© 2004 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 13,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
In a crisis situation, the media have a crucifixion bias.
Author & crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall, Quoted in an AP story re Martha Stewart
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: Knowing that Gerald Baron had already written about Michael Jackson's crisis management program for a PR trade publication, I asked our regular contributor if he would write another piece comparing Jackson's efforts with those of the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department. We all now get to benefit from his agreement to do so!
Michael Jackson vs. the Santa Barbara Sheriff
The "Black Hat" Battle
by Gerald Baron
As an executive or a communication manager for an organization with high brand value, what do you do when someone accuses you of wrongdoing? The accusation may involve management misbehavior, damaging the environment, putting customers or the public at risk, or failing to take steps to protect workers or the public. Facing such accusations is an increasing fact of life for many communicators in business, non-profits and government agencies.
The conventional wisdom is to ignore the accusation, emphasize the positive and keep going. If the accusation involves legal action or potential legal action, the reasons to ignore and stay positive are all the greater, as the attorneys involved will most likely counsel you to restrict responses to the courtroom. This conventional wisdom is still correct much of the time, but new patterns are emerging in serious reputation wars. These changes are spurred by the "infotainment" approach of the news media, by technology-driven "instant news," and by the effective use of the Internet by opponents and accusers to keep a reputation war going even after it has disappeared from page one. The battle going on now between Michael Jackson and Sheriff Jim Anderson of Santa Barbara provides an intriguing and entertaining example.
Mr. Jackson faces two very serious challenges. One is in the court of law and the other in the court of public opinion. O.J Simpson provides an example of a celebrity with high brand value winning in the court of law and losing in the court of public opinion. It is possible to conceive of a situation in which Mr. Jackson could lose in the court of law and still win in the court of public opinion. At first, when Mr. Jackson launched his public website and announced it was the only official voice relating to the charges against him, it appeared Mr. Geragos, Jackson's attorney, was going to try to focus on the law court. But shortly after launching the site and stating that the case would not be tried in the media, Mr. Geragos adopted a new strategy aimed clearly at taking the black hat off Mr. Jackson and placing it on any target of opportunity. I can attribute the public relations strategy to Mr. Geragos because he stated publicly that he personally fired Scott Backerman as Mr. Jackson's spokesperson, thereby making it clear to everyone that the battle in both courts was in his hands alone (a dangerous situation and a foolish, ego-driven statement in this writer's mind).
It seems clear that Mr. Geragos' strategy is to try to remove the black hat from Mr. Jackson's head and find someone else to wear it The accusation that Jackson made against his treatment during his arrest was the most serious attempt to date. Previously, he had tried to undermine the Sheriff by raising the issue of levity at the initial press conference. He also attempted to shift the black hat to the child or family accusing him by indirectly linking them to the man who videotaped Michael surreptitiously in his jet and the airplane company who tried to sell the videotape. Here is what the official statement said: "This entire case is about cash, and anyone who believes differently is living in their own Neverland. We will be absolutely relentless in our pursuit of any and all extortionists regardless of how they try to gift wrap their lies in the cloak of justice. Michael is not going to be a pi–ata for every money-hungry publicity seeker to strike in the hopes of hitting it rich."
What is interesting about this is not Mr. Geragos' rather obvious attempt to shift the battleground to issues other than Jackson's behavior with children, but how the Sheriff responded when confronted by the very serious accusations of manhandling in Jackson's interview with Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes." Now it was the Sheriff's reputation and that of his department under fire. It seems pretty clear that the media and the general sentiment of public opinion are not with Jackson on this issue. Conventional communication wisdom could easily have prevailed in the discussions in the Sheriff's office following the airing of the program. But instead of letting the accusations stand, Sheriff Jim Anderson responded with extraordinary aggressiveness. In his press conference and statement on the Department website, he provided considerable detail about the arrest. It is, in effect, a minute-by-minute accounting of what occurred. Then he made the following statement: "I am accepting the extremely serious allegations made by Mr. Jackson as a formal citizen complaint against members of the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department. I have requested that the State Attorney General's Office conduct a thorough and complete investigation of these allegations. Should this investigation prove the charge made by Mr. Jackson to be groundless, I will request that criminal charges of false Report of Peace Officer Misconduct be pursued against Mr. Jackson."
In my view, he did exactly the right thing. He put a quick end to doubts that may have been raised about the arrest, and indeed about his own motives or professionalism. His quick and aggressive response did not allow momentum to build that would increase the sympathy for Mr. Jackson. The response of Mr. Geragos to this development is telling in its wimpiness. In a very brief statement he makes another attempt to shift the ground by referring to his claim of inadequate investigation of the case and states the credibility of the Sheriff's Department is seriously hurt.
The upshot of this is that within a day or two, the story of Jackson's dislocated shoulder and mistreatment has all but disappeared from the news. Increasingly it seems this is the way the game is played these days. The battle is about credibility. Who can be believed? Who wins this battle has a good chance to win in both courts.
It is similar to another story that could have been a serious reputation problem, but disappeared quickly because of an aggressive communication response. In the height of terrorist concerns following 9/11, a Secret Service agent of Arab-American descent was flying American Airlines to meet up with President Bush in Texas. He was denied entry to his flight. The president was furious and said so on national television. The Arab-American group cried "racial profiling." Lawyers for the agent were seen on television threatening serious action against the airline. It is easy to imagine the discussions between the lawyers and communicators on this one. "Save it for the court," vs. "We need to clear the air in the public now." They opted to not wait for the court of law. The airline explained the pilot made the decision because the agent was agitated and angry, could not or would not produce the documentation needed to verify his status and was carrying a gun. In that environment, no one would blame a pilot for refusing access to an airplane for anyone with uncertain paperwork who was angry and carrying a gun. Case dismissed.
The lesson to be learned is that we live in an instant news world in which the media operates not just to report the facts, but also to secure audiences through the entertainment model of melodrama. Complex stories that need to be told in mere minutes or seconds have to be simplified. For a story to be compelling, there have to be good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. When you find yourself with the black hat on, the consequences for reputation, for brand value, for the life and future of the organization, the person or the brand can be very serious. Conventional wisdom that says: "Don't elevate the coverage by responding," is often wrong in this changed atmosphere. A greater concern should be given to the saying: "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth."
Editor's Note: I think that it's particularly significant that the Sheriff's Department really didn't NEED to say very much until Mr. Jackson forced them to by making the allegations identified in this article, above. In doing so, Jackson and his advisors learned that it's unwise to shoot it out with someone who's better armed than you are.
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 email@example.com.
Dueling Web Sites: Michael Jackson v. Santa Barbara Sheriff's Dept
by Jonathan Bernstein
Michael Jackson: The Official Press Room, www.mjnews.us, and the Michael Jackson Case Information portion of the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Department site, www.sbsheriff.org/mj, exemplify many of the do's and don'ts of online crisis management.
The Internet is, in fact, the first place most reporters and members of the public go for information on any controversial subject. While Michael Jackson's attorney, Mark Geragos, seems to love being on TV, anyone's time on the air is limited -- yet there are no limits to what you can say online in a medium you control yourself, 100%, your own website. Both sides have not taken full advantage of their Internet opportunities.
A crisis management website has to have credible content, be frequently updated, answer stakeholders' most common questions, and provide a means for stakeholder feedback and questions. Let's look at both sites in that context.
Michael Jackson: The Official Press Room
The Jackson site is nothing more than a series of press releases and statements. Given that his most important audience are his fans, this is probably a great disappointment to them. A number of the statements online are quite dramatic, such as "Michael is going to defend himself with the force of his spirit, as would anyone falsely accused of something so monstrous." Drama is not very convincing -- documented facts are. Nowhere on the site can you even find the type of "evidence" he presented to "60 Minutes," the photo of his bruised arm.
The site, as of this writing, has not been updated for 10 days, an eternity in Internet time, and does not provide even a simple FAQ (frequently asked questions list, with answers). That would be a very easy thing to do and Jackson's advisors, I'm sure, know what questions most of his fans have.
The site also has no links, while it would be easy and prudent to link to sites with material and quotes favorable to Jackson.
Finally, his advisors regarding online communication really blew it when they picked his URL with the .us ending. A lot of people are going to miss the site because we often remember the front half of a site address but not the ending; we assume that it's ..com. Unless you are a distinct organizational entity, like an educational institution or governmental office, it is always better, to pick a URL ending in .com. I just did a quick search of available domains and they COULD have registered www.jacksonofficialpressroom.com or www.jacksonofficialsite.com.
