© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 12,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
You read it here first.
I believe that some of the country's best investigative reporters -- at the L.A. Times, some major news magazines, and others -- are quietly conducting exhaustive research to find a "smoking gun" that will implicate Governor-elect Schwarzenegger in wrongdoing which is undeniable. The LA Times staff is, no doubt, feeling chagrined about how its reporting created negative backlash, while other reporters will be challenged to do what the Times hasn't done. The California fires have no doubt distracted those assigned to this task for a while, but I believe they'll return to it once the disaster focus is no longer required. If there are, in fact, any skeletons, the Schwarzenegger team had better be getting prepared.
Jonathan Bernstein, Editor
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: I'm delighted to present readers with two thought-provoking and educational articles by returning authors Gerald Baron and Karen Friedman. The uses of the Internet for internal and external communication, Gerald's area of expertise, are clearly continuing to expand exponentially. While Karen, a renowned media trainer, offers insights about media relations which fly in the face of some people's "gut" feelings.
WestFarm Foods Case Study
by Gerald Baron
WestFarm Foods is one of the largest privately held companies in Washington State and a powerhouse in the agriculture industry of the Pacific Northwest. It is a cooperative owned by over 700 dairy farmers and produces $1.3 billion worth of dairy products per year.
The last few years have been exceptionally challenging financially and the company faced difficult negotiations with its labor unions. The concessions the company was asking for from the unions were significant and the union representatives were not sounding optimistic. As the contract deadline approached, the company prepared to continue operating its eleven different perishable products plants with replacement workers if necessary, and prepared to communicate with the media, employees, key stakeholders and the public about the status of negotiations.
The communication preparations included activating the company's PIER virtual communication center, which had been previously purchased to help manage public information in case of a crisis. The difficulties of the labor situation constituted a significant crisis and the company's plans and communication technology were put to the test.
A story came out in one local paper as the negotiations were moving to their climax. It included comments from both the company representative and a union representative. But it also included detailed background information about comparative labor rates, extremely difficult market conditions faced by the company, and rationale behind some of the concessions requested. In other words, it made a clear and reasonable case for why the company needed to hold this line.
Within a week after the story appeared, a settlement was reached in the plant in this community and several others. A devastating company-wide strike was averted and later labor action was limited to two of the company's eleven facilities. Whether the story had anything to do with the settlement or not is speculation, but there is no doubt that it created a public atmosphere of understanding for the difficult position of the company. Where did the newspaper get this information? From the company's PIER website which was managed as an integral part of the virtual communication system.
As the difficult labor negotiation situation moved toward crisis, the company launched a site specifically to provide information about the negotiations. The first item added was a detailed "white paper" that laid out the conditions the company faced, how it compared to other companies in labor rates, how other companies in similar industries were changing to meet tightening margins (such as outsourcing), and why rising labor costs were making the company's future questionable. This information provided the basis for more than one newspaper report.
While this may make a strong case for providing good and timely information via a website, this particular company went considerably beyond that. The company's PIER virtual communication center included contact lists of the people whose opinion about the company really mattered. This included reporters, shareholders, employees, major customers and suppliers, industry associations, plant neighbors and more. Whenever there were significant new developments in the on-going labor negotiations, the communication team (one outside contractor, one administrative support person, and the vice president of communication) could instantly draft, edit, approve, upload to the website AND distribute to any and all lists by email or fax. Because they could manage all communication via browser, 24/7 communication management became very doable. The communications manager, for example, did much of the work from her home or office outside of the company without any limitations of not being able to access information or lists within the company's LAN.
This proved particularly useful when the negotiations took a difficult turn. The negotiators left the table and a letter went out from the union leadership to its members that indicated the company had decided to initiate a lockout. Rumors were flying; the union claimed the company was operating in bad faith and had pulled out of negotiations. The union leaders either misunderstood or distorted the facts. The company communicators quickly put out on the site the company's true position versus what had been presented as the company's position in the union leader's letter. The headline was: "Dispelling Rumors." The fast response, made possible by the communication center, enabled the company to put a quick end to a potentially damaging rumor.
