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+


I normally have a pithy and thought-provoking quote in this section of the newsletter, but watching the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as it continues to unfold, I am motivated instead to encourage all of my readers to help the victims in any way they can. While there were many faults in the crisis preparedness work done by private and public sector organizations along the Gulf Coast, the fact remains that what is left in the wake of Nature's fury are human beings in distress. Human beings for whom there is insufficient relief from available resources.

As a private individual, send money to relief organizations, or donate blood. As a private enterprise that provides goods or services that can be used on behalf of victims, send free assistance. All organizations can mobilize fund-raising (try "matching funds" with your employees) and blood donation drives. If you have accounts receivable from those heavily impacted by Katrina, consider deferring or forgiving the debt for some period of time. Here is a link to a page full of ways in which you can help, and where you can also find information on how to improve your own crisis preparedness.

Whatever you decide to do, do it quickly. Your actions can quite literally save lives.

Jonathan Bernstein


Editor's Note: More publications request permission to reprint my "10 Steps of Crisis Communications" article than anything else I have written. It was first released in 1990 and, while I've made minor changes over the years, I realized recently that the article really should better reflect more of what I've learned during the 15 years since its original publication. It was in need of a major editorial upgrade. So, while I liked the "catchy" sound of "10 Steps", I now bring you the new, improved, "11 Steps of Crisis Communications."

The 11 Steps Of Crisis Communications
By Jonathan Bernstein

Crisis: An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary).

Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich are gone. You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they've watched what happened with Bridgestone-Firestone, Bill Clinton, Arther Andersen, Enron, Worldcom, 9-11, The Asian Tsunami Disaster and - even as I write this - Hurricane Katrina.

If you don't prepare, you WILL take more damage. And when I look at existing "crisis management" plans when conducting a "crisis document audit," what I often find is a failure to address the many communications issues related to crisis/disaster response. Organizations do not understand that, without adequate communications:

  • Operational response will break down.
  • Stakeholders (internal and external) will not know what is happening and quickly be confused, angry, and negatively reactive.
  • The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.

The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they require advance work in order to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage is incurred. So if you're serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 11 steps of crisis communications, the first eight of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.

The 11 Steps of Crisis Communications

1. Identify Your Crisis Communications Team

A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your company's Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the team will be led by the company CEO, with the firm's top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty. Other team members should be the heads of major company divisions, to include finance, personnel and operations.

Let me say a word about legal counsel. Sometimes, during a crisis, a natural conflict arises between the recommendations of the company's legal counsel on the one hand, and those of the public relations counsel on the other. While it may be legally prudent not to say anything, this kind of reaction can land the company in public relations "hot water" that is potentially, as damaging, or even more damaging, than any financial or legal ramification. Fortunately, more and more legal advisors are becoming aware of this fact and are working in close cooperation with public relations counsel. The importance of this understanding cannot be underestimated. Arther Andersen lost its case and went out of business due to the judgment rendered by the court of public opinion, not the judgment of a court of law.

2. Identify Spokespersons

Within each team, there should be individuals who are the only ones authorized to speak for the company in times of crisis. The CEO should be one of those spokespersons, but not necessarily the primary spokesperson. The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant business people but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision about who should speak is made after a crisis breaks - but the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained in advance.

Not only are spokespersons needed for media communications, but for all types and forms of communications, internal and external, including on-camera, at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc. You really don't want to be making decisions about so many different types of spokespersons while "under fire."

3. Spokesperson Training

Two typical quotes from well-intentioned company executives summarize the reason why your spokespersons should receive professional training in how to speak to the media:

  • "I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn't use the most important news about my organization."
  • "I've done a lot of public speaking. I won't have any trouble at that public hearing."

Regarding the first example, there are a good number of Mike Wallace's "60 Minutes" victims who thought they knew how to talk to the press. In the second case, most executives who have attended a hostile public hearing have gone home wishing they had been wearing a pair of Depends.

All stakeholders - internal and external - are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media, and it's your responsibility to minimize the chance of that happening.

In one example of such confusion, a completely healthy, well-managed $2 billion company's stock price dropped almost 25 percent in one day because Dow Jones reported that a prominent securities firm had made a "sell" recommendation which it later denied ever making. The damage, of course, was already done.

Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the response of all stakeholders.

4. Establish Communications Protocols

Initial crisis-related news can be received at any level of a company. A janitor may be the first to know there is a problem, or someone in personnel, or notification could be in the form of a midnight phone call from an out-of-town executive. Who should be notified, and where do you reach them?

An emergency communications "tree" should be established and distributed to all company employees, telling them precisely what to do and who to call if there appears to be a potential for or an actual crisis. In addition to appropriate supervisors, at least one member of the Crisis Communications Team, plus an alternate member, should include their cellphone, office and home phone numbers on the emergency contact list.

Some companies prefer not to use the term "crisis," thinking that this may cause panic. Frankly, using "potentially embarrassing situations" or similar phrases doesn't fool anyone. Particularly if you prepare in advance, your employees will learn that "crisis" doesn't even necessarily mean "bad news," but simply "very important to our company, act quickly."

5. Identify and Know Your Stakeholders

Who are the stakeholders that matter to your organization? Most organizations, for example, care about their employees, customers, prospects, suppliers and the media. Private investors may be involved. Publicly held companies have to comply with Securities and Exchange Commission and stock exchange information requirements. You may answer to local, state or federal regulatory agencies.

6. Decide on Communications Methods

For each stakeholder group, you need to have, in advance, complete emailing, snail-mailing, fax and phone number lists to accommodate rapid communication in time of crisis. And you need to know what type of information each stakeholder group is seeking, as well as the best way to reach each of your contacts.

