The Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management
Editor: Erik Bernstein

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

© 2011 Jonathan Bernstein
Volume XII, Number 4
May 24, 2011


As we publish this edition of Crisis Manager, Sony, Apple and Facebook are still dominating the business headlines, and not in a positive way. Though the sticky situations these three companies have landed in are unrelated, all are proof that those at the top of the heap are far from invulnerable to crisis.

In this issue, Strata Communications' Helen Slater shares a case study where the New Zealand government's failure to learn from disaster led to further loss of life and property. Then, another communications pro, Kristy Croom Tucker, shares her tips on how to bounce back from crises of any size.

And, 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.

                 Best to all,


By Helen Slater

It seems that despite warnings of the most severe kind, disasters will still take people and organisations by surprise. New Zealand is on the Pacific faultline – most of the country experiences earthquakes of some degree.  

In the early morning of 4 September 2010, the Canterbury region suffered a 7.3 magnitude earthquake. It was unexpected and caused a lot of property damage but importantly no loss of life.

Buildings were destroyed, particularly in the major city of Christchurch’s central business district, businesses ceased trading, roads damaged. A regional state of emergency was imposed.

The Christchurch Mayor (a former media personality) was returned to office on the back of his performance during this crisis – polls until then indicated he would be trounced in the election which was under way at the time.

Mayor Bob Parker was praised for his calmness under pressure, with strong, consistent messages. But the Earthquake Commission, responsible for assessing the 190,0000 insurance claims, acknowledged it could have done better with its communication.

"Probably in the first week we might have got up earlier with some of the public communication about 'what is our role, what is going to happen' ... but that would probably be a matter of days rather than weeks," the commission told a Parliamentary hearing.

In the months that followed, the focus was on rebuilding treasured heritage buildings and getting the city back to normal during the thousands of aftershocks that followed.

But despite experts’ warnings, Christchurch was still taken by surprise when the next predicted major earthquake struck on 22 February - 6.3 magnitude. It was lunchtime. Thousands of people were out in the streets, in their high-rise office buildings, and in the remaining brick heritage buildings. Facades crumbled, crushing people, buses and cars.

The total loss of life is now put at 182. The population is still enduring major aftershocks, traumatising them, creating uncertainty. Upwards of 70,000 people left the city, many for good.

The quality of communication has been patchy. In those first days, I was in the Civil Defence (NZ equivalent of FEMA) HQ.  There were around 600 journalists in the city from around the world. Many became frustrated. Here are some reasons why:
  • Unable to get through on the limited mobile numbers (two) provided
  • Slow response to queries (sometimes even days)
  • Lack of communication between the different departments (a large bureaucracy was constructed very quickly) resulting in differing information being released
  • Not allowing journalists access to any areas within the cordon, resulting in some going through without permission. It took a week to organise supervised tours with the Urban Search and Rescue teams
Basic lessons for communications:
  • Brief the communications team frequently every shift so they don’t work in a bubble
  • Match people to roles and have a national database of crisis managers to call on
  • If basic equipment such as whiteboards is available – use them to display critical contacts, phone numbers and key messages. Keep them updated
  • Ensure you monitor all media including social media, keep a rumour log and deal to mis-information quickly
  • When potential issues are signalled, pass them up the chain quickly and follow up
Because the focus was naturally on the CBD because of the fatalities, the extent of damage to the eastern suburbs had not fully penetrated the media or Civil Defence consciousness. By early March, criticism was mounting. One commentator said Christchurch was now three cities: Rescue City – the cordoned off CBD, television friendly, with few residents affected and full of tales of heroism, loss, sacrifice and leadership.

Then there was Shower City, where there was water and electricity and people could take hot showers and use toilets – around 65% of the city.

The third (still suffering deprivation) is Refugee City, with no services, no electricity (at the time the article was written), no waste systems, broken roads, destroyed homes and covered in liquefaction silt, no toilets and few port-a-loos (these are still big problems for the city).

The port-a-loo problem was raised early in the piece but not fully addressed until around a week later.

