© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"Leaders in the private sector must understand that they are in the crosshairs for the next terrorist attack."
Bill Sewell, leading expert in threat assessment and response, as quoted by GlobalContinuity.com
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: Ahem! The professor raps sharply on his podium and hereby calls the first session of Crisis Manager University (CMU) to session. Then he grins and says, "The good news is that you're likely to learn a lot from this method of teaching you some useful lessons about right-way and wrong-way crisis management. The bad news is that you'll never graduate, this is a lifetime process!" Below is the first of what I'm planning to make a regular feature, with periodic "guest lecturers" and even some live Q&A sessions in a chat room starting this summer. Do let me know if you like it, don't like it, think it's missing anything, etc.
Texas Dems Flee to Oklahoma
As of when this issue of "Crisis Manager" was finalized, a total of 55 Democrats had been absent from the Texas House of Representatives since 5/12 in an effort to block a GOP-pushed congressional redistricting plan. This is in the wake of the GOP finally, for the first time in more than 130 years, having a majority in the State's House and Senate. The GOP will gain seats in a re-districting and the Dems want the matter dropped, so they walked out -- literally crossed the border to Oklahoma -- blocking formation of a quorum.
The major lesson for crisis managers is that this tactic may, in fact, communicate some unintended messages to voters of any persuasion, such as:
- We think the Democratic process is wonderful unless it works against us.
- We are willing to sacrifice the daily needs of our constituents in order to achieve our short-term goals.
- We are in favor of government employees walking out when they don't like a lawfully implemented process or policy.
I saw nothing, in comments by some of the absentee legislators, reflecting any awareness of the possibility that such messages were being communicated. The following response was typical:
"This is the last weapon available to us. It is used once in a generation. This is our Alamo stand," fugitive Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon said from Ardmore, Oklahoma (Reuters).
As I recall, the battle at the Alamo didn't turn out too well. But it was remembered, as this stunt will be.
Suit Seeks Ban on Oreo Cookies
An internationally distributed Reuters story carried the news that "a lawyer who has spent much of his life enjoying Oreo cookies has sued Kraft Foods Inc. seeking to ban the much-loved cookies in California because they contain trans fat, an ingredient he calls inedible." The attorney says that he is "taking advantage of a provision of the California civil code that holds manufacturers liable for common products if not 'known to be unsafe by the ordinary consumer.'" A special website has been launched to support the lawsuit, obviously fishing for class action plaintiffs.
A Kraft spokesperson did a good job of responding, acknowledging that an alternative to trans fat is a desirable goal that they are pursuing. "We've been ... exploring ways to reduce trans fat in Oreos and those efforts are continuing," he said. "You can make a cookie without trans fat but what you're trading off is the unique taste and texture that people have come to expect. We know the importance of good nutrition and we are committed to helping people lead a healthy lifestyle, but we have no choice than to draw the line against baseless lawsuits like this."
Lessons for crisis managers include:
- Anyone with $39 to file a lawsuit can still garner international coverage, waste a lot of your money and time, and potentially harm your reputation.
- Effective response to activists includes finding areas of agreement -- in this case, agreeing with the plaintiffs that trans fat is something both sides would like to avoid. That makes you sound more reasonable to the fence sitters watching the debate.
- Anticipate potential areas of crisis/conflict in advance and have some key messages prepared to allow for rapid response. Kraft was clearly already aware of the trans fat issue and that someone might attempt a "trial by media."
- (last but not least) Many trends in consumer product litigation have originated in California, where strict laws favor plaintiffs. When new types of litigation have been successful, regulators, legislators, and trial attorneys in other states have been quick to see if they could take similar action. Regardless of your location, it's worth staying aware of consumer legislation and litigation in California -- as evinced further in the article, below, about "Toxic Mold Crisis Management."
Anthrax Scare Caused by Well-Intentioned Mailing
In yet another example of how the world of marketing has been changed by the threat of terrorism, the BBC reported that a number of people in the Leeds area called police when they opened unmarked envelopes and found white crystals in them. It turns out that it was a mailing of a water-saving "Save-A-Flush" device filled with silica sand. Yorkshire Water, the well-intentioned distributor of the device, did make a very appropriate comment after the scare started:
"The decision to send out these water conservation devices in plain envelopes without the Yorkshire Water logo on was a mistake." The spokesperson went on to note that Yorkshire Water literature was also in the envelope.
