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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein

Editor's Note: "I guess that it was bound to happen, it was just a matter of time (Jim Croce)." Despite the extensive research that was conducted prior to my claiming that "Crisis Manager" is the Internet's first newsletter on Crisis Management, I must now correct that claim. This is, to my knowledge, the first ENGLISH LANGUAGE email newsletter about Crisis Management, but a German-language publication, "Krisennavigator (Crisis Navigator)," started in Nov 98 and published its first email edition in Apr 99. I received polite email to this effect from its editor, Frank Roselieb, to whom I apologized for the error. I have subsequently corrected the masthead to this newsletter and will make corresponding changes at our website. If you are interested in learning more about "Krisennavigator," go to:


Martial arts masters say that the highest form of self-defense is not being there when the trouble starts. Just so, the highest form of crisis communications is crisis prevention.


Keeping the Media out of the Trash

I received an enthusiastic "yes, please" response to my offer, in the previous issue, to give some tips on how to minimize the media's attempts to be intrusive. OK...I didn't say intrusive -- I said "how to avoid snooping journalists." I'm qualified to address this subject not so much because I'm a "Crisis Manager" as because I was, formerly, a "snooping journalist," an investigative reporter. In that past life, I felt that any information I could acquire without breaking the law was fair game. I even (gasp) went through trash cans and dumpsters a time or two. I became fairly adept at reading lips, reading body language, and reading papers on your desk upside-down. In other words, I had skills of which most of my "targets" were never aware. Deliberate cultivation of that illusion was part and parcel of what I did.

So there's your first tip -- assume, until proven otherwise, that every reporter is "60 Minutes" slick. Here are some others:

  • Know your loose cannons -- most organizations have staff members who tend to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, even if they're well-intentioned and loyal. Many media leads originate with second-hand sources who have heard a loose cannon flapping his/her gums. Make sure such individuals are regularly briefed on and understand your policies on discussing confidential matters with those who have no "need to know."
  • Trash is not trash unless it's shredded. When you create draft documents of anything you do not want to see in the media, they should be shredded.
  • Have a written AND rehearsed policy for every office location about how to handle the media if they just show up, with or without cameras.
  • "Off the record," "on background" and "not for attribution" are caveats which can be abused or misunderstood by the media and require a very educated judgement call to use safely -- hence most organizations are better off having a policy that everything said to the media is "on the record" or else you simply don't say it. As a journalist, I would try to get lower-level employees to speak to me and tell them "I won't use your name" when senior management wouldn't give me as much information as I suspected was there.
  • Host a formal media training session for all management-level personnel -- even ones who won't often be spokespersons. Media training teaches many more tricks of the trade for staying out of the media limelight and optimizing the results of necessary media contact -- after all, sometimes you DO want the publicity, even during a crisis.

I welcome other suggestions (maybe we'll get some from my journalist/readers?), which I'll list, with appropriate credits, in a future issue. Write to                                    .line

If you found the above prevention tips useful, you might also want to read the article on "When the Media Goes Too Far" located at:


Because of the extended length and depth of "Crisis Manager on the Spot," below, there will be no case history in this issue.

NEXT ISSUE: The story of how a reader talked "60 Minutes" out of doing a story!


Editor's Note: Here are your, my and Bill Gowen's solution to the issue of how to validate what he terms a "Crisis Action Plan," and the specific cruise line situation described in the March 15 issue of CM (archived at It's a long read, but well worth it!

Reader Kathy Tridente, who has 25 years in crisis management, touts crisis drills as the solution:

I conduct Mock Crisis drills for all my clients. I do not let them know the nature of the crisis or when it will happen -- after all, this is a real life situation. I begin the Mock Crisis drill -- and control all aspects of it -- either a full day or half day, whatever the client can handle. I use real people to play the roles of: concerned citizen, Joe Public, news media, authorities/agencies, etc. WE TEST EVERY FACET of the Plan. Once the drill is over,the core team -- Crisis Management Team and whomever -- huddle around the table and audit every aspect of every activity. I then go away and prepare a formal Audit Report which details what worked, what didn't and what needs to be improved. And, I've found that every time I go back to do another Mock Crisis drill, there is something else that can be improved.

Ron Peters of Relations, Inc., has similar advice:

We develop a realistic scenario of a likely crisis for an organization and "spring" it on them unannounced. They must then get their crisis communications team together and start managing the crisis. In real time, we introduce new elements to the crisis to simulate facts changing over time. In fact, as is the case in the real world, you don't have all the information up-front, so we introduce new information constantly during the drill. Each drill has uncovered flaws in every plan, and in some cases members of the crisis team themselves have needed to be replaced. The main point is, it is better to discover these flaws during a drill than during a real crisis.

I attempted to come up with a solution above and beyond drills/tests. This was what I sent to Bill Gowen before he provided his response -- and apparently I brushed on at least part of his solution:

I would hire a team consisting of:

  • An experienced investigative reporter.
  • A risk management specialist familiar with the cruise line industry.
  • A former "operations-level" employee of a competitor cruise line, maybe a former purser, someone who interacted with both passengers and crew at the working level.

I'd invite them to think of ANYTHING that could go wrong on my client's cruise line and then compare that list with what's covered in the plan. If anything's missing, I'd create appropriate strategies and responses -- and then run THOSE by my "independent team" for their opinion.

