Bernstein Crisis Management. Crisis response, prevention, planning, and training.

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 3,000+


"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true."

-- Oscar Wilde


The Dos and Don'ts of Successful Media Interviews
by Rick Kelly

  • Don't be a slave to the question. Find a way to make the points you want to make, that portray you or your organization or your point of view in a positive light. When a reporter asks, "Why is your organization struggling to achieve its goals?" the first impulse is to use the question to frame the response. Thus, your sound bite becomes an affirmation ("Well, my organization is struggling because....") or is defensive ("My organization is not struggling, because...."). Neither portrays your position positively. A better approach: "My organization has made terrific strides in recent months. For example...."
  • Don't allow yourself to get drawn into speculation. The nature of news reporting is that each and every reporter wants to be the first to predict an event or an outcome. This can occur only by extrapolating on the events that actually occurred to date. Such questions often begin with "Isn't it possible that..." or "What would happen if..." Limit your comments to what you know, and avoid the slippery slope of what could be. Remember: "I don't know" is an acceptable answer and can be followed by an offer to get back to the reporter with the information as soon as it's available.

    Also, some reporters like to use the "uncomfortable-pause" technique to draw interviewees into additional comments. Mike Wallace takes this technique a step farther by punctuating the uncomfortable pause with, "and?" If confronted with the uncomfortable pause, smile and ask, "Anything else?"

  • Do state your message in a positive way. Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook." Hillary Clinton said, "I'm not just some housewife at home baking cookies." Both made the mistake of defining themselves by what they were not, rather than by what they were. Negative comments turn people off; in an interview you have the opportunity to make them feel good.
  • Do state your message early and often. This is especially important when there are multiple people being interviewed. The best time may be the first "yes or no" question. Answer it, build a quick bridge to your featured message and go with it. Then, do it again. Remember that even those who are interested in your message may need to hear it several times before it sinks in.
  • Do put your message in context. One way of building a smooth bridge from a reporter's question to your answer is to provide a brief answer that addresses the question, then add: "But the bigger issue here is..." or, "Even more to the point is..."
  • Do prepare. Then prepare some more. Never go into an interview without mapping out the three or four points you want to make, and prioritize them. Next, boil them down to short, quotable "sound bites," preferably with some color. Finally, anticipate the questions a reporter is likely to ask, and think about how you can get from his/her question to your answer.
  • Don't try to be too glib. What may work for an experienced interviewee might come across as flippant and arrogant, especially to those who may not know you. Television has a way of magnifying one's mannerisms, so unless you're a proven media star, it's best to play it straight.
  • Do be gracious. If the interview is live, be sure to thank the interviewer for the opportunity to appear. If you're speaking to any issue other than a horrible tragedy, smile.
  • Do focus on the interviewer. Look him or her in the eye, and don't become distracted by the ideograph, producers, sound technicians or the equipment. Letting your eyes dart makes you appear shifty or dishonest. And for cryin' out loud, don't look directly into the camera. It makes you look like a shameless media hound. The exceptions are if it is a remote interview (you in a room with a camera; interviewer somewhere else) and during an extended talk-show interview, when you are introduced, at which time you look at the camera and nod.
  • Don't forget your audience. The interviewer is nothing more than a conduit between what you want to say and the people to whom you want to say it. Keep this in mind while you craft your messages, and keep it in mind in the heat of the interview. Keep it in mind even as you decide what to wear in the interview.
  • Do remember that you are the one providing the answers and material the media wants to use. That means that you are in control of the interview. If troubled or thrown off by a question, just pause, take a deep breath and think your answer through before speaking. The news media needs and wants your answers, and reporters appreciate candid, sincere interviews.
  • And finally, do tape your appearance, and take the time to review and evaluate your performance. Seek and accept constructive criticism, and strive to do better next time. Even among the best, there is always room for improvement.
Rick Kelly is a partner at Robinson Kelly Strategic Communications,, and we at Bernstein Crisis Management are also very pleased that he and his agency are available to our clients as part of our Private Emergency Response Team service.


Kudos for Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual

"In his media training manual, Keeping the Wolves at Bay, Jonathan Bernstein demonstrates that he knows what it is like to be on both sides of the microphone. This manual, though full of valuable insights and humor, is presented in a step-by-step and easy to digest format. I plan to make it a required pre-read for all future media training sessions."