As commentator Peter Hyde said eloquently:

“… locals have few resources, little information, and no "voice". It's remarkably hard to call emergency services when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Maybe you have just enough charge to call the sole Government helpline - but to stay 20 minutes on hold?”  and

“The official response in this part of the city sounds reassuring, but is not; relief centres and a field hospital - if you can get to them. The army - two drivebys in the past week.

“… Increased police presence thanks to 300 Australians - we haven't seen them as much as they are needed. And some worthy and welcome images of food and other supplies being distributed at marae (Maori meeting places) and other central points.

“In these powerless suburbs, the official response is far from enough.”

Also early in March, the Prime Minister announced up to 10,000 houses would have to be demolished with whole streets and suburbs disappearing. The Mayor called the numbers speculative and downplayed the information. Worried and anxious homeowners were left confused.

By late March, 139 buildings in the CBD had been demolished. The trouble was many were demolished without their owners’ knowledge. Contents, often valuable stock such as antiques and works of art, were stripped and not given back to their owners. Building owners were angry at their losses, lack of communication and confused messages.
  • Civil Defence respondedwith the community with briefings around the city from the second week of March. These included general briefings from the city council, police, health, education, welfare, geologists, housing and the fire service.
  • Temporary housing has been organised, with new housing being built on public land through six consortia, as well as portable housing on private land where it can be built on. These messages have been well communicated through the community briefings and the media.
There has been a big reliance on the internet for communication from the start. Twitter and Facebook were the first channels to get information out about the earthquakes. YouTube now hosts hundreds of videos and the plays a major part in the communications effort.

This was no help to the residents who didn’t have power or telephones and no access to the internet, contributing hugely to their frustration levels and feelings of disempowerment.

One of the biggest challenges in such a crisis is to ensure that the communication is about people, rather than property. As one newspaper columnist said two days after the 22 February earthquake: “There is a drastic need to get someone with real communication skills to close the increasing divide between what is happening and what Civil Defence thinks people should be allowed to know about what is happening.”

That last statement about what Civil Defence thinks people should be allowed to know is the most telling.

Key to good crisis management is clarity and transparency, overlaid with the ability to hear the messages coming back. It’s much more than information – it’s about listening and responding as well as informing, right from the start.

Helen Slater is principal of Strata Communications , a full-service consultancy based in Auckland, New Zealand. She has had more than 25 years in communication , some of that time as a journalist, mostly in PR/communications. Helen has worked with a wide range of organisations, from small business to publicly listed companies, local government and health boards.  She has a particular specialty in issues and crisis management. Strata Communications is represented in both Auckland and Christchurch, providing clients with the full range of internal and external communication services from strategy to delivery, as well as crisis communication workshops. Helen also blogs about communication issues.


Public Relations Crisis Management for Crises
Ranging From Charlie Sheen to BP Oil

By Kristy Croom Tucker, M.S

A public relations practitioner is only as good as his or her latest crisis. While you might be inclined to believe that high-profile coverage or promotion may define a great strategist, a crisis is something that truly tests your skills as a communicator. Unfortunately, many companies—big and small—are unprepared for crisis. Either they believe that it is something that can be handled on a one-on-one basis, they mistakenly think that they are immune to crisis, or they don’t understand what a crisis is.

According to Al Tortorella, Managing Director of Crisis Management at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, corporate crisis is a period of inevitable change plagued with trauma that can negatively impact a company’s brand, reputation, and even market share.  This definition of corporate crisis can be transferred to any form of public relations crisis, whether it refers to an organization, a celebrity, a politician—anyone or anything with a brand to maintain.

From Charlie Sheen’s latest meltdown to the BP oil spill of 2010, and the mass recall of Toyotas in 2010, crisis can sometimes be avoided but can always be resolved. However, if you don’t take crises seriously, it can destroy a company or brand; see Enron. While these five steps to recovering from a crisis may sound easy, the hardest part is getting buy-in from necessary stakeholders.