One burdensome little (sometimes enormous) job when everything seems to be hitting the fan, is keeping up with inquiries and with the people who want to be kept informed. The communication center facilitates this process. Interested site viewers can add themselves to the mailing list from the website, selecting the appropriate contact category they belong to. They can submit inquiries that are logged and tracked within the center and are combined with others that come in via telephone. The managers can see at any time the nature of the questions, how they are being answered and how quickly. After all, the first thing we are taught about communications is that it is a two-way street. The communication center handles Web communications, outgoing email/fax communications and inquiries with complete integration."
Even several weeks into the on-going labor strife, the company's labor negotiations website was receiving a high rate of traffic and numerous inquiries and comments. As you may imagine, not all of them were worthy of a dignified response. The labor negotiations site was accessed via a highly visible link on the company's site, but the significantly increased Web traffic did not threaten the company's normal Internet services because the PIER site is maintained on separate crisis-capable servers able to withstand millions of hits and with very high levels of security.
Lessons learned? The work that went into preparing the communication center with contact information on key audiences and background information about the company proved invaluable. It saved a tremendous amount of work at the time when resources were stretched to the limit. The ability of non-technically oriented communication managers and support staff to be able to fully manage Web content and simultaneously distribute information to key audiences proved very important, particularly when the rumors were flying. Virtual communication management provides access to all tools and materials via a browser that makes it possible to work anywhere, anytime (with all the good and bad that comes with that). Finally, this situation once again shows what is becoming commonplace in corporate communications, crisis or not: that the Web and the Internet are firmly established as the place where not only is the information to be found but where also most of the work is done.
Gerald Baron is president of Baron & Company, www.baron-co.com, and creator of PIER, the crisis management communication center provided by AudienceCentral, www.audiencecentral.com. He has twenty-five years experience in strategic communications and is the author of "Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News" published by Financial Times/Prentice Hall. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Press Isn't the Problem:
Managing Communications During a Media Frenzy
by Karen Friedman
There is a comic strip that hangs in my office. The punch line says; "If at first you don't succeed, blame the media!" I chuckle every time I see it because blaming the media is almost as All-American as Monday night football and probably with good reason, right? After all, reporters dig and interfere. They hardly ever get the facts straight and they have this vulture mentality that requires them to crash all kinds of parties. They're only interested in ratings, allow sales departments to drive story content and they don't seem to care about ruining reputations. After all, if it bleeds, it leads as the saying goes.
I will not argue with the criticism. As a veteran reporter, I shoved many microphones in faces full of grief and have overstayed my welcome in numerous neighborhoods. I can tell you from experience that even if there is nothing new to report; news editors and producers will insist that you look for new angles to keep the story alive. Take the O.J. Simpson media frenzy, the Monica Lewinsky story, or the Kobe Bryant sex scandal to name a few. You might think there is nothing else happening in the world.
While blaming the media may be a popular pasttime, let's not overlook the real problem which happens to be attitude...not theirs, but yours. Regardless of media shortcomings, the media doesn't create your crisis. They simply report it. For many, this might be considered synonymous. After all, if they didn't report other people's problems, incorrect facts, negative comments or hearsay, then someone's credibility might not be damaged.
However, let's approach this another way. If your seven-year-old child asked you for the car keys, would you throw them over and let him get behind the wheel? If your employee walked into your office and told you she was taking over, would you leave without a fight? Reporters are no different. They can only walk all over you if you let them. So, instead of complaining that they are ruining your reputation, that other companies received better coverage during negative events or that no one is reporting your side of the story, perhaps you should consider swimming with the tide instead of against it.
To do this, you need to understand a reporter's job:
- It is not their job to protect your reputation.
- It is not their job to advance your career.
- It is not their job to ask questions to help you say what you want to say.
- It is not their job to write the story you think should be told.
- It is not their job to include everything you told them.
