© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
ON THE EVE OF WAR
Whether we think President Bush is right or not, it appears that nothing short of a miracle will prevent our going to war with Iraq in the next week. While we all pray for that miracle, let me add a final caution to others that have appeared in this ezine -- because organizations that are largely safe from the direct impact of war can still make bad wartime decisions.
This is a particularly important time to remember that, to whatever extent you've depended on the media for routine or crisis communications, you will not be able to do so for at least a few weeks. Not only will almost any journalist be assigned to at least some type of war-related coverage, but the reading and viewing public's attention will be focused on that coverage, not on YOUR news. If a message is important to communicate, use means other than traditional media.
However, if you try the trick of using war coverage to "bury" bad news, also remember that news on the Internet never really goes away. It's archived and available to anyone who searches for it. And all it takes is one reporter, one investor, one plaintiff, saying "hey, look, THAT company was hoping we wouldn't notice what was really going on." If it's news that's important to get to your stakeholders -- good news or bad -- get it to them. In the long run, that will minimize both risk and harm to your reputation.
Lastly, here's one more reason to ensure that you involve your in-house and/or external PR execs in your corporate decision making. It's a natural human reaction to lash out at available targets when one is feeling powerless to affect the people or events that are at the core of our frustration. Hence, the fear and anxiety elicited by news of war can actually INCREASE your stakeholders' reaction to any negative news you might release. Your communications verbiage and methods must be designed and delivered with an even higher-than-usual degree of sensitivity in the weeks ahead.
JUST A THOUGHT
"It's amazing how the urgency fades when it's time to commit to a plan, especially if the plan costs money."
Mel Harkrader Pine, MHP Communications
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Assessing Vulnerability: The Case for Specialists
by Jonathan Bernstein
The famed Mayo Clinic's Executive Health Program, according to its website, "offers you a comprehensive examination, with access to the full resources of Mayo's medical, surgical, and laboratory facilities in a convenient one- to two-day period. We can provide you with primary, specialty, and subspecialty medical consultations in a package tailored to your unique medical needs."
Or you can have your health evaluated by your local family physician.
Which do you think will produce the best results?
There is a direct analogy between the Mayo approach to assessing your personal health and what crisis management professionals refer to variously as a "vulnerability audit (the Bernstein Crisis Management preferred term)," "vulnerability assessment," "crisis risk assessment," etc.
Any competent and experienced general practitioner can conduct a physical examination and provide you with a lot of useful information. But any ETHICAL general practitioner is going to tell you that there are limits to what he/she can assess, that you will need a specialist to give you a more precise analysis.
Just so, competent and experienced public relations practitioners who are not specialists in crisis prevention and management usually have enough knowledge of the subject to help their organization, or their client's organizations, anticipate and mitigate the impacts of future crises. Up to the limits of their knowledge and experience.
I have more-than-passing knowledge about PR specialities such as investor relations, association public relations, travel PR, etc. But I would not suggest hiring me to conduct proactive campaigns in any of these areas. I'm the "wrong doctor."
If you want your organization's health diagnosed thoroughly, if you really want to minimize future risks, you'll need the customized diagnostic techniques and base of experience that only a crisis management specialist can deliver. Is this a self-serving statement on my part? Of course it is, at least partially. But I submit that it doesn't change the facts as presented, facts too many organizations fail to consider. Even worse, some organizations SELF-diagnose, often without in-house PR talent that has relevant experience!
Of course, many individuals who can easily afford comprehensive medical exams still don't get them (although we have to also ask ourselves -- what's the cost of NOT getting the exams?). Why? They don't want to know -- fear is a major obstacle. Fear, denial and delusion also play a major role in the failure of most organizations to avail themselves of readily available diagnostic services.
Once upon a time, most organizations could get away with pretending they were 100% prepared for crises and hiding behind budget considerations. Following our past two years' worth of organizational crises, much less the impact of terrorism, that pretense will be perceived by the general public, and potential civil litigants, as the sham that it is.
You have a choice, and everyone knows it. Choose wisely.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Crisis Manager Wins VIZible Value Award
We're pleased and proud to announce that "Crisis Manager" has won eNewsletter Journal's first "VIZible Value Award," given to "company enewsletters that provide information readers finds relevant to their everyday professional lives, build trust, and demonstrate company stability, all while visibly increasing qualified leads and building customer loyalty." This award has been presented by eNewsletter Journal, an enewsletter consisting of marketing experts from various companies who help subscribers use email newsletters to find, acquire, and retain customers.
Keeping the Media Wolves at Bay: CD-ROM
Jonathan Bernstein has added a second product to his Yahoo Bookstore, the CD-ROM entitled "Keeping the Media Wolves at Bay." This is the one-hour recording of a lively teleseminar hosted by famed Publicity Hound, Joan Stewart, whose website was previously the only place to acquire the CD. Ideal for self-training while driving to work, for group training at the office, or for educating company execs before they do future interviews "under fire." More info on the CD and Jonathan's recently published "Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual" can be found at: http://www.thecrisismanager.com.
