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Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein


In marketing we call them the competition. In crisis communications we call them the opposition. In both cases, to know them is to know what we have to do to compete for the attention and loyalties of our mutual publics.


Know Your Opposition
by Rene Henry, ©2001

Editor's Note: This article is a "must read" for all crisis managers, as per the "thought" above.

When your company, organization or client is in an adversarial position, or anticipating being in one, be sure you get to know everything you possibly can about your opposition. Only when you do, will you be prepared to strategically implement your crisis communications plan.

In a political campaign this information gathering process is called opposition research.

Here is some of the information you should know about your adversaries:

Who are the leaders? Who will be the public spokespersons? Do you have detailed biographies on them? What is their philosophy?

Education? Experience? Positives and negatives? Causes they advocate? Books, papers and articles written? Do you have key quotes? Any contradictory quotes?

What has been the experience of your opposition in the past in resolving conflicts? Violent or non-violent? How cooperative? Strategies used? In negotiation meetings, can they be trusted to not leak confidential information to the media? Are they effective in using the media?

Who are their friends in the media? Who are your friends on this issue? Where can you expect to see editorial support? What media will support your opposition? Will it be biased? Have their been any editorials or opinion pieces pro or con about your side of the issue?

List the organizations and individuals that can be expected to provide third-party support for your adversaries, complete with detailed information and biographies. Who can be expected to speak out in their behalf and against you?

Document, footnote and reference the sources of all of your information. If you do use any controversial information you can be sure that you will be challenged on its accuracy.

Comprehensive opposition research in critical in anticipating the wants and needs of your adversaries and determining their gives and takes. Your need to put yourself in their shoes and think like them in order to anticipate their actions.

One of the gurus of nonviolent disruption was Chicago labor organizer Saul Alinsky. His book, Rules for Radicals, was the bible used by college demonstrators in the 1960s. Anyone planning a conflict strategy today can learn from AlinskyÕs writings. Alinsky is a "must read" for anyone trying to anticipate and understand their opposition.

Alinsky writes: "To know a people is to know their religion. It is to know the values, objectives, customs, sanctions, and the taboos of these groups. It is to know them not only in terms of their relationships and attitudes towards one another, but also in terms of what relationship all of them have toward the outside."

General George Patton did his own opposition research. He was an avid student of history and in learning everything he could about leaders of armed forces opposing him. This is one reason he was such an excellent strategist and won.

When you donÕt know everything you possibly can about your adversaries you are vulnerable to being caught off guard and blindsided. DonÕt let this happen. Be prepared for the worst.

Rene A. Henry, Fellow PRSA, is the author of six books, including YouÕd Better Have a Hose If You Want to Put Out the Fire: The Complete Guide to Crisis and Risk Communications and Marketing Public Relations: The Hows That Make It Work! He is a national assembly delegate and member of the board of the Philadelphia chapter and Chair of the College of Fellows. Office email: Home email: This article originally appeared on Philadelphia PRSA's website.


This case history was originally published in the January 25, 2001 issue of Crisisnavigator,, and is reprinted by permission of that publication and the author.

Sydney Harbour Oil Spill in August 1999
by Helen Morgner


Located in Greenwich in Sydney Harbour, Australia, Shell's Gore Bay Terminal is a receiving and storage facility which provides all of the crude oil for Shell's Clyde refinery in Sydney. The terminal, which has been operated by Shell since it was opened in 1901, receives between 85 and 100 ships a year.

Ships offload about four million tonnes of crude oil and other petroleum products which are transferred to Clyde by underground pipeline. The Clyde refinery supplies 50 percent of New South Wales' (NSW) fuel market and represents about one third of Shell's oil products business in Australia.

