The Future Of Crisis-Preparedness: An Interview With Jonathan Bernstein

Future of News, PR & Marketing

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(4/16/03)

Jonathan Bernstein, president and chief executive officer of Bernstein Communications, Inc., has more than 20 years experience in the design and conduct of public relations and strategic communications programs. He specializes in crisis management — crisis response, vulnerability assessment, planning, training and simulations.

 

Bernstein is publisher and editor of Crisis Manager, an e-mail newsletter we post regularly here on Media Insider. He is also author of the recently published Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual.

Q: Assuming you expect to still be working in ten years, what aspects of your work do you expect to have changed most? What new challenges are confronting you? What new opportunities are awaiting you?

BERNSTEIN: I believe that the diversity of and dependence on technology has already and will continue to create the potential for more and different kinds of crises. Since most organizations will continue to conduct insufficient crisis preparedness, there will be, quite simply, more crises that interrupt business, damage reputation, or both — with consequent impact on the bottom line. However, some of that same technology will allow me to respond faster, more efficiently, and with instant worldwide impact. It will also allow my aging bones to rest more, since I will be able to virtually project a pretty decent image of myself anywhere in the world, adding some real affect and non-verbal communications to long-distance contact.

Q: What are the most vital tools you currently use in crisis preparation and response, and how do you see them changing by 2013? What’s available on your desktop, your palm, your shoe, etc.?

BERNSTEIN: The most vital tools for crisis preparation and response are:

  • Automated and on-demand research services (such as eWatch, CustomScoop.com, Factiva, and The Wall Street Journal Online);
  • Videoconferencing and webcasting for meetings and training; and
  • Resources such as the PIER (Public Information Emergency Response) System (at www.piersystem.com) that enable one to create and launch instant websites for a specific crisis in less than five minutes, with no webmaster.

By 2013, all of these will be fully integrated with compact, voice-activated, “all in one” mobile computing/communications devices that also have built-in, paper-thin, full-size keyboards that fold out and become instantly rigid for typed input when needed.

Videoconferencing as a separate industry won’t exist — such events will all be Web-based, with participants attending from wherever they happen to be at the moment, using webcams built into their mobile computing/communications device.

Q: You predict that, by 2013, a majority of organizations still will not have engaged in comprehensive crisis preparedness planning. This is despite our having just come through a decade that has been rife with acts of terrorism and corporate disasters. What explains the failure of organizations to prepare?

BERNSTEIN: Human beings have an immense capacity for enduring pain individually and as organizations. And an immense resistance to change. That’s a bad combination, because for most individuals, and most organizations, it seems to take a great deal of pain to motivate change.

Add to that another common human psychological condition: denial. In this case, the little voice in our heads that whispers, “That can’t/won’t happen to me.” It’s not based on history, research or sound reasoning, because all three of those would lead to proactive planning. The strong psychological barriers to preventing and/or preparing for crises before they happen can only be overcome by leaders with the courage to look at what’s really there.

Q: Must crisis preparedness programs start from the top? Let’s say you’re the PR chief for a mid-sized corporation in high-tech. You know there’s a long list of things that could go wrong. If and when they do, you know that you’re the one who’s going to have to explain them. Your CEO is all in favor of crisis preparedness and says, “Sure, let’s do it.” What’s your first step? And your second? And your third?

BERNSTEIN: Assuming you have already identified an expert on crisis preparedness, either on staff or a consultant, the primary steps he/she should take are:

1. Vulnerability Audit — a multi-disciplinary risk assessment to determine current and potential areas of operational weakness and strength, and potential solutions, because identified weaknesses may result in emergencies or crises of varying magnitudes if not corrected. The scope of a vulnerability audit can vary, depending on client preferences and needs. Often a vulnerability audit identifies situations system weaknesses that can be completely avoided, precluding that type of crisis altogether.

2. Crisis Planning — creating a written crisis management plan based on the results of the vulnerability audit. A partial list of plan components: the company crisis management philosophy, identification of the crisis communications team (and others who might assist the team in certain situations), 24/7 contact lists for all internal and external stakeholders, and draft key messages for different categories of potential crises. A plan needs to be consequence-focused, versus scenario-focused, i.e., there are a lot of scenarios that could result in catastrophic loss of one’s primary place of business, but the basic consequence is the same for all.

3. Crisis Response Training & Simulations — having a plan for which participants aren’t trained is akin to having fire evacuation plan with no fire drills. But worse, because a crisis management plan is a little more complex than just “head for the exits.” Potential participants in crisis response need to be formally trained in the basic tenets of crisis management and then simulations should be conducted to test and refine their newly acquired skills. And repeated periodically to keep them sharp.

Q: If you were scripting a film in which the PR guy hero must confront a crisis of global proportions in 2013 (or 2023, we’ll give you some leeway here) what visual elements would you be sure to include?

BERNSTEIN: Views of crisis team members worldwide and in Earth orbit virtually conferencing, drafting documents and giving orders from their mobile computing/communications devices. Shots of at least one “vital to the crisis” system going down and a fully automated replacement system on another continent immediately going online. And, of course, in the “some things never change” category, footage of at least one senior executive or attorney saying that no public statement is really necessary.

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