Gerald Baron
Author, Now is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News.
President, Baron & Co./PIER Systems

Learn more at:

Credit Unions

If you currently work for or consult to any credit unions, please contact Jonathan Bernstein regarding a possible business opportunity,


Editor's Note: This combination commentary/case history collection from police department PIO Ed Buice really brings home the importance of having the right people be the communicators in crisis situations, and relates to the "Crisis Manager on the Spot" Q&A you'll find later in this issue.

The Core of Crisis Communication is Character
by Ed Buice

Nearly every trade magazine I receive these days, whether law enforcement or public relations related, contains at least one article and often many more on "Crisis Planning" or "Crisis Communications." The Web is awash in information on both topics, some of it helpful to PIOs, some of it not so. Few weeks go by that I don't get a call from someone updating their organization's "contact information" or "crisis plan" just in case of a "big event."

As helpful as the data all the "experts" recommend collecting truly is, everything I've seen and heard about the people who emerged as leaders on 9-11-01 shows their success was due to something other than crisis response manuals.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm a big believer in being prepared. I often say things like "the time to buy a fire truck is not on the way to the fire" during my PIO training classes, and clearly we will not be able to adequately respond to a crisis without material resources. But when it comes to crisis communications, the resources are not external, they are internal. The secret to success as a communicator is strategic, not tactical or operational.

My nearly 25 years of experience, training and observation lead me to conclude that at the heart of crisis communication -- and thus, leadership -- is the ability to, as they say in football, "run the broken play."

Quarterbacks who develop that ability become household names and end up in the Football Hall of Fame: Unitas, Namath, Tarkenton, Elway, Montana, and the list goes on. Communicators who develop the ability to "handle the broken play" become leaders who earn followers and influence, prevent panic and preserve the peace.

If there were a "Crisis Communications Hall of Fame", its most recent inductees would include Steve Davis, Dan Nichols, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Rumsfeld. Each has demonstrated an amazing ability to hold on to the ball and get it across their goal lines. All of them have set new standards for generations of communicators to come, and they offer many valuable examples from which we can learn.

Jefferson County Colorado Sheriff's Department PIO Steve Davis was the impeccably reassuring presence at the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999. He was the embodiment of order during chaos, as the world was riveted to its TV's. We saw him do two weeks of 20-hour days on live TV, but we never saw him lose his cool.

US Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols has distinguished himself as spokesman for his agency on many occasions, including after the murder of two of his agency's officers at the Capitol in 1998. But on 9-11-01 he took the art of being a PIO to a whole new level.

Hours after the attack on the Pentagon he was chosen to speak for the entire US Congress -- a task never before given to a single individual. A month later Dan became the Capitol's primary spokesperson during the anthrax attacks. Few PIO's, if any, have demonstrated as much on-camera presence. But Dan told the 200 PIO's gathered at this year's National Information Officers Association conference in Reno, "all the training I've had did not prepare me for this event."

Giuliani and Rumsfeld are in leagues of their own. Rudy's grace under pressure was phenomenal and hopefully he'll tell us more about how we can follow his lead in his new book titled "Leadership." Although TIME Magazine titled Giuliani "Man of the Year, to many of us who face the media regularly, Rumsfeld is "The Man." His briefings are a truly a thing of beauty; a symphony of nuance, a marriage of word and will, of irony and iron.

Unflappability is a common virtue of all four men. They did not let circumstances dictate how they would approach the task at hand. They "delivered the goods" based not on what was in their manuals, but what was in their hearts. It's been said that a crisis does not create character but only reveals what is already there. Clearly the current corporate scandals demonstrate that leaders will never rise above the limitations of their character.

The "take-away" lesson for us in law enforcement is that a great leader -- and there are no great leaders who are not great communicators -- does not wait until it is harvest time to begin planting the seeds of greatness.

We live in a culture of disbelief and in a time when anxiety drives almost everything. As our Crisis Communication Hall of Famers show us, we must be able to deliver not only information but reassurance. Nichols did not have to deal with the spread of anthrax nearly so much as the spread of fear.

