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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


Listen, learn, act. In that order. That's not just good for interpersonal communications, it's good for business.


Do you know exactly what all your important audiences -- internal and external -- think about you TODAY? Not just what they tell you to your face, but what they might say in confidence to others? If not, you are conducting public relations, community relations, advertising, employee relations, even business-to-business communications, on a "best guess" basis. As a result, a percentage, perhaps a high percentage, of your communications will be off-target. They will either not achieve your goal or, worse, damage the chance that the goal will be achieved at some point.

The process of collecting in-depth, accurate information regarding your audiences' perceptions is called a communications audit. The audit can be limited -- strictly to determine how to create a public relations or advertising plan, for example -- or it can be comprehensive enough to afford the organization an opportunity for radical process improvement. A truly thorough communications audit can dramatically alter an organization's way of doing business. Typically conducted by an outside consultant, in order to help ensure objectivity (and because company insiders are often more comfortable talking to a consultant who promises anonymity), a communications audit usually involves interviews with people inside and outside the company. Employees in key information flow positions (e.g., a receptionist, who can see and hear a lot more than we realize) as well as senior management. Area community leaders, and long-time contractors or consultants.

The combined perspectives are analyzed to identify trends, good and bad, to find where obstacles to effective communication exist, and to help anticipate and prevent, or prepare for, future crises. Results can be surprising, negatively or positively, to the organization's top leaders -- I was dismissed from one consulting assignment after presenting the initial results of an audit to a CEO who I had to tell, as diplomatically as possible, that he was perceived as the organization's biggest obstacle to effective communication!

With that one exception, I have always found clients extremely grateful for the insights granted by a communications audit. Consider having one conducted before finalizing your next annual or longer-term marketing or business plan.


In the last issue of Crisis Manager, I reviewed Rene Henry's book, YOU'D BETTER HAVE A HOSE IF YOU WANT TO PUT OUT THE FIRE (Gollywobbler Productions). Below, with Rene's kind permission, are two of the shorter case histories from that excellent primer on Crisis Communications, with my editorial comments below each.

I'm "Only Joking." Is the Mike Off?

Coaches and players, youth and adults alike need media training if they are going to have any contact with journalists. When Tiger Woods won the Masters, golfer Fuzzy Zoeller praised the "little boy" for driving and putting and suggested that Woods' menu at the 1998 Masters Champions Dinner not include fried chicken and collard greens. K-mart ended his longtime sponsorship. Zoeller, who said he was only joking, withdrew from a tournament the following week, apologized publicly for his remarks and expressed his personal concern to Woods.

John Calipari, former head coach of the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team, called beat writer Dan Garcia of the Newark Star-Ledger a "(expletive) Mexican idiot." Calipari said he was "only joking." "I guess I'm still learning how the system works," he said. Fred Kerber, sportswriter of the New York Post didn't buy it. "He's still learning?" Garcia sought $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages for suffering "extreme humiliation and emotional distress," but the case was dismissed. By going to court, Garcia continued to take his case to the public and the coach and team did not have closure until the judge's ruling.

New York Mets pitcher Jason Isringhausen, thinking his microphone was off after a press conference, called his team's director of media relations, a "Jew boy." His defense was that he was "only joking." "We all talk to Jay like that," he said. "Jay is our favorite person in the world."

Editor's Note: As Rene mentioned to me in email, "I thought this one about the mike might be appropriate with the controversy over Bush's recent remarks about the NY Times reporter." Indeed. I tell my clients, exaggerating only slightly, that if they think a journalist is even in the same building, they should assume everything they say is on the record. We all know examples of this type of "foot-in-mouth" disease.

Steinbrenner and the Commissioners

George M. Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, had problems with two Commissioners of baseball -- Bowie Kuhn and Fay Vincent. In 1990, Vincent banned him from baseball for alleged dealings with gambler Howard Spira. In an yet unpublished manuscript of his autobiography, Vincent relates a phone conversation where Steinbrenner asks him: "Where is it in the Constitution that says I have to tell the truth to the press? It's not illegal to lie to them, is it?" Vincent replied: "No, George. But not many people think in those terms."

Steinbrenner pleaded against a suspension fearing it would damage his relationship as vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Although the penalty was intended as a lifetime exile, Vincent paroled Steinbrenner in time to start the 1993 baseball season. Yet, in his book, Vincent writes: "He's disruptive, corruptive, corrosive, boorish and embarrassing. If George wanted out, I was happy to show him the door." In another excerpt, Vincent says Steinbrenner "embodied sleaze" and dubbed him "baseball's worst recidivist." According to the chapter, the late Bart Giamatti, former baseball commissioner who died in 1989, called the Yankees owner the "Typhoid Mary" of baseball saying "Wherever he went, disease followed."

Editor's Note: major league sports and the entertainment world both seem to be rife with this type of personality, but there are Steinbrenner-like personalities in all types of organizations. The wise ones keep their comments to themselves and their staff members, knowing that they tend to be loose cannons. Others, while seemingly brilliant in business matters, are clueless about public relations and can often undermine their best business decisions through their public arrogance and stupidity.


Q: What's the #1 mistake made in responding to crises?

CM: Wow, tough question. There are so many, as you've seen in past case histories and articles about winners of The OhNo Award. But I'd have to rate "responding to feelings primarily with facts" as the top mistake. I can understand and empathize with the desire, by an organization which perceives itself as being under attack, to make sure everyone understands their side of the story. The belief that "if they only knew the facts, they wouldn't be critical, or as critical, of us." However, particularly during the initial phase of a crisis, the shock felt by those who weren't expecting it usually results in multiple variations of fear and anger. Responses must be created to calm those feelings, first, so that the audiences are more receptive to hearing the facts.


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


"Crisis Manager" is now accepting tasteful advertising from firms whose credentials I will first investigate. We are starting to look at the possibility of long-term sponsors for the newsletter. We also accept short text-based ads in the newsletter and on the website. Research demonstrates that readers click through from text much quicker than from banners, and text-based referrals are higher quality leads. Ad rates and specs available on request -- if interested, write to


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These sites have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours. - Public Relations is a one-stop resource for public relations, corporate and marketing communications, and business people with 24 subject categories and more than 1200 direct links to content for PR & communications professionals plus chat, newsletter and more. Go to

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The PR Network provides a means for exchanging ideas and business improvement tips between PR professionals. They're at and their newsletter can be subscribed to by sending email to with the word "subscribe" in the BODY of the email.


This newsletter now periodically includes book, software and related product/service reviews. To suggest items for review, write or contact Jonathan Bernstein, Bernstein Communications, 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016, (626) 825-3838.

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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