© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein
I am very pleased to announce that, as of this issue,
a portion or all of "Crisis Manager" is being reprinted regularly by Media Insider, PR Newswire's nearly 12,000 circulation publication for the PR profession.
Famous Last Words: "Don't worry, I know how to handle the media."
More "Keeping the Media out of the Trash"
Editor's Note:The following excellent response to last issue's
prevention tips on minimizing media intrusiveness was written by Dave Davis, Region 2 Public Affairs officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
This issue becomes even more sensitive for us in the public sector because most states have public records laws that open most written and electronic documents and correspondence to public scrutiny.
This includes draft memos, e-mails, hand-written notes and file notations and even voice mail. My agency recently had a request from the state's largest newspaper for the billing records of every cell phone assigned to an Oregon Department of Transportation employee. We performed some quick calculations and discovered the result would have been thousands of pages of printed material and hundred of hours of staff work.
Fortunately, the law also allows a state agency to charge back for staff and computer time and materials, and when the newspaper learned the charges would run five figures, it grudgingly backed off.
The point we now make to our employees during our media training classes is that they must assume that any piece of communication they generate could at some time become public. Flippant remarks or disparaging comments made in an e-mail can wind up on the front page of the local newspaper. Even voice mail is subject to a public records review, because (as we were flabbergasted to discover) the
state's voice mail system stores voice mail for a certain period of time before it's erased.
So our advice to our employees is: If you don't want to see it splashed over the media, don't say it or write it!
Editor's Note: Great advice for ALL organizations, even private ones, which can be forced to cough up the same information via the
legal disclosure process.
A Crisis Management Case History: Avoiding "60 Minutes" While Your Web Site Disappears.
Editor's Note: This is an educational, entertaining and creative example of professional tap dancing, spin-doctoring and counter-punching from reader and Crisis Manager George McQuade, currently Vice President of the Internet Account Team at MAYO Communications, Los Angeles, http://home.earthlink.net/~extremepr. The case history won 1st Place/Crisis Communications awards from IABC and PCLA and 2nd Place from PRSA.
In January 1998, Los Angeles Housing Authority PR pro George McQuade learned firsthand why the Web should be a part of every crisis communications plan -- and why it shouldn't be the only part.
On his first day back from a vacation, McQuade was interrupted in his regular Monday morning staff meeting. "About an hour into the staff meeting, a usually quiet employee in public relations abruptly barges into the meeting pointing to me to come outside quickly. "You had better get upstairs to the HACLA Board of Operations Committee
meeting right away," he said. When I asked why, he told me there was a "60 Minutes" camera crew, and that there was standing room only in the boardroom."
It turns out L.A. commissioner Diane Middleton was about to announce her resignation -- which was news to McQuade. In announcing her departure from the HACLA board, Middleton read a laundry list of reasons why she was stepping down -- in front of a crowd of union representatives, staff members, former employees, and reporters from CBS's newsmagazine TV show "60 Minutes."
In addition, Middleton had faxed explanatory letters to several media outlets. "In one letter, she wrote that she was 'greatly disillusioned at the misuse of taxpayer funds that I have encountered, and disregard for rights of taxpayers, public housing residents, HACLA employees, and contractors,'" McQuade says.
The resignation letter was also faxed to the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, several Congressional offices, Los Angeles's mayor, and 15 L.A. city council members. The letter accused McQuade's boss Don Smith, the executive director of HACLA, in her list of mismanagement and wrongful doing charges.
Luckily, McQuade had drafted a crisis plan in 1995 which called for communicators to respond with an action plan within 15 minutes. His first step was to meet with Smith to figure out a strategy. "As I was walking out the door of his office, my boss joked that Commissioner Middleton had voted yes on 99 percent of the spending items, and she
also approved the procurement policy," he says. "I nearly hit the floor. I now had perfect ammo for the news release."
The news release -- sent to all major and local media, including "60 Minutes" -- implied that if Smith was misusing funds, so were each of the commissioners, including Commissioner Middleton. McQuade also
called "60 Minutes'" producer and gave her a lead to a half dozen more visual "better stories" from the area, both positive (for the Housing Authority) and negative (about area government and politics).
Next, McQuade attempted to surf the Internet to find out if the story had already hit any online news outlets, and if the crisis was being discussed in newsgroups. He also planned to post the news release on the agency's website. But he kept getting server errors each time he tried to access HACLA's site. "At first I suspected it was the computer I was on, because MIS was installing a new Sun 5000 system and it was interfering with everything from payroll to e-mail and the direct Web connection," he says. "But the next evening I tried it from home from my wife's computer, at MAYO Communications and again server error messages popped up. First thing in the morning I confronted the MIS director, who told me that the entire website had
been deleted, and he was trying to contact the contractor to see if they had it backed up. The contractor told him no." The immediate effect was that no information was going out and no questions or information were coming into the site. Any e-mail arriving was either deleted or went unanswered until the site was back up.
