EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – February 19, 2003

Keeping the Wolves at Bay
Media Relations in Times of Crisis

Jonathan L. Bernstein
President & CEO

Phillip S. Cogan
Executive Vice President

Bernstein Communications, Inc.

Amy Sebring
Moderator, EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available upon request to [email protected]

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our topic today is "Keeping the Wolves at Bay: Media Relations in Times of Crisis." Our session takes its title from a new book written by our first speaker.

I am pleased to introduce our guests. First, Jonathan Bernstein is the author of the book I just mentioned, and President & CEO of Bernstein Communications, Inc. Jonathan has over 20 years experience in public relations with particular expertise in crisis management. Please note that his full biography and contact information can be found on the corporate Web site at http://www.bernsteincom.com/index.html.

We are also pleased to welcome Executive Vice President Phillip Cogan who has extensive background in disaster-related communications and was formerly the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Emergency Information and Public Affairs. Phil is on the program for the 13th World Conference on Disaster Management if you are going to Toronto this summer.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen. Jonathan will start us off.


Jonathan Bernstein: Thanks, Amy. We're here to tell you a bit more about how to keep the wolves at bay – how to deal with the media who serve as an important gateway. For emergency responders, more than most, media relations is a critical way to reach your target audiences, even if it's not a completely reliable means. Hopefully what we share with you today helps you optimize the results of your media contacts when the stuff hits the fan and the wolves are baying for information.

I thought we could start out with a very informative disaster related case history from the archives of our free newsletter, "Crisis Manager," about the Sydney Harbour Oil Spill. Everyone remembers what happened to the Exxon Valdez in 1989 spill because of how badly that company managed communications but I'm guessing that few in the world remember what happened in Sydney TEN YEARS LATER, in 1999. This article was guest-authored by Helen Morgner, the External Affairs Officer at Shell Australia Limited, which also explains the non-American English therein.

Located in Greenwich in Sydney Harbour, Australia, Shell's Gore Bay Terminal is a receiving and storage facility that provides all of the crude oil for Shell's Clyde refinery in Sydney. Aware that the risk of a spill or other environmental problem could threaten Gore Bay's license to operate, Shell's External Affairs team devised a stakeholders' communications plan in the late 1980s.

On the evening of Tuesday 3 August 1999, the Italian oil tanker "Laura D'Amato" was discharging its crude oil cargo at Shell's Gore Bay Terminal in Sydney. For reasons unknown at the time, 300 tons of oil was spilled into the harbor at 6.25 p.m. The spill seriously threatened Shell's reputation and business. Mishandled, the crisis could ruin stakeholder relations and encourage the government to stop commercial shipping in Sydney Harbour.

One hour after the spill occurred, Shell Australia's External Affairs team had assembled and began executing the crisis communication plan. Twenty-four hour coverage was provided by the team for the first three days following the spill.

Shell held a press conference at the site only three hours after the spill was first discovered. The first media release was widely distributed shortly afterwards. A series of six media releases followed over the next two days as the crisis developed. Background information sheets on Gore Bay Terminal and Shell's shipping operations were also sent to all media. Shell spokespeople were pro-actively offered for radio and television interviews, media briefings, one-to-one phone conversations and personal interviews throughout the crisis.

Shell staff contacted senior advisers for the relevant ministers and government departments on the night of the spill. The next day, personal briefings by Shell senior management were instigated, including a briefing for the NSW Premier by Shell's CEO. Follow-up letters with additional background information were sent to all governments contacted. Shell also initiated the offer to co-operate fully with a government inquiry. A personal letter from the Gore Bay Terminal manager was hand-delivered to local residents before dawn on August 4.

An e-mail to all Shell Australia staff was distributed at 3 a.m. on the night of the spill so employees were updated as soon as they arrived at work the next day. Follow-up voice mail messages and e-mails were sent to all staff informing of them of developments over the next week. After the oil spill clean up, a letter of appreciation was sent to all employees and contractors involved.

