© 2005 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Special Award For Astonishingly Insensitive Gobbledygook
"Going forward, in order to achieve full capacity utilization based on conservative volume planning scenarios, we expect to close additional assembly and component plants over the next few years, and to reduce our manufacturing employment levels in the U.S. by 25,000 or more people in the 2005 to 2008 period. We project that these capacity and employment actions will generate annual savings of approximately $2.5 billion."
--General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner, addressing the company's annual stockholder meeting on June 7, 2005, a speech that remains on the GM site today.
The comment closed out a section of the speech that was subtitled "cost savings." At no point, anywhere in the speech, was there the slightest expression of regret over the cold announcement that 25,000 people were going to be out of work over the next three years, and plants would be closed, with a commensurate, huge negative impact on local economies. No, to Rick Wagoner, this was a good news announcement about $2.5 billion in cost savings.
Bad news is often inevitable. Ignoring the feelings of those impacted by bad news is inexcusable.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Controlling The Context Of An Issue
By Jonathan Bernstein
I was very pleased when Phil Cogan, my friend, former employee and now deputy head of the office of communications at the Export-Import Bank, forwarded me an email sent to regular passengers of Virginia Railway Express (VRE), on which Phil commutes to work daily. I want to first set the scene for your viewing of the email, and then use my editorial pulpit to comment directly on that communication.
The missive addresses an issue near to the heart of any traveler: on-time service, or, in this case, the lack thereof on VRE's Fredericksburg line. Besides VRE, there were two other business entities involved:
- CSXT, self-described as the "largest rail network in the eastern United States."
- AMTRAK (which, for my readers outside of North America, is our much-beleaguered national train service, a monopoly).
VRE, by taking the lead on communicating to its riders about the delays, quickly and very firmly took control of the context of the issue, ensuring that its passengers understood who was mostly at fault -- CSXT. Is that true? I have no idea, I'm not a railroad analyst. What I do know is that many, if not most of their customers would have concluded that VRE is doing the right thing by them, and that CSXT has to fix the problem.
This exemplifies one of the most critical tasks facing crisis managers at the onset of any issue -- rapidly and effectively taking action to control the context in which stakeholders perceive the matter. I have been very challenged when called in to assist a client already bested at this form of arm-wrestling by crisis-savvy opponents. It is possible to take back control of an issue's context, but it is always harder to do once the tone and tenor has been set by someone who does not have your best interests in mind!
If I found a fault, besides minor syntax and grammar errors of the type my faithful readers point out to me regularly, it was, perhaps, a bit too much finger-pointing. The former investigative reporter in me wants to look under that rug a bit to see if more of the dust is VRE's than meets the eye. But I doubt most of the intended recipients would react that way.
Please enjoy the letter, reprinted verbatim below, and with my italicized comments bracketed after each paragraph.
June 21, 2005
To Our Valued Passengers:
When you're not happy, we're not happy. Right now, we are downright frustrated. [Establishes common ground and empathy with passengers]
The on-time percentage of our Fredericksburg line has been significantly below par causing you delays and difficulty in what is supposed to be the least stressful part of your day. Because of a variety of CSXT related issues on their tracks and with their signals, the performance of VRE trains has not been acceptable and, quite frankly, has been substandard. [Identifies problem and takes control of the context of the issue]
In addition to dealing with heat orders for the last 9 out of 12 days, CSXT has outlawed trains in our territory, had several switch and signal problems, and currently has more than 20 small slow orders (independent of the heat restrictions) on their tracks. This has caused not only a large number of delays, but also several significantly late trains. [Continues to control context]
Heat orders alone cause minimal slow downs. However, combine these with any other problem (switch, freight, etc) and delays mount exponentially. And, in fairness, Amtrak has contributed some delays with their problems at Union Station and VRE has contributed with some mechanical delays. [Adds one other target for consumers to look at, but then also does a very mild mea culpa]
No one in the VRE organization questions the need to do what ever is necessary to keep you and the rest of the VRE passengers safe during your commute. [This almost sounds like "Caesar was an honorable man"]. We support CSXT 's efforts to improve their track. Several improvement and maintenance projects are currently underway that are designed to improve the railroad infrastructure and on time performance. These projects include:
-> New crossovers at Arkendale (near Aquia Harbor in Stafford) scheduled to be in service early in the fall.
