Preparing for the 'C' Word - Crisis Management (Episode 23)

May 1, 2018

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx Solutions! In today’s podcast, we’ll discuss crisis management with a focus on long-term care facilities. Our guest expert is Jonathan Bernstein, founder and president of Bernstein Crisis Management. He has more than 30 years of experience in the field, and is the publisher of Crisis Manager, an email newsletter written for “those who are crisis managers, whether they want to be or not.” He’s also the author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay Media Training, a manual focusing on crisis management, and Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management by McGraw Hill. Bernstein is frequently interviewed by national and international media outlets about various crises du jour. A PR Week feature story titled “The Crunch Time Counselors” identified Bernstein as one of 22 people who should be on the speed dial in a crisis. And Businessweek featured his perspectives in an article titled “Masters of Disaster.” He is a frequent contributor to the “Crisis of the Week” column published by The Wall Street Journal. Welcome, Jonathan.

Jonathan Bernstein: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

DG: Jonathan, we often hear the term crisis management but that usually happens after the fact. Shouldn’t organizations be proactive in terms of crisis prevention? I mean, isn’t it best practice to have a crisis policy in place?

JB: Oh, it’s absolutely best practice. But it isn’t practiced very often. Crisis prevention is key. David Finn, the founder of Ruder Finn PR firm, once said, “You really can’t manage a crisis, but you can operate effectively within it.” He didn’t even like the term “crisis management.” So when I set up the crisis communications group for Ruder Finn, that’s the term we had to use. But preparedness — and I know we’ll talk about this more — but preparedness is really key. And organizations will take a lot less damage if they engage in crisis prevention activities first.

DG: Sure. So what categories do most crises fall into? I would suggest accidents and disasters, either caused by nature or man, intentionally or unintentionally; service or staff problems; scandalous behavior; and deliberate attacks, either physical or reputational and either internal or external. How do you categorize them?

JB: Well, what you’ve described there for the most part is the kind of scenarios we now put into an actual crisis plan. But we make it broader, we kind of go a little higher level on this and say that a crisis is any situation that could threaten or have the immediate potential to threaten the health or safety of anybody involved with your organization; so to threaten health and safety, has the potential to seriously harm reputation, or has the potential to cause significant financial damage. And often the situation has more than one of those to describe it, but I have yet found a crisis that didn’t meet one or more of those criteria.

DG: So I note that you’ve written about the 10 Steps of Crisis Communication, Jonathan. Could you briefly run through those for us?

JB: Sure. I’ll give you the very quick version of it. And there’s a free version. It’s free on my website for anybody who wants it. It happens to be the most requested reprint that we’ve got, so I’m happy to share it. The number one thing is what we’ve already been talking about: Anticipate crises beforehand. And there’s a process called a “vulnerability audit,” which can help an organization dig out vulnerabilities and often head them off at the pass before they even actually occur. And you need to create a crisis team and have spokespersons that are trained. You need to establish notification and monitoring systems and know who your stakeholders are. Develop holding statements for those types of scenarios that you mentioned before.

And that’s all pre-crisis, they can all be done before a crisis ever happens, and really should be done, or else you’re scrambling to do all that with the crisis break-in. And then afterwards, once a crisis actually breaks, it’s a matter of assessing what’s actually going on, and you just adapt the plan, but by then you’ve already got a plan.

DG: Based on your work in the senior care industry, Jonathan, do you find that these types of organizations are open to certain types of crises more than others? And if not, why not? And if so, what types of crises?

JB: Well, certainly when you think about the threat to health and safety — that’s a crisis — happen more in healthcare industry in general. Certainly in senior care the chance of accidental injury or even accidental death is higher than in a lot of other types of business. So those types of crises, people going wandering types of crises, you know, something that involves local police and investigative agencies or healthcare-related agencies, visiting now because you’ve got something wrong. When the inspector comes through, if it’s big enough, you get cited. If it’s a big enough citation, there is attention to that and so on. So there’s a lot of ways that those in the senior care industry can be tripped up, particularly if they haven’t done the kind of preparedness that they need to.

DG: Right, right. So I’ve got to ask you, what’s your take on the case of the part-time nursing assistant in Florida who was fired after seeking help on Facebook in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma? She supposedly had violated a policy prohibiting employees from making social media comments that put the company in “an unfavorable light” but, in my opinion, the employee’s dismissal did just that. What’s your take?

JB: I agree with you completely. You know, there should be a social media policy. And it’s designed to keep people out of trouble as much as possible. But it also has to be tempered by common sense, and that didn’t happen.

