© 2002 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"There's a difference between good, sound reasoning and reasons that just sound good."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
The "Yes Man" Syndrome -- The Root of Many Crises
by Jonathan Bernstein
The press makes much of whistleblowers and their role in uncovering organizational crises, and those organizations often try to paint the whistleblower as a disgruntled employee whose viewpoints and facts are skewed by personal bias. That's an argument hard to make with whistleblowers such as the FBI's Coleen Rowley. Her professionalism and dedication to the Bureau led the agency's director to acknowledge that her now-famous letter was appropriate given the non-response she'd received when trying to work within the system.
But, in my experience, a more problematic root cause of many crises, and an exacerbating factor for others, is actually the "yes man," or "yes woman." What does a "yes man" or "yes woman" look like?
- He is so eager to only give his supervisor good news that he sits on anything HE thinks is bad news -- including information that his supervisors, with a bigger picture, can identify as a warning sign. Like the information forwarded by Agent Crowley.
- She is afraid of confrontation so doesn't speak up when she sees someone -- especially her boss -- making a mistake that can lead to a crisis.
- He, at some point, makes a decision that career success is more important than personal and professional integrity.
Aiding and abetting the "yes man" and "yes woman" is, of course, the organizational leader who fosters an environment where giving a dissenting opinion is dangerous to one's career. The same exec who will, just to go through the motions, hire expert consultants and then ignore their recommendations -- or terminate their services -- because they don't agree with her pre-set ideas.
If you're truly committed to preventing crises, examine your organization's willingness to listen to sometimes-painful truths. And contrast that to the pain of enduring avoidable crises. Ego versus good business practice. I vote for the latter.
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The Challenge - Effectively Communicate in a Crisis
by David A. Fuscus, President, Xenophon Strategies
Editors Note: This is an actual crisis management case study. Names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.
Several cases of illness resulting from the E.coli bacteria were reported in Minnesota during a one-week period in August 2001. All of the individuals affected were treated and released from local hospitals. The Brown County Health Department notified the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that all of these individuals had recently eaten at a Quality Cut Steak House. Quality Cut was notified of a possible connection between these cases and seven of its restaurants.
Quality Cut Steak House is a mid-size chain with about 50 restaurants throughout Minnesota. Upon receiving notification from health department officials, Quality Cut approached the National Restaurant Association for assistance in managing the response to this situation. Xenophon Strategies, the provider of Protect Services, was recommended by the National Restaurant Association to provide such assistance to Quality Cut.
Within hours, the Xenophon team of crisis management professionals and Quality Cut executives - including the CEO, chief counsel, corporate communications and food safety department - reviewed the situation via conference call. The Xenophon team was then dispatched to Minneapolis overnight in preparation for on-site response. A food scientist also was brought in by Xenophon to begin independent food testing.
Xenophon worked closely with Quality Cut to develop the following:
- An immediate response plan to maintain confidence in Quality Cut's food, taking into consideration internal and external communications with employees and the media.
- An independent review of the cases by third-party experts.
- An independent review, within 24 to 48 hours, of Quality Cut's food-processing and food-handling procedures by third-party experts.
- Cooperative efforts between Quality Cut and local/state/regional health officials.
Xenophon worked in tandem with Quality Cut senior management to prepare a timeline of events that had occurred prior to the illnesses, and in the days after the initial reports. One of the first steps taken by Xenophon was to assist Quality Cut management in centralizing all internal communication efforts by forming a crisis management team that was capable of making informed decisions quickly and consistently. The president of the restaurant chain directed the crisis team's efforts.
With media coverage of the situation an ever-present possibility, Xenophon provided communications training to the president to prepare him to respond to news inquiries. The training was designed to ensure that he could better anticipate media questions, understand the way the media operate and be comfortable speaking in front of a microphone and/or camera when the illnesses became public knowledge.
