© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
A collection of prevention-related shorts for you to consider this issue:
Class Action In Action
Class action lawsuits are one of the leading causes of crises that end up in the news, and there are some websites which demonstrate that fact and make for very educational reading. Trial attorneys troll for clients at www.classaction.com and www.bigclassaction.com. There are also sites specific to certain types of class actions, such as www.toxic-mold-news.com. You might want to see if your organization, or a client organization, is unfavorably mentioned at one of these sites!
Local Media Turning Up Heat on Local Crises?
I have now encountered a few cases, since September 11, of local media seriously over-reacting to local crises, in a manner that I suspect is different than before the terrorist attacks. This is just a "gut" feeling right now, but I'd like to hear from you. Do you think it's possible that local media, being unable to compete for reader focus on national/international terrorism news, are trying harder to dig up their own sensational headlines? If so, we all have to be alert for this as part of our crisis prevention programs. If you have feedback about or examples of this phenomena, please write to me.
Great Rumor Control Site
I've written about and am often asked about rumor control. A participant on the PPCONLINE discussion list recently called our attention to the "Rumors and Trumors" site at the University of Texas Medical Branch, www.utmb.edu/rumor. It's an excellent example of Web-based rumor management!
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Crisis Manager "Dark" January 1
I'm giving myself a mini-vacation and will not publish a 01.01.02 issue of "Crisis Manager." However, I wanted all of you to know how grateful I am for your interest in this ezine, as evinced by the high readership retention rate and your frequent complimentary correspondence. In February the publication is two years old, and you can expect to see a "best of" book coming out next year. I hope everyone's holidays have and continue to be joyous and serene, and your new year prosperous in every way.
Format Remaining Plain Text
Last issue you were asked if you objected to "Crisis Manager" becoming a rich text/HTML publication; enough of you did object that we're keeping it as is. Thanks for all your feedback!
Branding Crisis Manager
You can arrange to distribute "Crisis Manager" to your own email list with a "Brought to You By" credit in the masthead. There is no charge and only some reasonable restrictions to preserve the integrity of the publication. Several organizations are already doing this and finding that it is appreciated by their contacts. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Not every crisis management case is large and complex. Sometimes it's a single "battle" fought on short notice with the resources at hand. Some facts in this case history were altered slightly to preserve client confidentiality.
by Jonathan Bernstein
"Our local Fox News Channel called, they're investigating our client, got one of their sales people secretly on tape, and want to interview someone about what they heard," said an attorney contact of mine, calling from another state.
This isn't the first, and I'm sure it's not the last time I've had similar calls, specifically mentioning Fox, which seems to like competing, in local/regional markets, for the title of "best investigative media." Not saying they achieve that title, but they are very active in this regard.
The client company -- we'll call it AirClean -- operates primarily in one state and sells air filtration systems for the home. It makes certain assurances regarding what the systems can accomplish. A Fox reporter, acting on a tip that we suspect came from one of the client's competitors, had arranged and secretly taped a sales presentation in which the sales rep allegedly made exaggerated and inaccurate claims.
Complicating matters, AirClean had also recently received inquiries about its sales practices from the state attorney general, but so far its responses to that inquiry appeared to be satisfying the AG's investigator. There was concern that the Fox coverage, when aired, could prompt the state to get tougher.
With AirClean's attorney as Fox's contact point, we quickly determined that:
- Fox was willing to wait for almost a week to do the interview, giving us a little time to prepare.
- Fox was not willing to let us see the secret videotape in advance but planned to show it to whomever came to the interview and get reaction on the spot.
- We were fairly certain, from a partial description provided by Fox, who the sales rep was, someone who AirClean thought would not exaggerate or make false claims.
- The show was scheduled to be aired during an upcoming "sweeps" week.
A crisis response team consisting of me, the attorney, and AirClean's top two executives met to:
- Review all of the company's sales literature and sales training materials to see how it might be misunderstood.
- Interview the sales rep involved to see if he recalled the meeting that might have been taped (he did) and what he said there.
- Identify what backup research the company had to substantiateclaims that it made.
