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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.


Information Security

There have been more than a few newspaper stories and lawsuits fueled by what people have found accessing information that is improperly secured. There are relatively easy methods of optimizing information security:

  1. Anticipate Disclosure -- any method of recording information on paper or electronically can be subpoenaed in a legal proceeding, to include email. If you assume that all such records will, at some point, be disclosed (unless legally protected, see item 3, below), then you are more likely to be prudent in what you write.
  2. Destroy Sensitive Drafts -- draft documents can often be more sensitive than final versions because they're likely to contain verbiage later dropped for legal or other good reasons. Don't hang on to drafts once material is finalized, there is no legal reason to do so. And use an appropriate means of hard copy document destruction, such as shredding. Too many sensitive documents have been "found" in trash cans by the media and others.
  3. Employ Umbrella of Legal Confidentiality -- with the approval of legal counsel, it can be appropriate to use a phrase such as "Prepared at Request of Legal Counsel for Purpose of Legal Advice - PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL." This helps to prevent disclosure of certain types of information.
  4. Practice Computer Security -- as mentioned briefly above, not only email but everything stored on computer disks or drives can be demanded through the legal process. Complicating the picture, many programs make automatic backups of documents which remain even after the originals have been destroyed. Hence, it is essential that there be a regular practice of keeping computer media "cleaned up," retaining only that which is absolutely necessary by law.


It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Thank you for the enthusiastic response to the two-question survey I distributed after the first issue. The strong consensus was that you liked the newsletter pretty much as it is and at the current twice monthly frequency. I received some excellent content suggestions and questions which will be included in this or future issues. A number of you wanted more length and depth, which I will provide as follows:

  1. Periodically adding guest-written articles in a new "The Voice of Experience" section which can be found only in this longer, online version of the newsletter.
  2. Answering questions you email to me after reading an issue in the Q&A section of a subsequent edition (as space allows).
  3. Reminding you that there's an archive of articles on crisis management at: I'll regularly add to that archive and let you know when new articles have been posted -- LIKE THE BRAND NEW ARTICLE called "Making A Crisis Worse -- The Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications."


[Editor's Note: Our first case history, on The Internet as a Catalyst for Crises, was featured as a lead news item in the e-zines "Holland's Internet Insider" and The PR Network's "Top of the Week." I subscribe to and value both publications, not just because they liked the article, and provide links to them at the end of this issue.]

A Crisis Management Case History:
Death Under Suspicious Conditions

There are many industries -- healthcare, hospitality, entertainment, travel and others -- in which "customers" die while in the care of others. The following is based on an actual case history, but changed for simplicity's sake and to preserve confidentiality.


Sleepy Meadows, a two-year-old lock-down mental health facility for adults unable to function in society, existed almost anonymously on the outskirts of a small city. Its residents were referred by the courts, often off the streets or out of prisons. It had no public or community relations program whatsoever, focusing its communications activities mainly on its referral network.

(Mistake #1 -- All businesses should engage in proactive public and community relations BEFORE any crisis occurs to provide a cushion of goodwill which can help ameliorate the impact of negative news.)

Initial Situation

  • A 40-year-old resident at the facility dies while being restrained for violent behavior, but death has no apparent connection to legally applied restraint. Family, State and local authorities notified as required by law.
  • Staff member with part-time PR duties writes statement for use if there are public inquiries.
  • The next day, local media read police blotter report and make inquiries of facility and patient's family, who say they are suing. Media check of public records finds numerous minor criticisms of facility's patient safety procedures.
  • It's a "slow news" period in that mid-size town.
  • Every print and broadcast outlet in town covers the story within 48 hours. The first story in the morning newspaper runs without any facility comment because the reporter was unable to contact a facility rep after hours, and takes state records out of context to position facility as a "deathtrap waiting to explode." Later coverage included short "we didn't do anything wrong" statement faxed to media by staff member.

(Mistake #2 -- If the facility had developed a crisis communications plan already, they would have anticipated and prepared for -- via pre-drafted statements and spokesperson training -- the possibility of deaths under unusual circumstances, needing only to tailor the statements to the actual situation. They would know what State records say and how they might be misunderstood by the media. They would also have rehearsed for everything from mild to strong media and public response, and their switchboard or voicemail would have provided a means of contacting a spokesperson after hours.)

Crisis Management Response

  • Crisis Management professional (CM) retained by legal counsel to keep his work under the umbrella of confidentiality.
  • CM met with crisis response team -- CEO, senior staff, legal counsel -- to craft best-possible positions and regularly updates positions as situation evolves. Positions had to communicate facts and opinions which balanced misimpressions and inaccuracies appearing in the media WITHOUT compromising legal position. Legal counsel retained veto power on all communications. Positions crafted with awareness of the need to deal with people's FEELINGS as much or more than the facts.
  • Spokespersons (primary and backup) trained by CM to deal with media.
  • Community contact teams dispatched to meet with community leaders and referral sources, providing them with accurate and complete information not available via the media.
  • Written fact sheets developed for handout to patients, inquiring patient families, referral sources and the media. Included clear chronology of events, proof of the facility's compliance with all regulations, and information about how and when restraints were used.


