© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 10,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
The Internet can be a powerful weapon for crisis management, but without preparation and planning it is simply another a poorly hoisted petard.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Breaking Crisis Lesson: Power Outage in NE US & Canada
Just as I was finalizing this newsletter, we were all hearing and reading the news of the massive power outage in the Northeastern quadrant of the U.S. and parts of Canada. No terrorists in sight, no natural disaster, just good old "failure of a key infrastructure component." Regardless of the cause, the effect is the same -- widespread disruption or even complete interruption of services all across the private and public sector, for varying lengths of time.
Lessons for Crisis Managers:
- All organizations need to assume that at some time or another they will lose the use of one or more utilities for a long enough period of time to cause damage to their operations. They need to plan for how to transition such times in a manner that minimizes interruption and reflects well on their reputation.
- You don't have to be at the scene of a crisis to be impacted by a crisis. How many thousands of air travelers whose planes were going to, coming from or passing the affected areas are painfully aware of that fact today? How many air cargoes aren't going to arrive on schedule. What will happen to certain organizations because people or cargoes can't get where they're supposed to be? How many phone lines and systems are overwhelmed by people trying to reach those in the affected areas, and what are the negative impacts of the phone system being too busy? Those are just a few of the dominoes falling into each other at this moment. Heck, what's the impact of "merely" having a much higher percentage of hot and frustrated people interacting with each other, to include those in customer service?
- Organizations with good backup plans in this situation will shine, with some commercial entities possibly even gaining business that couldn't be handled by their less prepared competitors.
- Preparation is NOT an option, it's a necessity, Quoniam Stercus Accidit (Because Shit Happens).
Every Crisis is An Opportunity
Editor's Note: I'm going to take apart a recent press release to demonstrate the opportunity lost by the issuer, an organization clearly in crisis. Comments in brackets are mine, followed by my usual "Lessons for Crisis Managers."
NEW YORK, Jul 30, 2003 -- IMPATH Inc. (Nasdaq: IMPH) today announced that the Audit Committee of the Company has initiated an investigation into possible accounting irregularities involving its accounts receivable which the Company believes have been overstated. The Company noted that given the preliminary stage of the investigation, it cannot determine the financial impact but believes that it will be material.
Editor's Note: This was followed by three longish paragraphs full of details of the problem and announcing the resignation of its VP of Finance and Corporate Controller. Then, after a total of 446 words, the following paragraph started.
Carter H. Eckert, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Company, said, "As we have said in the past, the Company has a zero tolerance policy on these matters at every level in the organization. Our commitment to our clients and shareholders remains of paramount importance. We are taking swift and decisive actions to assess the situation, determine the nature and extent of the financial impact and implement the appropriate remedial steps and controls to ensure that we provide financial reports that are accurate and reliable.
"As we delve into these critical issues, we will continue to focus on a targeted growth strategy around our core Physician Services business. We are dedicated to implementing improved operating strategies and delivering high-quality service to our clients with the goal of improving the lives of cancer patients."
Editor's Note: There were then another 551 words of corporate description and legalese.
Lessons for Crisis Managers:
- Don't bury important messages -- it's been my experience that putting a compassionate message near the front of an announcement tremendously enhances reception of the factual information which follows.
- Include -- in your press releases and other statements -- a personalized message of compassion. Not merely the standard "the Company has a zero tolerance policy on these matters at every level in the organization. Our commitment to our clients and shareholders remains of paramount importance," because unfortunately those are used so frequently that the public perceives them as trite. Rather, a very HUMAN statement along the lines of:
"We understand how our clients and shareholders might feel concern at this point, which we deeply regret. We are committed to doing all that we can to learn the facts necessary to correcting any errors and reassuring those who care about IMPATH."
- Ensure that crisis-savvy PR professionals are involved in decisions regarding crisis response, message drafting and positioning.
Editor's Note: Have some feedback and/or opinions about these or other articles in this issue? Go to/join our free Crisis Manager University website, http://www.crisismanageruniversity.com, and start a discussion!
