© 2006 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 14,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
The principles of crisis management always apply, but the principals don't always apply them.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Where's The Big Story?
Editorial Delay/Apology by Jonathan Bernstein
I regret to inform you that mitigating circumstances have precluded delivery of your previously scheduled amazing story.
There have been legal developments in the story I teased you about recently, developments that necessitated further delay in publication of our story to -- quite literally -- protect the innocent from further harm.
But I can tease you a bit more if you can take it, with some keywords you're likely to see in the story.
Current projected story release date will be the last week of November.
Editor's Note: What can I say -- when you're hot, you're hot. You very recently read a strong story by Andrea Obston about dealing with Client Confidentiality Issues in the face of journalistic probing, now Andrea returns with this lengthier gem and my thanks. Like Andrea, I have found an increasing percentage of attorneys who "get it" with regard to the need for integrated PR and legal strategy. If you'd like to read past articles along the same line, I have seven of them archived under the "Crisis Management & The Law" section of this page.
Lawyers And Pr People - Why Can't We All Get Along?
By Andrea Obston
Information breeds confidence. Silence brings fear. "CJ" on "West Wing"
Like a medical crisis, there is a "golden hour" after a negative event that can change the outcome forever. Companies that move into action within that hour have a much better chance of protecting their business, employees and the public while securing their future success. Unfortunately, most miss the boat because they are caught in a web of confusion during this critical stage. What is particularly tough for those of us involved in reputation management is that often that phase is complicated because of conflicting advice from PR people and legal counsel.
Why the conflict? After all, arenŐt we both on the same side? Absolutely. But each of us comes from a different place. Attorneys can often see the public issues surrounding a case as interfering with their duties to the technical legal interests of their clients. So, they may ignore phone calls from the press on the premise that the outcome of the case will speak for itself. Think of it this way: attorneys are the fire fighters who save the burning house. PR people make sure the house can be re-built and habitable when the fireŐs over.
So things look different to each of us as we view a clientŐs crisis. From where we sit as reputation managers, we know that the public judges the fiber of a company by the way they see it behaving under fire. Reputations can be made or broken by a companyŐs public response to a crisis. And when a reporterŐs call is ignored you can expect him or her to turn to someone else for comment, giving that person the ability to shape that reputation.
Clients trust their attorneys, as well they should. Attorneys provide the counsel that keeps them functioning under a variety of conditions. Because of that, they tend to turn to their attorneys for all kinds of advice, including how to deal with the press in times of crisis.
We have worked with a number of attorneys who "get it" when it comes to reputation management in crisis. They understand the need to manage the public face of a legal situation. And they know that helping the client win on both the legal stage and the theater of public opinion requires different skills. These attorneys work with us to satisfy four goals:
- To operate within the legal constraints of the situation
- To make sure our mutual client is portrayed fairly, accurately and responsibly in the media
- To allow our mutual client to preserve their reputations, whether or not legal actions result from the initial crisis
- To enable our client to get back to business as usual.
There are two kinds of crises:
- One-Time Events --- These are emergencies that suddenly disrupt operations and attract unwanted attention. For example, a shooting at a school.
- Slow-Growing Situations --- These are chronic, but less immediate problems that can bloom into full-blown crises if left unattended. They are the most dangerous to an organizationŐs reputation. Why? Because when they do blossom into full-blown crises, they are compounded by accusations that the organization "should have known" what was going on and dealt with it before it reached crisis stage. Most crises (75 percent) fall into this category. The Sony laptop battery recall and the Ford/Firestone SUV roll-over fiascos are good examples of this.
In both cases, it is clear that far-thinking attorneys will make sure their clients understand the value of their reputation and the need to spot a crisis in its earliest stages. They need to prepare a reaction before it becomes necessary, and respond in a timely manner if and when it becomes public. Otherwise, you end up where Sony is today --- apologizing for the damage their batteries have done months after the public learned about it.
When a crisis breaks, the gut reaction of most companies is to circle the wagons and deny any wrongdoing. Our experience is that companies shouldn't wait for the brush fire to turn into a firestorm before dealing with the public relations implications. Instead, we suggest these strategies:
Give the Bad News as Soon as Possible and Move On
No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but when a mistake is made, companies have to admit the problem and move on. In the "olden days," we had a 24-hour news cycle to do that. That meant we had some time to formulate a response. Not today. Even some daily newspapers will scoop themselves on their own websites to get the jump on a developing story. Figure on a 30-minute news cycle. During that time, you can either do your best to control the story, or you can leave it to the bloggers to shape it. You can either lead the parade or expect to find yourself running to keep up with it. Naturally, this policy must be followed with the advice of legal counsel. But, when it fits with the legal considerations and can be done, it should. On your website, in press releases or in one-on-one interviews with reporters. The faster you take control of the story, the faster it will disappear from the publicŐs mind. The one blessing of this world of 24-hour news is that itŐs a beast that needs constant feeding and it quickly gets tired of one kind of "food."
