© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
If a critic is intent on making himself look like an idiot, you're often better off letting him do that versus attempting to refute him.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: Many of my clients have been plagued by consumer reporters who, of course, NEVER write a story that reads "Company did everything right, complaining consumer was just whining." They have to print or broadcast a story that makes the defendant company look bad or, if you do it right and have a little bit of luck, you can convince them there's no story there at all. Frequent contributor Judy Hoffman returns to the pages of Crisis Manager with a "right way to do it" example for us to learn from.
Dealing With A Consumer Affairs Reporter
by Judy Hoffman
"This is Ann Marie Murphy of (fill in name of your local newspaper). I write the 'Ask Ann Marie' consumer advocate column and I have a few questions for you."
Ann Marie has been putting local organizations - businesses (both big and small), hospitals, banks, utilities, etc. - through the wringer for the past eight years. People who have a complaint about an organization give her their side of a story about some interaction that didn't go their way. She's the last person you want calling you.
Ann Marie investigates and then uses the power of the written word, which goes into thousands of area homes, to portray the company in a negative light. In any such David vs. Goliath story, odds are that the little guy will have the sympathy of the news media and the public against the organization you represent.
The impact on your business could be major in terms of a loss of customers and income/profits. Or it could be the more subtle damage done to your reputation -- only noticeable in the long-term. Your organization might not continue to grow at the rate you'd been expecting. When you or one of your employees tells someone where you work, a certain look comes over their face while they search around in their mind for the specifics of something bad they read about your organization.
It's all very distressing and potentially seriously damaging.
Can anything be done about it? You sure have to try!
One Client's Experience
Many years ago, three members of a local consumer products/service business attended a two-hour crisis seminar I did for the county's Chamber of Commerce. Last January, when the service manager of that company got a phone call from "Ask Ann Marie," he instantly realized this could be big trouble. He told the reporter he would have to research the two complaints that were being raised and get back to her. He then quickly notified the president. The president called me - while I was happily vacationing in Florida!
His initial thought was to just have the service manager get back to the reporter with a written statement. In it, he would briefly tell her these were two disgruntled customers trying to use pressure from the media to press their demands. However, the president recognized that this was quite similar to saying "No comment." He remembered I had warned the seminar participants about the dangers of this response. So he asked me if there was a better way to handle it.
We talked about the two instances that had spawned the complaints. In both cases, it seemed -- both to him and to me -- the company was on solid ground. The news that the company representatives had had to give to the customers was not welcome - it was going to be costly to do what needed to be done. The prices of this particular company have traditionally been on the high side of average, but this was a conscious decision they felt was warranted because of their ability to provide quick and high quality service.
I frequently emphasize that "Organizations have to first DO the right thing before they can SAY the right thing." If you don't have a good story to tell, no wordsmith or public relations guru is going to be able to make it sound good.
Once it was decided that the company had nothing to be ashamed of, we set about figuring out how to convince the reporter that this was not a company that deserved to be skewered in her column. First, we worked out a solid written statement, emphasizing the long history and good reputation the company has enjoyed for many years. It highlighted some actual customer satisfaction ratings. It even addressed - head-on - the issue we knew would come up about their high prices. (A wise strategy is often to proactively acknowledge what you know will be used against you and provide an explanation before-hand.)
We ended the written statement with a bold move, inviting the reporter to call with any questions. The president was a bit apprehensive about this. That's understandable. Nobody relishes this kind of conversation. But it is very important to not duck and hide - it makes you look guilty. By going over all of the information we had and by preparing the written statement, he felt competent to deal with verbal questions. We talked about how he would steer clear of any comments that could be construed as "bashing" the customers, even though they had been very unreasonable. He would stick to the high ground and talk about the positives of his company's standards of doing business and their history of providing excellent customer support.
The statement was faxed. The reporter did call with some follow-up questions. Since we'd thought about what these questions were likely to be and rehearsed the answers, it went well.
Still, we waited anxiously to see what the next day's newspaper would bring. Had we convinced the reporter that there really was no wrongdoing here? Was she persuaded there was nothing which warranted an alert to other area residents that this was not a responsible company?
As days and weeks -- and now months-- have gone by with no mention of this company in her column, we feel confident that our efforts were successful. No news is good news, in this case!
