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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein

Editor's Note: From having the pleasure of speaking and/or exchanging email with a number of readers, I know that many of you have a lot to share relative to crisis management. I would love to feature more guest articles in future issues. This publication is read by a very high-end network, from a business perspective, including journalists, so it's excellent exposure for authors. If you're interested in developing a piece for any section of the newsletter, please write to or call me at (626) 825-3838.


Communication is effective when the desired result has been achieved. (G. Mark Towhey, TOWHEY Consulting Group, Toronto)

[Editor's Note: How do you know the desire result has been achieved? You measure. The use of baseline and ongoing research to measure the impact of a crisis communications program will be discussed in a future issue of "Crisis Manager" but is also addressed, briefly, in the case history below.]


How the Media Uses the Internet

In the Sixth Annual Middleberg/Ross Print Media in Cyberspace Study ( is a chart which shows the relative popularity of online information sources to which journalists go when news breaks -- as in crisis situations. It will be very useful to my crisis prevention and reaction planning and, I suspect, to yours. Below, I summarize the chart editorially.

Popularity and weighted ranking of sources for newspaper reporters, from most to least popular:

  • Interested parties/community groups/emergency services (2.7)
  • Industry experts (2.1)
  • Company websites (2.0)
  • "Branded" Online News Services (CNN, MSNBC, etc.) (0.8)
  • Activists' websites (0.7)
  • Other online services (e.g., NEXIS) and Trade Assn websites (0.6)
  • Web-based message boards/chat, including Usenet (0.2)
  • NO newspaper media would go to AOL message boards/chat groups

Popularity and weighted ranking of sources for magazine reporters, from most to least popular:

  • Industry experts (2.5)
  • Interested parties/community groups/emergency services (2.1)
  • Company websites (2.0)
  • Trade Assn Web Sites (0.9)
  • "Branded" Online News Services (CNN, MSNBC, etc.) (0.8)
  • Other online services (e.g., NEXIS) (0.7)
  • Activists' websites (0.5)
  • Web-based message boards/chat, including Usenet (0.2)
  • AOL message boards/chat groups (0.1)

The difference in the deadline requirements of newspapers versus magazines is apparent in the rankings. Live sources are preferred. But the high ranking of company websites for both categories should be a call to action for any organization which has not yet learned how to create a "virtual newsroom" for use during crisis situations (the topic of a future article).

One of the report's two authors, Professor Steven Ross from the Columbia University School of Journalism, tells CM "the study shows that trade association websites are considered highly credible -- but journalists don't use them, apparently because they don't know about them. This suggests that trade associations (should) try to get members to put a linking icon on members' home pages -- and (it) supports (the idea of) beefed up trade association sites."

And despite a lot of hearsay about the impact of chat rooms and Usenet groups, you'll note that they are still very low-ranked as information sources -- while Activists' websites, although not highly ranked, are a factor we should all stay aware of and monitor. Of course, some of you may BE the "Activists," in which case you're probably bucking for a higher ranking!


A Crisis Management Case History:
Acquisition -- A Good News Crisis

A crisis is not always a "bad news" situation. The definition of crisis which I prefer is "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)."

A very typical crisis with which both bad and good news can be associated is a large business acquisition/merger/takeover. How well it's handled, from a crisis/issues management perspective, can make that "decisive difference for better or worse."


Midas Bank, a multi-billion dollar, publicly held institution based in the midwest, was amongst several organizations vying to acquire Struggling Savings & Loan, a privately held California-based bank. Although Struggling's balance sheet was a little lopsided, it had an 80-branch operation, all in California, with excellent customer and community relations. Midas, which already had 20 branches in California and hundreds elsewhere,was informed by Struggling's board that they were the first choice to acquire Struggling -- and the powers-that-be had decided the deal would go through in two weeks. Only then were both in-house and external public relations personnel notified of the pending merger. It was agreed that Midas would take the lead in creating and originating day-of-acquisition announcements.