Reach Out to the Affected Parties
Sometimes companies get so involved in what happened and how they are going to fix the problem that they forget about the people who have been affected by the wrongdoing. Fixing a problem isn't always enough to correct the harm that was done. It's also very important to show empathy for those who have been hurt.
Build Goodwill Before You Need It
All companies should be running an ongoing, proactive media and public relations campaign throughout the year designed to drive stakeholders to their websites and build long-term relationships with them. Your site is the one place where you can speak to everyone on your own terms. Think of it as your own printing press. Routinely connecting your company to everyone builds the kind of credibility that is critical in a crisis. If a company has been straight with its stakeholders in the past, reporters will seek out comments from them when they are under fire. In addition, a continuing media and public relations program gains a "public share of mind." That way, when a crisis takes place, a positive opinion of the company is already cemented in the publicŐs mind and they take the news with a grain of salt.
Avoid News Conferences
If at all possible, avoid holding a news conference in a crisis situation. Everyone thinks they need to hold a news conference if there has been a problem. The difficulty is that you run the danger of being barraged by a group of reporters all clamoring for a more interesting sound bite.
Instead, we recommend that a company release a statement to the media, post it on their site, push e-mail it to a list of interested parties and hold individually scheduled interview sessions with reporters. It's a lot harder to beat up a CEO in a one-on-one interview than in a news conference.
No "No Comment"
The phrase "no comment" can be interchanged with the phrase "I'm guilty." Saying "no comment" has the same impact as pleading the Fifth Amendment. It says "I know I did something wrong, but I'm not going to say what it is." There are many more effective ways to convey the idea that you have nothing substantive to communicate than to say "no comment."
The company must let reporters know that they are giving the best answer that they can, while sticking to the main issue and telling the media when more information will be available.
Off The Record DoesnŐt Exist
There is no such thing as speaking "off the record" or "on background." This is a tough point to make with attorneys. In the legal world, things really can be off the record. In the journalistic world itŐs a myth. Yes, there may be times when a reporter honors an off-the-record request, but you donŐt know if that will happen. If you chance it, you are relying on the integrity of someone you hardly know. It is especially tempting for companies that have worked with a reporter in the past and have been pleased with their coverage. Spokespersons let down their guard or say something they shouldnŐt. This is dangerous. If you do not want to see something you say in print or on the Worldwide Web, donŐt say it to a reporter.
A crisis situation presents a company with two choices: the opportunity to look really bad, or really good, in front of a lot of people. When PR people and attorneys work together, their clients can turn a crisis into an opportunity to prove to the world that they are on the ball and ready to face the next day.
We work with a lot of attorneys. In fact, we get most of our crisis communications work through them. This leads me to have hope about the future of our two professions working together. I know we will never link hands and walk happily together into the sunset. We are paid to see the world differently and thatŐs a good thing. In fact, the give-and-take between us is good for clients. The outcome gives our clients the best of both professions. When that happens, clients make it through the tough times and get back to business-as-usual as soon as possible.
Andrea Obston is president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications. This firm helps businesses grow through a B2E (Business to Everyone) marketing communications strategy. Expertise includes strategic marketing audits, brand development and marketing, public and media relations, media training, crisis planning and management, websites and Internet advertising. The firm offers workshops and seminars on a variety of contemporary marketing issues. The 24-year-old firm is based in Bloomfield, CT and can be reached at www.aomc.com.
Wal-Mart Blogs Flogged By Blogger
Wal-Mart's increasingly infamous "flogs" have been widely discussed in the PR and business press, but possibly nowhere as well as at Gerald Baron's Crisis Blogger blog, www.crisisblogger.com. How good is his analysis? Good enough to have drawn the attention of Business Week, this week, which quoted him and even stole one of his topic titles.
Speaking Of Great Blogs
The latest at The Crisis Manager blog:
- Analysis of the HP Debacle
- Family Disaster Preparedness
- Who Are Those Bloggers and Why Are They Saying Those Terrible Things?
The latter is a full-length article NOT available anywhere else online, reprinted by permission of Association Now magazine. It is the most comprehensive piece I have ever written on this subject. If you'd like to jump right to the article, a PDF file, it is here.
What Would You Like To Read About?<
Reader-driven marketing time again. What topics would you like to see covered herein? I am my guest authors will "write to spec" if you'd care to make suggestions! Send ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
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:
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.
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.
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