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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


There is no such thing as inaction.


Remember the Simple Things

I just attended a special event hosted by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). The program itself, featuring a handful of e-commerce journalists, was excellent. But PRSA/LA's management, unfortunately, provided me with fodder for this section of my newsletter by forgetting that first impressions are critical to issues management.

The issue was simple. A lot of attendees were not PRSA members (including me, for some years). How to get us to join?

NOT by having the chapter president make a longish pitch promoting membership from the podium before the event, using such selling points as "you could go on our wine tour so that you know how to pick wines when out with a client."

NOT by allowing an event sponsor to make a blatant promotional presentation from the podium before the event.

NOT by handing out future event flyers inferior to what my 4th Grader could have produced using PrintShop.

NOT by failing to do a simple sound check on the main podium microphone, which was turned off at the wall when the program started.

If I sound sarcastic, even angry, I am. It is the same type of degeneration of quality that one finds in the media today. I may be wrong, but I thought I saw an almost-embarrassed look on the face of one prominent editor/speaker when the "selling from the podium" was going on. The young PR professionals in that 400-person audience deserved a better example.

There are many tasteful ways to promote organizations and sponsors, and anyone with a computer can produce high quality flyers. Special event checklists that include pre-event sound-checks and the like have been around as long as PRSA. All of that negative perception was ENTIRELY preventable.


Surviving the Hell of Merger PR

Editor's Note: This article by international agency president Lou Hoffman, originally published in 1997, is a gem as true today as then.

The computer industry has become the investment banker's best friend. Microsoft acquires WebTV. 3Com merges with US Robotics. HP buys VeriFone. Sun snags Diba. That's just a sampling of the high-profile deals, and it doesn't account for the myriad marriages among lesser-known companies.

In short, the consolidation everyone predicted years ago is coming true. With this amalgamation comes a hellacious challenge for the PR folks responsible for communicating a merger to the outside world.

Before going further, let's establish up front that conducting PR for a merger has intrinsic challenges. For starters, you've got to deal with two companies that bring their own agenda and messages to the table. Plus, people issues percolate to the surface as executives jockey for position in the emerging entity. Overriding the entire process is a pressure-cooker atmosphere that never allows enough time to do everything-but if the messages aren't communicated correctly, Wall Street will kill the deal.

Picture yourself in the intellectual equivalent of the "X-Games" to put you in the right mind-set. The next move: Define the playing field so you've got a fighting chance for success.

A good place to start is with the most precious commodity in any merger PR effort: time. It defies logic how many CEOs decide they can't tell the PR function about a merger until the 11th hour. As a result, the PR team ends up in a maniacal rush to communicate what is likely one of the most strategic stories in either company's history. Since a few days typically elapse between when the merger is done in principle and when it is finalized, why shouldn't PR folks "enjoy" at least a few days to do the job?

And don't use the "we need to keep the merger under wraps from virtually everyone until D-Day for fear of the story leaking" line. Give me a break. If senior management can't trust the senior PR professionals -- whether from the corporate or agency side -- it has a fundamental problem. Either the CEO is from the Dennis Hopper school of paranoia or it's time to find new senior-ranking PR jocks who understand the phrase "confidential information."

Once the timeline is in place, it's critical to establish one individual who is clearly in charge of the PR assault. It sounds basic, but many companies make a mistake: The buying company doesn't want to come across as heavy-handed, so its PR team doesn't exert itself. And the acquired company is already feeling squeamish about big brother, so its PR team presses to stay on an even footing with the buyer.

The end result: No one leads the charge, and it takes an eternity to complete tasks and make decisions while the clock ticks ominously in the background. This is not the time to employ the governing principles of kibbutz. With rare exception, the senior-ranking PR pro from the buying company should drive the process with an open, but firm, hand.

Another key to success is developing credible and consistent primary messages for the merger. Don't confuse the headline on the news release with the primary message. If your legal watchdogs insist on a vanilla headline (e.g., "Company X Acquires Company Y"), fine. This is not a battle worth fighting. Give reporters some credit that they'll read beyond the headline to at least check out the first paragraph in the release.

