© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"When you get embroiled in a controversy, you could well get calls and E-mail messages from journalists who are nine time zones away... they'll expect answers from you in Internet time -- which means right now."
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."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: Deon Binneman has an ezine called Powerlines from whence this article comes, with his kind permission. He has been a key player in portraying crisis and issues management in the context of "reputation management and reputation, ultimately, is what we're striving to enhance or, at least, preserve.
Reputation and the Domino Theory
by Deon Binneman
The Domino Theory is a theory used by Health and Safety practitioners to show how accidents or incidents happen in the workplace, that has direct application for Reputational Risk Managers.
For those of you who have ever played dominos or have seen it being stacked at Guinness Book of World Records events, will know that there are a number of rules vital to domino playing:
You have to line them up correctly. If you line them up correctly, they'll fall down nicely. Line them up incorrectly, and they won't fall against each other.
You've got to push the first domino in the right direction.
When you knock over the first domino, be ready for the rest of them to fall.
They will fall, and if you are not ready.......
Health & Safety specialists use this theory to demonstrate how an accident happens. This is how they depict it:
- The first domino is the failure to maintain work performance standards;
- The second domino relates to personal and job factors, which leads to;
- The third domino - unsafe practices and unsafe conditions which leads to;
- The fourth domino - types of incidents which leads to;
- The fifth domino falling which leads to injury, illness or property damage.
Thus the thread of an accident can be seen through a series of distinct stages.
And so can most reputational incidents or accidents.
The most important domino - LACK OF MANAGEMENT CONTROL - is the domino that starts up the whole process. Shall we apply this to the Ford - Firestone debacle?
Does your company have in place the necessary controls for preventing potential reputational incidents? I bet not. If not! Let me not scare you. Soon the domino WILL fall. Don't believe me? Do me a favor - for the next three (3) weeks cut out as many references to reputational issues out of all your available newspapers and other media, then make a collage out of it. Maybe then you will believe me.
If not, then look up Ford - Firestone! Ask Union Carbide! Ask Exxon! Ask Johnson & Johnson etc, etc, etc. Proof that bad things can and do happen to good companies.
Deon Binneman, managing member of REPUCOMM in Johannesburg, South Africa, is a Speaker, Trainer & Consultant specializing in Reputation Management and Strategic Communication Counseling. To subscribe to POWERLINES, put the word SUBSCRIBE in the body of an email to: email@example.com.
Editor's Note: This is a revised and expanded version of an article I wrote some time ago for a legal journal.
When the Media Goes Too Far
by Jonathan Bernstein
Everyone expects journalists to be pushy, to report facts less-than-accurately at times and to insist on a level of access to information that makes both attorneys and PR professionals cringe. To a significant extent, that's their job and those of us who respond to the media "dance the dance" with them and hope for some balance in the resulting coverage.
Sometimes, however, reporters and/or the media outlet they serve go too far. They cross the line from aggressive to offensive. They insist on publishing facts which have already been corrected by reputable sources. And when they do, there is recourse other than just taking it in the teeth.
When Reporters Get Offensive
In an actual situation that occurred in 1999, a reporter for an Arizona newspaper, assigned to coverage of an ongoing business crisis situation, apparently got frustrated at his inability to obtain interviews with certain representatives of that business. The organization in crisis had decided, at that point, to communicate only by written statement. The frustrated journalist called the administrative assistant to one of the business' outside attorneys and insisted on talking to the attorney. When she, appropriately, told him the "party line" that all media calls were to go the PR director of the business (where he'd already called without success), he threatened her. He said that he would publish HER name as the one responsible for information not being available to the public.
She contacted the business' crisis management consultant, who advised her boss, the attorney, that the reporter was in gross violation of journalistic ethics and advised him to write a letter explaining what had happened to legal counsel for the paper. He did and, after some communication back and forth, the paper not only apologized to the assistant in writing, but gave her a free subscription -- and the reporter became the subject of an internal investigation. His bullying tactics stopped.
When the Media Ignores the Facts
If a spokesperson for an organization in crisis has repeatedly communicated demonstrably accurate information to the media only to see it not used, or has made statements that are repeatedly misquoted, the same tactic of having legal counsel communicate with legal counsel can often make a positive difference. Usually, first, you want to establish a trail of evidence that you have, in fact, taken every reasonable action to get the facts corrected. You've sent polite written corrections to the reporter(s) involved. You've met with him/her in person to explain your perception of the problems. You've met with his/her supervising editor. And the problem persists.
If a media outlet's editorial bias is so strong that it won't cooperate even if threatened with more formal legal action, it is time to remember that the media is NOT your most important audience. Why? Because it's the least manageable and it has an agenda of its own. There are a lot of ways "around" the irresponsible media outlet. One is considering use of "advertorials," perhaps even in a competing outlet (if there is one). That is the process of buying advertising space -- print or air time -- and putting your own message in there, formatted to look or sound just like news coverage. Sure, it will have to have the words "advertising" somewhere in the piece, but studies have shown that well-done advertorials are almost as well received by media audiences as regular news coverage. And you control the message.
In addition to, or instead of advertorials, consider whether the audiences important to you or your client are actually being negatively influenced by the media coverage? And is it their primary source of information on the subject? I have known of cases where, when asked, key audiences tell client companies that they don't believe the media coverage and think reporters are on a witch hunt. It could well be that, by simply increasing positive and accurate DIRECT communication with key audience members (more phone calls, letters, meetings, etc.) about a crisis situation that you will balance out the inaccurate negativity in the press.
Remember: we're not at the mercy of the press as much as some members of the press would like us to believe. And at its core, "the media" is just people like you and me. People in every profession "break the rules," they violate the ethics and responsible business practices to which they allegedly subscribe. Reporters and editors are no different. And not only do we have ways to respond but, if we don't, we're tacitly encouraging the rule-breaking.
Editor's Note: If you want some guidelines to help you determine if a journalist is being unethical, read the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics at: http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Editor's Note: I recently met with a group of law firm attorneys to introduce them to my services. One question I received, below, may have illustrated a common misunderstanding that most PR professionals can manage major crisis situations without specialized assistance.
Q: If I refer you to one of my corporate clients, they may already have in-house PR staff and not understand why they should hire you. Why do they need your services?
A: For the same reason they need outside legal counsel even though they have in-house counsel, maybe even a large in-house legal staff. The day-to-day public relations needs of most organizations do not require a high level of skill in crisis communications and so they don't necessarily hire for that ability. Certain industries are an exception -- you can safely assume that the tobacco industry, for example, has hired some of the best crisis managers they can find. Crisis communications is one of the best-paying PR specialties because not a lot of people want to do it and only a percentage of those who want to, can. Some lawyers have a knack for bankruptcy law, some doctors are superior at brain surgery -- and some PR professionals have the combination of innate ability and experience to be better at crisis communications. On the other hand, if you asked me to do entertainment PR, I'd say "get a specialist!"
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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