  • Media, as a result of receiving reasonable response from facility, tired of story within a week.
  • State investigation initiated as a result of negative press and some public pressure, resulting in a little additional press coverage, but now-prepared facility made statements about cooperating fully with investigation and the State confirmed that cooperation. Ultimately no fault found.
  • Family lawsuit proceeded quietly, settled out of court by insurance company.
  • Facility established wide-ranging base of new contacts as a result of crisis-based community relations and establishes ongoing public and community and media relations program to ensure better preparedness in the future.


"When," Not "If"

By Steve Pruitt, Network Manager

[Editor's Note: This is the first submission for "The Voice of Experience," in which people who have been crisis managers -- whether they wanted to be or not -- share some of what they have learned. Realizing, of course, that they are also risking my editorial comments.]

During the twenty years I worked in operations areas in banks, my co-workers and I learned that crises were guaranteed. It was not a matter of "if," it was a matter of "when" and "how bad." I went through natural disasters, such as floods, and manmade ones such as when the computer file containing the entire day’s check activity was erased. The key to handling all crises was preparedness. If we had to think for long about what to do, we were in deeper trouble. There were several stages of preparedness to address:

  • Recognizing that a crisis had occurred, and notifying appropriate management. This could be one of the most time-consuming parts of the entire process [Editor's Note: unless you have an emergency contact list set up in advance as part of a crisis communications plan].
  • Determining the impact on operations, customers, etc., then deciding how to minimize the impact through both operational and public relations activities. If a crisis affected many customers, employees, or people living in the area, the PR response was every bit as important as the operational actions. The same was true if a crisis was very visible, regardless of the number of people actually affected. The individuals and skills needed depend on the crisis, so the selections and contact procedures must be considered in advance.
  • Implementing the plan and keeping appropriate management continually up to date about all aspects.

We knew we could never anticipate all possible crises, but we could prepare for most or all of them. First, we had to identify risks to prepare for ones that are sufficiently likely and serious. Those included computer system problems, fires, weather, and other common events. Most situations had a lot of common factors, so when we planned how to handle some varied plausible cases, we were actually prepared for most variations. Before a crisis even occurred, we'd done the hardest parts of the thinking already.

[Editor's Note: One of the most important implications of Steve's article, in my opinion, is that operational response and PR response HAVE to work hand in hand. Virtually every operational decision has a current or potential future PR impact on an organization. To read an article which provides a more in-depth description of how to prepare for and react to crises, go to:]


[Editor's Note: OK, I don't have to make up the questions anymore like I did for the first issue. These came from you!]

Q: You mentioned Internet crisis management in your last issue. Do you advocate using tactics such as putting meta-tags on your website, or another site of your creation, designed to draw search engines away from a website started by "the opposition?"

CM: It is certainly worth looking at the "source code" on "the opposition's" website to see what keywords/meta-tags they are using and -- if those are words which you would logically and reasonably use for your own site, by all means add them. HOWEVER, I am not a fan of "dirty tricks" such as manipulating meta-tags solely for the purpose of drawing people away from another site, or setting computers to re-dial "opposition" fax machines endlessly just to tie them up, because (a) it's highly unethical and (b) if someone finds out, the PR and legal backlash wouldn't be worth any short-term gain.

Q: What could Atlanta Braves' John Rocker do to remove his foot from his mouth in the wake of his suspension from baseball?

CM: Never underestimate the power of a well-done "mea culpa." If Mr. Rocker (a) completed the sensitivity training to which I understand he's been directed and (b) came out with consistent messages and behavior which portray him as, de facto, the "poster boy for reformed racists," he could win a lot of support. And do a lot of good. There are, similarly, many corporate execs, politicians and celebrities who have admitted wrongdoing, said what they were doing to effect permanent, positive change, made amends, and re-established their credibility and popularity -- sometimes at a higher level than ever!

Q: Should you hold drills to test a crisis communications plan, and how can an outside crisis management firm help in-house PR accomplish that?

CM: A crisis communications plan can and should be tested via different types of drills, two of which are (a) subjecting spokespersons to mock interviews conducted by your outside firm (including "ambush" interviews when spokespersons don't know the situation is faked) and (b) having your outside firm pretend to be inquiring media, showing up in your reception area with a cameraman, for example, and see if the plan is implemented as written. If your outside consultant hasn't been involved in plan creation, he/she can review and critique it with a level of objectivity often difficult to achieve "from the inside."


These newsletters have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours!

The PR Network is at and their newsletter can be subscribed to by sending email to with the word "subscribe" in the BODY of the email.

John Holland's "Internet Insider" is at, where you will find a link for subscribing to the newsletter.


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Articles in "Crisis Manager" were, unless otherwise noted, written and copyrighted by Jonathan Bernstein. Permission to reprint will usually be granted for no charge. Write to