When a situation unexpectedly thrusts your company or event into the spotlight, stop focusing on what others are saying and start focusing on what you want to say. Figure out how you are going to solve the problem and then keep the media informed so they can be a resource that will keep the public accurately informed. Once you do this, you will be perceived as an advocate who is managing difficult circumstances instead of someone who is just trying to defend their actions. If you want to further your own agenda, then you need to fuel reporter's tanks with high-octane information.
For starters, media motives are pretty predictable. They ask questions their readers, viewers or listeners would ask such as:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen?
- Was anyone hurt?
- Could this have been prevented?
- Has this ever happened before?
- What are you doing about it?
- When will it be resolved?
- How will you prevent this from happening in the future?
- Did you know this was going to happen?
- What would you like to say to (those affected)?
If you think about these questions in advance, you will realize that you can quickly provide information and reassure audiences you are acting in their best interest. Organizations that understand this also understand the necessity of preparing in advance so when an adverse event occurs, they control the crisis instead of letting the crisis control them. Here are some suggestions:
Even if you believe a problem will never become public, you need to fix it as fast as you can. You should develop talking points, tactics, strategies and designate a spokesperson. That way, if the media does call, you are prepared to answer questions. Good media training for spokespeople is also a must!
If you aren't sure whether to call the media, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the public in jeopardy?
- If the media reported this first, would public trust be jeopardized?
If you answer yes, you're playing a dangerous game of roulette. Consider notifying the media before they find out and contact you. This way, you are taking charge instead of allowing others to define the story.
About a year ago, I worked with a company that fell victim to a terrible fire. This company did everything right. They set up shelters, provided food and clothing, worked closely with authorities, provided long term temporary housing, and worked hand in hand with the American Red Cross. Yet, they never shared this with the media so it was never reported.
Write down the three or four points you want to communicate and do it! When being interviewed, don't wait for the reporter to ask you a question to trigger those points.
Stories are almost always about people who are affected by something that happened. That's why victims are often seen at the top of a story following a response from the company that is usually aired or printed later in the story. If you are not perceived as concerned or acting in someone else's best interest, the story will then become about you.
Last year, I worked with a well-known company that was unexpectedly forced to slash healthcare benefits. Longtime employees were angry, skeptical and scared. It never became a news story because the company went out of its way to take care of those affected by the cuts. They provided training, education, opened hot lines, set up question and answer sessions, provided detailed brochures, specialized websites, offered other benefit packages and always kept the lines of communication open. Employees were still upset but didn't call the media because they were reassured by a company acting in its best interests.
Try to provide as much information as possible without breaching security or confidentiality issues. You want to stay in front of the information so you are delivering it and not responding to what others have heard. If you don't have an answer, simply say so, but offer to provide updates as information becomes available.
Unfortunately, when news breaks and there is a rush to cover it, inaccurate facts are inadvertently reported. If you don't contact the media to correct the information, you have no one to blame except yourself.
Karen Friedman brings 20 years of on-air television experience to media and communications training and consulting. Her Philadelphia area company, Karen Friedman Enterprise, Inc. prepares people to take advantage of media interviews, presentations and public appearances. Friedman is a frequent speaker and can be reached at: 610-292-9780 or through her website at www.karenfriedman.com.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Crisis Preparedness and Training Materials Now Available
Crisis preparedness and training materials currently available in The Crisis Manager bookstore, www.thecrisismanager.com, are:
- The Case for Crisis Preparedness PowerPoint. A 70-slide PowerPoint presentation, complete with presenter notes, created to help in-house staff and consulting firms get organizational decision-makers' heads out of the sand.
- Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual. Still the only media training manual available for sale anywhere. Focused on crisis-related media tactics, the manual can be custom-imprinted (at no extra charge) to become "yours" when you use it for training your organization or clients. Available in print and PDF formats.
- Keeping the Media Wolves at Bay (CD-ROM). Recording of a one-hour teleseminar featuring Publicity Hound Joan Stewart interviewing Jonathan Bernstein.
- Special Report: How to Prevent Crises. Jonathan Bernstein's top tips on this subject in a 22-page PDF report.
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ABOUT THE EDITOR
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.,
www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. 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.
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