© 2002 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens. It knows that it must outrun the fastest lion that day, or be eaten. Every morning in Africa, a lion also awakens. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or starve to death. The moral of the story is this: Whether you are a gazelle or a lion, when you wake up, you had better be running.
Editor's Note: Thank you to Dan Parish of the Sterling Oak Company for passing this on to me!
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Secret Shopping to Prevent Crises
by Jonathan Bernstein
The concept of "secret shoppers" has uses far beyond the corridors and cash registers of retail stores. Retailers and wise businesses that are highly focused on customer service have long employed people to secretly "shop" as if they were actual customers or clients, and then report their perceptions to management. If you apply this concept to testing how an organization performs in multiple categories -- not just customer service -- you will be able to detect the seeds of budding crises well in advance of serious damage being caused.
Secret shopping can be done to evaluate vulnerabilities in:
- Physical and Information Security. How easy is it to just walk in to a facility unchallenged? To see the contents of files containing what should be confidential information? Would it have been easy to just pick up a computer floppy disk or CD-ROM off someone's desk? Are valuable products placed in a manner that would allow someone to easily pick them up and stick them in a pocket or purse? Are people talking about company business within easy earshot of a visitor?
- Human Resources. Does the "secret shopper" prospective employee get treated in a manner consistent with all EEOC requirements and other applicable laws? Are there signs of discrimination or harassment in the manner people talk to each other? Are there vulnerabilities indicated in the answer the shopper receives when asking any average employee, "what's it like to work here?"
- Financial/Business Matters. Contact some vendors for the target organization, playing the role of someone who's also been asked to be a vendor. Find out how they treat outside vendors (a prime source of potentially damaging gossip), whether they pay on time, and what the vendor thinks of their business practices.
- Investment Matters. If the target organization is publicly held, become a potentially large investor who wants feedback from major brokers and/or analysts. And then ask the same questions of the organization's CFO. Negative feedback from the former, or inconsistencies between the answers given by those outside and inside the company, are possible warning flags.
With a little thought, you can probably see how the secret shopper concept can be extended to test much of any organization's operation, although it is not a substitute for the depth of information that can be obtained through a comprehensive vulnerability/risk assessment,a topic discussed previously in this newsletter.
Editor's Note: If you have examples of how you've used this technique effectively for your organization, or a client organization, I'd love to receive them for future publication. Altering information strictly to preserve confidentiality is acceptable.
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The Decline of Experts: A Bridge in London, Anthrax and Enron
by Phil Cogan, Executive VP, Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.
An accountant attests to the accuracy of a company's books. An investment analyst recommends the purchase of a company's stock. An infectious disease specialist says the mail is not a threat to public health. A renowned engineer says a cutting edge design for a pedestrian bridge is unquestionably structurally sound.
All four are experts. And all are representative of the public skepticism that greets many experts today.
Back in 1921 Walter Lippman envisioned that only experts would be able to help the public and government understand what was, even then, becoming an increasingly complex world. Writing in his landmark book, "Public Opinion", Lippman opined that democracy was unworkable "unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions." An expert, he reasoned "would exercise more power in the future than ever he did before, because increasingly the relevant facts will elude the voter and the administrator."
Lippman even suggested that the government should subsidize the operation of "bureaus of experts" with members granted lifetime tenure. Wrote Lippman, "The purpose is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push the burden away from him towards the responsible administrator."
Fast forward to 2001 and 2002. Enron executives attempt heat transfer to lawyers and accountants. Investment analysts say they relied on legal and accounting professionals as the basis for their stock recommendations. And institutional and individual investors say they were duped by the experts upon whom they relied to make their investment decisions.
A BRIDGE TOO WOBBLY
The Millennium Bridge in London spans the River Thames between St. Paul's Cathedral on the north bank and the replica of the Shakespearean Globe Theater on the south. The bridge incorporated a bold new design concept; it's a suspension bridge with the supporting cables below, rather than above, the structure.
The pedestrian-only bridge is the longest "lateral suspension" bridge in the world. It opened in June 2000, and closed just three days later, a victim of the fears of bridge walkers who were terrified by its moderate swaying.