Additional staff was employed at Shell's Clyde refinery to handle the increased number of switchboard calls from the general public. Shell's customer service centre was fully briefed on how to respond to oil spill queries from customers. All media releases were posted on Shell's Internet web site. The media releases web page received 300 percent more hits in August than the normal monthly average.

Shell received widespread praise on its response to the crisis. There was no discernible impact on sales during the crisis, long-term business damage was avoided and Shell's reputation with stakeholders was actually enhanced. This case history from Australia illustrates a couple of important points that have become something of a mantra for our firm.

First, the media, while important audiences for crisis communicators, are NOT the most important audience. The media are an intermediary between those with the crisis communications messages and those for whom the messages are ultimately intended. Since they are only an intermediary they can be expected to serve as a filter and editor. That means you have virtually no control over what reaches your real intended audiences. Much better is adopting methods that can directly reach those primary audiences --- in this case, direct mail, scripts and other information for phone operators, direct contact with government, the operative word being DIRECT.

Second, immediate and timely action. Getting the word out can no longer, if it ever could, happen according to YOUR schedule. The Internet has sealed that. We live in the land of the 24-hour news cycle and that means that there are no longer weekends or evenings. It's always primetime somewhere.

Amy also told us that checklists might be helpful to you, so here are some general guidelines for media interviews, something ideal to review right before an interview:

1. Present yourself as an expert.

2. Know your subject and your purpose. Focus on the three most important points.

3. Be honest and sincere, always maintaining respect for the press.

4. Be concise with your answers. Talk in headlines: state your conclusions first.

5. Don't assume that anything you say is "off the record."

6. Acknowledge good questions, rephrase bad ones.

7. Make every statement a positive one.

8. Don't expect the "right" questions. Take the initiative and lead the interview.

9. Use anecdotes when possible.

10. Don't get flustered or go on the defensive. Learn to make transitions and turn questions around.

And before I segue to Phil's comments and our Q&A, let me characterize the three biggest mistakes made by those conducting media relations in times of crisis:

1. Failing to get media trained and, thereafter, practiced.

2. Not knowing and repeating key messages, no matter what's asked.

3. Treating the media like the enemy.

Finally, here is some resource information:

PIER Systems "Instant" Web Sites - http://www.piersystem.com - gives you the ability to launch an incident-specific crisis Web site, complete with built-in database and online editing and meeting capabilities. We'd be happy to give you a walk-through one of our own PIER site to help you understand the capabilities better.

CustomScoop - http://www.customscoop.com - an online news clipping service with some unique capabilities in terms of data analysis and quick searches.

Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual - Jonathan Bernstein's publication, available at http://www.thecrisismanager.com.

"Crisis Manager" Newsletter - free publication - subscribe at http://www.crisisnewsletter.com.

Now I will turn it over to Phil.

Phil Cogan: Thanks Jonathan. I'm pleased to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on crisis-related news and information distribution to so many of my former colleagues in the emergency preparedness community.

I remember how upset and scared people in the Pacific Northwest U.S. were when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. What was incorrectly called "volcanic ash" – actually pulverized rock – blanketed huge portions of the northwest U.S. People wanted to know if they could drive their internal combustion engines in the "ash laden" air. What about flying jet planes through the huge 30,000-foot plumes?

Now nobody ever accused terrorists of causing the eruption of Mount St. Helens, but still there was a lot of fear about safety and carrying on with one's life. And the government response was to form a "Technical Information Network" – the TIN.

TIN became an integral of what we in public affairs relied upon to inform and calm fears. The TIN was made up of experts in the various fields affected – automotive industries, HVAC, doctors and hospitals, agricultural experts, and so forth.

It's my opinion that what we need to do in today's environment of fear about terrorism is to duplicate the Technical Information Network, but in an updated form to address matters related to terrorism. The emergency management community can and should lead the charge on this. Perhaps we can talk about that more in today's forum. And with that, I will turn it back over to Amy.

