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+


It seems to me the American public only has a small threshold for disaster and mental files must be purged when the memory becomes full...therefore yesterday's disasters are deleted.

Craig Marks, President
Blue Horizons Consulting


Editor's Note: Pam Baggett-Wallis, with whom I've had the pleasure of working in the past, sent me this insightful article not long after Hurricane Katrina came ashore. Some of the events have evolved since then, but I believe that her universal truths remain unchanged.

Universal Truths To Be Learned From Katrina
By Pamela Baggett-Wallis

I, like most of you, am overwhelmed by what we have watched on television for the last week. I worked for FEMA for seven years, and I've seen dozens of horrible disasters, including those where I wasn't sure whether my own family members were OK.

The one universal truth: If it's your family, it's the worst possible disaster.

Why didn't everyone evacuate? The second universal truth: we all avoid reality when it is too unpleasant to accept.

Who is to blame? We can't begin to know that now.

The third universal truth: it is human nature to blame someone, anyone. Not ourselves. Not our god. So we have to find another target - usually those working the hardest to help because they are the handiest. They are the ones we are counting on to rescue us.

Blame is a nasty game. Right now, it's a major waste of time. And I'm so exasperated with the news media I love who are trying to lay blame, even putting words in naive people's mouths. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had the cojones and experience to tell CNN to quit interrupting and trying to get him to blame someone. He was thankful for the cavalry that had ridden to his state, and wasn't going to waste time blaming what wasn't there yet. But the poor people stuck in the Superdome were all too glad to lash out. Can we blame these people? NO. Can we question the news media? YES. What could the media have been doing to be part of the solution, rather than the problem?

I spent a day in Austin welcoming evacuees to our city and our shelter. I looked into the eyes of people who were, to a person, traumatized. My job was to take their pets from them for safekeeping. I had to convince them their pet would be well taken care of, that when they had a place to stay, we would bring the pet to them, wherever they are.

I had to say this many times over to some people. Why? Because under conditions of extreme stress and duress, one can't necessarily hear what is being said. A few hours later, those people will ask where their pet is. They won't remember. We gave them business cards with the phone number for the Humane Society. [None of these animals will be euthanized. They will be cared for at the shelter or fostered till the family is ready.]

I used to tell new FEMA field staff not to get frustrated at saying the same thing over and over and over again during a disaster recovery. It's OK because people can only hear what they are ready to hear. Eventually, they WILL hear what you are saying.

This is where we segue into the media and PR blog.

Before a crisis starts, you must have established a deep well of goodwill. That means you have been giving out good, helpful information over a period of time, and you have followed up with good, helpful actions. Your words must match your actions. This is branding at its core.

When tough times come, people have to be inclined to trust what you are saying. But you have to say it first!

This is part of the problem in Louisiana right now. The first story was how many people did not get out of New Orleans and how badly they were suffering and that it was the federal government's fault. Nothing that is to come is likely to fully change that impression.

FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security may be able to mitigate the message that they were not prepared and were not up to the task, but they will be playing defense the entire season. Politics and good manners play into this. Can FEMA blame the victims? Blame the Louisiana government? Blame the Louisiana and New Orleans emergency management agencies? Blame Congress for under-funding? It doesn't play well.

So the honorable thing to do now is plow ahead with the work to be done and deal with reputation later. If the time comes to admit fault, do it with honor and grace and statesmanship.

Universal crisis communications truths to be learned from Katrina:

  • Establish an adequate reservoir of trust BEFORE you need to dip into it.
  • Be the first with your message.
  • Make your actions before and after a crisis match your message.
  • Take it on the chin when it's for the greater good, and get ready for the next one.

Can you see how this would apply to your association? Your business? Your political candidate?

Pamela Baggett-Wallis, principal of Persuasion Communication,, works with associations, attorneys, government agencies and businesses who want to be certain they are using the most persuasive messaging tools to reach their target audiences.

Editor's Note: Not surprisingly, the second article in this issue likewise focuses on Katrina, and was also written soon after the disaster struck, this time by long-time contributor Bob Aronson. Fortunately, fatalities don't seem to be as high as appeared likely when he wrote this piece, but I'm sure you'll get his points. If you're not the CEO of your organization, give it to your CEO. And if you have a board of directors, give it to them too!

