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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2000 Jonathan Bernstein


Treat the media as you would any other watchdog. Stay calm, be friendly, let them sniff your hand and never turn your back.


Committing Too Quickly

Just how carefully have you conducted due diligence prior to proceeding with a business deal, run a thorough background check before hiring an employee in a sensitive position, or considered the long-term public and community relations aspects of any significant business decision?

Sometimes the press of business and desire for profit motivates us to take short-cuts which later come back to bite us. Skeletons are uncovered, employees turn out to have criminal records we didn't know about, or our customers lash back at us for a decision we thought they'd like -- without asking them first.

Of course, I get a lot of my business that way -- but you'll need me and your attorneys less if you do your pre-decision homework better.


The following case history is an amalgam of real-life situations with which I've been acquainted. The object is to demonstrate the "wrong way" and the "right way" to manage citizen concern about a corporate mistake.

The Situation

Zelon Manufacturing (a pseudonym) sailed through its local permitting process in Indiana, largely thanks to the reputation of its parent company in another state. Shortly after start-up of operations, however, area residents began to notice, and question, what they considered to be unusually dense plumes of smoke from the site's stacks, and an unpleasant odor downwind, resulting in negative media coverage. Local environmental officials investigated and found that Zelon had installed equipment that was larger and more powerful than those originally specified and, in general, had added to, or modified, quite a bit of the manufacturing process since receiving its permit. It had also failed to apply for the necessary permit revisions. Zelon was told to reduce production by 50% pending completion of the State investigation and a public hearing set for months later.

The Wrong Way

  • When Zelon was first called by residents, their senior management played "hot potato" with the callers, most of them claiming theywere the wrong person to speak with. They had no internal PR person. When an exec did comment, he would deny that anything was wrong, and no one at the company notified even their own outside counsel of the inquiries. Internal discussion was that "these were just local crackpots who would go away." One of the "crackpots" then called the local press.

  • The media, when calling in to Zelon, was ignored at first, resulting in a highly critical story which concluded that "Zelon executives refused to return calls." Then the plant manager called the paper's publisher and yelled at him, claiming that there were gross inaccuracies in the coverage. This yielded predictable results.

  • Internal discussion centered around their awareness that they had, quite deliberately, made changes in the manufacturing process which, they thought, didn't require further permitting, based on what had been done in other states. A decision made without outside expert opinion.

  • Zelon showed up at the first public hearing armed with "the facts," to be met by hundreds of angry local residents who insisted on testifying. Zelon's responses to their comments and questions was to provide strictly factual answers, as if the situation was a criminal trial.

  • Zelon met with years of skeptical responses from regulators, judges and the general public before being allowed to return to re-permitted full operation.

The Right Way

  • When Zelon was first called by concerned citizens, the plant manager immediately invited the callers for a site tour. Before they came over, he huddled with legal and PR counsel to get some good key messages and be warned away from saying anything which could put the company at legal risk. Citizens visited and outlined their concerns, which the plant manager promised to investigate immediately. Satisfied for the moment, the visiting citizens did not call the media.

  • Zelon's internal investigation revealed that they may, in fact, have screwed up by failing to get the new equipment and processes re-permitted.

  • Zelon huddled with legal and PR counsel and agreed to publicly inform area citizens, the media and regulators, simultaneously, of their error and their desire to rectify the situation.

  • The company, giving regulators a couple of hours private notice, invited local media over for a briefing on their entire process at which they revealed "news" that they had made a mistake which they were going to rectify immediately -- and that, in the meantime, they were voluntarily cutting back production 25% until all were satisfied that emissions were still within safe limits and were properly permitted. The concerned citizens who had first contacted them were invited to the press conference and publicly thanked.

  • They all lived happily ever after.

Yes, I'm afraid the "Right Way" scenario is a lot further from the alities with which I've worked than the "Wrong Way," but then I'm usually not called until the fire's already burning pretty hot. It's still a rare organization that calls for help when an issue first surfaces.


Q: Is email an effective way to reach your important audiences during crises?

CM: It depends on the audience. Contact lists which are part of a crisis communications plan should have the *most effective* means of rapidly contacting each person on the lists, as well as back-up means of contacting each. Typical lists include media contacts, community contacts, business contacts and governmental contacts, but any given organization may have other important contact categories as well. Some people may be best reached by phone, some by email, some by fax, and the "best way" could vary depending on time of day. For example, the most reliable way of always reaching me is by my pager, which can be activated from my business voicemail. Email would be the second best way to reach me.


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