[Audience Questions & Answers]


Art Botterell: Phil, who do you think could be the key players in the new TIN?

Phil Cogan: I think that obviously at the federal level DHS/FEMA play a key coordinating role but I think in this case it has been well illustrated that government isn't equipped with all of the answers. The duct tape and plastic pronouncement did great harm to the credibility of the Feds. Industry has enormous resources, as does the academic community.

Following the Mount St. Helens eruptions, answers to major health and safety questions were developed by the TIN in a matter of 30 days or less. I think the critical point here is that the emergency management / homeland security community needs to be listening to the questions raised in the community, talk shows, newscasts, and quickly addressing them with credible information. The Technical Info Network concept worked well before and I am sure it will work again.


Janet Buchwald: This is for Phil. Tell me a little more about TIN. Were average citizens expected to initiate their own information research? Or did TIN perform outreach to the general media?

Phil Cogan: TIN performed the research. Panels of experts were assembled across the country. For example, on the question of whether the volcanic "ash" would harm internal combustion engines, experts from GM, Chrysler, the Army's Desert Proving Grounds, and so forth worked together to write fact sheets that addressed the question at hand. Once written and peer reviewed (quickly I should add, since peer review is often a laborious process), the reports were distributed via fax, mail (no real Internet email capability to speak of at that point).


Valerie Quigley: Where is the background, historical information on TIN? I wasn't even aware of it (not really in the EM business) during Mt. St. Helens.

Phil Cogan: They may be in the FEMA archives and in the Cogan archives – there were some articles that we authored about it after the "ash" settled.

Follow on:

Valerie Quigley: You mean, like, in your head?

Phil Cogan: Most of it, I expect, is probably in my head and those that I worked with.

Follow on:

Valerie Quigley: So the institutional knowledge of this wonderful network is non-existent, and to get something similar, we'll have to recreate it?

Phil Cogan: Sadly that is likely true. FEMA was in its infancy at that point, about a year old.


Art Botterell: Given the constraints, resource and others, on government these days, might something like this be put together as a commercial venture, a sponsor-supported model maybe?

Jonathan Bernstein: Let me give that a shot since I'm mostly a corporate kind of guy. Most corporations are too focused on their own issues, would take a long time to motivate them and they can't even do their own planning and preparedness. If the emergency community created the model and went to them for support, it could well be forthcoming if for no other reason than "good PR."

Phil Cogan: May I add that the corporate world was a major participant, in fact, a willing participant in the TIN and they received no compensation other than knowing that with the right information the correct responses were being taken by the public, government and other corporations. I think that similar motivation to contribute exists for it is in all of our interests and the stakes are much higher than they were after the eruption of a volcano.


J. Rueda: Any suggestions on what to do when neighboring state(s) are 1 or 2 steps ahead of your own and the media (i.e., news stations) is shared by both?

Jonathan Bernstein: Encourage media to report on that to put pressure on your state to keep up with the Joneses.

Phil Cogan: Also, I was going to suggest that if your state or local government is out of sync with a neighbor, that fact MUST be brought to the attention of leadership within your organization to reconcile differences. The communications message to media needs to acknowledge and reconcile those differences until policymakers take actions to explain and/or bring them into sync.


Jason Moats: There is a problem with the Feds’ plan to handle an agricultural incident. The problem is compounded by industry. How do we on the local level deal with it? Not only terrorism but the response to a highly contagious disease – the lines are really blurred. The USDA says it will release all information at its Joint Information Center (JIC) in Maryland, regardless of where the incident is. All know that won’t work. Industry is resistant to anyone handing out information on agricultural issues other than them. What do we on the local level do when our folks turn to us for emergency public information?

Phil Cogan: Here's a key point that all of you at the local/state level know and I as a former Fed came to honor in our operations. The responsibility for protection of public health and safety resides ONLY at the state or local level and not within the federal government. After the fiasco of the anthrax incidents, I had numerous conversations with state and local health and agriculture officials who were lamenting the lack of information issued from the seat of the federal government. My advice then was the same as now.

