Ono the Ostrich CRISIS MANAGER
The Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management
Editor: Jonathan Bernstein

"For Those Who Are Crisis Managers,
Whether They Want to be or Not"

2010 Jonathan Bernstein

Volume XI, Number 09
May 13, 2010


Thinking you can survive crisis-level media interviews solely because you're good at positive-news interviews is delusional.


How do you hire someone who knows more than you do about the subject you need him or her for? I've found online guidance on how to hire everything from a realtor to a plumber, but I haven't seen much about how to identify a media trainer who can deliver what you need.  That's the topic of my short lead article, 10 Questions to Ask Your Media Trainer.

Then, you're in for a stimulating read, a brilliant piece by communications consultant and crisis coach Ike Pigott, who's also one of the most followed PR guys on Twitter (as @ikepigott).  In Seven Signs and the Jena Six, Ike first outlines what causes a topic to "go viral" via Twitter, email, blogs, etc., and then brings that lesson to life in the form of a case history.  The article has so many teaching points that it could easily anchor a half-day workshop.

Want to learn more about crisis management?  Please check out the Bernstein Crisis Management blog I manage with my son Erik, as well as the Crisis Management blog I host over at Carter McNamara's Free Management Library, where you'll also find a dozen or more other excellent blogs.


My best to all,


10 Questions to Ask Your Media Trainer
By Jonathan Bernstein

Retaining someone to provide a service about which you know little yourself can always be tricky, whether it be an auto mechanic, a lawyer, a plumber, a computer tech or -- the topic du jour -- a media trainer.
Jonathan Bernstein

Below are a list of questions to ask any potential media trainer. The answers should provide you with insights critical to making an informed decision about using his or her services.
  1. Have you been a working journalist yourself?

  2. If yes to #1, what type of journalist were you (e.g., anchor, investigative reporter)?

  3. If no to #1, what is the basis for your understanding of the media?

  4. Does your training include how to deal with non-traditional media, e.g., social media?

  5. Do you teach us how we can maintain the skills we have learned from you?  Be specific.

  6. Does your training prepare us both for routine interviews and for crisis-level interviews?

  7. How long have you been a media trainer?

  8. Could you show me anything you've written about this topic, and/or articles in which you've been interviewed?

  9. If the stuff hits the fan, can you also provide us with spot advice on what we can say?

  10. Are you an experienced media interview subject yourself -- i.e. do you practice what you preach?
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. and author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay - Media Training.
By Ike Pigott

Thanks to the Internet, any crank with access can write something that spreads. If you're managing the
Ike Pigott
reputation of a brand, the factor working in your favor is there is so much material being published that it is the rare message that cuts through the clutter.

But how do you recognize it before it starts doing its damage?

The following is a piece I wrote for the Now Is Gone blog in April 2008, but now there is some added backstory. (Most of what I write has a backstory. It makes it easier to draw distinct conclusions; the trick is in generalizing them enough that you can communicate it without tipping the backstory.)

At the most basic level, your participation in Social Media needs to include monitoring and listening. If you don't know what's being said about you, you'll never have a chance to correct misperceptions or outright lies. Being functionally deaf makes you blind in targeting future efforts.

For those organizations that fail to even listen, the top hesitation is the fear of finding "bad news," and not knowing how to deal with it. Given the flood of information that you might find about yourself, it's easier to play the ostrich and pretend it doesn't exist. While that might make you sleep a little easier, your shareholders and stakeholders might see things differently. So how exactly do you prioritize these potential "reputation threats" as they circulate?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, you use monitoring tools to find a knock against your company in a blog or public forum. Aside from simple traffic statistics and site popularity, here are a few measures of "viral-ness" you can use to determine which ones are capable of becoming a big problem down the road.

Viral Triggers, A through G


A.    Authority/assertion
The message must give you the feeling that you now know something important that will truly affect future decisions.

B.    Brevity
No one wants to read a manifesto. If the negative message is too long, the average reader won't want to be the one to foist it upon his whole network.

C.    Clarity
A well-crafted message, to go viral, must be unambiguous. There can be no question about where the author stands.

D.   Detail
The position must be rooted in incontrovertible fact. A random message that "Dell sucks" doesn't carry the weight of "Having used your product for 9 years...".

E.    Emotion
How well-written is the message? Does it make you feel as though you could be just as passionate for simply passing it along?

F.    Focus
The message must be about one thing, and one thing only. If it makes a reader mentally wander he'll be less likely to feel compelled to pass it along.

G.   Gossip
One reason people like to pass on juicy little tidbits is the rush of knowing that you knew something before (almost) any of your friends did. This places you in a position of esteem and authority within your circle.

A quick glance can usually knock a couple of these factors out for a particular instance, and you can move on. If you see a message that hits six out of seven flags, you may want to do an Internet search for an unusual string within the message, to see if this is already moving and where.

