© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
If communication is not your top priority, all of your other priorities are at risk.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Texas Roadhouse Makes Police Sick
A How to Do It Completely Wrong Crisis Case Study
By Jonathan Bernstein
In May 2006, Fairfax, VA Police Detective Vicki Armel and Master Police Officer Michael Garbarino became the departments' first two officers killed on duty. They were gunned down by an assault weapon-wielding madman who was subsequently shot by police. There was, of course, the expected shock and mourning by their fellow officers and citizens of the communities they served. Officer Garbarino lingered near death in the hospital for almost two weeks, resulting in two separate funeral processions and ceremonies.
However, there was another, much lesser, but still sickening shock to come the following month, behavior which reflects the very worst of corporate communications.
In mid-June, the department's False Alarm Reduction Unit received a letter from their local Texas Roadhouse restaurant, which is located just down from the station, appealing a number of false alarm fines. The restaurant had tripped numerous false alarms, apparently as a result of wiring issues and problems with their alarm company. All of these problems and accumulated fines occurred prior to the date of the police shootings. FYI, Texas Roadhouse (www.texasroadhouse.com) is a national chain that boasts about their Legendary Food, Legendary Service®. What does this have to do with the shootings? Read on.
In asking for the a waiver of the fines, the unbelievably insensitive letter pointed out that the restaurant had lost over $5,000 in sales the night of the shooting and $4,000 in sales during each funeral procession in the two weeks that followed. Police sources found this very hard to believe, as the intersection by the restaurant was closed for only about an hour during each funeral procession, and in the middle of the afternoon, not during the lunch or dinner rush.
The letter went on to say that the restaurant had taken some food to the shooting incident command post and also noted that they give officers a discount when they eat in the restaurant (something many officers deny). The letter informed the department of the "major financial impact" the funeral events allegedly had on their store, asking for a re-examination of the false alarm fines based on those "facts."
A senior police official contacted the corporate office for Texas Roadhouse in Kentucky and relayed her concern. She emphasized that at the same time OTHER local businesses were holding fund raisers for the fallen officers, their local restaurant was looking to use the incident as an excuse not to pay their fines. Although each store is individually owned, the corporate office appeared very concerned and asked that the letter be faxed to them, which it was, and the police official was told that "someone would be in touch."
A week passed. A call came in to the police official from Texas Roadhouse's managing partner for the State of Virginia, who was going out of town for three days, but would "contact her when he returned."
Three weeks passed. The persistent police official contacted the corporate office yet again. Instead of escalating this to a senior corporate officer at this point, as they should have, they had Roadhouse's managing partner for Virginia call again to apologize on the restaurant's behalf.
The owner of the local store, who wrote the letter, never contacted the department to express his regrets in any way.
Your author has a "Deep Cop" contact who passed this information on to him, including this message sent by a police officer to Texas Roadhouse via the contact page on their website, at http://www.texasroadhouse.com/contact_us.php.
It has come to my attention that I owe your establishment an apology. I am an officer with Fairfax County. Earlier this year, I had the unfortunate experience of listening as two of my co-workers died of gunshot wounds near your restaurant. The ensuing investigation, regrettably, blocked (from your account) thousands of dollars worth of hungry citizens from eating that night. I compounded this problem by participating in a funeral procession, not once but TWICE, for my co-workers and again blocked thousands of dollars worth of business from you. I humbly apologize for such egregious actions on my part and will endeavor to, in the future and to what extent I can, not allow petty police actions from interrupting your business. I have asked all my co-workers to heed this and next time pick a more commercially advantageous spot to be ambushed and killed. If anything, I have requested that they all die at once, such that multiple funeral processions will not be necessary. In an effort to make sure that I am effective in my efforts, I have barred myself, and all those I can influence from entering or even parking in your establishment. This way I can be sure that my presence will not have the same selfish and undesired affect. If there is anything else that I can do to make sure your establishment has a banner year, please feel free to contact me. I will forward this message to all concerned parties.
I am told that his sentiment is shared by most, if not all members of the department.
Oh yes, and the False Alarm Unit was told to instruct the restaurant to pay their fines.
Horrible letter. Slow and grossly inadequate corporate response. Maybe they should modify their slogan to Legendary Food, Legendary Service, Legendary Insensitivity?
Editor's Note: I like easy-to-remember concepts. My frequent contributor and business associate Gerald Baron has done an excellent job of capturing four principles of effective crisis preparedness in this article, one worth bringing to your next staff meeting.
The Four Ps Of Crisis Preparation
By Gerald R. Baron
Maybe it was because I was a teacher eons ago, or maybe it is just that I am simple-minded, but I find it easier to remember things when they all start with the same letter. For example, in my book Now Is Too Late2, I refer to the three main things that cause todayŐs crisis communicators the most trouble as three Is: Instant News, Infotainment and the Internet. And the four elements of crisis preparedness are four Ps: Policy, People, Plan and Platform.
In advance of any crisis, companies and organizations must think through crisis what they want to achieve. A policy statement should incorporate the goals or aspirations of the organization going through a crisis and the basic strategies they will employ to achieve the goal. The best policies are the ones that articulate the goal of emerging from a major crisis with the organizationŐs reputation not only protected, but enhanced. And the way to do that is by responding very effectively and communicating quickly, transparently and frequently with all critical audiences. Policy statements need not be long and fancy. One of the best was expressed by a head of public affairs for a Coast Guard district when he said, "We want to be the first and best source of the news" relating to the event in which they were involved. This kind of policy leads to the excellent reputation the Coast Guard enjoys for professionalism and responsiveness.