After Nichols spoke to the NIOA conference this year, several my fellow PIOs posed the question: "How did he get to be that good?" Several more of us answered in unison: "He just is." How did Rumsfeld get to be so good? He just is. Davis? He just is. Their success as communicators is due to who they are. They've clearly spent their lives developing character and abilities, rather than developing paperwork. As Giuliani demonstrated, when those manuals are literally fluttering down around you, you still must lead.

So how do WE get to be that good? As Giuliani recommends: "study leaders, not leadership."

Ed Buice is media director for the Chattanooga Police Department, and Media Relations columnist for Law and Order Magazine, where this column originally appeared.


Q: I'm a college graduate (history/government major) and would like to get your advice about how to get into the business of crisis management. Are there graduate school evening classes I should be taking?

CM: I get a lot of queries like this because some of my readers are university professors who make "Crisis Manager" required reading.

Here's how I replied:

I wish I had an easy answer for you. Crisis Management is not yet a "field" into which you enter, per se. First, there are several "versions" of crisis management -- ours is PR-based, others are psychology-based, and a third set is really "disaster recovery/business continuity" from an IT perspective. Our P.E.R.T. team model, as you've read on our website, allows us to call on experts from all three disciplines, but our central focus is PR.

Most crisis management pros I know today started doing more general PR work and got on the job training "under fire" when their agency clients or employing corporations had crises. If they -- like me -- enjoyed that experience, they actively sought out such work and, over time, formally declared it as their specialty, or one of their specialities. VERY FEW make a full-time living at it.

The key skills are not based on any specific college degree or training, they are more innate and then can be refined by training and experience: You need the ability to:

  • see the big picture while under fire and adapt rapidly, what the military calls "situational awareness;"
  • write well, and for almost any audience (at least within your own culture);
  • plan for multiple contingencies; and,
  • speak to people at all levels of an organization in order to gather information critical to crisis planning and response

If these abilities don't come naturally, it's my opinion that training alone cannot turn someone into a crisis management specialist. No amount of training, for example, could turn ME into a professional artist! If God (or the Higher Power of your understanding) gave you the abilities, my suggestion is try to get an entry level position with a PR firm or in a corporate PR office and work your way up from there -- the initial pay isn't good but if you show talent, the opportunities will be there.


WorkUSAš 2002 - Weathering the Storm: A Study of Employee Attitudes and Opinions

As long-time advocates of the critical role internal communications plays in crisis prevention and response, we were thrilled to find this recent report from Watson Wyatt, a "global consulting firm focusing on human capital and financial management." Read it at:

Fallout in the Boardroom - Where Do Companies Go From Here?

As a new year and new era of business begins on the heels of 2002's high profile corporate fallout, a regional firm, Finishing Up, is presenting a timely series of programs for executives, professionals, and community leaders to address these new realities head on. The first program, entitled "Into the Boardroom - Preparing the Next Generation of Corporate Directors," will be held January 29th. Corporate scandals are sparking a revolution in governance. As the media has so effectively raised these issues, executives are now keenly aware of the missteps as well as failures of U.S. boards. The question at hand is clearly, where do we go from here? That's what this initial workshop will explore and answer in detail for our attendees. Please go to or call 510-482-3427.

Crisis Management and Disaster Recovery Advice and Links

Just learned about a comprehensive directory of disaster recovery and crisis management companies and associated links, located at:


Bernstein Crisis Management has formal or informal co-promotional and mutually beneficial business associations with PIER Systems, Inc., PR Newswire's ProfNet service,, The Publicity Hound 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 these services as we use them for crisis and issues management or other purposes. 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.


Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. BCM engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning, training and simulations. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to

Phil Cogan is executive vice president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a former print and broadcast news journalist who has been engaged in federal, state and local government crisis communications and emergency management activities since 1975. He was formerly the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Emergency Information and Public Affairs. Write to


There are a number of organizations whose services we admire enough to have pursued closer ties with them -- and to let you know about them, too, on the Allied Services page of our website. If you have a moment, we think it will be worth your while to browse the sites listed there.


All information contained herein is obtained by Jonathan Bernstein from sources believed by Jonathan Bernstein to be accurate and reliable.

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