© 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (626) 825-3838.
JUST A THOUGHT
"Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug." (Country music song by Mark Knopfler)
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
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.
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.
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: www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/docs/azatty5.html
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Editor's Note: As you'll recall, in the last issue (archived at www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/nl/crisismgr000315.html 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 About.com 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: http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/articles.html.
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.
(Have a newsletter and/or website and want to exchange links? Let's talk about it! Write to email@example.com.)
These sites have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours.
New About.com PR site! One-stop resource for public relations, marketing and business people, with more than 23 subject categories and more than
850 direct links, plus chat, newsletter and more. Go to http://publicrelations.about.com.
The PR Network provides a means for exchanging ideas and business improvement tips between PR professionals. They're at http://www.theprnetwork.com and their newsletter can be subscribed to by
sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word "subscribe" in the BODY of the email.
OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.