© 2004 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 13,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Sometimes people have a perception of things that aren't true, but if they get out, they can be very damaging. Public trust is a very important concern. You can't produce it overnight; it's not a swap for a PR campaign.
Reatha Clark King, chairman of the board and former president of the General Mills Foundation, as well as a corporate director at ExxonMobil Corp., and Minnesota Mutual Cos., Inc.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
When Creativity Didn't Help the Writers Guild
by Jonathan Bernstein
Talk about "creative" writing! Writers Guild President Charles D. Holland has been attempting to explain why there doesn't appear to be proof that he served in an elite Special Forces unit or that he attended college on a football scholarship, both claims he made while interviewed for a profile in the WGA's in-house magazine entitled "Soldier of Fortune."
It's bad enough that Mr. Holland does not appear to have learned from the spate of similar cases reported in recent years, but his explanations have been classic examples of how impossible it is to lie in an age where background investigation of ANYONE is so easy to do. For example:
He claimed to have served with the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, NC. A military records check by the L.A. Times showed he was in the National Guard in Illinois and Massachusetts during a three-year period when he was earning a master's degree and a law degree. Not much time in there to sneak away to Ft. Bragg and participate in special ops. His Guard duties were listed as military policeman and assistant postal officer. Records also showed subsequent Guard and Army Reserve duty in Massachusetts and San Francisco.
In an interview with the Times, Holland claimed that "there are aspects of my military records that are readily available and aspects that are not. Anybody who is questioning my military records does not have the full picture, and they never will. I'm not at liberty to discuss the aspects of my military record that are not readily available."
Of course, maybe they weren't readily available because they didn't exist?
Ben Abel, spokesperson for the Army Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, told the L.A. Times, "If it wasn't in his official record when he got out of the military, I wouldn't have a lot of confidence that he was assigned to Ft. Bragg or to that unit."
Let me add some personal experience here. I did serve in U.S. Army Military Intelligence (yes, it's an oxymoron, get over it) working as what was called an "Area Intelligence Specialist." A position the CIA calls "Case Officer." Despite having had a Top Secret clearance with all kinds of fancy access info added to it, (a) I could show you paperwork today which proved that I had this experience, without in ANY way compromising security of operations in which I participated and (b) a military records check would disclose the same information.
But wait, Holland wasn't through attempting to draw others into his fantasy. He ALSO claimed to have been on a football scholarship at the University of Illinois -- which had no record of him playing. His explanation?
"I played wide receiver under a different name."
OK. Maybe. So he gives the name to the Times, which tracks down the man who has that name, who played wide receiver at Illinois at that time -- and who is now an account executive for an Arizona pharmaceutical company. And he doesn't know Holland.
Now here's the pièce de résistance.
A couple of weeks after the L.A. Times broke this story, the WGA Board of Directors met to decide what should be done about it and to hear Holland's in-person explanation. Board member Lisa Seidman told the Times she wasn't especially bothered by the discrepancies because....
(are you ready for this?)
"We're storytellers. It's what we do for a living."
Lessons for Crisis Managers aka "Where Do I Start?"
- Assume that if you lie you will get caught. The Internet, in particular, makes it very easy to fact-find, and most journalists can push through a Freedom of Information Request in their sleep.
- If you're caught, admit it, apologize, do what you can to make amends, and move on. If Holland had come clean after the initial revelation, this would not still have been news weeks later.
- Organizations should ensure that they do VERY thorough background checks on anyone who is going to represent them publicly. This includes situations in which the individual may well have worked for the organization a long time, without much of a background check in the past, but is now being thrust into prominence through appointment or election.
- Make sure that background checks are done by someone with the mind of a trained detective or investigative reporter and the skill sets necessary to use modern technology to its full capabilities. "Turn-key" background checks aren't adequate when an organization's credibility is on the line.