  1. Get Your Story Straight

    According to, one of the biggest mistakes that BP made during the 2010 oil spill was releasing inaccurate and inconsistent information. Initially, BP told reporters that it was leaking 1,000 barrels daily when the number was actually closer to 5,000. The disparity in reports and the inaccuracy of the data made the public believe that either BP was being dishonest or that it really didn’t know the magnitude of the crisis. Either way, BP lost credibility and the public’s confidence.  While the pace of a crisis is typically very fast due to media outlets’ demand for real-time information, it is important not to comment on a crisis until you are able to deliver an accurate and well-thought-out response. In the meantime, tell your stakeholders that you want to be transparent but need to first verify your information before you share it publicly. You need to act fast though, so be sure to have a streamlined internal communication process in place. Most importantly, don’t forget your employees. They are the ambassadors of your brand and they need to be confident in you and in the message before you begin taking it to the public.
  2. Be Genuine and Forthcoming 

    Whether you are at fault or you are defending yourself during a crisis, it is important that you emotionally connect with your stakeholders. In order to do this, your message must be genuine, empathetic, and should convey a level of transparency that gives your public confidence in you and your brand. Despite the inclinations of your legal counsel , you should never say, “no comment.” When you use these two words, you give up control of your message and create suspicion amongst your public. Instead, you should deliver a message that states the situation, your perspective, and it should reiterate your brand message.  If something is your fault, you should express remorse. If it is not your fault, you must emphatically prove it. Above all, you must show empathy for your stakeholders and for anyone who may have been affected by the crisis in question.
  3. Communicate….Constantly

    If you undergo a crisis, the key is communication. We have already talked about the importance of transparency, and this is where you can truly execute. Dedicate a page on your website to up-to-the-minute crisis updates. Also, utilize social media communication tools such as Twitter and Facebook. If you have media calling, you need to make yourself available to them. After you have gathered the facts and created your message and position, you should hold a press conference. Also, consider reaching out to your local media (not just the big national outlets) and work with them locally. The national outlets will still get the footage, but you will have created a strong relationship with a local outlet. Remember, the media is not your partner or your enemy. The media is a communication tool in times of crisis, and you should use it as thus.
  4. Watch and Engage, When it is Warranted

    Brand monitoring tools, such as Radian6, can help you “watch” your brand and what people are saying about it online, especially on social media. It is important to have a realistic gauge of what people’s perceptions of you are, and one of the best ways to do that is to monitor social media. According to The Atlantic, Southwest Airlines ® narrowly avoided a potential crisis by monitoring its social media closely). Film Director Kevin Smith was kicked off a flight for reportedly being overweight, and he took to Twitter to talk about the situation. Southwest resolved the situation quickly and avoided what could have been an ugly incident for the popular airline. The cardinal rule to decide whether or not you should engage with something on social media is to weigh the benefits against the potential risks. If the risks and minimal and there is value in responding, then you should. This is especially true if someone has said something definitively untrue about your brand and you can defend yourself with facts.
  5. Recover, Review, and Refine

    Once you have recovered from a crisis, it is important to review what you did and refine your crisis communication plan for the future. Not only will you will learn valuable lessons during a crisis, you can continue to improve upon your plan. Plus, you never quite know when a crisis is truly over. It seemed as though BP was finally on the road to recovery after its oil spill. However, at the end of March 2011, the Guardian reported that BP may face manslaughter charges for 11 workers who were killed during the tragedy.  This may be the start of another crisis for BP, and it can apply its learns from the first major crisis to create a strong response plan.
About the Author: Kristy Croom Tucker, M.S., is the Director of Communication for Rasmussen College based at the Florida college campuses. She has worked in the field of communications for more than seven years. Kristy has a B.S. and an M.S. in Journalism/Strategic Communications from the University of Kansas - School of Journalism. In addition to being named of the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s 2010 “Up and Comers”, Kristy serves as a member of the Public Relations Society of America and its Counselors to Higher Education section.

(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

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


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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.

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Jonathan Bernstein is both publisher of Crisis Manager and 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 at:

Erik Bernstein is editor of Crisis Manager and is also a writer, publicist and SEO associate for Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

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In This Issue

Crisis Management from the Shaky Isles

Recovering from a Crisis in 5 (Kind-of) Easy Steps

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