© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: for those who missed it on my website, this seems like the right time for me to reprint this article I wrote, originally, for Arizona Attorney magazine.
Making a Crisis Worse: The Biggest Mistakes in Crisis Communications
by Jonathan Bernstein
All businesses are vulnerable to crises. You can't serve any population without being subjected to situations involving lawsuits, accusations of impropriety, sudden changes in company ownership or management, and other volatile situations on which your audiences -- and the media that serves them -- often focus.
The cheapest way to turn experience into future profits is to learn from others' mistakes. With that in mind, I hope that the following examples of inappropriate crisis communications policies, culled from real-life situations, will provide a tongue-in-cheek guide about what NOT to do when your organization is faced with a crisis.
To ensure that your crisis will flourish and grow, you should:
- Play Ostrich
Hope that no one learns about it. Cater to whoever is advising you to say nothing, do nothing. Assume you'll have time to react when and if necessary, with little or no preparation time. And while you're playing ostrich, with your head buried firmly in the sand, don't think about the part that's still hanging out.
- Only Start Work on a Potential Crisis Situation after It's Public
This is closely related to item 1, of course. Even if you have decided you won't play ostrich, you can still foster your developing crisis by deciding not to do any advance preparation. Before the situation becomes public, you still have some proactive options available. You could, for example, thrash out and even test some planned key messages, but that would probably mean that you will communicate promptly and credibly when the crisis breaks publicly, and you don't want to do that, do you? So, in order to allow your crisis to gain a strong foothold in the public's mind, make sure you address all issues from a defensive posture -- something much easier to do when you don't plan ahead. Shoot from the hip, and give off the cuff, unrehearsed remarks.
- Let Your Reputation Speak for You
"Doesn't anybody know how important we think we are?" you complain. You: big business Goliath. Me: member of public who doesn't trust big business. You lose.
- Treat the Media Like the Enemy
By all means, tell a reporter that you think he/she has done such a bad job of reporting on you that you'll never talk to him/her again. Or badmouth him/her in a public forum. Send nasty faxes. Then sit back and have a good time while:
- The reporter gets angry and directs that energy into REALLY going after your organization.
- The reporter laughs at what he/she sees as validation that you're really up to no good in some way.
- Get Stuck in Reaction Mode Versus Getting Proactive
A negative story suddenly breaks about your organization, quoting various sources. You respond with a statement. There's a follow-up story. You make another statement. Suddenly you have a public debate, a lose/lose situation. Good work! Instead of looking at methods that could turn the situation into one where you initiate activity that precipitates news coverage, putting you in the driver's seat and letting others react to what you say, you continue to look as if you're the guilty party defending yourself.
- Use Language Your Audience Doesn't Understand
Jargon and arcane acronyms are but two of the ways you can be sure to confuse your audiences, a surefire way to make most crises worse. Let's check out a few of these taken-from-real-situations gems:
- The rate went up 10 basis points.
- We're considering development of a SNFF or a CCRC.
- We ask that you submit exculpatory evidence to the grand jury.
- The material has less than 0.65 ppm benzene as measured by the TCLP.
To the average member of the public, and to most of the media who serve them other than specialists in a particular subject, the general reaction to such statements is "HUH?"
- Assume That Truth Will Triumph over All
You have the facts on your side, by golly, and you know the American public will eventually come around and realize that. Disregard the proven concept that perception is as damaging as reality -- sometimes more so.
- Address Only Issues and Ignore Feelings
- The green goo which spilled on our property is absolutely harmless to humans.
- Our development plans are all in accordance with appropriate regulations.
- The lawsuit is totally without merit.
So what if people are scared? Angry? You're a businessman, not a psychologist -- right?
- Make Only Written Statements
Face it, it's a lot easier to communicate via written statements only. No fear of looking or sounding foolish. Less chance of being misquoted. Sure, it's impersonal and some people think it means you're hiding and afraid, but you know they're wrong and that's what's important.
- Use "Best Guess" Methods of Assessing Damage
"Oh my God, we're the front page (negative) story, we're ruined!"
Congratulations -- you may have just made a mountain out of a molehill....OK, maybe you only made a small building out of a molehill. Helpful hint: you can make the situation worse by refusing to spend a little time or money quietly surveying your most important audiences to see what THEY think and if it matches the perception created by the media.
- Do the Same Thing Over and Over Again Expecting Different Results
The last time you had negative news coverage you just ignored media calls, perhaps at the advice of legal counsel or simply because you felt that no matter what you said, the media would get it wrong. The result was a lot of concern amongst all of your audiences, internal and external, and the aftermath took quite a while to fade away.
So, the next time you have a crisis, you're going to do the same thing, right? Because "stuff happens" and you can't improve the situation by attempting to improve communications -- can you?
Editor's Note: I asked readers to submit examples of how crisis managers responded well, or not so well, after the terrorist attacks. Here are some examples that were sent in, along with others I found through my own research.
