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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


Saying "no comment" is not the same thing as making no comment -- but both communicate a message.


Crisis Ambush Interviews from a Reporter's View
by Deborah Lowe, Ph.D.
San Francisco State University Marketing Professor

Editor's Note: I am delighted to bring you the first of two complementary articles submitted by Dr. Deborah Lowe, a news industry pioneer turned graduate-school professor of marketing. In combination, they will provide public relations practitioners with invaluable information on dealing with aggressive reporters.

A reporter's methods of using hostile questions is a method to get at the "truth" during a crisis, and ambush interviews the way to get an exclusive. To cope with this problem the reporters will be playing offense and the Media coaches will be playing defense. First we will look at the reporter's methods and then (in the next issue of Crisis Manager) look at Crisis Media Coaching methods for some defensive moves.

Chicago reporters may not have invented the "push and shove" interview but the Chicago 'style' could rival the meanest toughest network correspondent coming out of New York. A "push and shove" interview usually takes place where there are a great number of competitive reporters chasing a person who is a "hot" story. Only a few reporters will get to ask questions and get the information. The physical limitations of interviewing one person with 50 reporters who all want the information and who all must try to get close enough for a camera or a tape recorder to pick up the sound of the person's voice is a challenge for any reporter.

There are two ways to succeed. One is to do track and field running for a hobby. It is true that the fastest reporters will get the "sound bites." However, if you are not fast you will get pushed to the back of the pack and if you stumble and fall, they will run over you. I learned how to stop the pack from running over me from an old AP reporter. His advice: "intimidate while you wait." We used to wait inside the courthouse for the defense lawyers to arrive and then everyone would run like madmen toward the lawyers to ask "set up" questions to lead off the day's coverage.

At one point, one of the TV cameramen looked at me and said, "you better move when they come in or I'll run over you." Remembering the advice, I glared at him right in the eye and said, "Do that, and you won't be running the same way!" Watching his shocked expression, I followed up with, "we both are reporters and I know you need a shot of the lawyers coming in. I suggest you ask me politely if you can get a clear shot and I'll run to the side so you can get it. But don't threaten me. Got that?" The TV cameraman said, "got it." From then on, during our morning "run" for the defense lawyers, I jogged by his side. He was like a large football lineman and did clear a big path which made it easy for me to get in and get the story.

Most of the time the chase is in a courthouse and the object of the chase is a lawyer. Lawyers want to be caught if they are with the defense. This was true with the Conspiracy 7 trial in Chicago and for William Kuntsler. It was true with a variety of other well known trials. The objective is to get the lawyer to stop and answer questions. This usually happens in the elevator outside the courtroom where they must stop and you have the time from when the elevator doors close and when they open to ask your questions. The trick is to be fast enough to be one of the reporters that makes it into the elevator.

The second tip is not to run with the pack but to figure out the final destination of the person being chased and to end up there. During the Patricia Hearst trial in San Francisco, most reporters chased the defense team to the press room where her lawyers would hold a short press conference every day.

I watched and followed the prosecutor. He would take the same path protected by police each day, down a flight of stairs to his office two floors below the courtroom. I simply took an elevator down and waited by the door to the flight of stairs which was across the hall to his office. I had time for two questions from the time he hit the door of the stairs to where he would enter his office and I would be blocked from following him. At the time, I did not think of what I did as an Ambush Interview. I thought of it as an innovative way to get an exclusive interview. The two questions the prosecutor answered each day got me a ton of exclusives and an award. After I interviewed the prosecutor, I would then saunter up in plenty of time to pick up information at the press conference held by the defense lawyers.

When I went into public relations, I started to create a defense for Ambush interviews for media coaching.

Editor's Note: See the Next Issue! And if you know ANYONE who is or might be involved in newsworthy litigation, criminal or civil, make sure they read these articles. And here's some more bio: Dr. Lowe was a pioneer in news, starting as the first woman reporter for City News Bureau, a wire service in Chicago that went to the Tribune, Sun Times, Daily News, and American in 1968. She was a TV producer for WGN Television, for the nightly news in Chicago, the first woman correspondent for WOWO, part of the Westinghouse Broadcasting chain, a news anchor for NBC in S.F, a national correspondent for the Patricia Hearst trial for the Westinghouse Network, an Assistant News Director for KBGS/KTNQ in Los Angeles, a News Director for KYA in S.F., and a News Director for KSFX, an ABC owned and operated station in S.F. She quit media in 1981 and began to work in marketing of syndicated media programs and services, and in entertainment-based interactive advertising and public relations. She is now a full professor of Marketing at San Francisco State University, specializing in teaching graduate Internet Marketing, Digital Advertising, and Internet Public Relations. Dr. Lowe can be contacted at:


Virus Crisis Hits Home

Despite the fact that I practice what I preach about the importance of installing and regularly updating anti-virus computer software, my hard drive was just effectively wiped out by a Trojan Horse virus so new that Norton AntiVirus had no defense and it was not yet listed in any online virus encyclopedia. Called the TrojanBymer Virus, I have now (three days later) just read a report of it in the very excellent Trend Virus Report from Trend Micro, whose software finally helped me detect the bug -- but it was too late for my system to fully recover and we had to totally reformat a hard drive. Trend Micro's software is resident on the Web and can be used to scan any system remotely, on request, as a double-check to whatever resident anti-virus software you have (including one Trend Micro produces, called PC-Cillan).

NEW LESSON FOR THIS CRISIS MANAGER: At least once weekly, take a few moments to have the free Trend Micro service, located at, scan my system!