[Turning a Bad Thing Good]
McQuade decided that employees were the first audience that needed information. He announced that the site was down -- but for different reasons than the reality. "Instead of announcing the site was dead, I announced that we planned to redesign it from top to bottom," he says. "No employees questioned our actions, and in fact one wanted to be on the committee for redesigning a page." The announcement was made on the agency's "Employee Grapevine," a weekly dial-in voice
mail newscast. Next McQuade faxed the news release to a national newswire, which posted it immediately. He then dealt with members of the housing management, HR and modernization departments, which had been using the website to accept bids for contractors or announcing new jobs. "I told them to be patient and that the new site would be shorter, sharper and stronger when clients visit their pages," McQuade says.
"There is a clear and present danger of becoming too dependent upon your website for communication with the public and employees," McQuade says. Make sure you have other means of communication, should an emergency arrive, he advises. HACLA's 'Employee Grapevine' is a toll-free, emergency 24-hour hotline, which dials through a phone trunk center outside of California. McQuade offers some further tips for using technology during a crisis:
- Back up your site! "We never learned who erased it. It could have been an inside job, but the lesson learned was we had barely backed up the website," McQuade says.
- Back up all news releases on other employees' systems. HACLA PR pros send completed releases to each other via e-mail.
- Establish a home office with necessary tools to work out of your home, such as a basic computer, printer, and fax machine.
- The media are using the Internet more, and you'd be surprised who's up all night cruising the Internet for news stories -- so don't let that crisis release wait until morning. "Sometimes the traditional ways don't grab the attention of assignment editors who receive more than 200 paper faxes per day," McQuade says.
- Arm yourself with lots of evergreen positive stories or PR events you can launch with little effort on the Internet. "I placed more than a dozen stories on the website giving the agency a positive light within two weeks of the crisis," McQuade says.
- Learn the capabilities of the MIS department. "MIS might have a technical solution to help you solve your crisis communication just by setting up facilities or stations and people to man them," McQuade says.
- Ask for help. There are a host of volunteer agencies and interns or students at the local university who would love to gain experience and help during a crisis -- physical or computerwise, McQuade says. "Help them on slow days and do PR for them, and you'd be surprised what happens when you need help," he says.
The No. 1 rule is stay calm, "even if you feel like you're going to Have a nervous breakdown. Presentation is everything, and if you appear to be calm, the people around you will feel that way, and so will your boss. And the media will be less likely to prey," McQuade advises.
[McQuade is also a board member of PRSA/L.A. and a regular contributor to Jack O'Dwyer publications. Contact him at (818) 340-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
Q: I am a somewhat experienced crisis manager. In the past couple of years I have worked a gas well explosion, a corporate fight against a city council (we won), a chemical spill, several petroleum spills and a few minor crises here and there. Recently I was working a petroleum spill and had problems with an aggressive television news team going into work areas without contacting anyone. I had offered several times to take them for a tour of anywhere on the spill site they wanted, but they would not take me up on that offer. They even got a sheriff we had hired on camera trying to keep them out of the area. My question is, are there any laws that allow a company responding to a crisis such as an oil spill where there is a ton of heavy equipment and hundreds of responders to "control" trespassers? We found some wording in the OSHA book about a company having to maintain control of a safe work zone but never found any specific legislation. It wasn't really a factor of the company hiding anything, it was seriously a question of the safety of the responders as well as the news crew.
(Submitted by Joey Lee, Media Issues Manager, GodwinGroup, Jackson, Mississippi.)
CM: There may be applicable laws on a federal or state level, but I'm not an attorney and wouldn't want to assure you on that one way or the other. However, here's are the two best reasons -- civil liability, and liability-related insurance. You are responsible for the safety of those on your property. Your insurance policies, I'm sure, insist that you exercise sound judgement in that regard if you expect them to pay off when an unavoidable incident does occur. Hence, tell your pesky journalist, "Mr. TV Reporter, we're legally and ethically responsible for the safety of anyone on our property and, because of the work conditions here, we can't ensure your health and safety unless you're properly escorted. That will also mean that, at times, there are areas you cannot safely access. There's no difference between us doing that and police keeping reporters back when there's a barricade or sniper situation."
You can also have your attorney contact the station's attorney to make that point -- their attorney is likely to be more sensitive on such issues than the "daring" field reporter.
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IMPORTANT EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY
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: http://www.prandmarketing.com/cgi/catalog/info?PRNS