Here is Bill's fascinating, history-based explanation about the process of validating a crisis action plan for this or any other situation:

The process of validating an idea, a theory, a business concept, etc., has been available for years. To date I am unaware of any attempt to apply these validating processes to Crisis Planning.

This shortcoming may be found in the history of Crisis Planning.

Crisis Planning and Crisis Management has its structural roots in the U.S. Military, which is the largest Crisis Management agency in the world. In the mid 1960s the U.S. Government, realizing they had domestic "crises" that needed to be addressed, designated the U.S. Army as their lead Crisis Planning Agency.

The Military used its planning experience and expertise and applied it to domestic crisis situations. In 1979, the U.S. Government created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to act as the coordinating agency for all domestic crisis situations. At its inception it had no idea how to go about Crisis Planning. Initially it tasked the U.S. Army to write the necessary plans to support domestic operations. As the Agency grew in size and stature its planning process became an in-house function. To provide the crisis expertise it filled its ranks with retiring military planners. Today FEMA's planning methodology is a direct mirror image of the military planning process. Corporate Crisis Planning uses the same format and methodology, all derived from the experience of military planners.

Senior Military Planners never validated their plans. They tested them, they ran exercises, they updated their plans and they applied lessons learned from actual usage of the plans, but they never formally validated their plans. This may be a result of the fluidity of operational military plans, the sheer number of plans or their complexity. Whatever the reason, they were not validated. As military planning is the root of Crisis Action Planning, it appears that this oversight has carried over into non-military Crisis Action Planning.

The validation process requires establishing tangible goals, standards, criteria or objectives that can be quantified. These tangible entities, hereafter referred to as standards, can then be used to gauge the effectiveness and validity of a plan.

The validation process is found throughout science and education. The formalized process can be adopted and used for the validation of Crisis Action Plans.

What is required:

  • Establish quantifiable standards.
  • Establish a performance level.
  • Test the plan against the standard established.

An example of a simple validation process for a math class would be:

  • Establish a quantifiable standard. The high school advanced placement math class will take a year end advanced placement math exam administered by the SAT. The scoring range for the exam is between one and five, with one being the lowest and five being the highest. Three is the established bench mark to receive college credit.
  • Establish a performance level. Eighty percent of an Advanced Placement high school math class will achieve a test score of three or higher on the advanced placement exam administered at years end by the SAT.
  • Test the plan. The advanced placement high school math class takes the year end advanced placement SAT exam.

If the performance level established (80% of the class with a score of three or above) is reached the teacher had a successful year. If the established performance level is not reached then the teacher has not had a successful year.

The validation process is not an afterthought. It is part of the overall process that requires the same thought, expertise and effort that went into creating the plan. Most of all it requires that the validation process and the standard be identified early on. This will help to eliminate the tendency to adjust the standards down to make it appear that the plan is more fit than it may actually be.

Establishing the standards is a matter to which senior corporate personnel have to give a lot of thought. The goal should always be 100% effectiveness; however, that is not realistic. If the plan is 100% effective, then the standards are too low. On the other hand, we can establish standards that are so unrealistic that 80% effectiveness would be impossible to achieve.

At the start of the process, when the vulnerability study is undertaken and the plan is being developed, standards that parallel the intent of the plan need to be identified and inserted into the base document.

Once the plan is completed, tests need to be undertaken against the established standards. The creation of these tests will require the injection of outside expertise. The plan was written to cover all possible eventualities that the plan's authors envisioned. It has to be considered that the plan may not cover all eventualities. In the initial input into the plan outside expertise should play a roll. The same is true when test scenarios are created to test the validity of the plan. Qualified outside sources may uncover areas of planning that were not addressed.

Crisis Planners need to validate their plans. There is an inherent obligation in the Crisis Planning process to deliver the best possible plan to the client. Without a validation process you are only guessing that you have the best possible plan.

So I asked Bill what the standards, performance levels and testing methods were for the cruise line. He said that the standards list alone ran more than 100 pages because of the international scope of cruise line's operation! But here's a single example from that plan:

Standard: The cruise line will provide on-call medical support.

Performance Level: Delivery of on-call medical support to any port in the world within 8 hours.

Testing: He would gather a panel of experts from groups related to the cruise industry in some way, most or all of whom, he says, would be willing to provide a critique at no cost. Amongst the dozens of potential participants would be the U.S. Coast Guard; Seatrade, a company that provides educational courses in the industry; Det Norske Veritas (DNV), which provides shipping certifications; the Association in Loss Management; SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), a major hotel specialist, an airline rep, a medical expert, etc.

Editor's Note: Y'know, I think Bill has something here. I told him that, frankly, I didn't have many clients who would pay for the front-end time required to establish definitive standards and performance levels for a Crisis Communications plan, but I have little doubt that a plan that has them is much more reliable than one which doesn't. As always, I'd be interested in your opinion!


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PR NEWS Advanced Crisis Management Seminar and Pre-Seminar Workshop - Managing PR & Legal Concerns During a Crisis June 19-20, 2000, Marriott Metro Center, Washington, DC.

The Seminar will focus on the hot-button PR topic of crisis management, taking a fresh look at how organizations are avoiding or managing crises in a climate operating at Internet speed. Topics will focus on crisis management during mergers and acquisitions; overcoming online negative gossip, working with the media to communicate key messages; retaining brand loyalty and escaping damaging publicity from strikes, layoffs and product recalls and serving as the CEO’s crisis counselor to deliver effective, on-target messages to all your organization's publics. For more information visit: