© 2002 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Editor's Note: since learning from others' mistakes, as well as our own, is critical to crisis prevention, I thought you'd like these two items from recent news coverage.
"Deep Enron" Was There But No One Listened
Don't underestimate the value of monitoring Internet message boards. In a New York Times article by Gretchen Morgenson on April 28, she quotes a pending study in The Journal of Investing by James Felton, associate professor of finance at Central Michigan University, and assistant professor Jongchai Kim, who made a study of messages posted on Yahoo's Enron discussion board starting in 1997. They concluded that "anonymous postings on the message board presented a compelling history of the company, described a disturbing corporate culture there and repeatedly warned investors to get out while the getting was good." Maybe the employees of and consultants to Enron should have been reading that, huh?
Did You Really Mean to Say That?
Allfirst Financial Inc., in the wake of a currency trading scandal that cost the firm almost $700 million, launched a series of TV ads in the Baltimore area. The Baltimore Sun reported that "the commercials are designed to show that Allfirst is made up of dedicated people who have worked at the bank 'before, during and after the crisis,' said Neel Johnson, executive vice president of marketing at Allfirst."
My associate and frequent contributor Phil Cogan had this pithy comment about Allfirst's marketing campaign: "Those were, I presume, some of the same dedicated employees who CAUSED the crisis?"
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Editor's Note: Don't get me wrong. I tell clients that the media is NOT the enemy. Just folks like you and me, trying to do a good job, while blessed with the same character assets, and character defects, as other human beings. In fact, I guess with this ezine, I am the media! People with editorial "power," the editors and columnists, have -- in my opinion -- a particular responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And when they abuse that responsibility, a good crisis manager should consider the option of an appropriate response. Like the one described in this case history.
Fighting Back Against Editorial Abuse
by Jonathan Bernstein
On Sunday, March 24, 2002, Gary Michael Holdren was skating along a popular bike path in Newport Beach when for reasons still not known, he fell and hit his head. At the time, the Newport Beach Police Department shared a witness report that teenage boys had been shooting paintballs in the area.
Both police and media comments thereafter led the general public to believe that paintballs fired by these still-unidentified boys struck Mr. Holdren, causing him to lose his balance, strike his head on the ground and suffer an ultimately fatal injury to his brain. After several weeks in a coma, he died.
On April 8, to everyone's surprise, the police issued the results of the coroner's report -- and the coroner said that the victim had not been struck by paintballs. Subsequently, the police noted that while there had been evidence that paintballs had broken in the area, there was no proof of any connection between the alleged paintball "shooters" and Mr. Holdren's fall. An intense investigation by the NBPD did not confirm the presence or identity of the youths allegedly seen by a witness.
Two days later, a local newspaper columnist took the NBPD to task, implying that the department's statements and police work were shoddy.
Now as some of my regular readers know, my first ten years of gainful employment were in military intelligence counter-terrorism operations, then journalism, and so I have some first-hand understanding of the investigative process. The columnist was WAY out of line. Yes, it may still be true that kids using paintball equipment were somewhere in the area, but if a first-class police department can't find anyone who's willing to confess or snitch, then maybe there's not enough evidence for anyone, including a reporter, to reach conclusions.
I'm an advocate of not getting into a pushing match with journalists, they usually push harder, but sometimes they go too far and a response is called for. Hence, I was delighted when Newport Beach Police Chief Bob McDonnell ran this statement in the same newspaper. It contained a mea culpa for some of the NBPD's judgment calls, it set the record straight, and it called the reporter to task for speaking out of ignorance. All quite politely. If Chief McDonnell ever decides to get out of policing, he has a future in PR (which he may or may not think is a compliment, said your editor with a grin).
Statement by Newport Beach Chief of Police Bob McDonnell
On April 10, I read an article by Daily Pilot columnist, Byron de Arakal, titled "Three missing pieces in a curious death," commenting on the circumstances surrounding the death of Newport Beach resident Gary Holdren, and I felt it warranted some comment.
Meanwhile, while drafting an initial response, de Arakal contacted our press information officer and obtained additional information and wrote another column on April 17.
Unfortunately, his second column did nothing to put the information he obtained in proper perspective and only fueled more needless speculation about what we do or do not know. He then lamented how neighborhoods are "stuck in a persistent state of intense vibration over speculation," and how we are still "left with a community on pins and needles, three missing pieces and a confusing and incomplete (and wet) canvas."