One thing I know for sure: Had we not responded as fully and cooperatively as we did, it is likely that this consumer advocate would have assumed the company was guilty of something and felt compelled to defend the little guy. Just what the resulting damage would have been is not definite - but it's something this particular businessman is glad he never had to deal with!
Judy Hoffman is the author of "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat" and editor of the free "Quick Tips for Keeping Cool" newsletter. You can find out more about both publications at www.judyhoffman.com.
Query From A Crisis Manager Reader
Editor's Note: As you may recall, I recently encouraged readers to submit, for the record or anonymously, questions or real-life situations to which they'd like my response. The following was submitted with a request for anonymity.
READER: The following happened to a company a friend of mine works for, and when they asked me my opinion of the following situation, I didn't know how to reply. As you're aware, sometimes the television news media will report a story without having all of the facts. The following happened less than three weeks ago. A television station reported on a "tip" from a viewer claiming that a particular popular product was defective. The television station built up the story on the 6:00 PM edition with teasers throughout prime time for viewers to watch the nightly news. To make a long story short, the television station was in the wrong and promised to send out a retraction but that they couldn't "break-in" and retract it as easily as they had reported it. When the retraction finally occurred -- the next day -- it was so brief that it was almost unnoticeable, and as you might imagine, the product's reputation had suffered damage. What are your thoughts about this?
JONATHAN: I don't have all the details here, of course, but I do wonder if at least some rumors of product defects preceded this event by some days or weeks, which could have given the company more time to prepare and perhaps to respond more aggressively, with documentation. At the same time, no organization can or should rely on the media to self-police - it seldom happens.
If any of the company's stakeholders - customers, employees, etc. - actually have heard and believe the TV station's report, then it's incumbent on the company, NOT the TV station, to ensure that copies/transcripts of the belated retraction get sent directly to any concerned parties. If the damage is widespread enough, such information can also be published on the company's website.
At the same time, it could be "lawyer time," where the company's lawyer contacts the TV station's legal counsel and explains that because there has been material damage to his/her client, there is a need for some stronger form of retraction to share with the company's stakeholders. Even if the TV station won't broadcast it, a letter from the station, distributed appropriately, could do a lot to mitigate damage.
Ultimately, if the company had a good reputation and few or no previous reports of defects, aggressive direct communication with its stakeholders should allow it to continue business without long-term tarnish to its reputation.
Fema Is Underused Resource
As we learned during last hurricane season, FEMA was gutted by budget cuts and ruled by way too many political employees. Still, the agency was responsible for pioneering effective disaster response, creating practices and methodology which have been emulated worldwide.
Some significantly under-appreciated resources available to you at FEMA are documents which can help you prepare for and avoid at least some damage from natural disasters. Here's a partial index from their "Business and Professionals" section:
Protect Your Business
- Protect your business from disasters
View the "How-To" resources to learn how to prepare for various natural disasters.
- Emergency Management Guide For Business & Industry
A step-by-step approach to emergency planning, response and recovery for companies of all sizes.
- Standard Checklist Criteria For Business Recovery
The intent of this "Checklist" is to provide a means of creating a "Business Recovery" manual for your business. Any size or type of business can use this checklist.
- What to do if your business or farm was damaged.
You can find this and more at: http://www.fema.gov/business/index.shtm
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
What Does That Slogan Mean?
By popular demand, I have re-opened an online store at which I sell clothing and mugs featuring the famous "Crisis Manager University" emblem and its infamous slogan, "Quoniam Stercus Accidit". That translates to "Because Stuff Happens." Except the real word isn't "stuff." There's only a 10% markup at the store to cover my costs -- it's a turnkey operation hosted by Cafe Press. I have found the items there to be a major hit with my clients and associates and great gift for any crisis manager. My purpose is to share my sense of humor with like (sick) minds as well as to prompt some folks to ask, "Who came up with this idea?" You can visit the store at www.cafepress.com/crisismanager.
Keeping The Wolves At Bay
Keeping the Wolves at Bay (available in print and PDF formats) remains, to my knowledge, the only commercially published media training manual in the world. It can be purchased at www.thecrisismanager.com, 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:
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 www.thecrisismanager.com 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.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
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.
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.
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. is located at 1013 Orange Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016. Telephone: (626) 825-3838.
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