© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"Crisis Communications is exactly like Issues Management, only with your hair on fire."
Rick Kelly, Senior Vice President, Neiman Communications
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: I have been reading "The Publicity Handbook" with delight since receiving a review copy and have found that this "old dog" can, indeed, learn some new tricks. I'll write about it more in future issues, but wanted "Crisis Manager" readers to benefit from my cherry-picking this outstanding checklist from the book, with the kind permission of the editor.
From "The Publicity Handbook: The Inside Scoop From More Than 100 Journalists and PR Pros on How to Get Great Publicity Coverage -- in Print, On-Line, and on the Air," a Fortune Book Club Selection, by David R. Yale with Andrew J. Carothers. Copyright (c) 2001, 1991, 1982 by David R. Yale. All rights reserved.
1. Are you prepared with facts and figures so you can respond to an attack quickly?
2. Have you written down lists of leading, difficult, tricky and nasty questions that reporters could ask you in a controversial situation?
3. Have you come up with answers to them?
4. Did you discuss these answers with your lawyer?
5. Have you taped your spokesperson answering these questions and helped him make his delivery as believable as possible?
6. Do you know the direct telephone lines and fax numbers for newsrooms, so you can reach them after hours, when switchboards are closed?
7. Have you considered using a 24-hour fax broadcast or E-mail service, or a newswire, to handle emergency communications with the media?
8. Do you know the E-mail addresses for reporters on your media list?
9. Do you have a way to track what the press says about you on a daily basis in a crisis situation? Does that include tracking for both online and offline media?
10. Have you considered finding a satellite media tour operator who can produce a tour in a few hours in an emergency situation?
11. Do you know who your allies are?
12. Have you considered working with others in your industry or field on a common plan for counterattacking your critics?
13. Will the controversy you face go away on its own?
14. Should you ignore it?
15. Will a response only serve to fuel the fires or reinforce wrong information?
16. Will your counterattack make a real contribution to an honest debate?
17. Is your response based on compelling facts and persuasive logic?
18. Can you bolster your response with documents or other supporting evidence?
19. Do you have these documents available on your website, so reporters can access them easily?
20. Even if you have been attacked, can you make it look like you're the initiator of the debate?
21. Have you avoided restating misconceptions and wrong information?
22. Have you asked the publication or broadcaster for an opportunity to respond to an attack?
23. If the attack came from a syndicated columnist, have you contacted the syndicate and asked for an opportunity to rebut it?
24. If that didn't work, did you contact the columnist at his office address?
25. Can you discredit attackers by exposing their hidden motives?
26. If you've negotiated an agreement with your opposition, have you made sure that you can issue a release announcing the agreement before the other side does?
27. Have you figured out how to discuss your organization's shortcomings in the most positive light possible?
28. Have you discussed with your lawyer the circumstances in which you absolutely cannot talk about a problem with the press?
29. Have you asked your counsel for advice in handling that type of situation without alienating the media?
30. Is your lawyer willing and able to handle media questions on these matters?
31. Does your lawyer understand why being candid with the media can pay dividends that can't be measured in dollars?
32. Have you discussed this issue with your organization's executives and board of directors and developed crystal-clear guidelines for spokespeople?
33. Have you removed the term "no comment" from your vocabulary?
34. Do you understand why a reporter must question what you say, especially in a controversial situation?
35. If a reporter is adversarial, can you answer her questions with your answers in order to paint a positive picture -- and then deal with the problem candidly?
36. Can you admit that you don't know the answer to a reporter's question-and then offer to find out for her?
37. Are you confident enough to tell a reporter you can't discuss trade secrets?
38. When a reporter asking controversial questions calls you out of the blue, can you gain time by listening rather than responding, and offering to call the reporter back later?
"The Publicity Handbook" is published by McGraw-Hill, 432 pages, list price is $22.95. It's available at major booksellers including Amazon.Com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders Books.
The Good (Gateway) Vs. The Bad & Ugly (America West)
by Jonathan Bernstein
As my long-time readers know, I draw not only on my experience serving clients but also, at times, on my experience as an American consumer observing how companies manage issues "at the ground level." That helps keep me aware, sometimes painfully aware, of the fact that issues management activities must take place at all levels of an organization and not merely be high-sounding words coming from corporate offices. Here are two recent examples of the right way, and the wrong way, to manage issues facing the companies involved, and their industries.
In August of 2000, I purchased a new, lower-end Gateway notebook computer. While Gateway's reputation for quality products is high, I happened to have purchased a "lemon." The hard drive crashed after only a week. They quickly replaced it - but, I discovered belatedly, months later, with a smaller drive, although it had been labeled the same size. Their first reaction, at the lowest level of customer service, was to offer me another replacement drive. I asked for more memory instead and, although the request had to get bucked up one higher level, they agreed. Yet my bad luck with the computer hadn't ended -- one of my memory chips went bad a few weeks ago.
