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Crisis Manager Internet Newsletter about Crisis Management

© 2007 Jonathan Bernstein
Circulation: 4,000+
Estimated Readership: 15,000+


Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.

Elbert Hubbard


Editor's Note: I received this disguised case history from my long-time friend and associate Bob Aronson, one of the country's finest crisis management consultants and media trainers, now partially retired as he recovers from a heart transplant. It describes a situation quite similar to one in which I've found myself at times. As Bob told me in his introductory email, "It describes an angle that should always be considered when crisis managers are advising CEO's amidst a plentitude of other advisors whether internal, external or both. Bottom line is that what appears to be poor decision making on the part of the CEO may be because some of us crisis counselors may not strongly enough defend our positions in a manner that clearly shows concern for the client, not in stretching out a process that is costly and not productive."

Crisis Counselors - Stand Your Ground
By Bob Aronson

This is a situation I was involved in a few years back in which a brilliant CEO continually rejected my crisis management advice in favor of a strategy that got the negative result I predicted while costing a whole lot more in money, time, stress and brand than was necessary. Confidentiality does not allow me to provide the name of the client or even accurately allude to the situation, but I thought it worthy of consideration by crisis managers who meet with this kind of situation.

Here is some of the story. I was involved in a crisis in which a medium was investigating my client for how they were spending money (as accurate as I dare get). The medium insisted on doing an interview and I agreed we should do one given that we could first interview them, limit the length of the interview (30 minutes), determine the place and have adequate time to prepare. I advised my client that while I was convinced the medium had already determined the outcome of the story; I thought we should try to get a message across and avoid the "no comment" trap. I also advised that while I was unlikely to agree to another interview, we should give heavy emphasis to a strategic communications plan directed at employees, clients, the Board of Directors (BOD) and other key audiences. I wanted to ensure that these people were aware of what the CEO and executive leadership were doing and to provide facts that were unlikely to appear in the medium.

The meeting with two reporters took place on our terms and it was immediately clear that they were only interested in proving their point, despite the fact that our CEO performed brilliantly. Within hours of the interview, we received emails from them with more questions of a highly biased nature and a request for a second, longer meeting. My reaction to this request was consistent with my earlier advice, "We'll provide a statement based on our messages, but will not agree to another interview." After a few discussions with my client, it became clear that he was not in agreement with me. The next thing I knew, another crisis consultant was retained to, "Help me manage the situation." This "expert" advised full cooperation with the medium. Again, I noted that to do so focuses too much on the medium and would, "Not change the story, cost a ton of money in consultant fees and unnecessarily place the organizational and CEO's brand at great risk." My advice was rejected again.

Shortly the medium released their first in a series of stories. It was loaded with damaging, unsubstantiated, untrue allegations. Not long after that story they made a request for still another interview, maybe more. I, becoming more and more frustrated with our reaction, strongly (not strongly enough) suggested that we stick with my original advice. My "helping" crisis consultant disagreed, the CEO took their advice and another interview was scheduled. It, too, despite our best efforts, preparation and brilliant performance by the CEO, was more damaging than the first one. The medium simply refused to recognize any facts we provided.

To make a long story short, after several months, thousands of consultant billable hours and continuing damage to the client's name the final story was released and it was as bad, if not worse, than I originally predicted.

Now the question is, "If the CEO was so brilliant, why did he continue to side with the consultant that was operating in a (my opinion) self-serving, billable hours manner? The answer? Board of Directors pressure. The CEO knew my advice was appropriate and the advice of the other consultant would not help. He must have thought, though, that in light of a series of "bad" stories the BOD would continue to ask, "Why aren't you doing more?" He felt, I am sure, that while my suggestion had the BOD as a top audience, that we could not adequately satisfy their needs and that the bad stories would make him look impotent and indecisive. He therefore chose to attempt to show leadership even if it was the wrong approach. I assume his thought process was to have the BOD think, "He's done everything humanly possible, hired the best consultants and was well prepared. The media, though, is so biased the efforts failed." It is likely the CEO was depending on a general distrust of the media to help his cause. While the BOD was not happy with the outcome, they at least would feel the CEO had cooperated in every manner and made every effort to save the organization. I should point out, too, that my crisis-managing "helper" never once mentioned nor tried to address the BOD concerns the CEO might have. Their entire emphasis was on trying to manipulate the medium.

I am confident that my strategy would have accomplished every goal and would have been less stressful, less costly and the entire process would have been much shorter. Unfortunately, there are consultants whose advice is more based on billable hours than on integrity and the best interest of the client. What would I do differently? I would be more aggressive from the start and would have more vigorously defended my position. Can I guarantee that emotion and self preservation would not prevail anyway? No. But I know that as crisis counselors we owe it to the client to be as assertive as possible.

Readers who didn't see the September 15, 2007 issue of "Crisis Manager" may want to read my review of and excerpt from "Board Leadership for the Company in Crisis,"" which is directly related to Bob's experience. Bob may be contacted at

Source of Australian Spoof Video

A number of readers were delighted by the spoof video interview to which I linked in the past issue. Some wanted to know if it was based on a real incident and the answer is "yes." Thanks to Aussie crisis management pro Jim Truscott for providing the details: "The video is a spoof by two well known comedians in Australia who feature at the end of evening current affairs on TV. They are however talking about a real and very recent incident. An empty coal ship ran aground on a beach in a major storm just beside and outside the river mouth of the Hunter River in Newcastle which is a major town just north of Sydney and a major coal export port to Asia. It took days to finally drag it off with a great risk of oil spill."

Virtual Picketers

Thanks to Andy Russell -- the best Internet researcher I've ever known, as well as a crack PR consultant - for pointing out that "picket lines used to be on sidewalks, now they're virtual in 'Second Life.'" See:

Cargill Demonstrates Lack of Compassion

Cargill Meat Solutions issued a massive 844,812-lb voluntary recall of frozen ground beef patties for suspected E. Coli contamination on October 6 into a consumer market already hammered by news of an even larger recall by Topps, one which destroyed the latter company.

As is my wont, I went to Cargill's website to read what they had to say about the recall, unfiltered by media, and found this release. It prompted me to send an email to the designated press contact, Mark Klein, on October 7:

Mark, I'm sure you have your hands full right now, but I wanted to point out one of the biggest mistakes companies make during times of crisis, a mistake really important to avoid when there's a threat to health -- failing to express compassion for the impact on your stakeholders. It's not necessary to admit fault in order to say things like "We deeply regret any concern this situation causes to consumers and will do everything we can to ensure that this product is quickly and safely recalled."

Might even put your CEO on video saying things like that -- and put it on your website.

Just a thought!

Jonathan Bernstein
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

Mr. Klein did not respond. 'Nuff said.


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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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