If you see one that hits all seven warning triggers, you probably need to put it in the hands of whoever would handle your reactive messaging. A direct response might be in order, unless it comes off looking like an attack. But you need to be prepared for the likelihood that many people will see this attack on your brand and reputation.

As with all things in Social Media, your mileage will always vary. This tool is not scientific - but will empower you to concentrate your time on the messages that matter. It beats getting caught in the paralysis of analysis, or wasting resources on issues that will never materialize as real reputation threats.

And now, the Rest of the Story.

My advice is clear, but what it lacked was an example to ground it.

In September 2007, tens of thousands of protesters were to converge in Jena, Louisiana, to rally around six teenagers they felt were being abused by the legal system after a string of racial incidents and violence.

I have no position on the matter, and never really bothered to dive into it like a legal scholar would.

At the time, I was the Communication Director for the Southeast for the American Red Cross, and while Louisiana was not in my territory, Mississippi was. September is an important time of year for many of my Red Cross chapters, particularly those in military communities where the Combined Federal Campaign raises a large chunk of the yearly operating budget.

Being a neutral organization, the Red Cross had no position on Jena either. However, the arrival of that large a crowd on a small community threatened to create some public health issues, namely dehydration, heat stroke, and simple first aid needs that naturally occur when you have a group that size. The official Red Cross position would be to have no position on Jena... until the state of Louisiana made a formal request for aid.

The organization could not follow the mandates of the charter and ignore the need, and the state had followed proper protocol in asking for humanitarian assistance. The discussion about how to handle the messaging of this tricky issue was several levels above my pay grade - and many of my peers didn't understand it at first. But eventually we were given a series of talking points to explain why we would be there, and the justification for it, and that we would be asking the state of Louisiana for reimbursement.

Patient Zero

Every good infection story has a Patient Zero, where the disease is first identified.

I recall getting a call from one of my chapter executives near the coast, who was concerned about an email that was spreading throughout the community. It was written by a James Broadwell, an attorney in Jena, and read as follows:

I thought that the mission of the American Red Cross was to help people in times of disaster. I have a problem with what I saw happening in Jena, La. yesterday. My problem is not with the people coming to Jena to march, they have that right, but with the American Red Cross giving away supplies to the marchers. The newspapers have stated that approximately 25,000 bottles of water were given out. I will not mention any medical care that was provided, but we do have a local hospital that offers excellent medical care, but not for free.

I sat on the balcony of my office and watched the marchers arriving carrying no supplies, but when they left Jena they were carrying bottles of water that was supplied by your organization. These people were not in a disaster mode, they knew what they were getting into when they came to rally, and should have planned better and brought their own supplies.

I had a house burn in 1985 and lost everything, including my cars and dog, but never got a call or note from the Red Cross. I did not mind that I was not contacted by you and have not ever given it a second thought until yesterday. I have donated faithfully to the Red Cross for the better part of my 56 years, but no more.

I know that in the scheme of things I am just a small drop in the bucket, but I will tell everyone that I know what has happened here, and maybe this small drop will turn into a flood. And yes you can use my name it is James L. Broadwell 111, my address is 329 Pleasant Hill Road, Jena, La. 71342

Email Epidemiology

If you want to learn about how a virus spreads, you have to isolate its path. Then you can determine the mechanism most likely for transmission, incubation and illness.

If you want to learn about how a viral email spreads, you need to do the same thing.

When I first saw this email from Mr. Broadwell, I knew we were going to be in for a rocky ride. Compound that with the Combined Federal Campaign, and how this would resonate with those who had been very supporting of us.

I got the exec to forward me the email, and I sent it up the chain to National Headquarters. They looked at it, cataloged it, and I didn't hear back.

The next day, I got a call from the chapter executive in Jackson, Mississippi. She was worried about this email that was circulating in her community. Same one.

I had her forward it to me, because now I could compare it to the one I had the previous day from the coast. The message was completely unchanged. (That's more rare than you think - often people will tweak a detail or two, or something gets lost in the translation, and you end up with a mutant variant strain.)

What I was really interested in was the epidemiology. Where had this message been? Among the headers I found government agencies, politicians, media, members of the chapter board of directors, and others identified as real movers-and-shakers in the community. This was moving quickly through the heavy hitters, the potential big donor crowd.

Even more alarming was the speed. The Jackson version was three generations removed from the coastal message. It was spreading fast, and going wide. I called National Headquarters, and I was told not to worry, that they had only received two calls into the public inquiry line about it, and saw no reason to over-react.

I felt like I was the protagonist of a Hot Zone movie. Patient Zero was a walking zombie, going straight for the brainzzzz of the organization.

Calling My Shot

The next day, a Friday, I heard from my executive in Meridian, the far eastern side of Mississippi. Her version was still pristine, and had the same forwarding signature - heavy hitters, and fast delivery times. When you start dumping a message into the Send All on your address book, three times a day will hit a broad distribution.