NOW is the time to tell the federal government what you need in order to carry out your public safety responsibilities at the state and local level. I agree that a central JIC will only work during the first few hours after an incident while a local operation is established. You need to insist that the plans acknowledge that because your public safety mission can't be fulfilled without it. You are still sovereign jurisdictions, are you not?

Jason Moats: I hear you but the Federal plan set by USDA is very clear - it is USDA and only USDA who will release the information.

Phil Cogan: Plans can be changed. But they won't be if states and local governments don't lobby – no – insist that they be changed. That message came through clear to FEMA in the 80s and 90s. If things have changed then you need to push back until the changes result in satisfactory plans that will allow you to protect your communities.


Eelco Dykstra: Question to you Jonathan. When conducting daily briefings for the media and government delegations in Istanbul in the immediate aftermath of the Turkey Marmara earthquake, I found that one of the biggest problems was to get independent verification of single-source information. What has been your experience with this and what advice do you have?

Jonathan Bernstein: Interesting question. I have a partial answer, so does Phil. First, this is based on my experience in military intelligence (yes, an oxymoron) as well as Public Relations. It’s important to qualify the reliability of information when you're sharing it. I've seen that done well sometimes, sometimes poorly by the US federal government recently on terrorism threats. Try to focus MOST on (a) what you know as verified and, more importantly (b) the feelings of those impacted by any disaster. The feelings are more important than the facts initially.

Phil Cogan: Another point – if it's important to put out single source information then label it as such when you release it. The Joint Information Center concept (behind the scenes) calls for you to verify and coordinate that information using the in person contacts within the JIC or through a virtual JIC concept (something Art Botterell has spent much time developing) by linking those other sources together electronically (phone, fax, email). Today we even have (on the PIER sites Jonathan referenced earlier, for example) the ability to link those sources together on a password-accessible Web site to coordinate multiple sources "behind the scenes" electronically.


Bruce Harper: I'm the Webmaster for a major university and have the means to put a message out directly to various audiences. How does one convince "management" that it is important to do so, especially using the Web/Internet as a way to directly reach an audience (such as concerned parents across the state)?

Jonathan Bernstein: It's a shame you have to convince them, I'd like to know what their concerns are but a short answer is that there are a number of articles on our Web site you might use to persuade them. If you want article titles (anyone) write to me, [email protected]. There are a number of articles on Internet-based communication and its efficacy for crisis management/communications.

Bruce Harper: It isn't so much concern as it is that the Web is a "new" means to communicate so it isn't thought of as another way to get the word out.

Phil Cogan: Bruce, not to be flip, but cell phones were new once, as was television and I doubt today that those same administrators would shrink from using them. I would understand the Administration's hesitancy if you were proposing to use the Web as the ONLY method of communicating to key audiences but as it is just another one they can not justify not using it.

Jonathan Bernstein: Bruce, I haven't sent out hard copy press materials in over three years and 90% of the crises to which we have responded, the ones known to the public, have included an Internet/email communications component over the past three years. So you can tell your bosses that - and it includes work for schools, plenty of case histories out there.


Amy Sebring: Jonathan, I have a question about correcting mistakes. Errors will occur in the heat of everything. Do you have any advice about correcting mistakes?

Jonathan Bernstein: Correct them quickly, humbly, and make sure that the correction gets the same distribution as the original.


Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Jonathan and Phil for a fine job. Please stand by while we make some quick announcements:

If you are not currently on our mailing list and would like to get program announcements, please see the Subscribe link on our home page.

Also, we would like to welcome new EIIP partners:

Sierra County (CA) Health Department

Kenton County (KY) Homeland Security & Emergency Management

W.A.R.N. Calling (Wide Area Rapid Notification)

If your agency would like to become an EIIP partner, please see the Partnership link.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. Our session is adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to our speakers.