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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 1,900+


"In a vacuum, the media will create its own reality."

Kim Perry, Kim Perry Consulting, Santa Fe, NM


Staying Out of Trouble in Interviews
By Jerry Brown, APR

Communicating With Impact

Editor's Note: more outstanding prevention tips from the author of "Monday Morning Media Minute." You can contact him, or sign up for his newsletter, at Phone: 303.781.8787.

Remember your media Miranda rights. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say may end up in print or on the air.

You don't have to talk to reporters. And they don't have to talk to you. But you need one another. So, you'll probably want to say yes most of the times a reporter wants to talk to you.

Once you agree to talk, reporters will expect you to answer any question they ask. So, when is it okay not to answer a reporter's question? That's a subject that comes up a lot when I do media training. Here are the guidelines I use:

Answer every question unless you have a specific reason not to.

If you don't know the answer, don't guess. You can offer to get the information later. But if you guess wrong and the mistake gets into a story, both you and the reporter will be embarrassed. "I don't know" can be three of the most important words in the vocabulary of anyone who talks to reporters. Don't be afraid to use them, when appropriate.

Don't answer hypothetical questions. When you hear a reporter ask a question that begins with "what if" or some similar phrase, alarm bells should go off in your head. Offer an answer that states the facts as you know them. Or simply decline to speculate on a hypothetical situation, even if a reporter presses you to do so.

Despite what reporters will tell you, the public doesn't always have a right to know. Some information is proprietary. Some information is financially material and subject to SEC disclosure requirements. And some information is private; personnel records, for example. If a reporter asks for information you're not willing or able to share, don't share it. But offer a reason rather than simply saying "no comment." Most of the time reporters will understand and accept your reason. But it's okay if they don't. The reporter's in charge of the questions. You're in charge of your answers.


A Real Whistleblower
By George S. McQuade III

Editor's Note: George McQuade and George Young clearly did not let the need for speed derail his efforts to keep their client on track during this recent well-conducted exercise in reverse crisis management -- creating a mini-crisis in order to put pressure on an organization.

I received a voicemail at 8:00 PM on a Thursday night while driving home from USC Anneberg School For Communication's 11th Annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium. Guest Speaker: Steve Harris, Vice President, Communications, General Motors, "Taken for a Ride: Lessons Learned from 35 Years in Automotive Communications."

I remember distinctly hearing him say "lack of speed," kills good PR during a crisis."

The voicemail said "I need to know if you're available for the next 24 hours? I have a whistleblower lawsuit, and need to get the media at a news conference tomorrow, can you help?"

I called back to hammer out details, and we decided to set up the news conference right on one of the oldest railroad track sites in the town of Placentia, the smallest Orange County town, with 50,000 residents. It was also one of the most peaceful for 25 years, until this week. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) told the City fathers that a federal proposal requires that they blow their whistle at every intersection. Placentia has 11 intersections and 70 trains per day passing through. That equals 770 blaring horns each day, keeping residents up all night, because some homes are 15 feet from the tracks.

When I got to City Hall with my partner, George Young, George Young and Associates, he told me we'd be meeting with the legal counsel at 11:30 AM, for the 1:00 PM news conference. At noon, we sat down and Mr. Young asked the legal counsel "what do you plan to say to the media and what legal action are you planning to take? The attorney looked up and said, "I was literally handed this case last night, and I was hoping you would tell me what to say to the media."

To make a long story short, we practiced several times and did a crash course in media relations.

We got to the railroad tracks, where the news conference was; there were 10 TV cameras, KNX, KFWB, LA Times, Orange County Register, and irate residents (luckily supporting the City of Placentia). Even Fox News, which had told me 90 minutes prior that they were not going to attend because they had to cover the P,G&E bankruptcy filing.

Right before the news conference began with an announcement to file a lawsuit asking the Calif. Public Utilities Commission to order BNSF to stop blowing horns all hours at night, I told our two attorney clients to stop talking if a train comes blaring through the intersection. It was as if we cued the trains on time.

Five seconds into the city attorney's introduction of our client's name, the train came blasting through the intersection with two loud whistles...perfect to drive home the message.

The attorneys did fine in answering questions we practiced, and several hours later, during a live shot on KNBC-TV, Reporter Vicki Vargas announced, in a breaking news story, that BNSF Railroad issued a statement saying they will immediately stop freight whistles from 10 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. through April 20, by which time the PUC and/or the courts are expected to rule on the matter.

Despite the PG&E bankruptcy, we were #2 story on most TV stations that Friday night. Whew! Always expect the unexpected, and you'll never be surprised.

George McQuade is vice president of MAYO Communications, 818.340.5300 or


Q:  How do you handle it when your company makes a business decision the company feels is necessary but that you know will definitely make negative headlines? I mean, I know you spin, but what about when you just can't? Where exactly is the point where you just "throw up your hands"? -- Bruce Bonafede, director of public relations, Del Webb's Sun City Palm Desert.

CM:  I've had the pleasure of doing a lot of work with Bruce and Del Webb over the past dozen years and the folks there know, as do we all, that there are times when there just is no way the best spinmeister in the world can make an announcement sound good. So what the heck can we do with that situation?

First, this is why it is CRITICAL to conduct proactive community and public relations when not in times of crisis. This creates a "cushion of goodwill and credibility" that can dramatically increase the public's acceptance of bad news.

Del Webb devotes considerable resources to ongoing PR and community relations at each of their masterplanned communities as well as on a national basis. You can't be in the business of development and homebuilding without voluntarily or involuntarily generating negative headlines -- but the damage has been minimized by the firm's "cushion building."

Conversely, I've seen other companies, without that cushion, suffer massive damage when a crisis becomes the first time the public really learns about them.

As for "what to say when there ain't nothin' good to say," the crisis communications team needs to brainstorm about how they can, at least, cushion the blow of the news. For example, if you've committed an environmental offense, perhaps there is a way you can do something, voluntarily, to give back to the environment. It is not always possible to create such a cushion when the crisis is already publicly known, but it's worth the effort.

In the absence of some kind of cushion, however, the damage level inevitably goes up dramatically.

Readers: do you have any suggestions in response to Bruce's question? Send them to me,, for possible use in a future issue.


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