I have some personal experience with a similar situation, a client whose packing materials "shed" silicate in a powder-like form, prompting frightened calls at the height of the anthrax scare.
Lessons for crisis managers include:
- Your shipping department/mailroom should consider repackaging or CLEARLY labeling any package whose exterior or interior fits the U.S. Post Office's description of suspicious mail, which is listed at http://www.usps.com/cpim/ftp/posters/pos84.htm
- Ensure that your shipping process is secure, that it would not be easy for anyone to substitute or insert materials. It didn't happen in this case -- but it could.
- If you've made a mistake, admit it, then do everything you can to promptly make amends.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
New Special Report: How to Prevent Crises
Want to learn about crisis prevention, or convince others in your organization that it's much smarter to be prepared than just to wait for the inevitable crises to happen? That's the purpose of Jonathan Bernstein's new special report, "How to Prevent Crises." It's a "best of" collection of informative and entertaining articles from the archives of this newsletter -- most updated and improved just for the report -- supplemented with brand new material on this vital topic. He also provides a bonus: an Appendix listing typical questions to be asked in a Vulnerability Audit, the crisis prevention tool designed to reveal problems before they ever become crises. More information on the report and how to buy it is available at http://www.thecrisismanager.com.
"Keeping the Wolves at Bay" Training Manual and CD-ROM
The only media training manual available for sale WITHOUT having to also hire a media trainer, and a related CD-ROM, remain available at http://www.thecrisismanager.com. They come with a 100% money-back guarantee -- but we're pleased to report that no one, to date, has asked for their money back! Discounts are available for orders of more than 10 copies.
Amazonian Achievement -- Note from Jonathan Bernstein
I'm pleased to note that "Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual" is now also being sold at Amazon.com. While The Crisis Manager store remains the place to which I refer those with whom I have direct contact, the prestige and clout of Amazon should prove useful. And they take Amex, which my store does not, providing a convenience to the occasional customer who prefers that card. Most importantly, it's cool to say I have a publication being sold on Amazon!
Toxic Mold Crisis Management
by Jonathan Bernstein
There are, I am told by an attorney in a position to know such things, at least 15,000 mold-related lawsuits currently filed in the United States. All of them, of course, referencing "toxic mold" as if referring to a weapon of mass destruction -- and I believe, playing somewhat on the fear caused by more serious biological threats of the types potentially used by terrorists.
Who is vulnerable to allegations of negligence with regard to mold prevention or treatment? Unfortunately, categorically, it can be any entity responsible for building or maintaining a structure used by humans for any purpose. I have seen mold lawsuits and/or negative publicity involving schools, builders, maintenance companies, hotels, public buildings...the list is virtually endless.
Regardless of any lawsuit's merit -- and I also understand that no one has yet been found guilty of negligence with regard to mold prevention, although there have been a number of settlements -- the term TOXIC MOLD immediately breeds fear amongst anyone who thinks they or their loved ones may have been exposed. That fear must be acknowledged compassionately, first, and then the facts about mold, many of which are quite reassuring, must be introduced by credible spokespersons, through effective written materials, and in a manner that gives stakeholders a chance to vent and ask questions.
With knowledge, however, comes responsibility. To date, defendants (in a court of law or the court of public opinion) can genuinely say that, until recently, there was no reason to be particularly concerned about mold. That routine maintenance was always enough. And, even now, that there is no enforceable legislation on the subject -- although California has passed, and is trying to put some teeth into, the Toxic Mold Protection Act.
If you are in a business vulnerable to allegations about your prevention or remediation of mold, now is the time to upgrade not only your operational procedures, but also to have key messages and educational material available for your stakeholders. Speaking at the Builder 100 Conference recently, I suggested to the audience that they consider such activities as:
- Early disclosure about the possibility of mold and what they do to minimize any threat.
- Educational material about mold in general, from independent and credible sources, so that the public understands that very few molds can actually be considered "toxic" in any way.
- Development of standby media statements on the subject in the event they're blindsided by a lawsuit.
In a lawsuit with which I'm familiar, one company that originally leased the building was named as a co-defendant simply because it had "deep pockets," even though it had been many years since they had any direct responsibility for maintenance/mold prevention. So don't discount the possibility of being an "also named" and the need to still deal with both legal and PR issues, regardless of any real liability.
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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