The Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management
Editor: Jonathan Bernstein

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

2011 Jonathan Bernstein

Volume XII, Number 3
February 3, 2011



If corporate executives want to sound more credible, they have to learn to un-stuff their shirts.


             Jonathan Bernstein                                    


Happy anniversary to us!  The first issue of Crisis Manager, which remains archived at my main business website, was released on February 1, 2000.  The two main articles were "The Internet as a Catalyst for Crisis," then a fairly new concept, and "My Advice to OJ Simpson."  You know, that guy currently sitting in a Nevada prison?


My friend, frequent contractor and expert PR guy Bruce Bonafede is featured in this issue's first story, an analysis of Taco Bell's recent response to a lawsuit.  Then Tony Jaques, the Aussie crisis management whiz, visits us again, drawing a fascinating analogy between the behavior of Charlie Sheen and some corporations.


Then, if you'd like to get crisis management analysis of breaking news and issues on a more frequent basis, be sure to check out the links to our three blogs, in the right-hand column of this ezine.


As always, if you like what you see, please share it with others by using the "Forward Email" link at the bottom of the ezine and tell them to subscribe!  IMPORTANT NOTE: If you just "Forward" using your own email program's "Forward" function and your recipient thinks they're being spammed, they can click on the Opt Out link and opt YOU off the list. So use the "Forward Email" link, please.



My best to all,



By Bruce Bonafede


Taco Bell's response to a lawsuit claiming its beef doesn't qualify as "beef" under USDA regulations has been, in crisis management terms, aggressive. The company came out with a vigorous response over a range of communications channels including web video, prints ads, and others - all very strong in denial of the lawsuit's claims and defense of their product quality.
Bruce Bonafede

Bruce Bonafede

We'll see whether their response works. If it doesn't, I suspect it won't be the fault of the plan. More likely it will be the fault of the messaging. Here are some general guidelines on crisis messaging brought to mind by the Taco Bell response.

Don't be clever

Running print ads with the headline "Thank you for suing us" may have seemed clever to Taco Bell, but crisis response is no place to be clever. It's a place to be honest, concerned, informative, two-way, and prompt. Those are what are called the "five tenets of crisis communications" not because crisis management pro Jonathan Bernstein put them in an article, but because they work.

Sure a headline like that cuts through the clutter, but everyone on the planet knows companies don't want to be sued over the quality of their products, so a response like "Thank you for suing us" is so blatantly false it's silly. It suggests the company doesn't take the issue seriously. Similar attempts at cleverness will undermine any valid information you have to offer.

Use facts, not fluff

In a crisis you can't get away with BS. For instance, from Taco Bell's response: "Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We're happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree." Thanks for reminding us that your food is cheap and you're successful, but what does that have to do with the issue at hand which is the quality of your beef? Having "millions of customers" doesn't mean you haven't been misleading them.

Put things into context

Many journalists avoid context like the plague because it tends to make their news less, well, newsworthy. That's why you should use it in your messaging when you can. If the context you provide is valid, you can change perceptions and maybe even the discussion. Do other "Mexican inspired" restaurants use 100% beef? I don't know. But Taco Bell should, and if the others don't they should have considered broadening the discussion. It's tough to pick on a company for doing what everyone else in their industry does.

Give your messages the smell test

If someone claims that your product isn't 100% something, don't come back with, well at least it's 88% of what it's supposed to be. Put yourself in the mind of your audience. When you're developing crisis messages, actually listen to your messages. If you were one of your customers or stakeholders, would your messages work? Would they allay your concerns? If not, you have more thinking to do.

Make your messages simple, really simple

Most people experience the news the way they experience speed dating - they don't spend a lot of time on any one story. If you want them to "get" your messages, make them simple. Really simple. And don't come up with a long list of "key" messages. Ideally you really have only one basic message: either you did wrong, and here's how you're going to make sure it doesn't happen again; or you didn't do wrong, and here's why. All other messaging should flow from or support your basic message. It also helps if that basic message is credible and convincing. Taco Bell's wasn't.

Bruce Bonafede is president of Bonafede Communications, a PR and crisis communications firm based in Palm Springs, CA. You can reach him at 760-314-0025 or bruce@bonafedecommunications.com



By Tony Jaques



PR experts emphasise that there are important differences between an issue and a crisis. But those distinctions tend to break down when issues are repeated or start to accumulate.

Tony Jaques

Tony Jaques


A celebrity example of the impact is Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen who is regarded as a "serial offender" when it comes to social and legal transgressions. So when his latest misadventure hits the headlines it is seen not as a standalone failure but as part of a pattern of unacceptable behaviour.


