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

Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 4,000+
Estimated Readership: 14,000+


I had a nightmare last night that our reputation was going down the drain while we held committee meetings to try and figure out how to respond.

Anonymous CEO


Mel Gibson's Inept Crisis Management
by Jonathan Bernstein

Ah, Mel. You drunken case study in inept crisis management, you. First you make a huge personal mistake. Then you start to do the right thing, categorically, but by not going far enough you further undermine what shreds of credibility you still retained.

When the transcript of Mel Gibson's alcohol-fueled tirade emerged from his Los Angeles County traffic stop, he and his advisors clearly realized that he was in an extremely tenuous situation requiring an immediate mea culpa. But what to apologize for? Being drunk and driving? For making negative comment about Jews, women and the police? For being belligerent towards the cops? For letting down his fans?

The answer should have been "all of the above." There are few adults who haven't experienced drunkenness at least once. Most adults who have been drunk know that while they may have said very regrettable things under the influence, what they said was usually based on some actual feeling. Booze doesn't create feelings or beliefs, but it directly affects the judgment center of the brain, causing thoughts to become verbalized.

The statement he made read as follows:

"After drinking alcohol on Thursday night, I did a number of things that were very wrong and for which I am ashamed. I drove a car when I should not have, and was stopped by the L.A. County sheriffs. The arresting officer was just doing his job and I feel fortunate that I was apprehended before I caused injury to any other person.

"I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said and I apologize to anyone who I have offended.

"Also, I take this opportunity to apologize to the deputies involved for my belligerent behavior. They have always been there for me in my community and indeed probably saved me from myself. I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry.

"I have battled the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse. I apologize for any behavior unbecoming of me in my inebriated state and have already taken necessary steps to ensure my return to health."

What's missing here is any specific apology for making derogatory statements, which was the primary offense for which he's being criticized. He offered a generic apology and claimed he said things he doesn't believe to be true, but for some inexplicable reason declined to say what those are.

On the day the story broke, I was asked, by ABC Radio News, what Mel Gibson should do to rehab damage to his image. My advice was to do the following, in this order:

  • Get into a rehab program and actually follow their direction (he actually entered such a program subsequent to the ABC report, not that I claim any credit).
  • Get involved, actively, in AA, because it's the only program with a long-term positive track record for those who rigorously "work" the 12 Steps, including thousands of "celebs" - and despite "Celebrity Rehab Facility" claims to the contrary. While not everyone, worldwide, acknowledges (as does the American Medical Association) that alcoholism is a disease, there does seem to be worldwide respect for AA.
  • After appropriate counseling, "come out" about why he has at least some level of anti-Semitic and sexist feelings. I think the world would readily accept a Mel Gibson who humbly said something like, "You know, as much as I want to be unbiased, I was raised in an environment which included a lot of prejudice and I guess it just became part of me too. I'm trying to do what I can to let go of that."
  • Start some outreach to Jewish and women's groups.

I also told ABC that if Gibson tries to blow smoke, if he's just trying to "spin," people will smell that and he might as well not try.

I believe that individuals and organizations can change, that they can turn away from negative behaviors and learn new ways of seeing the world. That requires courage, and action. Because it's our actions that give others the true measure of our intent, not our words. Mel Gibson's words, alone, didn't do the job, but perhaps he will choose to act differently in the days and weeks ahead.

Editor's Note: A crisis management whodunit, how cool! I'm delighted to bring you this two-parter, to be continued in the next issue of Crisis Manager, but in the interim you are hereby challenged to answer the questions posed by the author at the end of part 1. Send your replies to and Crisis Manager University logo prizes - t-shirts, hats, mugs -- will be awarded for the most accurate AND for the funniest responses. Please put SERIOUS RESPONSE or FUNNY RESPONSE in your subject line to make it easy for your editor to sort them out. Include your name and, if you wish, title and organization. Know that I will use that information when reporting results, so if you wish anonymity, don't enter!

A Case of Crisis Management - Part 1 of 2
by Allen Johnson

The story you are about to read is true. It is about intrigue, betrayal and cunning and it begins innocently enough one Friday afternoon in January. We were undertaking a fairly mundane and uninspiring Risk Management project on behalf of a Value-Added Reseller of telecommunication switch technologies in Central London. As the working week petered out we noticed there was some unusual activity of several senior managers acting with urgent gestures. Huddles behind closed doors gave no further clues until Monday. We breezed in to find the CEO, Tony Church, with whom we have a very good relationship, incandescent with rage.

