© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
The press is most organizations' least important audience.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Test Your Messages
Sometimes we're our own worst enemies. We conclude that our crisis management "key messages" are brilliant and use them without further
ado -- only to find that the intended audience(s) don't like them and/or don't believe them.
There is not always time to test our key messages, and often we've intuited the right message pretty well. However, if it's at all possible,
and if we have TRUSTED members of important audiences whose opinions we can seek, such research can save us from wasted effort or even from causing MORE damage.
Loss of Senior Management
Related to last issue's article on surviving mergers, the sudden departure of a company's top managers, whether under positive or negative circumstances, can create a lot of concern amongst the
audiences used to dealing with and relying on those individuals. Themes of this case history, although focused on a retirement community, are repeated daily at organizations worldwide.
The offsite owners of a 100-bed independent and assisted living community had been quietly investigating the management practices of
that facility's top manager, the executive director, and her director of sales. There appeared to be questionable accountability for funds, sales
practices that were legally risky, and other issues that might have eventually led to the employees' dismissal or other sanctions. Mid-way through the investigation, however, both individuals suddenly quit.
Whatever their business practices may have been, the two women were dearly loved by staff, residents, their families and referral sources
-- i.e., all of the community's most important audiences. Immediate reaction from all four audiences was shock, dismay, and anger (directed at the owners, a national company). The departing managers
had dropped "hints" that they quit because the parent firm was trying to impugn their reputation, and they were believed.
The owners, legally, could not state the allegations against their former employees. Families were threatening to move their loved ones to other
communities and were talking about picketing. Local media had not yet become involved. There was no crisis communications plan in place providing guidelines about what to do in such a situation.
Crisis Management Begins
A crisis management team was created. The "internal" component of team was the parent company's CEO, director of human resources,
director of operations, director of marketing and legal counsel. External resources included outside counsel plus a crisis management consultant. After rapid fact-finding and strategy sessions, the following
activities were conducted:
A site visit was made by the CEO and director of operations during which they met personally and individually with EVERY resident and then in small groups with family members and their
resident loved ones. Messages communicated included "We understand how much you loved (names of departed execs). We're sure you understand that sometimes things just don't
work out between employers and their staff, but we want to tell you that we are PERSONALLY making sure that there is absolutely no interruption in your quality of care here. Each of us
will remain 100% on call to you during this time of transition, should you have ANY questions." They remained on site for two full weeks and left behind contact numbers thereafter.
The CEO called or met with the "first tier" of important referral sources and the director of operations met with the rest. They
delivered messages such as, "We can't talk about why our managers might have left due to legal restrictions, but we encourage you to talk to senior staff and referral sources at our
other facilities if you have any concern about our company." They then handed out a list of references.
The CEO met with all employees to assure them that their jobs were not at all at risk and that if they wished to apply for the vacant positions, their applications would be considered. He
also asked for their help in reassuring all other audiences.
Outside counsel informed counsel for the departed managers that if his clients said ANYTHING about why they departed to ANYONE else, that his client would feel obligated to continue
its investigation, wherever it might lead, and to consider slander charges.
A resident/family advisory group was immediately formed to help the parent company select the successors for both former employees.
Contingency statements were prepared to disseminate to the media which mirrored the messages being given to other audiences.
There was only one resident move-out by someone who was already in the "disgruntled for reasons beyond our ability to fix"
category. There was no loss in average "beds filled."
While referrals slowed for approximately one week, referral sources did not send residents elsewhere because they had been quickly informed of the CEO's or director of operations' plans
to meet with them.
Most families and residents liked all the attention they were getting and expressed willingness to "give new managers a chance." They particularly liked being part of the selection
process -- it gave them a sense of "ownership."
The prompt appearance and activities of the CEO and director of operations, combined with the "gagging" impact of legal counsel's warning, dissuaded anyone from going to the media,
who never learned of the situation.
Does your organization or clients' organizations know, today, what THEY would do if there was a sudden loss of senior management at a
corporate or facility level? Planning can be done NOW, to include preparation of probable key messages, contact lists and tactics.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
No questions for Crisis Manager since the last issue, but I received number of letters agreeing with last issue's prevention tips centered
around a PRSA affair I had attended, while also receiving this comment from a director of public relations at a university:
"Jonathan, your diatribe about the PRSA meeting made me feel your newsletter is much too locally focused for my limited amount of professional reading time."
To which I responded:
"(name), I'm sorry to hear that you considered my writing a 'diatribe.' Columnists and editors nationwide regularly use local examples of
inappropriate activity to make a point in a style which communicates their feelings. I personally have no stake in what PRSA/LA does or doesn't do; it was merely an opportunity to make a point about
'remembering the simple things' that can make an impression and affect issues management, as well as making a call for professional standards. My reaction was the same as when I received a job application from a
Stanford graduate with a 3.8 grade point average -- and two typos in his cover letter. It's not acceptable.
"At the same time, I recognize that some readers don't like certain styles of writing and, if this turns you off to everything I've done and
continue to do with my now-international newsletter, I regret it.
"I hope you'll stay on the circulation list but, if you wish to unsubscribe, simply send a blank email to: leave-crisismanager-1678349M@laser.sparklist.com."
I also received a much friendlier letter from a former PRSA/LA president, a man I've worked with and admire, whom I think was
mostly concerned that, in my editorial, I failed to recognize all the good work done by PRSA/LA volunteers. He's right, I could have and probably should have added that important caveat in my comments.
WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH MY READERS? "Crisis Manager" will soon be accepting tasteful advertising from firms whose
credentials I will first investigate. Probably short text-based ads in the newsletter itself, linked to longer text on my website. Research demonstrates that readers click through from text much quicker than
from banners, and text-based referrals are higher quality leads. If you might be interested, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
NEW MEANING TO A "FAMILY OF EZINES" -- I am proud to announce that my 16-year-old son, Erik, and I are launching a WILDLY different-than-this Internet venture: PaintballNewsletter.com,
a newsletter and website focusing on the fun and family orientation of our paintball-playing hobby!
Bernstein Crisis Management's two diverse e-mail ezines and/or their associated websites are now also going to include book, software
and related product/service reviews. To suggest items for review, write to email@example.com or contact Jonathan Bernstein,
Bernstein Crisis Management, 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016, (626) 825-3838.
Unless otherwise indicated, all material herein is written by Jonathan Bernstein. If you have questions for "Crisis Manager on the Spot" or
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