A food scientist was brought in to begin independent testing of food products at restaurants where the cases were believed to have originated. Immediate measures taken by Quality Cut included:
- Removing alfalfa sprouts from all salad bars, and later taking them off the menu permanently. Alfalfa sprouts are a possible carrier of E.coli because of the way in which they are grown. Quality Cut received alfalfa sprouts from its suppliers and did not repackage them before using them in its restaurants. This step became particularly important after a report released by the California Department of Health Services asserting that there is no reliable way to guarantee that sprout seeds are free of bacteria, or that growing conditions for sprouts are completely safe. The report further detailed that alfalfa sprouts have been linked to food-borne illnesses such as E.coli and salmonella.
- Removing seasonal melons such as cantaloupes from the salad bar. Melons can harbor E.coli in rare cases.
- Ordering all restaurants to deny customer requests for rare, medium-rare or medium-cooked hamburger. Undercooked ground meat is a possible transmission method for E.coli. Major restaurant chains, including Quality Cut, typically served undercooked ground meat only on customer request and never served it to children. Quality Cut began serving ground meat cooked to 160 degrees regardless of customer preference. All harmful organisms are killed at 160 degrees.
- Permanently changing from using unprocessed lettuce to using only pre-washed and cut lettuce. This eliminates the risk of E.coli on lettuce.
- Temporarily stopping a vacuum marination process for its sirloin tips in the unlikely event that the process could be problematic.
Quality Cut maintained close contact with health inspectors. Through the initial stages, no news releases were required because of inconclusive test results, which were unable to clearly prove that Quality Cut's food-handling or food-processing procedures caused the illnesses reported by individuals who had eaten in Quality Cut restaurants.
Media monitoring plays a vital role in crisis response and management. Utilizing new media tools and a research team, Xenophon monitored news cycles from local, regional and national markets, including newspapers, magazines, trade publications, television and radio. (The monitoring uncovered the California Health Department report on alfalfa sprouts.)
As the situation unfolded, Xenophon and Quality Cut developed a strategic direction for the restaurant. This focused essentially on two options - wait for full confirmation by health inspectors that the illnesses could be definitively linked to Quality Cut, or self-disclose the illnesses without conclusive proof. In either case, Xenophon and Quality Cut were prepared to respond to media reports of the incident rapidly and effectively. A call center was established in the event of media and/or public inquiries about the situation. Call center responses were scripted, and operators were provided a question-and-answer document for their assistance. Operators also were briefed to prepare for a large volume of calls if the situation became public knowledge. The Xenophon team was engaged throughout this process.
Quality Cut management was thoroughly prepared for any situation and was able to respond effectively to the crisis.
Reprinted by permission of Xenophon Strategies. David A. Fuscus is president of Xenophon Strategies, a strategic communications firm specializing in crisis communications, national media relations and public affairs. More information can be found at the website for their new PROTECT crisis response program, www.CrisisSupport.com.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Editor's Note: I received this passionate and appropriate response to the Q&A from the 05.15.02 issue of Crisis Manager, in which I was asked if I ever gag on having to be a "spin doctor" for companies I know are lying, to which I responded that I won't take clients like that, but some do, and that we as PR practitioners don't have mandatory ethics guidelines such as those governing lawyers.
Although it is true that there are only guidelines for public relations practitioners, for those of us who are members of the Public Relations Society of America, we pledge an oath to conduct ourselves ethically and adhere to a Code of Ethics. Specifically, one provision of the Code relates to Disclosure of Information, and reads as follows:
FREE FLOW OF INFORMATION
Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.
To maintain the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials, and the public. To aid informed decision-making.
A member shall:
- Preserve the integrity of the process of communication.
- Be honest and accurate in all communications.
- Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the practitioner is responsible.
- Preserve the free flow of unprejudiced information when giving or receiving gifts by ensuring that gifts are nominal, legal, and infrequent.
There are, in fact, consequences for misconduct under the Code of Ethics, up to and including membership revocation. The Code of Ethics is meant to serve as a guide for ethical conduct, something that all practicing public relations professionals should hold in the highest regard.
I sincerely hope that the person who posed this question to you is not a practicing public relations practitioner. In any case, it can only help to reinforce the integrity and value of our work, if we remind ourselves and members of the public, that we do indeed, as PR professionals, seek to uphold the truth in everything we do for our employers and clients.
Emma A. Inman, APR
Media & Communications Manager
City Manager's Office
City of Virginia Beach
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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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