Gore Bay and other commercial activities in Sydney Harbour have been continually targeted by pressure groups who believe commercial activity is a threat to the harbour's value as an international tourist destination. These groups argued that commercial shipping should be removed and the harbour reserved for recreational use only. Shell and others maintained that Sydney Harbour has always operated as a working harbour and should continue as such. Aware that the risk of a spill or other environmental problem could threaten Gore Bay's licence to operate, Shell's External Affairs team devised a stakeholders' communications plan in the late 1980s. This involved creating and maintaining a community consultative committee with local residents and other interested groups. The plan also involved Shell staff building dialogue channels with NSW politicians and key public servants about company activities.

The Crisis

On the evening of Tuesday 3 August 1999, the Italian oil tanker "Laura D'Amato" was discharging its crude oil cargo at Shell's Gore Bay Terminal in Sydney. For reasons unknown at the time, 300 tonnes of oil was spilled into the harbour at 6.25pm.

The spill seriously threatened Shell's reputation and business. Mishandled, the crisis could ruin stakeholder relations and encourage the government to stop commercial shipping in Sydney Harbour. A halt on shipping would directly affect Shell's Gore Bay terminal and Clyde refinery which supplies fifty percent of New South Wales' fuel requirements.

Crisis Plan Implementation

One hour after the spill occurred, Shell Australia's External Affairs team had assembled and began executing the crisis communication plan. Twenty four hour coverage was provided by the team for the first three days following the spill.

Media - Shell held a press conference at the site only three hours after the spill was first discovered. The first media release was widely distributed shortly afterwards. A series of six media releases followed over the next two days as the crisis developed. Background information sheets on Gore Bay Terminal and Shell's shipping operations were also sent to all media. Shell spokespeople were pro-actively offered for radio and television interviews, media briefings, one-to-one phone conversations and personal interviews throughout the crisis.

Government - Shell staff contacted senior advisers for the relevant ministers and government departments on the night of the spill. The next day, personal briefings by Shell senior management were instigated, including a briefing for the NSW Premier by Shell's CEO. Follow-up letters with additional background information were sent to all government contacted. Shell also initiated the offer to co-operate fully with a government inquiry.

Stakeholders - A personal letter from the Gore Bay Terminal manager was hand-delivered to local residents before dawn on August 4. Three follow-up letterbox drops were organised over the next week. Non-government organisations (NGOs) were contacted by phone to discuss the spill.

Employees - An e-mail to all Shell Australia staff was distributed at 3 a.m. on the night of the spill so employees were updated as soon as they arrived at work the next day. Follow-up voice mail messages and e-mails were sent to all staff informing of them of developments over the next week. After the oil spill clean up, a letter of appreciation was sent to all employees and contractors involved.

General public and customers - Additional staff were employed at Shell's Clyde refinery to handle the increased number of switchboard calls from the general public. Shell's customer service centre was fully briefed on how to respond to oil spill queries from customers. All media releases were posted on Shell's Internet website. The media releases web page received 300 percent more hits in August than the normal monthly average.


Shell received widespread praise on its response to the crisis. There was no discernible impact on sales during the crisis, long-term business damage was avoided and Shell's reputation with stakeholders was actually enhanced.

Support from the local community was immense. Many residents and local groups openly praised Shell's involvement and relationship with them. After the crisis, Shell recorded higher than average attendance at the community consultation committee meetings and the next Gore Bay Terminal open day.

During and after the crisis, the NSW Premier Bob Carr announced that Sydney is, and will continue to be, a working harbour that allows commercial shipping traffic. He ruled out closing Sydney Harbour either permanently or temporarily and said moving Gore Bay Terminal was not an option. Today, Gore Bay continues to operate as a receiving and storage facility for Shell.

About the author:

Helen Morgner is the External Affairs Officer at Shell Australia Limited, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Contact:


Q: Can you recommend any sources for information about crisis management trends?

CM: The Crisis Management Institute ( has some very useful information along those lines in their research and publications section. Their 1999 survey re the origins of crises tells us, for example, that class action lawsuits were the cause of 30% of the crisis headlines that year, followed by product recall/defect litigation and white collar crime.


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.

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


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