The deal was going to result, operationally, in more resources for Struggling's growth and improvement and improved service to customers, with no immediate branch closures or layoffs, with any duplication of services to be phased out by natural attrition. It would also result in a promising new profit center for Midas.

[Preparing for Crisis]

A crisis communications team was rapidly created to prepare for day-of-acquisition announcements and reaction. The team consisted of top management and legal representatives from both firms, Midas' director of corporate communications, and the crisis communications group of a PR firm based in California. Discussion was held, and agreement reached on:

  • Objectives -- Primary: Prevent customer panic and possible "run" on assets. Secondary: Impress Wall Street with wisdom of the deal, increasing value of Midas' stock.
  • Target Audiences (internal and external) -- including Midas/ Struggling employees, Midas/Struggling customers, Midas/Struggling key community contacts, Midas/Struggling major vendors, Midas' investors and Wall Street contacts. Plus media serving all of the above. EMPLOYEES were perceived as THE most important audience because, for better or worse, employees were the "front line" PR people for both companies. If they were happy with the deal, they would pass that sense of confidence on to others.
  • Key Messages -- Three "most important for all audiences" messages about business transaction, plus 1-3 additional key messages, as needed, specific to individual audiences. For example, a key message for employees was "you're keeping your job, and with improved benefits."
  • Day of Announcement PR Activities -- Letters from CEO's of both firms to every member of every target audience, delivered by the most expeditious method (varied from audience to audience). Press releases and other press materials customized for different types of media (business,consumer, financial, trade). Spokes-persons made available for interviews (after pre-announcement training). Instructions for branch personnel on how to answer inquiries and handle any media who showed up on their doorstep. Teleconference between Midas/Struggling management and Wall Street contacts, including media, while Midas' CEO, CFO and other Investor Relations team members made time to answer calls from the investment community.

    The situation on which this case history is based occurred before the Internet became a PR tool. If it happened today, there would also have been a "virtual newsroom" created online for media use as well as a special page for customers, both of which would have been updated instantly as needed.

  • Post-Announcement PR Activities -- Ensuring that all important non-media audiences hear of any changes resulting from the merger directly from the company before they were mentioned in the press. Proactively monitoring media interest and providing in-depth briefings to longer-lead journalists. Implementing community relations activities to introduce "the Midas touch" to communities where they would now have branches. Conducting research to ensure that important messages have been received and believed by all target audiences.


Simple. The plan worked. There was no "run on the bank" and Midas' stock went up upon release of the news. Surprises were few and the crisis communications team was able to manage them effectively.

If you found above case history useful, you might also want to read this article on "Internal Crisis Communications".


Editor's Note: We're going to do something a little different for this issue. Instead of writing "Crisis Manager on Spot" in its usual straight Q&A format, with me providing answers, I'm going to give you, the reader, a chance to answer an excellent, thought-provoking question from William P. Gowen of Gowen Associates in Coconut Grove, Fla., who asks us to recommend the correct procedure/methodology for testing and validating a crisis communications plan. He leads off with this scenario:

  • Major Cruise line with over 36,000 total passengers traveling any given time. Over 3,000 land-based employees with an additional 18,000 employees ship-side.
  • Plan was written in house by a competent senior staff. It is a given that planners addressed all situations using standard methodology to arrive at all possible crisis incidents. Planners have addressed all external crisis situations as well as all internal crisis situations (excluding a financial crisis). In other words, they think they have all bases covered, with no weak links.
  • Planners have identified and trained required personnel, or provided a pre-cut contract for outside support, such as grief counselors and communication support.

Mr. Gowen then asks: "What methodology is used to identify and address the weak points of the plan, and who will be the controlling entity in testing the plan?"

He adds that "to my knowledge there is no formal methodology. I may be wrong ... but don't think so. I know how to do it and I am formalizing it on paper for a plan that I am writing."

I will publish Mr. Gowen's answer, along with best reader submissions, in my next issue, so send your responses to:

Sorry, no big cash prizes -- just the fame and glory of being quoted in an international newsletter. And if you have a website, I'd be happy to put a link next to your name.


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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