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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein

Editor's Note: No, this issue is not coming out early as an April Fool's joke. I'll be out of town on April 1 making a presentation on Crisis Management to members of the Assisted Living Federation of America and wanted to make sure the newsletter went out first. If you have questions or comments about anything herein, I will be checking my email regularly. As always, if you're interested in developing material for any section of the newsletter, please write to or call me at (626) 825-3838.


"Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug." (Country music song by Mark Knopfler)


Do It Right the First Time

It's amazing how many crisis situations I've worked on that were either completely preventable or, if responded to appropriately early on, would never have escalated past the minor problem stage. Too often, a company's commitment to "doing the right thing" conflicts with its commitment to profits, and management doesn't ever add up the real cost of such an operating environment. Lawsuits and fixing something after it's broken inevitably costs more -- in immediate dollars and long-term reputation -- than staffing the front-end product development and customer service with people empowered to "do the right thing."

Often, such disparity between stated philosophy and actual practice occurs when an organization has grown quite rapidly. The upper tiers of management "disconnect" from what is REALLY happening at the field level, and people at the field level tell upper management what they think they want to hear. It takes objective internal audits -- often a combined public relations/human resources exercise -- to determine if future public relations and marketing problems are being created by such communications breakdowns.


A Crisis Management Case History:
Risking A Newsmagazine Interview

One of the greatest challenges facing any public relations professional is dealing with a negative situation that has attracted the interest of a TV "newsmagazine." The King of that Hill, of course, is "60 Minutes" although I understand there are comparably popular shows overseas. Few of us like hearing from the staff of "20/20" either. Sure, both shows have positive feature stories as well, but I believe most Crisis Managers associate the name "Mike Wallace" with the word "interrogation."

That said, are there "bad news" situations when it's worth voluntarily risking an appearance on such a show? When even the best media training is often not enough to keep the piranhas at bay?

I invite my readers to submit stories of their experiences with such programs, including lessons learned. The following is a case history of a time when I not only voluntarily cooperated -- *I* was the interview subject, and survived. It was a very personal kind of crisis management and, hence, I'm temporarily switching to a first-person, versus third-person narrative.

[Initial Situation]

The son of a wealthy West Coast family, a college freshman, was kidnapped by persons unknown. There had been a high-figure ransom demand. The father's corporate attorneys asked me to help keep the media at bay if and when the news leaked, as it inevitably would.

[Pre-Rescue Crisis Management]

We had no idea if the son, Ryan, was going to be found alive or not. My initial work included:

  • Meeting with the family to ascertain their wishes. They were sophisticated enough to understand the need to say something, once the news was out, but very much wanted to avoid direct media contact by family members. Solution: I became the spokesperson, a "friend of the family."
  • Drafting statements ready for use during the transition period when Ryan's status was unknown, and others for when he was found alive...or injured...or dead.
  • Advising the family and a hired security firm how to avoid snooping journalists [Editor's Note: If you'd like to read more about that topic in a future issue, let me know].
  • Participating in at-least-daily conference calls involving Ryan's mother and/or father, attorneys and law enforcement reps.

[The Rescue!]

Fortunately, particularly for Ryan and his family, secrecy was maintained until -- by dint of much clever law enforcement work and even telephone deception by Ryan's mother, who lulled the kidnappers into a sense of false confidence -- Ryan was rescued in a police raid and his kidnappers captured after a two-week ordeal which included:

  • Being shut in a coffin-like box for the first several days after he was abducted.
  • Sexual molestation.
  • Threats of death.

News of the raid and details of the kidnapping ordeal leaked to the press and I appeared at a police-managed press conference delivering messages on behalf of the family. Within a day, a prominent TV tabloid newsmagazine contacted me, said they were going to do a "re-enactment" of the kidnapping as their feature coverage, and asked if Ryan or another family member would take part in an interview. Concurrently, an attorney for the kidnappers attempted a nasty strategy -- he held a news conference in which he inferred that Ryan had been part of his own kidnapping, as "proved" by the fact that, after being released from the box, he had only been handcuffed and could have walked away from the private home (not that far from his own!) where he was being kept captive.