- Have a "one spokesperson" policy for any organization, so that other officers or employees don't feel free to comment, a la Ms. Seidman. And, in fact, multiple board members commented for the L.A. Times stories, albeit some "not for attribution." Bad idea. The more spokespersons, the greater the chance you'll contradict each other and make the story even bigger.
- As an organization in a potentially embarrassing position, have key messages carefully developed and stick to those messages.
There are probably another half-dozen lessons here, but 'nuff said. What a hoot!
Editor's Note: In the 1970's, when I was in Military Intelligence, my associates and I would often cringe when reading Janes Information Group's many publications on military equipment -- which often revealed information that (a) we thought was secret or even (b) that we didn't have ourselves yet! When a "Crisis Manager" reader tipped me off to the existence of Jane's Crisis Communications Handbook, I thought they were an unlikely source of expertise on this topic. I was wrong. I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth and immediate usability of information in this 230-page pocket-sized tome. It is more geared to governmental and other emergency responders than to corporate crisis communicators, but it has lessons for all crisis managers, written in a clear and easy-to-reference style. Here is one small excerpt from the book that helps us understand the phases of media relations related to a crisis.
Excerpted by Permission from Jane's Crisis Communications Handbook
While individual reporters use different styles, the 'inverted pyramid' serves as a story development formula, especially for print media. Using this formula, the most important developments and details are stated in the beginning of the story and the least important material at the bottom, where it can be trimmed, if necessary, because of space limitations. In the course of a crisis life cycle, news coverage generally goes through the following stages:
- Reporters, editors and producers rush to the scene to catch up with the story and to report basic facts: who, what, when and where. The 'why' usually comes later.
- Stories usually do not require much investigative reporting, creative input or editorial meetings
- The initial, breaking-news stage is over, and the crisis may have taken a new turn. For instance, the hurricane has passed but food and water are now in short supply.
- Story ideas come from reporters/producers on the ground. For example, a reporter might do a profile story on one of the crisis response workers.
Follow-on stories usually (but not always) take an analytical perspective:
- Why did this happen?
- What does it mean?
- Who is to blame?
- What could have been done differently?
- What new, preventive measures are now being taken?
Stories cover expected anniversaries and/or commemorative events.
- These stories focus on the background of the incident, recovery and current state of operations, including improvements or continued failures. (Many times, new reporters cover these events as the original reporters have moved to other jobs or are not assigned to the story.)
The uncertainty of the initial phase of a crisis presents the greatest challenge not only for responders but also for the media. By way of example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Newsgathering department is a small team of assignment editors who work in shifts around the clock to oversee daily national news coverage for network television, radio and the Internet. The competition in those three markets creates the need for rapid response to developing stories. John Curran, BBC Home Assignment Editor in the Newsgathering department, describes the intensity of an initial media deployment:
"When we get a major breaking news event in those crucial early hours it's not about issues or in depth analysis or shiny graphics or studio pundits, it's about one thing: logistics. We call it 'arses on aeroplanes.' We serve seven radio networks and five television channels. That means we have to adopt the attitude and tactics, 'there firstest with the mostest.'" [ See Editor's Note below ]
Visit http://security.janes.com/public_safety for more information on Jane's Crisis Communications Handbook, which can be purchased online (US$27.00).
Editor's Note: In October 2004, the BBC's John Curran requested that I provide some updated information on the network and perhaps offer a quote "fresher" than what was contained in Jane's Crisis Communications Handbook. The following is what John has provided for that purpose:
Britain has 3 competing continuous news channels - Sky News, BBC News 24 and ITV News. The competition creates the need for rapid response to developing stories. John Curran, BBC Home Assignment Editor in the Newsgathering department, describes the intensity of an initial media deployment:
"When we get a major breaker in those crucial early stages it's not about issues or in-depth analysis or shiny graphics or studio pundits, it's about one thing: Deployment and logistics. We call it 'arses on aeroplanes.' We serve seven radio networks and six television channels. That means we have to be like General Nathan Bedford Forrest - arguably the most successful cavalry officer of the American Civil War - 'firstest there with the mostest'"
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
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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.
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