The story began to take shape as the more we learned. Last Friday afternoon, eight out of the ten salesmen in the regional northern office all resigned at the same time, including the regional sales manager leaving the HR manager dizzy with processing the paperwork and registering all eight as being on 'gardening leave'; which is standard practice for an exiting sales person. This accounted, in part, for the urgent and odd behaviour of London-based senior managers on Friday. However, it did not explain why the CEO, was so upset.

Essentially there were two main reasons. The first was it appeared that these salesmen stole company confidential information and the second was that Church felt genuinely betrayed. These salesmen returned to their office on the day after, i.e. the Saturday morning, and left four hours later with significantly more than that with which they arrived. Church added, "The (expletive) duty security guards knew them by sight and since nobody had decided to tell them, those (expletive) went in and filched our (expletive) secrets". They had taken company-specific intelligence and it became apparent that they had defected to the principal competition. This was serious because the company was on the brink of launching a sales and marketing initiative, into which they had invested over a half million pounds. The initiative was predicted to capture a greater market share and this investment strategy was now unprotected and likely in enemy hands. Red-faced Church blurted, "They came to my house, sat at my table, ate my food and drank my wine. I counted them as friends and I find they're Judas to a man". The story took wings and arrived at their offices in Cheltenham and Glasgow, and the rumour tree was laden with fruit. The story was consuming too much time and it was metamorphosing at speed. This was going from bad to worse in record time.

Without reference to any other manager, General Manager, Simon D'Arcy organised a video conference call to all staff in the Manchester office to convey the support from senior management upon which employees could depend. Marketing Director, Martin Fellowes decided it was important to contact northern customers to allay any fears that they may have, as and when the story hit the streets. Sales Director, Ray Hallet, decided this was a sales matter and began the drive north, in his own words, "to sort things out". And Tony Church was smarting on many counts and we decided to approach him. "Tony, we are Risk Managers and this is a massive risk. You're all trying to do the best but it's uncoordinated and you're all shooting in different directions. Stop now and organize your thinking into an objective plan and execute it", I said. He listened.

On Wednesday we sat down with him and marketeer, Martin Fellowes, and devised two strategies, the first being a communications strategy, in order to manage the greater immediate risk of inflicting further damage through misinformation and disinformation. The second I will call a revenge strategy; because Church was of a mind to personally confront these salesmen and, in his own words, "Beat the (expletive) crap out of 'em!" Our challenge was to convert the emotionally charged intent into cogent commitment and thereby deal with this matter intellectually. Messages were generated for all staff in each office, for customers, for their competitors and for the press; and a timetable for release was agreed and implemented. With military precision at 9 o'clock the next morning, a director stood in each office and gave the full story and the company line to all staff. At the same time, the PR agency was briefed and press statements finalized. A programme for customer calls was implemented. And the effect of this strategy being implemented quickly and successfully was to re-rail the derailed communications train.

To our client we also recommended Peter McRae, a lawyer whose specialization is Employment Law. The purpose was to pursue the 'traitors' through proper legal process and, in the fullness of time, our client engaged him.

Then, by pure chance, we stumbled upon something we had never even considered. Later that day, my business partner, Peter Viner, and I needed somewhere to discuss matters out of public earshot and Tony's P.A. directed us to a meeting room which was known to be free. And on entering said meeting room, we saw a young woman using the telephone. Nothing unusual about this you may think, but from her body language it was as if we had caught her doing something for which she was undoubtedly guilty; but what? Wide-eyed and blushed, she hurriedly killed the call and slipped out of the room with quiet apology; no eye contact.

Peter moved to the phone and picking up the receiver, hit the redial button; and bingo! The defecting sales manager answered. As part of his plan to steal the family jewels and defect to the enemy, he had left behind a mole. We correctly assumed it was her job was to tell him our every move. Church wanted her blood, as he put it, "To set an example". Our view was that we could use her to scent trails that led to nowhere of consequence. To use her or to sack her - which way would he jump?

From the outset, it was obvious that there was battle to be fought and won and we were losing by a distance, and questions emerged.

1. How to deal with the traitors?

2. What to do with the mole?

3. How to manage the crisis so as to limit the damage?

4. How do we keep the matter quiet?

The next and final episode of this case draws us into the shadowy world of spies, of further betrayal and cunning.

This article is made available courtesy of NDR,, a leading UK Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Services vendor.

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Keeping The Wolves At Bay Being Updated -- Call For Ideas

To all of you smart people who have previously purchased Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual in the past. I'm working on version 3.0 right now and would love to hear what you'd like to see added to this update. I can tell you that it is already further addressing the impact of the Internet on media relations. Send your ideas to:

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

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.


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


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