Building a story that's credible requires viewing the two merged entities from an outsider's perspective. With this in mind, the most important message is not combined marketshare or technology or leverage. The most important message should encapsulate how the merged entities will benefit the customer. Even Wall Street, with its focus on financial models and its what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality, wants to understand why the deal makes sense for customers and potential customers.

It's also worth pointing out that this message must be able to withstand the scrutiny that will come from the media, industry analysts and Wall Street. In other words, make sure the data support the message. Again, an outsider's perspective should be brought to bear, anticipating every possible question that could undermine the message.

As far as communicating with consistency, all spokespeople for the merger must be on the same page. Of course, this is easier said than done, in light of the politics associated with a merger. Here's an area where the news release can actually be a valuable internal tool.

Once the news release is in good shape, sequester senior management from both companies in a conference room, flash the news release on a screen via an LCD projection panel and review the document in real time. No question, the process can be arduous and even emotional. Yet, by serving as a vehicle to hash out differences and reach consensus, the news release aligns the spokespeople behind one story, which ultimately leads to consistent communications.

While more on the tactical side, matching a spokesperson from the buyer with a spokesperson from the acquired company in press and analyst interviews further enhances consistency. Such an approach not only establishes checks and balances-one spokesperson is less likely to stray from the party line with his or her brethren standing by -- but also sends an implied message that the two companies have already started the melding process.

If there was ever a time for the PR function to deliver on making a strategic contribution to the company's business, it's during a merger. While timing, leadership and message development all factor into success, it's equally important to bring an assertive attitude to the table - starting with communicating to senior management the importance of bringing PR into the chosen circle early in the process.

It's been my experience that senior management wants PR to exert a take-charge attitude. But if PR doesn't fill the void, they'll turn to another function in the company that will.

Lou Hoffman is president of The Hoffman Agency, an international tech and Internet PR firm with offices in Silicon Valley, Denver, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. He can be reached at


Editor's Note: This is a "Crisis Manager on the Spot" Special Report that started with an email inquiry from Barak Amirak, a PR pro in Turkey. He wanted to know if I'd lead a live online Q&A session for him and 21 of his fellow staffers from ORSA Public Relations, Marketing and Corporate Communications as part of their periodic weekend professional training sessions. Public relations is a profession which has only recently gained a lot of respect in Turkey, my hosts informed me, with a number of international PR firms setting up shop to serve what is called the "Turkic Republics," which includes former Soviet countries. So, on May 13, at 5:15 a.m. my time, 3:15 p.m. in Turkey, we "met" for more than an hour in a private Yahoo! chat room. Here are some of the questions and answers which ensued. If your organization would like to hold a similar session sometime, write to me,

Q: Can a Crisis Communications Plan anticipate every crisis?

CM: No, but a good plan creates a structure and environment which makes it possible to respond rapidly and appropriately to any crisis.

Q: Does every crisis cause damage to corporate reputation?

CM: Some crises are good news, like some acquisitions, and the Tylenol poisoning case is an excellent example of how a company's reputation was enhanced by appropriate crisis response.

Q: Did you ever come across a "bad" crisis plan that caused damage?

CM: I've encountered a number of situations where companies had plans created years ago, never updated them and never used crisis drills to practice them -- in short, the plans were essentially useless. But the companies thought they were prepared because the plan was on the shelf.

Q: What do you do when you thought the client was innocent of any significant wrongdoing and then discover that you're wrong?

CM: If the client has lied to me, I resign the account. If the client finds out that it was at fault -- e.g. due to the actions of some individuals of which senior management were not aware -- then you apply the same principles as for other crises. Use honest, caring, good information. Admit "we didn't know, we're shocked and saddened, and we're going to take appropriate action immediately." Then take remedial/corrective action, making financial or other amends as necessary.


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Articles in "Crisis Manager" were, unless otherwise noted, written and copyrighted by Jonathan Bernstein. Permission to reprint will often be granted for no charge. Write to