© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
If you don't want to burden yourself with a lot of unwanted scrutiny, try being transparent.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Editor's Note: This issue features two marvelous submissions by "Crisis Manager" readers, starting with this one by a man who modestly told me nothing about his remarkable background when he sent the article in. Be sure to check out both his website and complete bio at that URL.
Get Your Licks In On First Publication
By Donald R. Hamilton
Repeatedly during my years as a spokesperson at federal agencies in Washington and at U.S. embassies abroad, I would get a breathless media call going something like this:
"The Washington Project to Prevent Bad Things has called U.S. policy on (pick an issue) 'destructive, deceitful and misleading.'What is your reaction?"
While you are trained to respond to the facts and not to speculate, you should avoid the temptation to give a cautious, studied response:
"We have not seen the report, so I really cannot comment."
You know how that is going to read in tomorrow's papers and, if the subject is hot enough, on the evening and morning broadcasts:
"The Project to Prevent Bad Things issued a stinging report on the Government's policy toward....
"A Government spokesman had no comment..." or
"A Government spokesman said that they had not seen the report..."
You know plenty of facts:
- The Project to Prevent Bad Things is constitutionally opposed to the administration's policy on this and every other issue.
- They have an established record of selective citation of facts and always, always spin against you.
- On many occasions, they have presented a distorted picture of actual happenings.
- It is no accident that you have not seen the report nor that the Project gave the media the report on a day and at an hour where it will be hard for you to offer a substantive rebuttal.
You are therefore safe in responding with a studied dismissal:
"U.S. policy on this matter is a practical and effective response to a complex issue. It is hard to see how any objective observer could find evidence to support charges like the ones attributed to the Project to Prevent."
Depending on the Project to Prevent's history and general reputation, you might choose to become more aggressive.
"Those who follow this issue know that the Project to Prevent has a history of publishing tendentious and misleading accounts. We are confident that careful study of their most recent pamphlet will reveal a similar attempt to ensnare the unwary."
Editor's Note: While I appreciate Don introducing me to a new word -- tenditious -- I would respectfully submit that it's usually advisable to use language that can be understood by the majority of those with whom you're communicating.
The two-part lesson:
- Do not give known and vulnerable enemies a free shot just because you have not had the opportunity to read their latest screed.
- Pay attention to the "known and vulnerable" part. Some critics deserve the back of your hand and you can take a shot. But others are more serious or have special standing that requires that you keep the gloves on regardless of the justice or injustice of their attacks:
- The roof fell in on Ohio Congresswoman Jean Schmidt when she attacked the courage and patriotism of Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha. Why? Murtha is a decorated former combat Marine and has solid reputation as a National Defense Democrat. She might have gotten away with it had she been going after a non-veteran with a long history of voting against defense spending.
- Survivors of violent events or the family members and loved ones of those who did not survive may make unfair criticisms, but you should remember what the public certainly would--they have been through a lot and the price they have paid gives them the right to complain all they want. They may discredit themselves, but you better not attack them.
Donald R. Hamilton is the Executive Director of MIPT (www.mipt.org), the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Prior to his joining MIPT in 2000, Mr. Hamilton worked many years in the diplomatic service of the United States. In July 2003 Hamilton took a one-year leave of absence from MIPT to serve as a senior counselor to the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: When Andrea Obston wrote to me with cogent comments about my recent Texas Roadhouse Makes Police Sick story, and having researched her background a bit, I invited her to submit a story and darn if she didn't do that right away! I hope she returns with more submissions in the near future.
Dealing With Client Confidentiality And Reporters' Questions
By Andrea Obston
Even before the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) Privacy Rule was implemented, client confidentially was a sticky wicket for public relations professionals. Those of us who work with healthcare and social service clients have always understood the need for client confidentiality. It goes with the turf. Nevertheless, there's no getting used to the feeling of total helplessness in the face of a brewing crisis that involves a client whose story can't be told. You know where this is going and you know your hands will be tied. If your invoke client confidentiality, the agency you represent looks like they're taking The Fifth in front of a congressional committee. On the other hand, if you acknowledge even the possibility that the particular client in question once sat in your waiting room, you're likely to get a visit from the agency's lawyer.
So what's a PR person to do? The reality is that you simply cannot talk about specific clients to reporters. We all know this and so do reporters. But that doesn't stop them from trying. "Surely, you can understand that we have to maintain client confidentiality," I told one particularly aggressive reporter. "No, I don't. Why?" was his answer. Well, there you have it.
The problem is that just throwing out the issue of confidentiality raises eyebrows from both reporters and the public. There's always the feeling that an organization is hiding something by invoking the client confidentiality response.
We've done a lot of crisis management under these circumstances. Over the years, we've developed a stable of phrases that help us address these issues, preserve client confidentially and avoid closing down communication with reporters. We suggest you adapt these to the situation, your personal style and the very-real concerns of your attorneys:
- "Commenting on specific clients would be a betrayal of their trust in this agency."
- "We deal with our clients on a personal basis. They share information with us in good faith and we cannot reveal it to others - either ethically or legally."
- "We understand that the public has a right to know and that your job is to seek that information. But you must understand that, as caregivers, we must protect the confidentiality of the information we receive from our clients."
- "Professional ethics require us to maintain client confidentiality even if it might be to our benefit to explain this situation. We cannot share information any more than a lawyer or doctor can. These are the ethics our agency believes in."
- "We cannot betray the confidentiality of our clients nor can we expose the most intimate details of their lives to the public. However, I understand that it is your job to report on this and we want to cooperate. What I can share are some of the general facts about our client population, such as .....
After you use one or more of these phrases, test to make sure the reporter still understands that you are not trying to hide or to end the conversation. Do this by offering some other, useful information about the larger issues that the situation suggests, such as the need for adequate funding or the social stigma faced by those with certain health, socioeconomic or demographic issues.
By all means, do not let any of the above phrases be the last thing you say to a reporter. If nothing else, ask if there is any other information you can get for him or her. Be as responsive as possible at this point without apologizing. It is a reporter's job to dig; it is yours to protect your clients and the people they serve. Neither of you needs to apologize for doing your job well.
Andrea Obston is the president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications, LLC, www.aomc.com. The Bloomfield, CT-based firm helps businesses grow by implementing customer relationships through a B2E (business to everyone) communication strategy. Services include strategic marketing audits, brand development and marketing, public and media relations, media training, crisis management, website design and Internet marketing.
Crisis Manager Blog Update
Here are the topics you can catch up on and comment upon at the Crisis Manager Blog.
- Bush Administration Contradicts Itself
- Snopes Reports on Texas Roadhouse
- Haliburton Attempts to Defend Psy-ops
- Oxymoronic Response to Pope's Comments
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.
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:
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.
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.
GUEST AUTHORS are very welcome to submit material for "Crisis Manager." There is no fee paid, but most guest authors have reported receiving business inquiries as a result of appearing in this publication. Case histories, experience-based lessons, commentary on current news events and editorial opinion are all eligible for consideration. Submission is not a guarantee of acceptance.
When I find a site that I think will be useful to my readers or site visitors, I put it on our Links page. If you have a site that would be of specific use to crisis managers and want to discuss a link exchange or other cooperative effort, please write to me, email@example.com.
All information contained herein is obtained by Jonathan Bernstein from sources believed by Jonathan Bernstein to be accurate and reliable.
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