© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
A definition of crisis from Webster's 1828 Dictionary, which seems particularly apropos to the latest winner of the OhNo Award (see below)!
"The decisive state of things, or the point of time when an affair is arrive to its highth, and must soon terminate or suffer a material change."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Avoid Automatic Denials
Bridgestone/Firestone Wins OhNo Award
"Our tires are safe but we're cooperating with the investigation anyway." That's the basic message Bridgestone/Firestone was putting
out, at first, about the tires now being recalled following dozens of potentially associated deaths.
There are two classic case histories about crisis management taught to virtually every PR professional -- Tylenol, as an example of the "right
way" to do it, and Exxon, as the "wrong way." McNeil, Tylenol's manufacturer, did a brilliant job of responding to the fear inherent in
their product tampering case, long before culpability was established, by issuing an immediate recall, amongst other actions. Exxon's leadership put their heads firmly in the sand and tried to pretend they
weren't at fault until they could no longer avoid the issue.
In that context, with those lessons known worldwide, it is truly incredible to me that Bridgestone/Firestone chose the "Exxon model."
It did not lead off, as it should have, with expressions of empathy for customer concern or with messages about its overall product safety. It
did not, until forced by overwhelming public pressure, issue a recall. And now, even as I'm writing this, they're repeating their mistakes vis a
vis their larger tires, even though those products are already a subject of voluntary recalls in Europe. Look for the company to suffer long-term and possibly permanent negative effects as a result of these
Bridgestone/Firestone -- you win the OhNo Award and, until/unless you conduct some remarkable "turnaround" issues management work, the target on your rear is glowing neon.
Editor's Note -- Here is, I'm delighted to report, our first case history from a non-American crisis management professional. Frank Schiersner worked for the press office of the German
department which had to respond to this natural disaster.
The Oder River Flood
by Frank Schiersner
It is a simple truth that most crises hit us suddenly and unprepared. But, the following case study unveils the uncomfortable fact, that even a
well-equipped organization with a staff of crisis experts may suddenly find itself under unexpected media pressure.
After the reunification of Germany (October 3rd, 1990), five new states were founded in the area of the former GDR. All of them established new administrations with the help of government experts
from the western states. One of the new states is Brandenburg, which embraces the city-state of Berlin and, thus, Germany's capital. Brandenburg's eastern border is formed by the Oder River, which is
also the border with Poland.
The state of Brandenburg is a rural one dominated by forests and lakes. Thus, in the summer months, burning forests usually keep the
Department of the Interior's disaster control busy. But, in 1997, crisis came from a different angle.
In July 1997 heavy rain over eastern Europe led to a high water-level at the Oder River. What began as a story with local interest only turned
out to be of nationwide, and finally international, interest when the dangerous pressure on the dikes of Brandenburg and Poland lasted for days and weeks. With the dikes being soaked with water, breaches
became likely and the Department for Disaster Control worked 24 hours a day to organize material (e.g. 8,860,000 sandbags, 61 helicopters, 1,394 trucks, 219 caterpillars) and to coordinate the help
of the armed forces (30,000 soldiers) and several emergency services and non-government organizations (about 20,000 helpers). Sixty-eight thousand inhabitants prepared to leave their homes; 6,483 inhabitants
actually had to.
On July 27th, the dike broke and the area flooded by the water of the Oder created a lake of 56.5 square kilometers. Here and in villages
near the dike about 200 houses were damaged by the flood - thus about 400 people faced the burden of having to repair/reconstruct their homes. In Poland, the problem was even worse, but this case history
focuses on Brandenburg only.
The fast-increasing public interest in this crisis created three side problems for Brandenburg's Department of the Interior:
Individuals and companies called to offer help. Lacking a help desk, these incoming calls and faxes went right to the disaster control unit and blocked their telephones.
The press office of the department did not, at first, realize that journalists were calling in the middle of the night and thus also blocking Disaster Control's phone lines.
Growing international interest tremendously increased calls by non-German-speaking journalists from all time zones. But, the press office had only three English-speaking members and one
To get the Disaster Control Unit out of the press- and help-offers business, the Department took three instant measures:
A separate unit was organized to coordinate private help and donations. This unit worked 24 hours a day. A toll-free hotline was installed.
The press office was reorganized to work shifts 24 hours a day.
English and French speaking members of the department were asked to volunteer for the press office.
Moreover, the press office started to use the World Wide Web to publish basic information about the current flood (e.g. water levels at different locations). These Web pages were updated every hour.
The evaluation of crisis management during the Oder Flood led to a reorganization of the coordination between the different units. Moreover, permanent State Government volunteers assigned to the
disaster control, press and help units are now given special training.
Frank Schiersner M.A. was a member of the press office of Brandenburg's Department of the Interior from 1992 to April 2000. Today he is the chief editor of Brandenburg's State-Intranet.
You may contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: What does "trial by media" mean?
CM: Trial by media usually refers to the practice of using public relations tactics, in conjunction with legal strategies, to influence public
opinion. It is very commonly employed in two types of situations:
When a plaintiff has a weak case, or is low on funds to pay for ongoing legal assistance, and hopes to embarrass or pressure a defendant to settle.
When an organization, plaintiff or defendant, has a very strong case, a good reputation (or, at least, a far better reputation than the opposing party), and seeks to pressure the other party to
back off -- in the process, protecting, or even enhancing, its own perceived credibility.
Trial by media provides the opportunity to be proactive, versus defensive, to position a story "your way" first versus reacting to what
others have told the media. It is a tactic which should be employed only after very careful consideration and discussion between legal and PR advisors, but it can be highly effective in the right circumstances.
In the recent past, I've written articles on"Trial by Media", and a related article on "Influencing the Jury Pool," for Arizona Attorney, that
State's bar association journal. You can find links to both stories at www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/articles.html.
A Blatant Plug:
Bernstein Available for Speaking Engagements
Since I've had inquiries on this subject, you should know that I'm available for speaking engagements and related activities (e.g., leading
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