Santa Barbara Sheriff's Michael Jackson Case Information Page
The Sheriff's Department has a list of press releases and links to other relevant sites (e.g., the DA's office). But they could have also used the site to showcase THEIR visuals, providing the streaming video which documented their careful treatment of Jackson. That ran for many minutes on TV, but it could run ad infinitum, 24/7, online.
Their releases, however, are mostly fact-filled and their credibility is enhanced by their willingness to go "above and beyond" in pursuing allegations against them, by calling for a State Attorney General's office investigation and also upstaging Jackson's claims about brutality by foreshadowing more charges against the entertainer if his allegations prove false.
Material on their site is slightly older than that at Jackson's, as of this writing, but they do provide an email address for inquiries. A FAQ list would be as useful to them as it would be for Jackson.
Who Wins the Duel?
Ultimately, you have to look at who has the most to lose.
The Sheriff's Department has already taken a bold and credible position on the one subject that could hurt them, the allegations of brutality. If I were still an investigative reporter, I would have found much of what I needed at their site, and the site provided contact info for their Public Information Officer if I needed additional facts.
An investigative reporter, on the other hand, will find little more than rhetoric at the Jackson site, despite the fact that Mr. Jackson has to influence the jury pool, retain his fans, and avoid scaring away record and concert producers. There are thousands of individuals and organizations who have championed causes with almost no budget, simply through effective use of the Internet. Why Jackson and his advisors would fail to do all they can with the incredible flexibility and versatility of online communication is, professionally, beyond me.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
January 14, is the first Crisis Manager Teleseminar, "How to Conduct a Vulnerability Audit," and there is still room for those wanting to attend. A CD-ROM of the program can be ordered starting January 15. To make reservations, go to www.thecrisismanager.com.THE SECOND TELESEMINAR, on January 28, is going to be about "The Nastiest Media Tricks and How to Prevent or Respond to Them." I will interview and exchange tips and war stories with two nationally renowned media trainers and past guest authors for this ezine -- Judy Hoffman and Bob Aronson. The program will also start at 11:00 a.m. Pacific/noon Mountain/1 p.m. Central/2 p.m. Eastern time.
Questions to be answered in the presentation will include:
- What are the sneakiest, nastiest, most conniving tricks reporters have pulled against organizations or individuals in crisis?
- What nasty tricks are, in fact, ethical by journalistic standards?
- What's the difference between a nasty trick and good investigative/feature reporting?
- How do you avoid becoming a victim of nasty media tricks?
- If you've become a victim of a nasty media trick, what do you do?
- Is it OK to blacklist certain media, refuse to talk to them?
- Who are some public figures we can study as good and bad examples of how to deal with nasty media tricks?
Go To www.thecrisismanager.com to reserve your space.
Pricing for either teleseminar will be $95 for the general public, but you as "Crisis Manager" subscribers get 20% off by using the case-sensitive coupon code "january" (without the quotes) on the checkout page. It includes any number of people from your organization, as long as you're gathered around a conference phone -- i.e., one registration covers one telephone connection. After each teleseminar, a CD-ROM recording of the event will be available for sale, also for $95.
Sneak Preview Of February Teleseminar Starring Bruce Blythe: Can't give you a title yet, but I can say that it will feature a lively exchange with Bruce Blythe, world-renowned author of "Blindsided: A Manager's Guide to Catastrophic Incidents in the Workplace" and Founder/CEO of Crisis Management International. Few in our field know as much as Bruce does about the human side of crisis management. Look for announcements at www.thecrisismanager.com and in the next issue of "Crisis Manager."
Bernstein Crisis Management Is 10 Years Old
My consultancy was launched as Bernstein Communications on January 4, 2004, being renamed Bernstein Crisis Management last September. It's been a great ride, and I thank those of you who have participated in the adventure by being my subscribers, clients, business associates and friends.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. 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 its clients. If you have any questions about these relationships, please contact Jonathan Bernstein, (626) 825-3838.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. is located at 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016. Telephone: (626) 825-3838.
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