- Determine what categories of questions Fox was likely to ask and what message points might best balance the coverage.
- Anticipate internal and external audience response to a Fox story and what the company needs to say to each audience in advance of, or immediately after, the show aired -- one of the audiences being a collection of local on-air celebrities who endorsed the product.
- Media-train the top two execs, one as lead spokesperson and one as back-up spokesperson and expert on certain issues.
This wasn't full-scale, spend-a-day-or-two-getting-ready media training. AirClean is a smaller company on a limited budget. This was "let's do the best we can in one afternoon" and was highly focused on two goals:
- Making sure that the lead spokesperson, in particular, was able to deliver AirClean's most important messages NO MATTER WHAT QUESTIONS WERE ASKED.
- Encouraging AirClean and its spokespersons to approach the interview with an "attitude of gratitude" towards Fox for calling possible inaccuracies or misunderstandings to its attention.
The training was done knowing that some of the company's sales materials and claims were, in fact, unclear and could be taken wrong, a problem since rectified. I was convinced, as was legal counsel, that there was no intent to deceive and no significant legal threat in this situation -- but the court of public opinion could be very damaging if not addressed honestly, openly and in a manner which communicated a sense of concern.
The results are partially summarized in this email from the attorney, also slightly modified for confidentiality purposes:
"Fox finally aired the show. Your preparation of Tom was wonderful. He did a really good job sticking to the issues we wanted to present and came across pretty well on the TV. Interestingly, Fox really focused in on two things: 1) one consumer's (as opposed to two consumers', as they said originally) bad experience with the air system and 2) the undercover tape of the sales person. All in all, the piece was not as damaging as we initially thought it would be. The clients thought the same. To date, there have not been any noteworthy customer reactions to the story. However, one (celebrity) spokesperson is a little nervous about continuing to promote the product. She was an anchor prior to taking on the role of an on-air personality. The client, though, has no concerns about her opting out of her spokesperson role."
The show did not, in fact, air during sweeps week because, we believe, our response made it too dull! And one of our responses has put Fox on the hot seat and may help prevent the possibility of their revisiting the story. We have asked for, and so far they have refused to provide,a copy of the complete secret taping. Our position: "we want to do everything possible to ensure that we are communicating clearly, which is what you were criticizing us about, so why don't you become a further part of the solution by giving us the tape?"
My belief, despite Fox's protestations of legal considerations, is that they don't want us to hear the many leading questions they used to get certain "less than desirable" quotes out of the sales rep. Whatever the case, it's kinda fun to turn the tables on the media once in a while!
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: Have you seen any increase in proactive crisis prevention-related business since September 11?
A: A tiny amount, percentage-wise. Most clients still call first because the fire is already burning. I only know of one company whose spokesperson told me they weren't affected by what happened three months ago -- and that statement, in my opinion, was delusional. I had more than 100 requests for my free "Crisis Communications Preparedness Checklist" when I offered it in October but, when I followed up with most of those who asked for it, few were doing more than looking at their current level of preparedness without yet making any changes. I am delighted to be working with one company that is willing to really look at the way it communicates, internally and externally, while no fires are burning. I know that we'll be able to help them avoid some fires altogether and minimize damage from others.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
Bernstein Crisis Management has formal or informal co-promotional and mutually beneficial business associations with PIER Systems, Inc., PR Newswire's ProfNet service and CustomScoop. No, we can't go into details because that's confidential, proprietary, etc. But our relationship is NOT "arm's distance" and you should know that, since we regularly write about how we're using these services for crisis and issues management. That said, you should also know that Bernstein Crisis Management sought the relationships because its staff is convinced that these services are the best of their kind for Bernstein Crisis Management's needs and those of their clients. If you have any questions about these relationships, please contact Jonathan Bernstein, (626) 825-3838.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting. It is also the only national PR agency able to create crisis- and issues-specific websites for its clients in as little as five minutes by employing proprietary PIER System technology. Information on the firm's services can be found by Clicking Here or by calling (626) 825-3838. Information on its PIER capabilities can be found at www.crisiswebsite.com.
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