Use "Train the Trainers" Approach to Stretch the Budget
So you'd really like ALL your management personnel, at multiple locations, trained in various aspects of crisis prevention and response. But no matter how you look at it, that ambitious a training program, if conducted exclusively by a crisis management pro, just isn't in the budget.
Consider bringing in a Bernstein Crisis Management consultant to "train the trainer," to include the prospect of adapting and licensing Bernstein's training materials for your organization's use. Sound intriguing? Write to email@example.com.
Duke University Medical Center and the Death of Jesica Santillan
by Rick Amme
Before we talk about how Duke University Medical Center publicly handled the "botched" transplant surgery that ultimately killed Mexican teenager Jesica Santillan, let's first agree on this. If your organization makes a mistake that contributes to the death of a child, you deserve the wrath of the media and public. That's the price for such a grievous error. While I did not work with Duke, I did participate in two other cases where children died. One involved a hospital and the other an institution that cares for kids. Media coverage briefly flared in the former and lingered as a firestorm in the latter. Nothing weakens the stomach more than preventable loss of young life. Jesica's family and supporters are sick at heart, but the people at Duke Hospital must be thunderstruck. Saving life is their job and they didn't.
So how did Duke manage this tragedy in the public eye? I think the hospital did well. Friends in the medical community have disagreed with me, and some news stories have criticized the hospital. The overriding impression left with me and most Americans, in my opinion, is that Duke made a catastrophic mistake and accepted responsibility for it. When I read and watched news stories of the breaking events in the national media, almost one-third to one-half of their content involved Duke's CEO William Fulkerson saying 1) his institution failed, 2) he apologized, and 3) corrective steps were already in progress.
What else could you do? The chief of a premier medical institution bit the biggest bullet of all. He admitted the mistake, made no excuses, didn't duck behind a press release or lower-level functionary, and appeared before reporters. Fulkerson stepped up and took it. This unshrinking acceptance of fault reminded me of Swissair's CEO who, after one of his jets crashed and killed 229 people, ordered his lawyers to leave him alone so that he could go do the right thing. Once you publicly admit guilt, there is nowhere else to hide. As they say, "The only question left is how many zeroes will be on the check you write."
Still, there were missteps in my opinion.
First and most dangerous was a lag between the initial public rumblings that something went terribly wrong and the hospital's response. The hospital played a dangerous game of saying nothing for three days. Fortuitously - probably because the delay was over a weekend - news of both the transplant blood-type matching error and the apology seemed to hit the national press simultaneously. Duke is lucky that this did not blow up in its face during those 72 hours. (By the way, I do not subscribe to the notion that Duke should have publicly announced its mistake the day it happened. Doctors and hospitals make errors, deserve the chance to correct them, and should not routinely blow the whistle on themselves unless public health or public trust demands it and confidentiality permits it.)
Secondly, the follow-through with the media seemed occasionally ragged. The family or its representatives would make allegations. Duke sometimes would not immediately tell its side and accusations would linger. (Was Jesica taken off life-support too quickly? Was no outside medical opinion permitted? The hospital eventually disputed both.) Of course this was lose-lose for the hospital. How do you debate people grieving a child who died in your care? Duke provided three interpreters and a priest to try to ensure the family understood its actions, and issued timelines for events, but I wonder how much grief, anger, and linguistic confusion inhibited communications in those ugly final days.
For a long time -- longer if lawsuits linger -- Duke University Medical Center will be linked with this tragedy. Ultimately the hospital's contrition and reputation will prevail. Public and press distraction with war might speed that process. But Jesica Santillan will still be gone.
Rick Amme heads the crisis and media relations firm Amme & Associates, Inc, http://www.amme.com. He consults with Fortune 500 companies, institutions, and executives throughout the country to protect and enhance their reputations, especially during times of urgency. He is also a member of Bernstein Crisis Management's Private Emergency Response Team network.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: Is there such a thing as giving out TOO much information in times of crisis?
CM: Absolutely. Some information is legally inappropriate to give out, it could be a violation of privacy considerations, highly confidential and/or might incriminate you! We usually, ultimately (maybe with a LITTLE arm-wrestling), defer to legal counsel regarding what can/can't be discussed. Perhaps more importantly, the human mind's ability to absorb and accurately process information is negatively impacted by fear and anxiety, common reactions to crises. That's why we "keep it simple" in terms of message dissemination early on in a crisis, with reassuring messages being more important that fact-filled ones. Anything more than three to five key messages "right up front" are not likely to be remembered, and even then only if they're repeated.
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, MarketingSherpa.com, 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.
ABOUT THE STAFF
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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