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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2005 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 4,000+
Estimated Readership: 14,000+


The longer you talk to a reporter, the greater the chance you'll say something you'll regret.

Jonathan Bernstein


Editor's Note: I have helped my clients manage communications for a number of product recalls, both food and consumer products, including recalls that in some way posed or were perceived to pose a threat to safety and health. I say "perceived" because it is not uncommon for media-inflamed public hysteria to exaggerate the actual level of risk. Still, perception is reality in the world of crisis management, and I have identified trends in both well-done and poorly-done recalls that prompted me to offer these ten tips.

Ten Tips For Recall Crisis Management
By Jonathan Bernstein

1. Remember That Rapid Response To A Known Product Problem Minimizes Damage, so the time to examine the systems you have in place for recall is NOW, not when you already have a product needing recall.

2. Have A Product Recall Plan Ready To Use Anytime, one that covers the operational, legal and public relations (internal and external) components of making a recall. Hint: "We'll wing it when it happens" is not a product recall plan.

3. Have The Core Members Of A Product Recall Team Identified And Trained In Advance. It may be necessary to have one team at a corporate level to direct recall activities overall, and individual teams more focused on the operational aspects of product recall at the sales/marketing and/or manufacturing levels. And you'd be amazed at how some people you think will be cool in a crisis actually aren't, and vice versa - behavior that often is identified through training that includes simulating a recall.

4. Have Back-ups For Critical People And Recall Systems. Assume that some recall-related lead personnel will not be available when you need them. Assume that the computer system where you maintain your stakeholder contact lists has crashed. Assume other similar worst-case scenarios and make your back-up plans accordingly.

5. Have Contact Lists For All Stakeholders Set Up On Automated notification Systems. This is particularly important for end-users and distributors of your products. You can't rely on the media alone to reach them.

6. Consider The Use Of Virtual Incident Management. There are a number of Internet-centered systems that allow recall team members to exchange real-time information, access current communications documents, and keep team leaders updated even if the team is geographically scattered.

7. Make Recall-related Decisions That Are Based On Protecting Your Brand/reputation And Not Just On Your Legal Risks. The infamous Bridgestone-Firestone recall started far too late because the company's leadership was considering risks other than the most important one -- the risk of aggravating the court of public opinion.

8. Communicate Internally And Externally. Remember that every employee and, often, dedicated contractors are public relations representatives and crisis managers for your organization, whether you want them to be or not. You must empower them with reassuring messages about the recall suitable for use at their respective levels of the company, and you don't want them to learn of the recall from external sources before they hear about it from you.

9. Don't Wait For The CPSC, FDA, Or Other Regulatory Agencies To Protect Your Reputation. While each regulatory agency that can get involved in product recalls has its own process to follow, that process can often delay how much time passes before product consumers and distributors are notified -- a delay which, in worst-case scenarios, can cause injuries or deaths. In that event, the court of public opinion may react very negatively to both your organization and the regulator -- but you're the one whose revenue and reputation will be most impacted.

10. Focus Special Communications On Highly Disgruntled Customers And Distributors. In this Age of the Internet, and in a litigious society, a few angry people can make waves completely disproportionate to their numbers or even to the injury suffered (if any). The recall process should include an "Escalated Cases" team to focus on such complaints when they're received.

Each of these tips could be the focus of an entire article. If you have questions about them and/or about how to prepare for the communications component of recalls, please feel free to contact Jonathan Bernstein,, (626) 825-3838.

Editor's Notes: The League of American Communications Professionals, despite being the newest and probably the smallest communications organization available to us at this time, has done a superb job of providing useful information and tools to its members. LACP principal and newsletter editor Tyson Heyn, APR, a long-time email-pal of mine, has had some marvelously creative ideas for filling several niches ill-served by other PR-related organizations. I strongly encourage all "Crisis Manager" readers to visit and consider membership in the organization. And thank you to Tyson and the staff of LACP for permission to reprint this article!

Four Pillars For Building A Solid Crisis Communications Plan

Ignoring crisis communications planning is like driving without car insurance; for as long as you can get away with it, nobody's the wiser. But the moment disaster strikes, finding yourself woefully unprepared can really leave you in a very undesirable situation.

Planning crisis communications doesn't have to be an overtaxing process. In many situations, laying the core foundation for an organization's crisis communications plan can be accomplished within a month in the midst of other activities. Reviewing the plan and refreshing the details can be accomplished within a day or two each quarter. Most importantly, having a plan ready to go buys you the peace of mind that when disaster strikes, you'll be prepared and set to act rather than having to come red-faced before the CEO.

1. Scope Where Crises Could Occur.

One inherent attribute of a good communications professional is the person's ability to keep a pulse on a wide range of activities within an organization. This skill comes in especially handy when planning crisis PR.

Take an early inventory of all the things that could go wrong and directly -- or indirectly -- affect the organization in a materially negative and newsworthy manner.

First, look for potential issues that would affect your organization directly. The easiest way to do this is to literally grab your company's "org chart" and scope out all of the firm's functions headed by vice presidents. Which ones could have crises? What could they be? If you're not sure, ask the respective VP, explaining what you're doing and your desire to understand any potential liabilities within his organization. The chances are that the VP will be relatively cooperative --savvy executives will understand that this helps them perform CYA for themselves, too.