Another thing to consider is whether you have an automated system established to ensure rapid communication with those stakeholders. You should also think about backup communications options such as toll-free numbers for emergency call-ins or special websites that can be activated in times of crisis to keep various stakeholders informed and/or to conduct online incident management.

Consider these factors in advance and rapid communication during crises will be relatively easy.

7. Anticipate Crises

If you're being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for long brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises which can occur at your organization. There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise:

  • You may realize that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation.
  • You can begin to think about possible responses, about best case/worst case scenarios, etc. Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.

In some cases, of course, you know that a crisis will occur because you're planning to create it -- e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition. Then, you can proceed with steps 9-11 below, even before the crisis occurs.

There is a more formal method of gathering this information that I call a "vulnerability audit," about which information is available at my website,

8. Develop Holding Statements

While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, "holding statements" - messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks - can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 7 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel chain with properties hit by a natural disaster - before the company headquarters has any hard factual information - might be:

"We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff."

"Our hearts and minds are with those who are in harm's way, and we hope that they are well."

"We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website."

The organization's Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.

9. Assess the Crisis Situation

Reacting without adequate information is a classic "shoot first and ask questions afterwards" situation in which you could be the primary victim. But if you've done all of the above first, it's a "simple" matter of having the Crisis Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your communications "tree," ensuring that the right type of information is being provided so that you can proceed with determining the appropriate response.

Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you can't take in advance. But if you haven't prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly-hired consultants to run through steps 1 to 8. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.

10. Identify Key Messages

With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about *this* crisis? Keep it simple -- have no more than three main messages for all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.

11. Riding Out the Storm

No matter what the nature of a matter whether it's good news or matter how carefully you've prepared and responded...some of your stakeholders are not going to react the way you want them to. This can be immensely frustrating. What do you do?

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Take an objective look at the reaction(s) in question. Is it your fault, or their unique interpretation?
  • Decide if another communication to those stakeholders is likely to change their impression for the better.
  • Decide if another communication to those stakeholders could make the situation worse.
  • If, after considering these factors, you think it's still worth more communication, then take your best shot!

"It Can't Happen To Me"

When a healthy organization's CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing a crisis communications plan, either a heavy investment of in-house time or retention of an outside professional for a substantial fee, it is tempting for them to fantasize "it can't happen to me" or "if it happens to me, we can handle it relatively easily."

Hopefully, that type of ostrich-playing is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Yet I know that thousands of organizations hit by Hurricane Katrina will have, when all is said and done, suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place. This has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served over the past 23 years. Even the best crisis management professional is playing catch up - with more damage occurring all the time - when the organization has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.

The Last Word - For Now

I would like to believe that organizations worldwide are finally "getting it" about crisis preparedness, whether we're talking about crisis communications, disaster response or business continuity. Certainly client demand for advance preparation has increased dramatically in the past several years, at least for my consultancy. But I fear that there is, in fact, little change in what I have said in the past, that 95 percent of American organizations remain either completely unprepared or significantly under-prepared for crises. And my colleagues overseas report little better, and sometimes worse statistics.

Choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders will appreciate it!

Editor's Note: As a pundit and crisis manager, I continue to enjoy news coverage's supply of lessons for crisis managers, including these two gems. Read and learn!

You Still Want Fries With That?
By Jonathan Bernstein

Ah, California, bellwether state for celebrity mishaps, teen trends and government regulations.And my home state, ruled by the Governator, whose Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, just filed suit to force top makers of potato chips and french fries to warn consumers about an (allegedly) potential cancer-causing chemical found in the popular snacks.

To ensure the newsworthiness of the suit, Lockyer specifically named McDonald's Corp., Wendy's International Inc., PepsiCo's Frito-Lay Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.

The lawsuit charges the companies with violating a 1986 state law requiring companies to provide warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens or reproductive toxins - in this case, a substance called "acrylamide." In 2002, scientists found potatoes and other starchy foods cooked at high temperatures contained low levels of acrylamide. But (as always) other studies have discounted the potential toxicity of acrylamide to humans. The FDA, to date, has said that "acrylamide can cause cancer in laboratory animals at high doses, although it is not clear whether it causes cancer in humans at the much lower levels found in food." It is also apparently used for sewage treatment, which may explain its natural connection with fast food.

However, the companies named really weren't in a high threat position and any of them could have made statements about their commitments to consumer safety and other calming messages. Instead, Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Kay Puryear made this statement to CNN:

"Acrylamide is available whether those foods are prepared in a restaurant, at home or by the packaged goods industry," she said. "We stand behind, and absolutely think, our products are as safe as ever."

The first sentence is not in the least reassuring, and in the second, you will note that she does NOT say, "Our products are safe."

Lessons for Crisis Managers

  • If you don't say it, they can't print it.
  • When there are allegations that raise consumer fears, messages of reassurance should be the first thing said by defendant companies.
  • Remember that the Internet ensures that your mis-statements will be around to haunt you a LONNNNG time. And to preserve your wise comments as well!

Holy Foot In Mouth, Preacher Man!
By Jonathan Bernstein

By now EVERYONE, worldwide, knows of "I want to be a Navy Seal but I like being a rich preacher better" Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

This was, of course, a probably successful attempt to garner financial support from the militant right wing Christian community in this country, disguised as Robertson taking a leadership role on behalf of democracy as we know it. Never mind the damage he was doing to America's already tarnished image overseas.

But where his spin control lost its motor was when he apologized and then tried to claim he hadn't used the word "assassination" (despite taped evidence to the contrary).

"I didn't say the word 'assassination.' I said our special forces should 'take him out,'" clarified Robertson.


Lessons for Crisis Managers

  • If you have any sense of ethics whatsoever, NEVER work for people like Pat Robertson.
  • If you've screwed up, admit it, apologize and move on.
  • Don't spin. The rotor is likely to take your head off when you're not looking.


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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