I called NHQ again, this time begging for an updated set of talking points. My chapters were getting hammered with questions they were not equipped to answer. Furthermore, because of the sensitive nature of the issue, they were instructed to not go off the talking points, for fear of making things worse. (A tactic I did agree with, because in this instance inconsistency would have been even worse.)

The original talking points were not bad, they just weren't specific enough. And they certainly didn't answer Mr. Broadwell. I knew full well that if I could sit down with any one of these people, I could explain it to their satisfaction. Even then you would have a percentage that will believe what they want anyway, but often those are the people who are just looking for an excuse to not donate to begin with.

I could answer the questions Broadwell raised. The crew at NHQ could do it, too. But it was thought too risky to jump out with even more communication on it until it was necessary. Give it a chance to blow over. The last thing I said was "Just please have someone get a deeper set of reactionary talking points approved, by Monday this thing is going to blow up, not blow over."

Not five seconds after hanging up the phone, I got a call from Tuscaloosa.

"Ike, we've got a little problem down here. There is an email circulating through the community, apparently written by this guy in Louisiana..."


By Monday, we had a set of reactive talking points, that more keenly addressed the issues raised by Mr. Broadwell. That didn't salve the sting for the chapters immediately, but they did proceed.

At the time I wrote the original "Seven Signs" piece for Now Is Gone, I knew that my days were numbered with the Red Cross. My entire field office - and the entire regional structure as we knew it - was being shed as part of a massive layoff. I was one month away from my end date.

Clearly, I wasn't in a position to air inside scoop. I tell the story now because there are instructive elements I left off the table.

Everything he said in the letter was true, but it wasn't the whole truth. There were facts we didn't put out initially because they had the potential to confuse, but by the time Broadwell's interpretation was circulating there was nothing to lose in communicating it.

And I do stand behind the decision to play this one carefully - when you have hundreds of individual spokespeople across the country, any variation in such a sensitive message can come back to haunt everyone.

My seven viral triggers were not some homily, some cute link-bait way of getting attention. (If that were my aim, I would have published it here on Occam's Razr two years ago, instead of Geoff's "Now is Gone" site.) They were based on an exacting examination of the Broadwell letter. What was it about that email that resonated with so many who forwarded it on? There is value in isolating those factors, so you can prioritize your time to the things that matter (and not waste effort preparing reactive talking points for every conceivable crank.) Most importantly, by honing the list I was creating a process whereby others could help me find the trouble before it starts. No sense in having only one soldier in a platoon equipped with binoculars.

I read that letter dozens of times, looking at the way it was written. It told a story. It used proper grammar. It was quick and clean and focused. I looked at the variations as it spread, looking for the tell-tale clues, like the person who felt the need to highlight parts of it with bold or italics. What made this such a delicious thing to spread?

After much consideration, I found seven things this email had going for it, that set it apart from the rabble. And I found a way to definitively describe those characteristics using the letters A through G, as a mnemonic. Then I published it.

Ike Pigott, a Birmingham-based communications strategist and crisis coach, is principal of Positive Position, which specializes in media training for schools.  Contact: ike@positiveposition.com.

(aka blatant self-promotion)

Keeping the Wolves at Bay: Media Training

What has 80+ pages of hard-hitting, entertaining and easy-to-read guidance on how to deal with both traditional and online media during times of crisis?  The answer is
Keeping the Wolves at Bay - Media Training.Book Cover JPG

The, four-color, perfect-bound, 8x10 manual is currently available both in hardcopy ($25) and PDF form ($10). Volume discounts are available; write to Jonathan Bernstein for that information.

Here's a couple of teaser reviews for you:

Jonathan Bernstein's Keeping the Wolves at Bay is an eminently practical guidance for anyone - business leader, celebrity, politician - who must willingly or unwillingly face the glare of media attention. It appears
at a moment in time when the social media and other digital communications have upped the ante exponentially.
Bernstein's practicum on media relations takes on renewed urgency as news, gossip, and opinion now drive
public perception virally and at the speed of light.

Richard Levick, Esq.
President & CEO
Levick Strategic Communications, LLC

Even if you think you'll never, ever be interviewed by the media, buy this book and read it cover to cover. It isn't a substitute for media training. But it will give you the tools and confidence to go head to head -- and possibly even defang -- rabid reporters, blood-thirsty bloggers and social networking buffoons who are out to besmirch your good name.

Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound

The book and other products can be found at the
Crisis Manager Bookstore

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

Missing out on all the promotional and SEO advantages of doing so? Hire someone to be your voice...like Erik Bernstein, aka "Son of Crisis Manager."

More info:jonathan@bernsteincrisismanagement.com.


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.


JonatJB Headshothan 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 jonathan@bernsteincrisismanagement.com.


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

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In This Issue
Just a Thought
10 Questions to Ask Your Media Trainer
Seven Signs and the Jena Six
Quick Links