© 2004 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Who wants to be the leader who has to explain to his stakeholders that his organization hadn't been adequately prepared for the crisis which just impacted all of them? I don't see a lot of hands raised, but perhaps that's because you're sitting on them?
Jonathan Bernstein, Curmudgeon-at-Large
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: Bob Aronson returns with a case study which teaches us important lessons about the need for integrating legal and PR concerns regarding a crisis situation. Having worked hand-in-hand with scores of attorneys, I know that the approach suggested in this example does work, and works well. Pass it on to your CEO and legal counsel!
Merging PR And Legal Strategy: A Case Study
by Bob Aronson
It was the early 1990's and a major crisis had erupted involving a Fortune 100 company. A reporter had wrongly extrapolated some numbers about the safety of a new product. Her front-page story indicated that thousands may have died as a result of the product. While confidentiality prevents me from disclosing the name of the client or the product, this story is true.
I was in the CEO's office with legal counsel. The three of us were discussing the crisis and the wisdom of going public. The entire meeting took less than twenty minutes.
Legal Counsel: "Say nothing, there will likely be hundreds of lawsuits and anything you say could come back to haunt us in future litigation."
Crisis Counsel: "If we don't talk, we will immediately be found guilty in the court of public opinion and you know what effect that can have on other products. We must speak to customers, employees and the public. We can craft a strategic plan, tactics and language that will show compassion and action while protecting the brand. If we do it right and do it quickly we could limit the life of the story, protect the brand and have a positive effect on potential jury pools. We must talk!"
CEO (After listening carefully and pausing for what seemed an eternity): "Mr. Legal Counsel, your job is to keep us out of court or to win when we get there. In the meantime, I have a business to run. If we say nothing now, we may win future litigation but I may not have a company to run. We've done nothing wrong and we're going take immediate action to prove it."
Result: We (crisis and legal counsel working together) developed and executed a comprehensive strategic crisis communications plan that included immediate and simultaneous actions by several people, including intense communication with regulatory agencies. The story died in 72 hours. Today the product is still on the market, safely being used by millions.
Moral Of Story: Legal counsel and communications professionals can work together. They MUST work together if crises are to be successfully managed. In any crisis in which I am involved, I demand that legal counsel be included in all discussions. Experience dictates that damaging delays can result when either legal or communications counsel enters the process late. When we work together from the beginning, there's a much better chance of ending the crisis quickly and successfully.
Rules To Remember:
- The first part of the crisis is easiest. No one knows anything yet, you are in control of the flow of information. Take charge!
- Crises breed crises. When a mistake is made, negligence will be found, customers will complain etc.
- Strategic thinking suggests that a crisis is a "speed bump," not a chasm that swallows the future.
- When it's over, conduct a thorough postmortem.
- Most crises are preventable. Manage issues and you can prevent crises.
Bob Aronson is principal of The Aronship Partnership, www.aronsonpartnership.com, and author of "The Simple Truth" and "Simply Speaking". His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: This is definitely one of those "we hope it
doesn't happen here" situations, but fortunately in this case,
thanks to advanced preparedness, damage was greatly minimized.
It was a tragedy for the victims, but not a disaster for the
Violent Attack On Company Property: A Case Study
by Rick Amme
The client said a security guard shot and killed a former employee attacking another worker -- could I help? I grabbed my laptop and drove toward corporate headquarters trying to anticipate the unexpected with this case unfolding in a distant big city with big media. Such unfortunate events often turn bad, so imagine our relief to learn everything was under control. Though the gunfire came before dawn at this scene 3000 miles away, a senior executive in town took the initiative to go to the site at first alarm to respond and plan. He took care of employees, foresaw possible fallout, and drafted media messages. He blanketed the incident with personal attention. That left practically nothing for us at corporate to do but say "good job, keep us advised," hang up and let out a collective sigh.
Could your on-site executives similarly quiet an emergency in far-flung offices? Have they anticipated crises, learned reassuring philosophies for responding, and put response mechanisms in place? Importantly, could they do it without your input in an emergency? Think about that as you read these specific steps that my client's on-scene executive took before and after the tragic event.
Protect Customers & Staff In Advance: Because the facility involved sits in a relatively high-crime area, he had already protected customers and employees with cameras monitoring and armed guards patrolling 24/7. Good thing. One of those very guards broke up the fight between the present and former workers. And since the instigator was attacking his victim with a weapon, the responding guard's own bullet may have saved the victim's life.
Take Care Of Employees After The Incident: When the executive arrived at the shooting location he strengthened security, listened to workers' concerns, reassured them they would be protected, and offered professional counseling. (The security guard needed TLC too. He personally knew those who had fought, and, therefore, sadly, the man he fatally wounded.)
Line Up Public Relations: You may know how to run a business, but representing yourself publicly -- especially when trouble is breaking around you -- takes expertise. The executive had an ongoing relationship with a well-regarded PR firm that he notified of the shooting. Although they were available, he chose to proceed on his own since speed was essential and the time was 5:30 am. [Editor's note: Not everyone is this prepared, find a crisis-savvy PR firm or consultant who can be reached at 5:30 a.m.!]
Get Media Training: You cannot predict when your reputation will be on the line, so the executive had obtained media training for himself and other key individuals. That empowered him to know what to say and do following this confrontation. Importantly, in a step that many companies would not have taken, he had also arranged media training for the manager of the outlet where the fight unfolded. That skill could have become significant, as you'll see below
Designate A Spokesperson: Since the incident occurred in a minority community where the outlet manager himself was a resident, the manager was designated as media spokesman. He would have been more persuasive than the senior executive, who was white. While he was never needed as a spokesman, his training would have enabled him to reassure the public through the press and answer tough questions.
Prepare Messages: The PR-savvy executive had the presence of mind to draft comments for reporters who might arrive. He put them in a news release ready to distribute. His remarks were thoughtful, and I hardly could have written better. (We did help him brainstorm answers to a few possible nasty questions.)
Standby To Respond: There was no public welfare justification for rounding up the reporters and inviting them over to talk about a fatal shooting on company property. Nevertheless, the executive and his spokesperson were prepared for reporters who might learn of the clash and want a quote. (Incidentally, the time to notify reporters en masse comes when you have a safety, moral, legal, or business obligation to report an incident. Otherwise, sit tight and respond to specific journalistic inquiries that arise. One tactical exception would come if you were convinced that most people would learn of your situation in bits and pieces. Then it might be preferable to alert all media simultaneously, take your lumps, announce corrections, and get it over with.)
In conclusion, in this situation the executive on the spot made our jobs easy. Again, are you and your colleagues similarly prepared?
Since 1994, Rick Amme has been president of Amme & Associates (www.amme.com), a crisis consulting firm. He was a journalist for more than 20 years.
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I am frequently asked questions about how to produce a successful newsletter, and I always try to be as helpful as I can, but a few words of advice are no substitute for some education that can make the process simple. I've identified a resource on email newsletter development that you may find extremely useful. Alexandria Brown, dubbed "The E-zine Queen," appears to know what she's talking about. Go to:
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ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
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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