At this point I contacted Gateway and said, essentially, "I don't trust this computer and I urgently need a reliable notebook." While, again, their initial customer service response was to cite the warranty's liability - replacement of the chip only - it took only one "higher level" contact to result, first, in a return call saying that they were going to replace the entire computer, now about 10 months old. To my delight, only hours later, I received yet another call - from the original customer service rep, apologizing for trying to stand on the letter of the warranty based on an inadequate review of the facts. And he told me that they were not merely sending me a comparable replacement model, but a significantly upgraded one. This newsletter is being typed on that replacement.
Tyson Heyn, Gateway's manager, corporate communications, not only was sympathetic on the phone but told me, by email, that "as difficult as your circumstances have been, I do want to let you know that they are anomalous. Obviously, that does not make up for your lost time or frustration, but hopefully, it conveys some commitment from Gateway." He also provided results of company research establishing an upward trend in the overall level of customer satisfaction.
The Bad and Ugly - America West
In the 08.01.00 issue of "Crisis Manager," America West was the focus of another "how to do it wrong" case history, at which time I was told, by v.p. of corporate communications Jim Sabourin, that the incidents involved should never have happened and that the company had just "created a new position, vice president of customers, to address such problems." I concluded my story with "My kudos to Mr. Sabourin for his candor. The good intent has been stated and, if accompanied by action, this type of crisis won't re-occur."
Apparently, the airline still fails to understand how to put customers first and then wonders why its primary competitor, Southwest Airlines (SWA), is consistently profitable while America West (AWA) bleeds money.
I was one of a planeload of passengers from Burbank to Phoenix recently. The plane was delayed on takeoff by an America West paperwork snafu, then more delayed coming in due to weather around Phoenix. We were told, enroute, that (a) don't worry about our connections, they knew we were delayed and (b) all flights were being delayed due to the weather. When we landed, many of us rushed for tight connections. I arrived at my connection gate on a porter-driven cart, three minutes before scheduled takeoff on another America West flight. They had closed the gate doors two minutes earlier, said they were leaving on time, and would not open the doors, although the flight was the last connection that night to my destination, with no alternative routes. They claimed the engines were already on. They lied - I looked! It was a twin-prop plane, no propellers were turning and there were two men on the ground near the plane's wheels, talking. The gate agents would not relent.
On the shuttle bus to the Hotel FlightPath ("We're clean, but we're loud") where I spent the night, I met a very harried young mother of two girls who had been on my flight from Burbank. They had arrived at their America West connection gate, headed for Denver, WHILE PASSENGERS WERE STILL BOARDING. They turned her away because they had already given away her ticket, despite the fact that the America West system - "somewhere" - knew that the inbound flight had been delayed through no fault of hers.
Jim Sabourin, when told of these experiences, said that seats are not supposed to be given away when a short delay has occurred on an AWA to AWA connection, and that a flight could be held up to wait for incoming passengers connecting from another AWA flight. "It sounds like our system broke down," he said.
I told him that I have been on a Southwest flight that was delayed for just a couple of minutes while they waited for those connecting from on a delayed flight, and they handled it beautifully with a cheery announcement along the lines of "we ask for your patience, because all of us know how horrible an experience it is to barely miss your flight. We'll do everything we can to make up the time enroute (and they did)." I saw a lot of heads nodding and heard no grumbling. Sabourin expressed surprise that Southwest could do that, because, he explained, that's not as typical for a point-to-point airline like SWA versus a hub-based airline such as AWA.
A couple of days ago, returning from Phoenix, SWA did it again, Jim.
And still got us home on time.
Gateway's goal of improving its reputation, an ongoing issues management challenge for any company, is likely to be met because they are willing to be flexible, because they empower their employees to make case-by-case decisions, and because they understand the true value of a happy customer versus the misleading gain of short-term profit.
America West is going to fall further and further behind because its actions are the antithesis of Gateway's.
Issues management is, at its core, all about managing people. And people aren't machines, we aren't computers, we need empathy and flexibility. And, most of all, we need to be shown that those who serve us CARE, as demonstrated by their actions, not just their words.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: I've seen fees for crisis management services ranging from $150-450 per hour. Does higher cost mean better? How does a client know if he's getting the best value for the fees paid?
A: Crisis management fees are, ultimately, a matter of supply and demand, just like any other product or service. They can vary significantly from place to place, like legal fees -- it's going to cost you more in a major U.S. metro area such as Chicago or New York than in most small cities or towns. That said, there is, in my opinion, only one place you'll learn if the fees are worth what you pay -- talk to former clients. Yes, our work as crisis communications professionals is confidential, we don't name our clients publicly. However, an experienced, honest practitioner will, in my opinion, have or be able to obtain the permission of some client contacts to give their contact information to prospective clients. If two crisis management professionals appear to have equally impressive credentials, and equally impressive statements made about them by references, only then should cost become a factor.
Strategic PR Conference with a crisis track, September 16-18, 2001, The Fairmont Hotel, Chicago. Register before August 10, 2001 to save $100. At this conference, you'll learn what to do in a crisis situation and how to protect your corporate reputation. Leading practitioners will help you craft a working crisis plan, combat online attacks and more.
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Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting. Prior to entering the PR world, Bernstein was an investigative reporter, preceded by five years in U.S. Army Military Intelligence. Click Here for information on the firm's services or call (626) 825-3838.
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