Policy statements can also include basic dos and donŐts of crisis communication. Here are a few examples:
- We will never release the names of employees involved in injuries or loss of life.
- Only authorized spokespersons who have been properly trained will be allowed to speak on behalf of the organization.
- We will always do our utmost to provide the most complete, accurate and timely information about the company and the incident.
- We will never abandon our commitment to honesty and to maintaining the trust our stakeholders have in us.
A few simple policies all aimed at a goal of building credibility and trust will serve as memorable guidelines for all employees as well as outside consultants working during a crisis situation.
Time and again, the debrief after a crisis incident points to the people involved in responding and communicating as the key element. Whether your company or organization comes through a crisis with reputation intact or enhanced largely depends on the leadership, skills, common sense, and character of the people involved in managing the response. ThatŐs why one of the best things CEOs can do to prepare is to identify a crisis response team and prepare them for the roles they will play. These people will frequently have to act fast and with considerable autonomy; they will also have to play well with others. CEOs must look long and hard at these people. Will they make the right decisions? Will they take initiative and do what is needed when it is needed? Will they behave in ways that will lead outside audiences and key stakeholders to trust the organization and its leaders? If a CEO does not feel comfortable with those answers, there is nothing better that he or she can do than to make the needed changes before the critical time comes.
Most preparation focuses on the plan which is mostly appropriate. But most crisis plans are far too complicated. They sit in big red binders on the shelf and may or may not be pulled down and referred to during an event. If you can't see the basic plan on a single page, it is probably too complicated. If you canŐt quickly get at the key information you need, such as who to contact and their contact information, then it is of limited use. And if it isnŐt with you or accessible when you most need it, it does no good.
A good crisis plan is structured like the inverted pyramid you learned in journalism school. It starts with a few basic elements that cover everything that needs to be thought of and done. Then it proceeds to a deeper level of detail, then to another level of detail, until as many possible situations are covered. I also favor a cookbook style -- a listing of action items that must be taken and who is responsible for doing them. Most plans I have written anticipate three levels of crisis, all based on the same simple plan that is very scalable.
To make the crisis plan accessible, put it on the Internet -- ideally, in highly secured forms such as on a secure company intranet or, better yet, on a crisis communication control center such as described below in the section called "Platform."
I also strongly believe that crisis and crisis communication plans should take advantage of the best thinking on this subject and in my mind that leads to the Incident Command System. This basic and very scalable management structure was developed out of multi-agency response to forest fires in the 1970s but since has been adopted by most fire, police, and government agencies. In fact, in 2003 the Department of Homeland Security mandated its use for all government agencies receiving federal funding. So if you donŐt know about the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) which it prescribes, you should definitely learn about it and use its well proven structure as the basis for both your crisis response and communications.
Platform deals with the infrastructure your team will use during a crisis. The emphasis has been on creating Emergency Operations Centers where the team can gather and work effectively in a major crisis. There are a couple of problems with this and Katrina highlighted these problems. Too often in major events from terrorism to pandemics to earthquakes to hurricanes, you canŐt count on your EOC being there or being able to easily get there. Secondly, from a communications standpoint, by the time your communication team assembles in the Joint Information Center, the story has gone around the globe multiple times and chances are the mainstream media are onto other stories already. Your chance to participate and tell the story is long gone.
The new thinking about crisis response and communications puts the responders into virtual control centers. There the team can assemble in minutes rather than hours or days because the place where they gather is the Internet. As long as they can get to a place to login they can participate. Web-based response management systems are becoming increasingly available. PIER (Public Information Emergency Response) is the standard for online control centers for communication purposes and was built based on the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center and is used by most major oil companies, federal agencies such as the Coast Guard and numerous other organizations large and small. (Full disclosure: your author is the creator of this system and the president of AudienceCentral, the company that provides it.)
If you choose to use standard communication tools such as your office email, Outlook for contact lists of reporters and stakeholders, email for collaborating with attorneys and outside consultants, cellphones and landlines for team coordination, your IT or web tean for web information posting, just be aware of the limitations and the likelihood that in major events the basic infrastructure you count on everyday may not be there when you need it most.
Clearly, there is a lot to do in thinking through and preparing for a major crisis event. But sometimes it is easy to get lost in the details. ThatŐs when it is helpful to remember that most things come down to a few key elements. In the case of crisis preparedness, those elements may all start with P.
Gerald R. Baron is President of Baron & Company, (www.baron-co.com) founder of AudienceCentral, which provides PIER, the leading crisis communications technology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
Have Webcam And Videoconferencing, Will Consult
An Offer from Jonathan Bernstein
Would you like to bring me to your next staff or board meeting, virtually, to conduct some training on crisis preparedness, crisis response, or "just" to give a good solid orientation on the subject of crisis management? There's a great value to "face time," but sometimes the cost and time required for travel make it impossible. If you or your IT department can allow a webcam stream into your computer (and better yet if you can send one back), we don't need no stinkin' high-tech, we can do this lower tech. I am constantly trying to bring more affordable services to clients who may not have the budget for other options, so this is an experiment. I have a webcam and am happy to bill by the hour for short-term consulting if this option is of interest. There is also a videoconferencing facility very close to my office if you would like to use that instead. Call 626-825-3838 or write to email@example.com.
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
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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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