As Americans everywhere tried to absorb the devastation of the attacks, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute's Public Information Committee began a multi-faceted campaign to help the general public handle this tragedy. SPFI's media relations consultant, Mary Tressel, of Lewis & Summers Public Relations, immediately contacted radio, television and newspaper outlets to let them know that SFPI had psychology experts available for interview. She also used an Internet service for journalists to publicize their organization's availability nationwide. The results of these efforts were multiple media interviews, print and broadcast. Also, at the suggestion of SPFI Chair Mark I. Levy, M.D., two local TV stations sponsored Grief Counseling Hotlines for viewers.
I thought this letter from Midwest Express Airlines (not surprising, given their popularity with flyers), was by far the best I received from any airline:
Dear Jonathan Bernstein:
All of us at Midwest Express Airlines have shared in the grief of our nation. We have also witnessed the tragic events give way to untold stories of heroism. We extend our sympathies to our friends and associates in the airline industry, business communities, and all those who have suffered loss.
At Midwest Express and Skyway Airlines, we are resuming service with renewed dedication. Since 1984 we have been privileged to help the people of our hometown, Milwaukee, and other communities on their journeys--to advance commerce, to visit loved ones, to enjoy a well-deserved vacation. To travel is to participate in the vitality of America.
We know that life will be different. Some flight schedules may be altered. Our customers will need to allow for more time at the airport. Safety and security is our first priority, and we are following stringent new federal security standards.
But one significant part of life at Midwest Express will definitely not change--our commitment to serving our fellow citizens as they take full advantage of the freedoms we all share.
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer
From Bad to Tacky
Quantum Tech, a Tennessee company that helps small firms recover computer files in the event of emergencies, issued a September 13 press release written by a new employee -- and not reviewed by the company chief executive pre-release. It said, "A lot of lives were lost in Tuesday's tragedy, and a lot of data was lost, too." Within minutes the firm received email and phone calls that ranged from angry to threatening at the perceived callousness and exploitation. The employee was fired (one wonders if his/her supervisor was fired, too) and the firm issued an immediate apology.
An anonymous tipster let me know of the following message at ATMMarketplace.com:
"In the wake of Sept. 11's deadly terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., ATM Industry Association International Director Mike Lee notes that ATMs give people the ability to control the flow of cash belonging to them, even in the aftermath of a devastating tragedy. It isn't a coincidence, Lee contends, that many countries in Central and Eastern Europe only began installing ATMs after they became democratic countries." [Editor's Note: it got worse after that.]
GM's entire "Keep America Rolling" promotional campaign, announced only 8 days after the attacks. They could have launched this legitimately good deal without a disingenuous connection to the idea of keeping people working, as in this September 19, 2001 statement by GM President for North American Operations, Ron Zarrella:
"As a company, industry and nation we have all been responding in a variety of ways to help America regain its footing, including supporting disaster relief, making blood donations and providing economic support", said Zarrella. "We know this is a difficult time to talk about an incentive program, but GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles, to support our dealers and suppliers, and to keep our plants operating and our employees working."
The broadcast advertisements have, even worse, included patriotic music.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
In response to my invitation for readers to give me feedback on recent advice featured in "Crisis Manager," I received this thoughtful reply regarding the suggestion that every organization acknowledge the events of September 11 on their websites:
"We put a box on the top of our Web page (www.khov.com) the day after the attack expressing our concern Thursday, we freshened it with a release about our contribution. Next week, I'll do something else with it. I agree with what you've written, but the corollary to it is that the message must change first to reflect the nation's mood and also to reflect your company's changes in response to the emergency. Such changes show that you're on top of things and reassessing the needs of your customers and employees and others. It's the difference between using the website to communicate a message (albeit, one way) and sticking up a digital poster."
Director of Public Relations and Communications
K. Hovnanian Companies
Bernstein Crisis Management Creates Instant Crisis Web Sites
Most readers will recall the review of the PIER System technology reported in the 08.15.01 issue of "Crisis Manager." I'm very pleased to announce that Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., now has its own master PIER site, enabling us to create websites for crisis and issues management clients in a manner of minutes.
You can read all about it at the site:
We could opt to have a registered domain name refer directly to our PIER site -- as we have done for four clients currently benefiting from the PIER system -- but for now we don't need that. Two of my clients' sites are for crisis management -- breaking or about-to-break situations -- while one is for long-term issues management and one is actually using their PIER site for "routine" community relations. At PIER system's low cost (around $8,000 for their site license and first year's operation), it was an outstanding alternative to paying MUCH more for a site with similar capabilities. All with no designer or formal webmaster required.
If you'd like a "virtual tour" of our PIER site and an explanation of how we're using it, please go to the Questions/Comments menu bar item at the site and use the "Submit Inquiry" function. That makes it easy for me to keep a record of and follow-up on responses, because PIER has a built-in database, too.
The PR and Legal Team Approach To Crisis Management
Bernstein Crisis Management is capable of providing a joint PR/legal presentation team to train any organization wanting education on both components of crisis management. If interested, write to: email@example.com.
(Have a newsletter and/or website and want to exchange links? Let's talk about it! Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
These sites have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours.
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OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
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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