Before going further, let me say I generally enjoy de Arakal's perspective on issues, however, in this particular instance, it's clear why he writes human-interest stories and we conduct criminal investigations.
De Arakal stated at the outset of his first article. "Newport Beach Police detectives were as certain as it gets," about the circumstances which caused Holdren's death. He continued to say that now, some two weeks later, we were in "full-scale backpedal."
He went on to speculate that because he interpreted new information as a change in the Police Department's view of the incident, that suggested "the city's gumshoes (may have) so thoroughly botched this one from the get-go, they'll come away from this one looking more like dimwitted Encyclopedia Browns than Columbo."
There were other characterizations in the article, but overall it is clear that de Arakal doesn't understand the investigative role we occupy in such incidents.
While we may have contributed to the understandable assumptions made by those at the scene, and perhaps should have tempered our acknowledgment of that information by an earlier clarification of what we have learned since the incident occurred-we didn't. We accept responsibility for that result.
Regardless of that fact, we did what we always do in such cases, we have conducted a methodical investigation to determine what actually occurred that led to Holdren's injuries, and who (if anyone), may have contributed to that occurrence.
Regrettably, the media has fueled the initial speculation as to the cause of Holdren's death by their coverage of the incident, and de Arakal's two articles merely added to that problem. He had an opportunity to contribute to improving the public's understanding of the issues after spending time with our press information officer, but instead he chose to continue down the speculation pathway.
At this point, our investigation is continuing in earnest.
We have recently shared information about what we now know, not because it's part of a "clever strategy in play," as suggested by de Arakal in his first article, but because we have additional facts developed through proper investigative effort to support those conclusions.
When we encounter suspicious circumstances surrounding a serious injury, we always treat the resulting investigation in the same manner as any criminal inquiry in an effort to preserve evidence and gather other information that will help us arrive at a definitive conclusion as to what occurred.
What we do know is Holdren suffered a traumatic injury from a fall, however, the cause of the fall has not been determined.
According to the coroner, his injuries were not consistent with a paintball strike.
We also know that the victim only had a small piece of what appears to be paintball debris on his wrist and a trace amount of possible paint on the backside of his clothing. Both may be consistent with a fall in the material on the roadway, but again not with a paintball strike.
Laboratory analysis of the evidence has not been completed as yet. We have identified a credible witness who viewed the still wet paintball strikes on the roadway and a nearby sign as he walked by approximately 20 minutes before Holdren was discovered.
The witness doesn't believe there had been any additional paintball strikes added to the roadway during the interim period between his earlier walk in the area and his observation of the scene after Holdren was removed.
We also have been informed by those familiar with paintball characteristics, that the material may remain in a wet condition for hours, depending on weather and atmospheric conditions.
We are still attempting to locate potential witnesses to the event and thereby determine the underlying cause of Holdren's fall.
Could "paintballers" have contributed to what took place? Of course they could, but we have not gathered enough evidence to support that conclusion as yet.
There are a number of other possible causes as well, but we haven't drawn any premature conclusions regarding any them as yet.
It's been said by some that people can't understand why we can't locate the young people who may have been in the area paint_balling, when "they" can "piece the information together themselves."
We have followed up on every lead developed and every 'rumor' presented to us. If people believe they know who contributed to the incident, they need to step forward and share that information - assuming it's not just more speculation.
We have more than enough of that already to go around!
In summary, while I understand that de Arakal (and others) may be puzzled by his perception of the investigative process, it is a deliberative one and worthy of the patience required to allow it to occur properly-without continuing the unproductive speculation by those who, however well-intentioned, should have a higher threshold for objective fact-finding.
Without striving to achieve that standard, they only contribute to even more disruptive speculation.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: Don't you ever gag on having to be the spin doctor for companies you know are lying?
CM: I would gag if I did that. Some PR professionals believe that everyone deserves the best face they can help them put forward just as some attorneys will work for anyone who will pay (although there are some bar association-mandated ethical considerations they have to deal with in turning down business, while we have no such formal requirements in the PR field, just guidelines). I'd not only be compromising my personal integrity to take such a client, but I wouldn't be able to do my best work. I have to be able to believe in the validity of the positions and tactics I recommend. Like any good speech communications major, my field in college, I can readily debate either side of an issue. But if I didn't believe that my clients had a legitimate point of view and were not covering up wrongdoing, I wouldn't work for them.
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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