Norman Foster, the bridge's designer and the United Kingdom's most prominent high-tech architect, said the bridge was, without a doubt, safe despite the wobble.
"This bridge was always perfectly safe," Foster said in a recent interview with Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid. "It passed every test and rule ever devised for bridge construction. But it moved more than people anticipated, and that was evidently unacceptable."
Definitely unacceptable. When the bridge first opened people said crossing it was like walking on the deck of a boat in mild seas. Some people were afraid the bridge would collapse.
Reid wrote that when pedestrians complained, the response from engineers and architects --- the experts --- was that the wobble was not a bug, but a feature of its construction. The bridge had purposely been made flexible, they explained, to withstand adverse conditions.
But the British public is already in the midst of a period of distrust of experts. They've learned to distrust "mad cow" experts, and many British parents have disregarded the advice of medical experts to vaccinate their kids against childhood diseases. Instead they have chosen to believe a single doctor's speculation that standard measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations might cause autism. They avoid the vaccines despite a warning from their Health Minister that the UK could face a potential epidemic of measles as a result.
NOTHING TO FEAR BUT EXPERTS
Of course, here in the United States we have developed our own skeptical view of health officials. Who wasn't concerned about the anthrax 180-degree turns made by health officials and postal and government leaders?
We also are treated to the frequent appearance of courtroom dueling experts hired by plaintiffs and defendants. Similarly, dueling experts are often employed by industry and public interest groups.
Who is the public to believe?
In a book highly critical of the PR industry, "Trust Us, We're Experts!", authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, say they wrote their book (based in large part on the PR industry's own words) "both to expose the PR strategies used to create many so-called experts whose faces appear on TV news shows and scientific panels, and to examine the underlying assumptions that make these manipulations possible."
But perhaps Rampton and Stauber have slightly less to fear about experts' persuasive power than they did even last year when they published their book. People appear to be growing increasingly skeptical of so-called experts; they're tiring of trying to decide whether Expert A is more credible than Expert B. And they're not surprised anymore when they learn that supposedly independent authorities frequently have conflicts of interest that allow them to benefit in financial or other tangible ways.
The challenge for communicators, of course, is to find ways to deliver the messages of credible experts in credible ways in an increasingly skeptical climate. For that they may need to consult an exp---, nah.
(By the way, I'm not an expert on experts.)
Editor's Note: For relevant reading, get "Trust Us, We're Experts!", by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, published by Tarcher/Putnam, 2001, trade paperback.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: After the events of September 11th a number of people in my workgroup have grown concerned about our company's level of preparedness. We're concerned not only about our safety (we don't seem to have any plans to protect employees while at work) but also the survival of our company if something happens, even if it doesn't directly affect us. Do you have any suggestions about how to get senior management to acknowledge the problem and do something appropriate about it.
CM: As Crisis Manager has noted in the past, September 11th has definitely raised corporate awareness of the potential for crises to occur, as well the negative impact such events can have on a company's bottom line. And we are seeing a slow increase in the number of organizations that are acting on that new awareness.
But there are still many, many organizations that remain in the betting mode, hoping that a problem ignored is a problem solved. While the need to protect a company's employees (and future viability) can be brought to management's attention by individual workers, we've found that ultimately the support of top management (usually the TOP manager) is essential if real action on emergency preparedness is going to occur.
Try bringing this up to your next level supervisor, who in turn may be able to start a discussion among his or her management peers. Together lower level managers may, collectively, spur company leadership to action.
Don Bates is managing director, marketing and new media, for Media Distribution Services (www.mdsconnect.com). He's held corporate positions with Western Electric and McDonnell Douglas and owned his own PR firm. Don had this comment to add to last issue's article about "How to Avoid Becoming a Ken Lay":
"When you become a CEO, or while you're on the way up the corporate ladder, make it clear to all of your employees -- to your managers, in particular -- that you don't want and don't like surprises. In effect, that you want your employees to alert you immediately about perceived or actual problems, whether internal or external. Besides improving communication, this policy also helps to minimize breaches of corporate policy and conduct because your employees know that you and others around you are in tune and in touch with what's going on in the company or organization."
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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