© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
smell test: n. A metaphorical test used to determine the legitimacy or authenticity of a situation.
from The Word Spy, www.wordspy.com/words/smelltest.asp
(worth a visit, gives a couple of examples)
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
War: Crisis or Politics?
by Mel Harkrader Pine, MHP Communications
It's tempting to keep watching the war news, especially the press briefings, from the crisis communicator's point of view. After all, what bigger crisis could there be? What better opportunity to learn from others' successes and failures?
One surprise has been the degree of tension between the news corps and the briefers so early in the war. But the more I watched, the more I understood the reason. My understanding was confirmed when I read that Jim Wilkinson, Deputy Director of Communications at the White House and former spokesman for the U.S. National Republican Congressional Committee, was handling strategic communications for the U.S. Central Command.
In a political public relations setting, such as those Wilkinson has worked in, negative communications campaigns often succeed. Many politicians have won by making a priority out of attacking the opponent. In the crisis communication model, however, there's something essential that you have to do first, and that's show that you care. Your audience won't listen to the rest if you haven't first shown empathy for the victims of the crisis.
Consider how, first, Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks and then Air Force Major General Victor Renuart responded to questions about the marketplace bombings:
Q. General, the pictures from this morning's bombing in Baghdad have already gone around the world. You've already seen them yourself. You must be able to give us some reaction to them and some knowledge, at least preliminary, of what happened, which bombs were dropped, and why it went wrong.
Gen. Brooks: Well, I honestly cannot. We don't know that those were ours...
Q. Can you update us on the status of the investigation concerning the events in the Baghdad market?
Gen. Brooks: What I can tell you about the Shaab market is that this report, like any other report we get that has any potential at all that we may have caused unintended consequences from an attack, we examine in detail...
Q. Where do you stand now on the possibility that the Iraqis were responsible for that explosion that allegedly killed several Iraqi civilians?
Gen. Brooks: Regarding the market, I did say yesterday it is possible that it could have been surface-to-air missiles that fired in the ballistic mode. And we still consider that possibility. I also said...
Q. Over 50 people were reportedly killed in Baghdad yesterday. What is the coalition response?
Gen. Renuart: Well, we're - I think the response of anyone is it's a tragedy when innocent civilians are killed. We took note of that event. We are looking at targets that may have caused something like that...
It took three days and a change in briefers before those necessary words were spoken. Of course, it's also necessary to mean them, and any briefer who isn't comfortable showing genuine empathy probably shouldn't be the spokesperson in a crisis.
Editor's note: this is adapted from an article in the latest issue of Advocacy News, a new publication of MHP Communications, and I'm not going to be able to reprint Mel's material much longer because you'll be subscribing to his ezine, too! Go to www.mhpcommunications.com and click on the "Free Newsletter" tab to see the current and past issues.
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Editor's note: this story was written before the news, on 3/31/03, that Geraldo Rivera was being "escorted out" of Iraq by the U.S. Military for revealing specifics of a planned attack by the 101st Airborne Division. "He gave away the big picture stuff," one stunned senior military official told CNN. "He went down in the sand and drew where the forces are going."
A Former Journalist's View of the Downside
by Phil Cogan, Executive V.P., Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.
As a former broadcast journalist, university journalism instructor, retired Naval public affairs officer, and accredited public relations practitioner, my initial impression was overwhelmingly that the embedding policy was a victory for the First Amendment and the public's right to know. I also thought that embedding journalists in wartime, if it could be done successfully, might have application in the business world. Now I'm not sure how good embedding really is.
My wife, also a former journalist, and I have been both amazed and appalled at how embedded journalism has turned out in practice. We are amazed at the ability of today's technology to deliver live words and pictures from the battlefield, and we are awed by the courage of reporters for putting themselves in harm's way to report the story.
But we are aghast at the information that is now available live to Iraqi military strategists. We are amazed at how the battlefield picture has become distorted by the microscopic view of reporters who, by virtue of the limited view of the war that they have, can only show or comment upon the small piece of combat action that they are able to see. Despite repeated warnings from reporters about the limited view that they have, we hear on radio talk shows and in letters to the editor how the public has reacted to those distorted images and words. Perhaps we need a way to better stitch together these limited stories into "embedded bigger picture" reports.
We're also concerned that embedding journalists with troops, no matter how noble and well-intentioned, distracts our forces at a time when they must focus entirely on staying alive and pursuing their mission against the enemy. We've watched soldiers take time to talk to reporters in the midst of battle; we've watched reporters, both embedded and "independent" take chances or actually end up being pursued by enemy forces, only to be rescued by Allied troops.
Can embedding work in the business world? Want to send embedded reporters in with your clean-up crews for live coverage during an environmental disaster? How about letting them accompany auditors as they pursue wrongdoing outed by a whistle blower? Perhaps these are outlandish examples, but I think they help illustrate why, despite the best of intentions, embedding journalists with their technology may excessively distort reality.
I agree that the embedded reporters have provided an unprecedented view of war, and it has not been all bad. Perhaps my concerns about embedding have more to do with the technology and the distortions it helps create than with the embedding policy itself. Perhaps we should consider that we need not use technology to its fullest simply because we can.
THE SMELL TEST: REQUEST FOR READER INPUT
An attorney with whom we work regularly recently referred to some irregularities in a legal matter as "not passing the smell test." His colorful comment tweaked my admittedly warped sense of humor and led me to the immediate conclusion that the phrase was the basis for a future article about the vulnerability audit process and how we seek to identify conditions that fit the same description. One that's at least partially tongue-in-cheek, of course. I started to write down some examples, and then thought, "many of our readers have minds as or more warped than mine; perhaps they can make some contributions to the final article!"
So, here are a few of my own initial thoughts -- send yours in, along with your name, title, organization and URL, and those used will receive appropriate credit (AND a free PDF copy of my media training manual, Keeping the Wolves at Bay):
You know that a situation, condition or incident "doesn't pass the smell test" when:
- Senior management thinks everything is wonderful and line employees think the organization is going to hell.
- Only one person seems to really understand what's going on, he can't explain it well, but says "trust me" a lot.
- 80% of your board of directors just put their homes up for sale.
Get the idea? Good! Now write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: (paraphrased from a question posed recently on the PPCONLINE discussion list from PRSA). How do you deal with hecklers at an event where most of the people really want to hear the presentation uninterrupted?
CM: Silence can be a very useful tool. Simply stop the presentation at the first moment he/she heckles and gaze at him/her with a pleasant expression, allowing enough time to pass for him/her to run out of steam and begin to draw a lot of stares from others. After some time, say, "I'm sure we all appreciate your concerns, but please respect the right of everyone else here to attend an uninterrupted presentation."
Also, "Crisis Manager" reader Barbara Friedman of National Semiconductor was kind enough to tip us all off on this very useful Homeland Security site which, she notes, "did a nice job of applying much of what you preach to an educational setting." Go to http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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