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Quoniam Stercus Accidit -- "Because Shit Happens"
Seeing my new t-shirt, a friend said, "OH, Crisis Manager University, where's that? And what does that Latin motto mean?" After I'd explained that the "University" is an online community -- and the motto means "Because Shit Happens," -- he offered to buy it from me, on the spot. He actually said, "hey, by that definition, all of us are Crisis Managers!" I refrained from saying "no shit."
The new Crisis Manager University (CMU) Bookstore has been launched at www.cafeshops.com/crisismanager, where you can order t-shirts and baseball caps with the CMU name and motto on them. If you are interested in quantity pricing, write to me separately -- the specialty product vendor who provides this storefront doesn't have a means for me to do that online.
More serious crisis management training and educational materials remain available for purchase at www.thecrisismanager.com, to include "Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual.
We all want to be in Google's top 10, and having higher numbers of links is an important contributing factor. I'm interested in hearing from "Crisis Manager" readers who have well-trafficked websites and who might want to exchange links. I also want to remind all of you that you're welcome to reprint content from past issues of "Crisis Manager" on your sites as long as you provide appropriate credit and a link to the source.
Managing Online Rumors
by Jonathan Bernstein
A reader recently wrote:
"In this age of weblogs and other postings, and aside from the usual 'behavior' guidelines for employees, could you provide guidelines for what is appropriate to engage in with respect to Net postings about company business, products, etc.? Among other concerns, we don't want to have a cacophony of conflicting views that might blur our various official messages. Thanks for any thoughts or examples."
First, let me note that I'm not an attorney and so I can't speak to the legal considerations inherent in the question. But I obviously work with attorneys enough to know I should issue that caveat. However, from a reputation management/PR perspective, here are some suggested guidelines that have proven effective. Organizations should:
1. Monitor what's being said about them online AT LOCATIONS CONSIDERED CREDIBLE BY THEIR STAKEHOLDERS, internal AND external.
2. Don't make assumptions about what sites/discussion lists/etc. are credible to your stakeholders. Ask them. You may be surprised.
3. Track any trends which appear to be developing -- e.g., particular subjects, allegations and/or damaging facts which recur with increasing frequency, possibly across multiple locations. Those trends may tell you anything from "you're doing something wrong that you have to fix" to "folks THINK you're doing something wrong so you'd better say something in the appropriate venue or, by default, they'll assume their perceptions are accurate."
4. Seldom, very seldom, respond directly to rumors, allegations, complaints directly in the same public venue where they appear. This often encourages fiery and unpleasant retorts (commonly called "flames"), if not from the person to whom you're responding then from other users that only cause further harm. Instead, IF the venue involved (e.g., an online discussion board/bulletin board service) allows you to send email directly to the message poster, do that -- send a message along the following lines (this is an actual example from a collection of "form" response we created for one of our clients, with information deleted/modified to protect its identity):
Because we very much care about customer opinion, we regularly monitor online message boards and saw your posting at http://xxx.com. We wanted to provide you with some information.
I am sorry you have had trouble with your Brand X Widget. To receive top performance you have to have fresh ultra batteries. Also, I want to apologize for you not getting a response to your e-mails. Unfortunately, there was a period of time where we were upgrading our software and it caused some problems with our e-mail service. Since that time this problem has been corrected and the e-mails sent to Customer Service are answered promptly.
If you have any questions, please feel free to call our Technical Support Department at 800-999-9999. Alternately, if you give us your phone number by reply e-mail, we would be happy to call you.
Brand X Inc.
5. There are times when it IS appropriate to respond directly at the online site, but those are decisions have to be made very carefully, come from a source respected at the site involved, and be structured to encourage response off-site (by email or phone).
6. As implied by your question, it is important that messages to all stakeholders be consistent, regardless of whether they're made online or offline, to internal or external contacts. All organizations should have a planned and controlled "authorized spokesperson" policy.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
Bernstein Crisis Management has formal or informal co-promotional and mutually beneficial business associations with a number of the services we mention periodically in this newsletter. 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.
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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