Brand Crisis Management
by Martin Lindstrom

Editor's Note: A reader called my attention to this excellent case history, originally published in August 2000. It gives very useful examples of how to deal with the unexpected.

Last week Yahoo managed, yet again, to get its name mentioned in most media around the world. But this time, it wasn't positive news that brought public attention to the Yahoo! brand.

The stimulus was from Yahoo! in France, where its online auction site included Nazi paraphernalia -- Nazi medals, clothing, ephemera, and other artifacts -- all available to the highest bidder. The crisis was over the French government's ban on racist representation in all media. The French authorities saw Yahoo!'s auction listings as an infringement of its jurisdictional authority.

This was not a predictable crisis, even for the most experienced brand experts. But it happened to ensnare the well-respected Yahoo! brand, which had to suddenly deal with a problem fraught with negative associations.

Dot-coms haven't been around long enough to have gathered lots of crisis management experience. But now, it seems, the honeymoon period is over. Everyday life has at last caught up with the Internet which recently seemed to offer its dot-com residents some measure of protection from critical analysis. But admiration for the online phenomenon has given way to realistic appraisal of dot-coms as business entities.

As my father always cautioned me, the higher you fly, the further you fall. And there's no doubt that dot-com brands have been flying high. But the glamour days seem to be over, and this puts new brands under a form of pressure they haven't had to deal with before. It's commonly known as "reality."

Established offline brands around the world have been in crisis situations hundreds of times before and, over time, they've developed crisis management programs. A good example of this is the Australian biscuit brand Arnott's.

Some years ago, Arnott's, an icon of Australian identity as resonant for Australians as Vegemite, was faced with an extortion threat by a criminal who'd claimed to have poisoned some of the company's product. Experts advised Arnott's that such a threat was indeed capable of being carried out swiftly, the extortionist having given the company just three days to respond to his demands.

What would you do in Arnott's' shoes? Of course, the company was prepared for this unfortunate eventuality. It recalled all its biscuits, destroyed them, produced a new and totally different package design and, within days, was ready to relaunch the brand Australians had known for generations.

In the meantime, the PR department spun a story designed to appeal to the Australian consumer's sense of loyalty and, almost, patriotism: the danger of Australian companies being lost to overseas interests and the undesirability of a well-loved Australian company going under at the hands of international competition. The strategy worked well, garnered plenty of community sympathy and support, and prepared the way for Arnott's hugely successful re-launch.

Would your dot-com have been able to prepare all this in 72 hours?

Brand crisis management programs predict possibilities and prepare for hypothetical eventualities. Just like regular fire drills, they set out step-by-step instructions for all players. Plans are developed over several years and tested to minimize the ill effects of crises should they occur. Or, let me say, when they occur. Because they do. The only unknown is when they are going to occur.

Crises will affect online brands, too. There's no more hype to hide behind any more. Consumers know just who you are and what you're doing. And they're as skeptical about online commerce as they are about offline commerce.

So, you'll have to think through every possible crisis; create detailed action plans to accompany each hypothetical scenario; and analyze management responsibilities and those of the advertising department, the customer support center and the investor relations team, everyone who's part of your business. Leave no stone unturned. And do it NOW. While you have time.

Crises don't disappear. They are managed with common sense. Are you prepared for your brand's worst nightmare?

Martin Lindstrom, Chief Operating Officer, BT LookSmart, is co-author of Brandbuilding on the Internet, a toolkit for Internet marketing professionals. The key visionary behind some of the most successful Internet sites in Europe, Lindstrom headed up BBDO Interactive Pty. Ltd. Australia/Asia (later renamed ZIVO) for the past three years. Prior to this he spent six years with the European advertising agency BBDO, where in 1995 he established the agency group's interactive company and developed a strategy for the construction of brand sites on the Internet.

Bernstein Crisis Management REDEFINED

After much deliberation, I have formally redefined the specialties and scope of services identified with Bernstein Crisis Management, as described in revisions made to my website,

The new site (and letterhead) masthead lists my specialities as:

"Issues Management, Internet Communications and Strategic Public Relations."

This reflects the services for which there have been the most demand since I started my consultancy in January 1994, as well as my steadily increasing involvement in "all things Internet." For issues management clients, in particular, creating issues-focused websites (with the expert assistance of my website designer wife, Celeste Mendelsohn), has become a tactic with growing importance.

At the same time, I have dropped the "Mature Market Public Relations" specialty with which I have long been associated -- frankly, because most companies focused on serving older Americans do not allocate much of a budget for outside PR.

Your comments on the changes are, as always, welcome. Write to


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


(Have a newsletter and/or website and want to exchange links? Let's talk about it! Write to

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

"Media Insider" is a free service for the public relations community hosted by PR Newswire and ProfNet, its online resource linking reporters with expert sources. Updated daily with contributions from members, Insider reports on the people and new technologies behind the production of news. Go to

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.


All information contained herein is obtained by Jonathan Bernstein from sources believed by Jonathan Bernstein to be accurate and reliable.

Because of the possibility of human and mechanical error as well as other factors, neither Jonathan Bernstein nor Bernstein Crisis Management is responsible for any errors or omissions. All information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Bernstein Crisis Management and Jonathan Bernstein make no representations and disclaim all express, implied, and statutory warranties of any kind to the user and/or any third party including, without limitation, warranties as to accuracy, timeliness, completeness, merchantability, or fitness for any particular purpose.

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Crisis Manager and the Bernstein Crisis Management website will now periodically 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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