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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


There can't be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.
(Henry Kissinger)


Vulnerability Audits

A vulnerability audit is the name I give to the process of auditing a client organization to determine its potential for crisis. Other practitioners use a similar process, by various names. It is the first step in preparing a crisis communications plan and almost invariably uncovers information which allows certain crises to either be completely avoided or minimized tremendously. That can save an organization millions of dollars in legal and PR fees and the untold man hours it would otherwise have expended, while saving all involved a lot of stress. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Unfortunately, 90% of organizations with which I've had contact choose not create a crisis communications plan, a relatively miniscule expense, even after suffering significant losses from crises.


America West Teaches Us How to Make A Crisis Happen
Wins OhNo Award for Insensitivity

I have been asked to periodically feature case histories which demonstrate the WRONG way to deal with crises. At the same time, in our last issue, I announced creation of "The OhNo Awards" (details at to recognize individuals and organizations which had done a particularly bad job of crisis management. Then along came America West to give me a personal case history that fit both bills eminently. I'm not a consumer advocate, although this case history has the flavor of such writing -- just a PR pro who happened to be at the wrong end of a PR mistake. Only this time, instead of *my* having to manage a tough media inquiry, *I* was the journalist making the tough inquiry -- and America West didn't step up to the plate.

The Situation

"We're too under-staffed, under-funded or uncaring to talk to you, but if you don't mind that, keep trying to call us anyhow."

That, essentially, was the message America West was putting on its reservations and information voicemail in early July (and, perhaps, even today). During that period, at all hours of the day and night, I (and, I presume, many thousands of others) attempted to reach them to ask a simple question about a reservation made using my FlightFund frequent flyer miles.

America West's actual message was "we're sorry, but due to an unusually high call volume, we cannot take your call at this time-- please try your call again later." It offered me the option of accessing automated information by phone or Internet -- but my question could not be answered by those systems.

On July 15, after several days of futile attempts to reach the airline by phone, I sent the following email (with some minor details changed for brevity and to preserve my confidential info) to the FlightFund Service Center address given at their website, Subject: "URGENT, PLEASE HELP, COMPLETELY UNABLE TO GET THROUGH ON PHONE."

"I am completely unable to get through to ANYONE at America West by your toll-free numbers, so hope you can reply soon. I have round-trip reservations (made using FlightFund miles) to Pittsburgh, Confirmation code XXXXXX, made by phone some weeks ago. HOWEVER, I do not have all the details of flight numbers, departure times, etc., and desperately need those to do trip-related planning. Could you please (a) confirm that my reservation is in your system, departing Aug 2 and returning Aug. 5? (b) either email or fax me a copy of my itinerary? Fax number (626) 358-4766. Thank you, and I hope you get more phone lines and operators soon!"

On July 17, having received no reply, I began to realize that, apart from the annoyance involved, I had a prospective "Crisis Manager" article. So I wrote the following email to the only other email address I could find on America West's site -- investor relations. I figured THEY should care if a journalist was about to roast them, right? Subject: "Crisis at America West -- Article Under Development, On Deadline." This is edited only slightly for length.

"To your corporate communications/investor relations director:
"I am the publisher of 'Crisis Manager,' a popular Internet ezine on the PR specialty of Crisis Management (see past issues at Each issue of "Crisis Manager" features tips for preventing and reacting to crises, as well as a featured case history.
"Effective today, I am beginning to write an article entitled 'How to Make a Crisis Happen' and centering it around America West. It focuses on a personal experience which is still ongoing -- my encountering, day after day, at all hours of the day, your toll-free number's "due to high call volume we are unable to take your call" message. Compounded with a lack of reply to urgent email (sent through your website) asking someone to call since I couldn't get through to you. All because I simply need to verify details of a reservation made using my FlightFund miles.
"I must assume that your company is in dire straits to not be able to afford adequate telephone lines or operators to even take a message -- to actually have to REJECT callers and give them no other option unless their query can be handled through your automated systems.
"The article will be written, whether you reply or not. How the article ENDS is up to you. If you are willing to do a "mea culpa" and make this situation right, NOT JUST FOR ME but for the thousands of others who must be encountering the same horrible customer service, I will report that you have reacted responsibly and provide details. That's what I'd advise you to do if you were a client of mine. My next issue will be published on August 1 and your reply is needed by July 20."

