Bernstein Crisis Management. Crisis response, prevention, planning, and training.

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2004 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 3,800+
Estimated Readership: 13,000+


Effective crisis communication focuses on accomplishing a business objective, not on building a defense.

Bob Aronson, The Aronson Partnership


Editor's Note: Meet author and consultant Richard S. Levick via this eloquent and ineffably intelligent discussion of that which really matters in high-profile litigation. I strive to elucidate at a higher level because Mr. Levick is the first author in this publication's four-year existence to use "bifurcate" and "vide" in an article. At least I knew what one of those meant without a dictionary, and being forced to improve my vocabulary AND my PR skills at the same time isn't a bad thing.

Brand Protection:
Defining Priorities During Crisis and Litigation
by Richard S. Levick

High-profile litigation is about a lot more than rules of evidence or courtroom demeanor. In fact, it's about a lot more than litigation. Whether you're representing a manufacturing giant or a celebrity, high-profile litigation is all about the client's brand.

Ask any smart in-house lawyer. In-house counsel focus on protecting the brand. Defense lawyers focus on winning -- but sometimes, however unintentionally, to the point where victory permanently damages the victor. Differences between corporate counsel and outside litigators are never more pointed than in cases where the client has more than a legal judgment at stake, and where the highest tribunal is, really, the court of public opinion. Before that tribunal, the defendant is the corporate brand.

The danger zone for clients and counsel is where their interests bifurcate and litigators pursue the courtroom win at any price. Corporations look at the value of the brand -- reputation, market share, stock value -- before they talk about what does, or does not, constitute victory. The backroom machinations that lead to settlement are likewise irrelevant in such a struggle. Altogether different skill sets are required before the media tribunals that will decisively massage public perception of your client's products and services.

A piquant case in point is Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc., which, when all is said and done, may actually win its case against the government. But the price of victory may become unacceptable, including a double-digit decline in magazine circulation, a 30% drop in magazine advertising revenues, and a stock price that has trailed the market for over a year.

For general counsel, the perennial mantra demands outside counsel who understand their business. In other words, they want you to speak their language and pursue their priority goals. The highest priority is the brand. What do you know about your clients' brands?

What is a Brand?

A brand is a promise. It exists only in the minds of the buyers.

In a world where each of us receives 3,000 to 5,000 messages a day

  • television advertisements, emails, bouquets from our loved ones
  • we really only have time to categorize new information as good or bad, yin or yang.

Overcoming this clutter is a monumental task. Yet numerous companies have successfully cut through it all with insistent messages that elicit knee-jerk responses.

Coca-Cola and McDonald's, Nike, and Howard Johnson's are prime examples. When you see the red and white soda can, the golden arch, the swoosh, or the orange roof, you know exactly what to expect.

What is Michelin selling? Tires? No, it's selling safety. The safety message is the only way you distinguish one round piece of rubber from another.

Out-of-control lawsuits, replete with unpredictably negative public messages, undermine a social contract based on brand-driven trust and expectations fulfilled by performance. The corporate/customer bond is insidiously undermined. Vide WorldCom. Vide Arthur Andersen.

The brand, for those companies big enough and disciplined enough to have created one, is everything.

Perception Rules

Victory in the media requires different skill sets than winning in court. Often, in fact, it requires opposite skill sets. Facts rule courtrooms. But perceptions rule the media tribunals where your clients' vital brands are adjudicated.

Facts that win in court often spell certain defeat in the media, because facts that win in court may confuse the fundamental message. When you marshal multiple facts, you are explaining, and explaining usually repels media sympathy. By contrast, a single, visually affecting message articulated by a trusted spokesperson at the right time is more likely to carry the day.

No one understood this better than Ronald Reagan. He did not analyze the whys and wherefores of the Welfare State. He focused instead on images of welfare mothers, and got his message across that way. No analysis, just a wink and a nod.

Facts and perceptions play different roles in different courts Likewise, myriad other strategies that may effectively guide shrewd litigators in court are predictably disastrous elsewhere. In court, for example, a discreet silence can be appropriate. But when litigation goes high profile, no-comment is seldom an option.

Every media story begins as a large piece of blank newspaper. When reporters start to write, they draw a line in their heads down the middle of the page. There are only two sides to fill in on this mat of papyrus. You get one side, your opponent gets the other. If one party refuses to comment, well, the reporter's got to write something!

As a result, the other party gets the entire page. You've ceded it.

There are few plaintiffs' lawyers who decline to comment. Instead, they merrily wait for the defense lawyers to no-comment, then gobble up the space they've been given.

Make the Sacrifice

The Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol scare are the historic examples of how to handle crisis and how not to handle crisis.

Exxon's record for environmental responsibility is forever tainted by the perception of its cavalier attitude during the Alaskan disaster. One salient tactical difference eternally separates the two corporate giants in their highest-profile crises: Johnson & Johnson made a sacrifice. The company proactively and voluntarily pulled all its products off the shelf, not just Tylenol. The message, which was sent loud and clear to the global marketplace, was that J&J cared more about people than profits.

It was the ultimate brand preservation. Everything that Johnson & Johnson stood for was affirmed that day, and the message still resonates two decades later. For Johnson & Johnson, the reward was substantially increased market share, after very short-term lost profits. Brand preservation during high-profile crisis thus equals marketing opportunity.

