© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 10,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
"When your client has a crisis that could put it out of business, call the crisis manager first, think about the legal issues later. If you do it the other way around, the client might not survive to utilize your keen legal analysis."
Adam K. Treiger, Partner, Stowell, Zeilenga & Ruth LLP
Editor's Note: I can't resist saying that this crisis case history demonstrates how one can find a really sweet solution to a sticky situation.
Salvation Army Doughnuts Resolve Crisis
by Kathy Lovin
The Salvation Army is not used to being the target of anybody's disapproval. But in the fall and winter of 2001, we were exactly that. Because of a regional decision to offer access to health benefits for the "extended household members" of our employees and a national decision that came along two weeks later to reverse it, The Salvation Army in Los Angeles received a lot of critical phone calls, correspondence and news coverage.
Early in December, just when we thought the issue had faded from view and we could turn our attention to the important holiday fundraising season, I received a call from a Los Angeles Times reporter. He asked me if there would be a spokesperson at the demonstration later that afternoon. I had to ask, "What demonstration?"
That's how I learned that a group of protesters were planning to picket outside our Los Angeles headquarters over the health benefits decision.
My boss and I quickly started discussing a response plan. When I called our media relations director to tell her the news, she asked, tongue in cheek, "Are we going to serve them doughnuts and coffee?" It only took a moment or two for us to realize that serving doughnuts and coffee was precisely what we should do.
Once the protesters started organizing outside and the media trucks started pulling up, we put on red Salvation Army windbreakers and went outside to serve doughnuts and freshly brewed coffee from our mobile kitchen parked around the corner.
At first the demonstrators were surprised that we wanted to interact with them. Once we broke the ice with the doughnuts and coffee we began to talk about the issue. They voiced their concerns and we explained our position.
The man who organized the protest acted as the official spokesperson. He was nervous about the television crews since he'd never done an on-camera interview before.I asked him if he wanted to take a minute to talk about how to give a good media interview, then I ran through some basic information about key messages, speaking in sound bites, etc.
The camera crews and the reporter from the Times all interviewed our spokesperson too. His key message was that The Salvation Army respected the rights of the demonstrators to disagree with us.
That night the news stations that showed up didn't air the coverage they shot and the first paragraph of the Times story the next morning went like this, "It was an unusual demonstration. Some of those picketing The Salvation Army...still hoped people will contribute to the charity at Christmastime. The Salvation Army's staff, meanwhile, was outside welcoming the demonstrators with doughnuts."
The truth is, we didn't know exactly how to respond to a demonstration so we decided to do what we always do when a crisis happens; roll out the mobile kitchen and start serving doughnuts and coffee.
Here's what we learned:
- Know your mission; be who you are; and be consistent.
- Engage your detractors in conversation and validate their concerns.
- No one can resist a glazed doughnut!
Kathy Lovin is an Issues/Communications Specialist for The Salvation Army's Western Territory, Kathy_Lovin@usw.salvationarmy.org
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Reviews Featured in Next Issue of Crisis Manager
The 07.15.03 issue of Crisis Manager will feature reviews of:
- The 2002 Crisis Communications report from Best Practices in Corporate Communications
- A Terrorism Time Line and a report on Major Terrorism Events and Their Outcome from the fine minds at George Washington University's Crisis Management Institute.
- Disaster Recovery Yellow Pages
Save On Crisis Management Training Materials
Jonathan Bernstein's online store, The Crisis Manager, currently has four products for sale and there is a "bundled" price when you order more than one of the items, ranging from $5 to $15 off the full retail for each item.
The products now listed are:
- Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual (print version)
- Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual (PDF version)
- Special Report: How to Prevent Crises (PDF)
- Keeping the MEDIA Wolves at Bay, The Do's and Don'ts of Crisis Communications (CD-ROM recording of a teleseminar)
The store is located at www.thecrisismanager.com. Quantity discounts (for purchase of more than 10 copies) are available by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Review copies are available for bona fide journalists and those who publish online reviews.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
SARS Museum Idea Reflects Poorly on Already Damaged Hotel
The Associated Press reported that "a section of the ninth floor of Metropole Hotel -- where Hong Kong's SARS outbreak first broke -- could be turned into a SARS museum. This was one of the ideas the hotel's crisis management team came up with to promote guest rooms on the 'infamous' ninth floor." I can see it now, on slick tourism brochures, "STAY AT THE INFAMOUS METROPOLE HOTEL, ENJOY THE THRILL OF RISKING YOUR LIFE ON THE FLOOR THAT KILLED ONE AND INFECTED SIXTEEN OTHERS!"
I don't think I need to summarize lessons learned on this one.
Coppin State College Lets Failing Students Graduate In Response to Lawsuit
Thanks to Karrie Heartlein, Director of Public Relations at Knox College, for tipping me off to this incident. As she put it, "The president got some bad PR counsel!"
Ten students who twice failed to pass the final examination and review process for a criminal justice graduate program at Coppin State College in Baltimore decided to see if legal pressure could serve as a substitute for academic performance (and, in at least a few cases, despite blatant plagiarism on their theses). Apparently it could. They sued the school for not adequately preparing them for the exams and the president folded, allowing them to graduate. He told the faculty, some of whom were quoted in the press blasting the decision, that "we have a capital expansion campaign and can't afford the bad publicity."
Student Jocelyn Evans, a full-time parole officer and mother of three who DID meet the graduation requirements, was quoted as saying, "What's the use of sharing a stage with people who didn't earn the degree?" There is now a considerable amount of national media coverage on this subject online, particularly in the black press (Coppin is, historically, a black college). All the coverage I read is critical of the president's decision.
Lessons learned from this situation:
- WITH COMPETENT COUNSEL, fully assess and prepare for the PR impact of a major operational decision.
- It's impossible, even for a small local organization, to contain bad news locally.
- Get media trained. I saw no evidence of ANY comment from a College spokesperson, only comments from students and faculty.
Why CEOS Fail
In the new book Why CEOs Fail by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo, the authors list arrogance as the primary cause amongst 11 behaviors cited. The book, according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle, "explains how arrogant CEOs often reinterpret information to reflect their own views, rather than considering whether the information is telling them they should shift policies. They feel as if they know everything, and subordinates are often unwilling to challenge them."
- This directly parallels the comments made by Phil Cogan in his superb article Why Do Some Crises Become Disasters, now archived at http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/nl/crisismgr021015.html#2`.
- For the arrogant CEOs, probably no lessons learned, because they'll usually be too arrogant to see themselves in this material. Humility does come to some, but all too often we initially learn humility through humiliation.
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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.
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