Being Prepared For Category 3 While Category 5 Destroys You
By Bob Aronson

It is Thursday, September 1, 2005, several days after Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped out New Orleans, Biloxi and many other communities -- 90,000 square miles of Hiroshima-like conditions.

Throughout the years as a crisis consultant I have preached, "Having a crisis is not a question of 'if' -- it is a question of 'when!'" Furthermore, I have always said, "Prepare for the very worst scenario you can imagine, the very worst." Think the unthinkable, dream the nightmares, imagine the horror.

Many will say this is a horrible time to be critical of efforts to manage the national tragedy taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. I say it is the best time to be critical, and brutally so, because the greatest American tragedy ever is fresh in our minds and we are getting new reminders every minute, no, every second of the day. Lives now and in the future depend on us being honest with ourselves.

I am surfing between CNN, MSNBC and Fox as witness to the horrific stories of human misery. I am watching people dying on live TV, children who are dehydrating, starving and dying. I am watching hundreds of people reduced to stealing in order to provide food and drink for their families.

And -- there is the absurdity of a complete lack of authority at the New Orleans convention center where thousands wait for a supporting word from anyone, anyone in authority. One MSNBC photojournalist said, "The only person of authority, the only one with a recognizable name who came to talk to them, was entertainer Harry Connick Jr." No police presence, no National Guard presence, no city official presence to offer words of reassurance, not even an airdrop of leaflets -- only Harry Connick Jr. who promised to do whatever he could. God bless Connick and his effort to be there and offer assurances but if he could get there why can't people in authority do it?

As I write this, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is on TV holding a news conference. He just said, "Some thirty thousand national Guard troops should be in the region in a few days." A few days? If a proper crisis plan existed (or, if it existed, if it had been executed) those troops would have been on their way immediately. In the meantime, where will the protection come from, how will the food, the water and adequate medical care get to those in need? How many more will die?

To hear officials say they understand how people feel is laughable. They do not understand because they are not there without food, water, sanitation, air conditioning and people dying all around them. With the exception of the mayors and some others from affected cities, many officials are, for the most part, in comfortable surroundings holding news conferences -- some so insensitive as to have fresh ice water visible on their lecterns.

We do not know the numbers yet and maybe we never will, but the deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina will surely number into the thousands. We must ask ourselves, though, "How many died waiting for help, how many died because crisis planning was inadequate?

My slogan, "If communication is not your top priority, all other priorities are at risk" has never been more true. Communication in New Orleans is almost nonexistent. Police can't communicate with each other, rescuers are having trouble communicating and, most certainly, the thousands of victims have no way of communicating with anyone, including their rescuers. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, emergency services in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana were not prepared for a loss of communications. People are dying and more will die because of this inexcusable oversight in planning. Never before has the adage, "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail" been more true.

The bottom line in all of this is that neither the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana nor the United States government were ready for this. Despite all of our efforts and all the trillions spent on homeland security, health and human services, the military, the EPA and so many other agencies, despite all of that, we were not ready. Government has failed the people of this country when we needed it most. Think about it. If we cannot handle one major hurricane, what hope is there if terrorists or natural disasters hit simultaneously in Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Los Angles, Omaha and New York. If Katrina is any indication, we now know that unless drastic crisis planning measures are taken at all levels of government and business, millions will die and our nation may be permanently crippled. There should be two parts of a crisis plan: 1) what it will cost to do it right and 2) what it will cost if you don't do it right? Crisis planning is an investment, not an expense! There simply is no dollar amount that can be placed on human life.

New Orleans was prepared for a Category three Hurricane. According to news reports, the levees were built to handle a category three hurricane because at the time they were built no one could conceive of anything worse, even though experts said category four or five hurricanes were possible and could strike gulf cities. One city official told a reporter, "We were prepared for as much as we could afford." Could New Orleans afford to lose thousands of lives and become what could be a toxic waste dump? I ask you, what is it going to cost now?

For the most part, I have discussed government planning but what about your organization? Are you prepared for a disaster of catastrophic proportions, do you have alternatives for communication, resumption of operations, supplies and transportation? If you are not, here is a motivator. Are you prepared to pay the consequences for your lack of planning?

As you read my critique of this horrible disaster, look inward. Are you really prepared for a crisis? Remember you are either prepared or you are not. "Kind of prepared," just isn't good enough.

Bob Aronson is principal of The Aronship Partnership,, and author of The Simple Truth and Simply Speaking. His email address:


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:


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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

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