bernstein also offers on-site and remote webcam and WebEx-based media training worldwide, using Keeping the Wolves at Bay as the basis for training. Write to for more information.

Want To Blog And Tweet About Your Organization But Don't Have Time?

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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


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