I received no reply to either email but, finally, late one evening, I *was* able to get through to a live operator,fortunately, because it turns out that my reservation had only been put on "courtesy hold," it had NOT been ticketed, and my trip would never have happened.


At a time when airlines are under very heavy fire for poor customer service, the lack of sensitivity and communication evinced by America West in this situation astounds me. All my clients are briefed on the "Five Tenets of Crisis Communications," the need for prompt, honest, informative, concerned and two-way communication with all important audiences. If not prompt, then rumor and innuendo fill the void. If not honest, lies will eventually backfire. If not enough information is provided, then the public and the media will keep pushing for more. If a sense of concern is not expressed, audiences assume a lack of caring. And if there aren't two-way means of communication, then external audiences feel as if their opinions and needs aren't thought to be important. Let's measure America West against these tenets:

  • PROMPT: Not (even as of this publication date).

  • HONEST: I don't know. Maybe call volume was the problem, maybe not.


  • CONCERNED: Obviously not, unless you consider the recorded "we're sorry" at the beginning of their message to be adequate.

  • TWO-WAY: Not.

What Could Have Happened

  • First and foremost, there should NEVER be a message such as the one they used. They should have equipment and personnel to handle all but occasional high "spikes" in call volume and no one is going to believe they're having a "spike" for more than a week (as I was writing, I tested their phone number again, same message is there).

  • Even for "spike" periods, they need to have a "response guaranteed" overflow call system so that they don't have only the incredibly rude message they now use, giving callers no recourse but to call back indefinitely. I am no expert on call management systems, but am confident that Southwest Airlines has just as high a call volume as America West, and I have never encountered this type of situation with Southwest.

  • Answer their email! To give a customer service email address, or any email address, at a website and then not respond again says "we don't care what you want." Furthermore, I would have happily communicated with their PR people -- if there was any contact information for their PR people on the website. Could I have tracked that data down if I'd tried long enough? Probably. But how far should a journalist or a consumer have to go to get a reply when they are already trying several different ways of communicating?

  • In past issues, I've spoken to the value of a well-done "mea culpa." America West was given the chance to take this route and chose, at some level, not to do so.

Some months ago, I wrote an article called "Making a Crisis Worse: The Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications", now archived at America West has just added one more way to my list: ignore your customers.

I give you the second winner of the not-really-coveted "OhNo Award," Phoenix-based America West Airlines. Now why are those airline tickets to Pittsburgh self-destructing in my briefcase?


Just when you thought you'd reached the end of the story.... late afternoon on July 25, with my article already completed, I received a call from James Sabourin, vice president of corporate communications for America West. My email to investor relations had been forwarded to him. He was very polite and accepted my offer (one you won't get from traditional media!) to email him the entire article, above, for comment. On July 26, he called back and said, "You're completely right and we apologize. We'll see that this type of thing is minimized or eliminated from now on and have created a new position, vice president of customers, to address such problems."

My kudos to Mr. Sabourin for his candor. The good intent has been stated and, if accompanied by action, this type of crisis won't re-occur.


Q: When it comes to helping clients develop key messages to deliver to the media during and after a crisis, do you have specific tips you give your clients?

CM: My approach to key messages goes something like this:

  • ID your target non-media audiences

  • Determine what general messages they all need

  • Determine if there should be audience-specific messages

  • Develop messages (general and audience-specific)

Then determine the best way to communicate those messages -- with the media being an unreliable but usually necessary communications vehicle which needs to be managed (as best as possible) to optimize coverage.

Sometimes, the media is a "specific audience" with its own unique messages needed, but that's not often. Usually we're just trying to figure out how to employ the media to carry messages to our other audiences.


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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 or contact Jonathan Bernstein, Bernstein Crisis Management, 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016, (626) 825-3838.

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