Many things have changed since then, of course. Today we have twenty-four hour news cycles, 200 television channels, talk radio, and the Internet. But the rule holds true. Each high-profile crisis presents its own opportunity. The opportunity is all about reaffirmation of the social contract that defines the brand. When you reaffirm a brand, you increase its value. Johnson & Johnson was always all about trust and tender care. During the Tylenol scare, the company proved it, and thus elevated the image.

Trust is the only acceptable currency. To truly serve your client, remember that the company's trustworthiness is on the line in all high profile litigation. Litigate to win, but always respect the promise of the brand. Once it's lost, a favorable jury verdict or a practicable settlement can be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Richard S. Levick, Esq.,, is President of Levick Strategic Communications, which has directed the media for more than 150 law firms worldwide and has handled the media on the highest profile matters -- from Enron and Napster to the Florida election recount, the Catholic Church controversy and the Rosie O'Donnell trial. His forthcoming book, Stop the Presses: The Litigation PR Desk Reference, is being published in February 2004.

Editor's Note: Welcome regular contributor Karen Friedman back for an "in your face" rebuttal to some journalistic whining.

Media Trainers: Journalists Should Thank Them!
By Karen Friedman

In a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, well-known journalists complained that as a growing number of media trainers teach spokespeople to twist interviews, dodge questions and seize control of interviews, the public is suffering. To quote 20/20's John Stossell: "Give Me a Break!"

Imagine that! Intelligent spokespeople who don't want to be caught off-guard are coming to interviews armed with facts and messages, have practiced delivering those messages in advance, and are learning how to speak clearly and concisely so they can explain complicated information in simple terms. What a concept! As a veteran news reporter, I would like to thank them for investing in the public's education.

For more than twenty years, I interviewed people who had a lot to say, but didn't know how to say it. Even the most seasoned communicators are nervous and uncomfortable when thrust in the spotlight. They are afraid of not knowing answers, missing opportunities, sounding too technical and getting blindsided by unexpected questions. Most don't understand what reporters want or how a story is put together. Not only will a good coach help people master the difficult task of explaining complicated information in easy-to-understand terms, but an experienced trainer teaches even the most media-savvy athletes and celebrities to take charge of what they want to say instead of being held hostage by limited questions.

Contrary to some correspondent's perception that "interviews become excuses to practice public relations," media coaches do not spin. In fact, media coaches should really be called communications coaches because they help people communicate more effectively to a variety of groups including reporters, business audiences, analysts, investors, and the public. They focus on strengths and values that should come across in every word you speak. They help spokespeople give meaning to their thoughts and teach them to speak in concepts so they can address the concerns of their audiences. They teach people not to repeat a reporter's negative words, which will be reported as their own. They help people give tough subjects perspective through stories, analogies, and examples so complex information can be remembered.

Do they use phrases such as: "What's more important to discuss" or "What I'd really like to talk about" to bridge to their own agenda? You bet they do and why shouldn't they look for opportunities to get their own points across? After all, they're being interviewed because they have information to share. Like the interviewer, they want to look good too. Maybe it's time for journalists to stop the pity party and like their interviewees, learn how to better craft an interview so the public is treated to the big picture. They might even want to consider getting some communications coaching.

Notice I did not say media training. That's because good media training should teach you to communicate to audiences beyond the media. If you're serious about learning to connect with readers, viewers and listeners, then you should schedule media training just like you schedule a doctor's appointment. Better safe, than sorry!

Karen Friedman brings 20 years of on-air television experience to media and communications training and consulting. Her company, Karen Friedman Enterprises, Inc., prepares people to take advantage of media interviews, presentations and public appearances. Friedman is an international consultant and professional speaker who can be reached at: 610-292-9780 or through her website at

Even Media Training Can't Make A Spokesperson Perfect

Editor's Note: Speaking of media training, even the most experienced spokesperson sometimes throws all his or her media training out the window and babbles. As reported by Newsweek magazine, here's how Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attempted to "clarify" U.S. war policy.

"There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, these are things we don't know we don't know."

Participate In Survey And Learn From The Results

Core Competencies Required of Executive Level Business Crisis and Continuity Managers is a research project that is one part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored study of Terrorism and Corporate Crisis Management being conducted by the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. Research scientist Greg Shaw has invited Crisis Manager readers who believe they could make meaningful input to such a survey to access and complete it at: When you take the survey, you'll be given the option of requesting the results when they're available, and I'll look for story material in the results as well.


Business & Newsletter Anniversaries -- Bernstein Crisis Management turned 10 last month and the Crisis Manager Newsletter turned 4 on February 1.

And, related to that, you'll see a new look to the Bernstein Crisis Management website. It has been re-designed by Celeste Mendelsohn of CM Design, with site architecture and related duties performed by my long-time Webmaster, Oliver Del Signore. Oliver is uploading the first pages even as I write this, but some of the "old look" pages will still be there for a while. If you really like, or really dislike, the new look, let us know. And if you REALLY like it, know that the same team is available to create or remake YOUR website for a reasonable fee. A bit of biographic trivia for you -- Ms. Mendelsohn is married to your editor.

CD-ROM Recordings of the recent"How to Conduct a Vulnerability Audit and The Nastiest Media Tricks and How to Prevent or Respond to Them teleseminars can be purchased for $95 each from Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual -- still the ONLY media training manual available for sale in bookstores anywhere -- can be acquired at the same location, in hard copy or PDF format.


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.


Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.,, 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

Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. is located at 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016. Telephone: (626) 825-3838.


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