-> The new Quantico Bridge, while a long-term project, will ultimately improve the ability to move along the rail.
-> Tie replacement program, which is scheduled to begin in August.
This replacement of more than 81,000 ties will help keep the rails secure and decrease the amount of day-to-day maintenance that is currently required. [The way this information is presented could almost trick the mind into thinking VRE is doing this work, yet they make no such claim...some would consider this clever, others devious.]
However, as we support these programs, both in spirit and with state and federal dollars, we strongly believe that we need a renewed commitment from CSXT to operate VRE trains on time. [Again squarely pointing the finger, albeit in a non-abusive way.]
Yesterday, I communicated with John Gibson, CSXT's Vice President of Passenger Operations and Planning. In that letter, we have detailed the problems and voiced our disapproval of the treatment VRE commuters have received. We also asked for a swift remedy to the chronic delays. In addition, Michael Ward, President and Chief Executive Officer of CSXT, was briefed on yesterday's incident. [Translation: We are responsible for making sure they do their job, we are forcing a solution on your behalf.]
While we are committed to being a good partner to CSXT, it has become necessary for VRE to act decisively on behalf of our customers and on behalf of the entire community that depends on our service. We look forward to their response, and more importantly, to a more dependable service to the VRE riders. [Sound of applause from crisis managers everywhere other than at CSXT.]
Chief Executive Officer
National Preparedness Month
By Tom May, CEM
DHS has announced that September is National Preparedness Month
The Department of Homeland Security advises a survival kit good for "at least three days". See: http://www.ready.gov/about.html
A few years ago, an earthquake in California resulted in pockets of people who were isolated for five days. And, that was a "local" rather than a national emergency. Lots of aid from unaffected parts of the nation poured in.
In a "national" emergency, the low impact parts of the nation might not be able to provide aid for an extended time. Recognizing that condition during the Civil Defense era, which persisted into the 1980s, the official government advice was to have at least two weeks of supplies in individual and household survival kits.
Today, we are not immune from being nuked or hit by bioterror or agriterror. Someday DHS will face reality and change its advice back to two weeks.
Rather than teaching group-think of three days and then later telling people it should be two weeks, wouldn't it better for DHS to play square with the American people?
My underlying concern is that the public will be confused when DHS ultimately abandons advice for a three day disaster survival kit and reverts to the older and more realistic advice for a two week kit.
In fairness to DHS, they faced a tough decision. A vast number of households are living day to day, hand to mouth, and simply have neither finances nor space for more than three days. It's easy to criticize DHS.
Still, I believe it right for DHS to "play square" with the American people on today's realities of consequences, vulnerabilities, and threats. And to not pussyfoot for fear of political fallout. Being an old time political fund raiser who would, for expediency, focus on the short term, I read a political desire to not alarm the public with those realities.
I believe Stephen King had it right in his book, America the Vulnerable. On page 169 he says, "... I have borne direct witness to the painfully slow, and at times ill-conceived, ways that Washington has been approaching our homeland security challenge" and, "Leadership begins with acquiring an unvarnished view of the realities that define current circumstances." He goes on to note a "sense of denial that pervades... government", "reversing decades of neglect", and "...our historic willingness to embrace and make sacrifices for our ideals."
So, I ask, how can there be emergent leadership from the public on this most critical of all matters -- that of national and household survival -- if the government suppresses information on today's realities, for whatever reason?
Tom May, CEM, is a consultant in continuity, crisis and emergency management with 21 years of serving, degrees from Stanford University and UC Berkeley, and a list of client credits far longer than I can list herein. Contact info: P. O. Box 715, Carmel, CA 93921
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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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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