© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
When a crisis first breaks, perception and feelings are far more important to your audiences than facts and actual legal liability. A crisis communications
professional has to think with his heart, not just his head.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Updating Contact Information
Do you have all the phone/fax/email/postal contact info for all your important audiences all gathered in such a way that you can instantly access and use them? And are there back-up copies?
So...what are you waiting for? A crisis?
Bleach Company's "Crisis Management Plan"
Leaked to Greenpeace
Editor's Note: In my ongoing search for case histories worthy of mention, I came upon this now-dated press release from Greenpeace
about the leak of a crisis management plan.It is a case history unto itself, a lesson about how public relations professionals can create a
crisis. I have changed the names of both the national PR firm and the manufacturer because there is no reason that either, which are both still in business, should be damaged today by a mistake made in 1991,
although I admit that most will figure out the manufacturer's identity.
The Leaked Plan Press Release
Seattle, May 13, 1991 (GP) -- A public relations "Crisis Management Plan" prepared for the Bleach Corporation and leaked to Greenpeace
recommends labeling environmental critics as "terrorists," threatening to sue "unalterably green" journalists, and dispatching "independent scientists" on
media tours as means to counteract bad news for the chlorine industry.
The plan, prepared by the public relations division of BigName Communications, was apparently prompted by fears that the environmental
group would target household use of chlorine bleach and call for its elimination.
Greenpeace has an international program aimed at ending the use of chlorine in the pulp and paper industry. Its slogan "Chlorine-Free by 1993"
is cited in the Bleach plan, which outlines numerous "worst case scenarios" in which Greenpeace and "unalterably green" journalists figure prominently.
"They failed to anticipate the worst of worst case scenarios," said Shelley Stewart, Greenpeace toxics campaigner."That some conscientious person
would obtain the plan, and leak it to us."
Greenpeace verified that BigName Communications, one of the nation's largest advertising and public relations entities, is under contract to Bleach.
One portion of the leaked document is comprised of a fax transmission between two BigName offices.
"Lying is a growth industry," Stewart said of such PR firms. "The truth is that chlorine is a chemical whose days are numbered. Its use has created
some of the most intractable environmental problems in history."
DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, CFCs and dioxin all originate from use of chlorine.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the Bleach plan is that while it's clear that the company knows it has a genuine environmental problem on its
hands, the document suggests that Bleach feels more threatened by a public interest group like Greenpeace than they do by the federal authorities.
The Crisis Plan makes reference to studies linking chlorine use to cancer, and with remarkable candor suggests ways to discredit the findings if they
ever became public. BigName recommends that Bleach should "cast doubts on the methodology and findings," of potentially damaging scientific reports which haven't yet been written.
The PR firm also recommends labeling Greenpeace as violent self-seeking "eco-terrorists;" attempting to sue newspaper columnists who advocate use
of non-toxic bleaches and cleaners for the home; "immunizing" government officials; dispatching "independent" scientists on media tours; and recruiting
"scientific ambassadors" to tout the Bleach cause and call for further study.
While "crisis" public relations specialists have been deployed to effect spin control on virtually every major environmental issue in recent years, the
chlorine industry has been a prolific consumer of the type of service outlined in the BigName memo. The Bleach PR strategy sounded familiar to
Stewart. "We've seen the same kinds of ploys coming from the American Paper Institute and the Chlorine Institute surrounding the toxicity of dioxin," she said.
Lessons For Us All
Never put anything in writing that you aren't willing to risk being aired in public. Sometimes that means leaving messages you might actually
want to use out of a written crisis communications plan, particularly if (a) you don't practice very controlled information security (see below) and/or (b) you're taking an aggressive stance.
Practice information security. At the time of this case history, faxes were still the common means of rapid communication. Today, of
course, it's email. Draft documents, whether paper or digital, should be shredded when no longer needed -- there are computer programs which can completely destroy, not just delete, documents which are
no longer needed, reducing them to a state which no hacker can retrieve. Sensitive communications should, ideally, be encoded; fortunately, in my experience, most organizations are unwilling to go
through the process of teaching employees how to use email or document encoding programs, even though many of them are extremely simple.
Consider having a contingency plan (separate from the main plan document) for what to do if the latter's details leak.
Plans which are not protected by attorney/client privilege can be exposed through the disclosure process in a lawsuit (at least in the
USA -- perhaps my readers elsewhere can tell me if that's true in their countries), even if there is no leak. That is why most of my crisis/issues management work is contracted directly by external or
in-house legal counsel. Documents and email then get a heading: "Privileged and Confidential. Prepared at the Request of Legal Counsel for the Purpose of Rendering Legal Advice." You should
speak with your legal counsel to determine the best way of protecting your sensitive documents from disclosure.
"Intelligence" is vital to a good communications program. Knowing your opposition, using information gathered from public sources,
allows you to anticipate their actions and prepare accordingly. It is not difficult to look at and analyze the background and communications history of any organization and its leaders and, from
that, predict their strengths and weaknesses with regard to any issues-related struggle.
Don't assume that volunteer or "lower-salaried than big business" organizations have less-qualified public and community relations
capabilities. While I am usually representing the "business" side of issues, I have great admiration for the public relations skills of certain
environmental and other activist organizations. Their PR staff would be immediately employable at any major agency -- and sometimes were employed there in the past. Some have a vast amount of
experience and, as result, have an advantage over any less-experienced opponents. And be sure that they continue to study -- some members of activist organizations are probably subscribers
to this newsletter (if so, I would love to hear your take on this case history). To think, as some businesses do, that organizations which
oppose their goals will always be unprofessional and incapable of effective PR or legal strategies is the height of institutional arrogance.
You'd Better Have a Hose if you Want to Put Out the Fire
Author: Rene A. Henry
Publisher: Gollywobbler Productions
Rene Henry, in his own press materials, describes YOU'D BETTER HAVE A HOSE IF YOU WANT TO PUT OUT THE FIRE as "job
insurance" for managers. It's a fair description. If someone asked me for referral to a easy-to-read primer on the topic of Crisis Management, Rene's
text would be the first I'd suggest. He talks plain -- I like that in a writer. He organizes his material logically. His chapter on crisis preparedness is
particularly strong, demonstrating his willingness to draw on multiple outside expert sources in order to deliver the best possible information. If you're a
Crisis Management pro, you'll find a lot of the book too basic -- but you'll still value the lessons inherent in the industry-specific case histories. And for
anyone else in business today, this really is "must" reading; you don't want to lose the opportunity to learn from Rene's three decades of experience.
You'd Better Have A Hose If You Want To Put Out The Fire is available for $19.96 (full retail $24.95) from Amazon.com
Need a Speaker on Crisis Management?
Is your organization or one you belong to looking for a speaker about Crisis Management? If you like the tone of this newsletter, you have a preview of the style of my presentations -- I walk around, get excited, using plain talk and humor to make some serious points. I charge for speaking, but think the fees are pretty reasonable. If you're interested, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
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