In the same way, corporations can suffer a touch of the 'Charlie Sheens' - when problems accumulate and commentators and analysts begin talking about a pattern of behaviour.


The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was undoubtedly a major environmental and commercial disaster. What made it virtually indefensible for the company was the fact that it came so soon after the near collapse of the Thunder Horse drilling rig and the Texas City disaster in 2005, the Prudhoe Bay pipeline failure in 2006, followed by more safety violations at the troubled Texas City refinery in 2009, at a refinery in Ohio, and another massive pipeline leak in Alaska in May 2010.


Such serial problems are certainly not confined to the oil industry. For example, product recalls are sadly only too common, but for Johnson and Johnson repeated recalls in 2010 eventually involved about 288 million items, including about 136 million bottles of medicine for infants and children. And 2011 started equally badly in mid-January when J & J recalled 47 million units of Sudafed, Sinutab, Benadryl and other drugs, just one day after their company spokesperson said they would "take whatever steps are needed to ensure our products meet quality standards, including further recalls if warranted."  


Similarly, when Vodafone Australia had a worrying security breach involving personal data for up to 4 million customers, most commentators focussed on the fact that it came close on the heels of sustained customer service problems. Even a fairly well-managed incident like the near-disastrous Qantas A380 engine explosion off Singapore last November was made worse coming amid a string of alleged maintenance problems. And those problems continued with a Los Angeles-bound flight diverted to Fiji on 18 January, 2011 - in itself a relatively minor operational problem, but just four days after yet another Qantas "safety scare" followed by another frightening midair incident a week later.


So what does this mean for executives and communications practitioners? When an issue gets big enough it may become a crisis. But sometimes it is not the size of the issue, rather than how many other issues have recently happened.


Reputation is often described as a bank account you build up in good times to draw on when things go bad. A new paper by risk guru Peter Sandman questions whether this popular metaphor is really as valid as it seems. However it is certain that when problems are repeated, the reputational withdrawals are not just dollar for dollar but multiply with accumulated penalty interest.


To return to Hollywood, Charlie Sheen may be America's highest paid TV star, though his reputation bank account is deeply in overdraft. More importantly, while every excess withdrawal for him might mean a blip in his career, for a corporation it could even spell the end.


Tony Jaques is Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd. This article originally appeared in Tony's new email newsletter, "Managing Outcomes." You can subscribe by sending your name and contact details to subscribe@issueoutcomes.com.au.

(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.


The Art of Celeste Mendelsohn


This has NOTHING to do with crisis management, but I have to brag on the launch of the new website launched

to feature the art of Celeste Mendelsohn -- my wife, partner and Creative Director.  This image is Yin-Yang, painted on a wood round.  Her work also includes plates, masks, yoga asanas, computer art and even needlework.


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.



Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis MJB-BESTanagement, 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.

Because of the possibility of human and mechanical error as well as other factors, neither Jonathan Bernstein nor Bernstein Crisis Management is responsible for any errors or omissions. All information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Bernstein Crisis Management and Jonathan Bernstein make no representations and disclaim all express, implied, and statutory warranties of any kind to the user and/or any third party including, without limitation, warranties as to accuracy, timeliness, completeness, merchantability, or fitness for any particular purpose.

Unless due to willful tortuous misconduct or gross negligence, Jonathan Bernstein and Bernstein Crisis Management shall have no liability in tort, contract, or otherwise (and as permitted by law, product liability), to the user and/or any third party.

Under no circumstance shall Bernstein Crisis Management or Jonathan Bernstein be liable to the user and/or any third party for any lost profits or lost opportunity, indirect, special, consequential, incidental, or punitive damages whatsoever, even if Bernstein Crisis Management or Jonathan Bernstein has been advised of the possibility of such damages.

A service of this newsletter is to provide news summaries and/or snippets to readers. In such instances articles and/or snippets will be reprinted as they are received from the originating party or as they are displayed on the originating website or in the original article. As we do not write the news, we merely point readers to it, under no circumstance shall Bernstein Crisis Management or Jonathan Bernstein be liable to the user and/or any third party for any lost profits or lost opportunity, indirect, special, consequential, incidental, or punitive damages whatsoever due to the distribution of said news articles or snippets that lead readers to a full article on a news service's website, even if Bernstein Crisis Management or Jonathan Bernstein has been advised of the possibility of such damages. Authors of the original news story and their publications shall be exclusively held liable. Any corrections to news stories are not mandatory and shall be printed at the discretion of the list moderator after evaluation on a case-by-case basis.

In This Issue
Just A Thought
Thank You for Suing Us...?
When Corporations Get A Touch Of The "Charlie Sheens"
Quick Links