[Re-directing the News]

I met with the family and attorneys and told them that, if we didn't respond to the tabloid show, they could portray Ryan as culpable to some degree -- which was not only damaging personally, but could actually influence a jury pool, which no doubt was the intent of the kidnappers' attorney. By now, I truly FELT like a "friend of the family" and was incredibly relieved that Ryan was safe physically, although he would need counseling for some time thereafter.

I offered to narrate the re-enactment for the show, providing details we had not discussed at the first news conference but which would not prejudice the legal case. We would insist on the right to edit whatever portion of my interview was chosen for use, although there remained a significant risk that other parts of the story could make my interview look bad. They agreed (and I swallowed hard).

I submitted to an interview which drew out the story of the kidnapping as I had developed it during hours of conversation with Ryan and law enforcement officials, trying to make it a compelling narrative. I talked about how threats of death had paralyzed Ryan and made him afraid to do anything which his kidnappers hadn't expressly said was OK. Such programs thrive on high drama, so I "played it up." All the media training I have taken and given over the years was employed to keep pre-agreed key messages flowing in response to any question I was asked.

[The Show Airs]

It worked. The narrative was strong enough that my interview was used as the "voiceover" for the re-enactment, cutting back and forth from shots of the interviewer and I to re-enactment scenes. The defendant's attorney was interviewed and made his insinuations, but they were given much lower visibility and story placement, sandwiched between my interview and televised police statements from the original press conference which clearly painted a picture of Ryan as victim.

[Would I Do It Again?]

It was a risk, a major risk, taken because the alternative was even less acceptable to my client, the family. As a rule, if there is ANY way to avoid having one of my clients participate in a newsmagazine show, tabloid or not, I will seek that way. One effective tactic -- provide information which turns the story from interesting to boring. Another -- give them a better story. And anyone who agrees to be interviewed must have taken RIGOROUS media training, and the media trainer, legal counsel and others on the "client side" must agree that the interviewee is ready to appear on camera, no matter what is asked.

If you found above case history useful, you might also want to read the article on "Media Training" located at:


Editor's Note: As you'll recall, in the last issue (archived at if you haven't yet read it) you were invited to submit solutions to a find out what's wrong with this crisis plan conundrum posed by Bill Gowen. So far, I have submissions suggesting crisis drills, a sound idea, but will hold for one more issue to give more readers a chance to send their ideas, too, in return for a chance at publishing fame. In the meantime, I'll answer a couple of questions from my in-box.



As a PR consultant, how do I get a client to accept the idea that they need to have a crisis communications plan in place?


In my experience, we're the ones who have to practice acceptance. We have to accept that 90+ percent of those to whom we make the recommendation won't authorize funds to create a plan until after incurring AT LEAST one major crisis. When I was head of Ruder Finn's Crisis Communications Group, "speaking for the agency," I had no more (or less) luck in that regard than now as a one-man consultancy. BUT...I *have* at least made a dent in the under-planned population through circulating articles on the subject, either my own or those of other experts. Crisis case histories from a client's industry can also make an impression. You can find a lot of articles on Crisis Management at the PR site mentioned in my LINKS section below. The best two in my collection, for this purpose, are "The 10 Steps of Crisis Communications" and "The Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications," at:


Who's the most important audience in a crisis?


GOOD question! Management often thinks it's the media. I think media are usually (not always) WAY down the list in terms of priority. The most important, in my opinion, are employees. Every employee is a part of the PR team whether you want him/her to be or not. If you don't keep them informed, they spread inaccurate information and, sometimes out of resentment, add their own negative spin. If you inform them properly and arm them with simple messages, then everyone they have contact with, inside and outside the company, gets those messages. Sure, there's some stuff not all employees can be told at times, but there are usually simple, effective messages they CAN carry.


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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