Here are some examples of areas where crises could occur within an organization:


  • Death of leadership
  • Executive scandal
  • Firing of top brass
  • Unanticipated change of leadership


  • Layoffs
  • Closure of facility
  • Sudden spin-off of subsidiary
  • Action by attorney(s) general
  • Product recall
  • Under-representation of women/minorities in leadership positions
  • Loss of key customer

Environmental, Health, Safety

  • Toxic spill
  • Employee death at plant
  • Illegal dumping
  • Terrorist attack
  • Outbreak of disease
  • Workplace shooting
  • Natural disaster


  • Accounting irregularities
  • SEC inquiry
  • Involuntary de-listing
  • Investor-led action
  • Negative analyst comments
  • Re-statement of earnings

Follow this process by looking at indirect factors that could affect you. This can include negative events that could occur in the communities in which you base your organization's facilities; a negative attack on your industry by a prominent individual or organization; and negative news affecting companies loosely and/or indirectly affiliated with you, such as customers, partners, suppliers, competitors, and donor recipients.

This is too broad a category to get into a lot of detail about, so simply look for the most obvious targets and actions, prepare for them, and build a general process and position guideline for the more generic and less-threatening situations:

Affiliated Companies

  • Merger
  • Acquisition
  • Bankruptcy
  • Scandal
  • Natural/man-made disaster
  • Major competitive action

2. Build Your Communications Infrastructure.

Now is also the right time to build up your communications processes and infrastructure. Assign ownership for the various potential crises within your organization to appropriate communications staff. Ensure that a process flow is developed for when a crisis occurs including:

Notification of you by organizational personnel immediately after a crisis develops or begins.

Your notification of key personnel with whom you'll have to interface during the crisis, potentially including general counsel, security, human resources, and executive management. Be sure to have home phone numbers, home FAXes, vacation contact information, and executive assistant contact info.

Canned media lists for the top-tier print, broadcast, wire, and trade press who are likely to cover the crisis.

"Dark" press releases, websites, VNRs and b-roll ready to go and all pre-approved. Be sure that these materials are more or less complete -- ready for dissemination save a few blank spaces left for details. Also be sure that executives have agreed to make themselves immediately available for approval of last-minute changes necessitated by the specifics of the crisis. Further, if they're not available, have them recognize that you'll move along without their blessing.

3. Have A Plan To Manage The Media.

Perverse as it is, media love crises. They make for great TV and they sell newspapers. Your job is to channel all of this coverage into messages that will best help you through this situation and maintain your brand's image.

First, be sure to be running from a set of 2-3 key messages that are pre-approved, as aforementioned. The best messages to have are:

"Right now, our central concern is for the welfare of our (employees/customers/shareholders [and their families]). We're doing all that we can for everyone affected, given this situation, and everything else is really peripheral at this time."

"What we know about the situation right now is this: XXXXX." (Do not speculate; do not say anything that is not 100% verified. Source the facts you state, e.g. "according to police." If you don't know, you don't know, and say so, "I don't know." It's perfectly all right not to know.)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I believe that the author was assuming a disaster situation when recommending these messages. In my opinion, they would not be the best messages for all types of crises.]

"As we ascertain new information and are able to verify its accuracy, we will be certain to relay this news to you as quickly as possible."

Keeping the media updated is important. Depending on the situation, a crisis may warrant 1-4 news briefings a day with developments. It is absolutely the best strategy to maintain an ongoing, on-the-record dialogue with the media in order to deflect any suspicions that you're holding out on them.

Also, be sure to let them know what your boundaries are during this crisis. As appropriate, remind them that they cannot simply drive onto your property, film employees leaving your facility, or try to gain access through the front desk's security guard. Encourage them to use you as their single point of contact for video and facility access, and that you'll work with them as the circumstances dictate.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask them how they're covering the story. Surprisingly, most media will share this during the time of a crisis. If they ask why, stick with the point that this is an emerging story and you want to know if they're missing anything important or might report something that's outdated or inaccurate.

4. Have A Plan To Manage The Rumor Mill.

During a crisis situation, your credibility with employees will be significantly less than that of external media. You'll be fighting an uphill battle, so be prepared to saturate your employees and other stakeholders with news and information. It's better for them to be deluged with information from you than having them dig around for dirt themselves.

Be sure to be forthright and honest. Like with the media, be sure to help them understand what you don't know.

Further, remember that mass communications to employees effectively have to be regarded as being the same as communications to the media. Don't plan on telling employees secrets that you won't want the media to cover, else you'll probably be in for a nasty surprise.

Finally, use the rumor mill to your advantage in establishing your messages. If "Executive Secretary A" is known for whispering about everything under the sun, spend some time with her at the water cooler and let her in on what the falsehoods are in what's being shared as well as what the good news is.


Crises are never fun or fully preventable. But what is preventable is having a crisis develop in your communications at the same time a crisis develops for your company. Nobody realistically expects your organization to be perfect during extraordinary circumstances, so there's grace for you when disaster strikes. What is intolerable is a shoddy, ill-conceived, and contradictory communications plan when much is on the line.

So do your homework, avoid the stonewall, and trot out the right messages over and over again. It'll help you weather the storm.

Reprinted by permission of the League of American Communications Professionals (LACP),


CD-ROM: Crisis Management & The Law
How PR Pros & Lawyers Can Work Together Effectively
Featuring Jonathan Bernstein, Richard Levick and Ed Novak

On February 23, 2005, Jonathan Bernstein played talk show host and expert commentator in a one-hour teleseminar featuring internationally renowned litigation PR expert Richard Levick and one of the country's top white collar crime attorneys, Ed Novak. This CD-ROM is a "must have" to play for the executive staff of any organization, for practice group meetings at law firms, or for the entire staff of any PR agency.

Go to to read more details about and/or to order this CD-ROM, and to learn of other educational and training materials produced by Jonathan Bernstein.

Keeping The Wolves At Bay

Keeping the Wolves at Bay remains, to my knowledge, the only commercially published media training manual in the world. It can be purchased in PDF or hard-copy form at, and its pages can be modified to make it your "name brand" media training manual if you are an agency or organization that frequently conducts training. If the latter subject is of interest to you, write to:


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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