DG: Right. I mean I understand that policy, and that leads me to my next question. In terms of social media, should an organization always respond to negative comments, or is it sometimes best to ignore them so that you’re not drawing attention to them? What are some guidelines?

JB: Well, no, an organization should not always respond to negative comments, although there’s plenty of times when you would. The times you don’t, is you never respond to negative comments when they’re made on a website that you have no control over whatsoever, particularly a critic’s website. So if it’s a site where you think your answer can be given favorable views, then you can risk that. But really the primary purpose in engaging a critic online is to take it offline, to try to get them to call you, reach out to you, work out an issue one-on-one instead of having a pissing contest in public. And so certainly it shouldn’t always, but there are opportunities to make amends or opportunities to address people’s issues quickly if you’re on top of social media, which a big failure is staying on top of what’s current there so that something that’s a rumor can take off and become a perceived fact because you’re not tracking it.

DG: Right.

JB: Some critics online have so little credibility because of the way they communicate, you can ignore them. If they’re the kind of people that just basically foam at the mouth in text of one kind or the other, the worst kind of trolls online, then let them rant. If they don’t have much of a following, they have no influence. And they just undermine their own credibility so there’s no need to take things further.

DG: This leads to another question in my mind. I know that in social media you can use it as a type of customer service by responding to comments. But is there a way to turn a negative into a positive in terms of social media or any PR situation?

JB: Oh absolutely. There’s been some very smart CEOs that have used social media after an incident of one kind or another to just come out there and say, “We screwed up, we’re going to do the right thing, we’re going to fix it.” And they use Twitter and Facebook to amplify the message and to link to the YouTube video they made. And it can be a very, very effective means.

DG: Yes, I’ve actually gotten some emails like that right from the CEO when there were huge public outcries. Definitely. Could you share a few crisis scenarios in senior care that you’ve recently handled?

JB: Understanding any facts that I change are simply to disguise my clients. So you know, if I mention a particular state or whatever, I’m probably not talking about that state. But this is not an uncommon situation. We’ve worked recently with, you know, a resident went out and there is a challenge as to whether they should have been allowed out of the facility, and got struck by a car. And all kinds of brouhaha and finger pointing and a huge amount of misinformation.

Disgruntled employees are saying things that aren’t true. It’s a mess for the client. And there’s litigation involved. So we’re working with the attorneys, working with the staff to make sure that people, you know, what do you say when visitors come and ask about this. And do we need to modify our advertising, modify our traditional PR work. You know, what’s going to happen next in the litigation process that might make news that affects what we’re doing here? So that’s the kind of thing that we have to actively work with on a daily basis as the situation moves forward, and it’s not done yet.

We’ve actually had a couple of cyberbullying cases, what we refer to as cyberbullying, where individual businesses were just being trashed online. In one case there was some fire to go along with the smoke, and the other case I mean they actually found some things that they regretted later. And the other case, they had done absolutely nothing wrong, in fact they had done everything right. But the client went out and was very credible sounding on social media. When you sound credible on social media, you are credible on social media, whether you have facts behind you or not, because facts don’t seem to matter a whole lot these days, unfortunately. So, you know, a high percentage of incoming calls we get these days, the client’s primary problem right now is online.

DG: Yeah, that’s an interesting point that you brought up. In this era of alternative news, I would say that PR persons and crisis management specialists, that your work is cut out for you.

JB: Yeah, I mean I have to say, you know, unfortunately other people’s crises are my business, so there’s a lot of work out there now. But it’s also been an evolution in the consciousness amongst American organizations of the need for this, because the internet started to publicize so many crises, they woke up. And it used to be that probably 90 percent of the incoming new calls we got from people visiting our website were looking for crisis response, they had a breaking crisis. Now about 70 percent, maybe even 80 percent, the call isn’t for a breaking crisis, it’s for crisis preparedness work.

DG: Oh that’s good news.

JB: They’re planning and training, and they’re really — their boards of trustees or their boards of directors are insisting on it. Sometimes their insurance companies now are insisting on it. And insurance companies are now paying for this kind of work. So a lot of the major insurers have crisis management riders that will pay up to a quarter million dollars’ worth of crisis management response. So it is now becoming part mainstream, that’s why people are getting the help they need. You know, 20 years ago, or 24 years ago, when I started my business, I was told you couldn’t make a full-time living doing crisis management. So apparently that isn’t true.

DG: So Jonathan, in your opinion, what are the biggest mistakes you see organizations making in crisis management?

JB: Well, the two biggest mistakes by far — I mean there’s a lot of smaller ones — but the two biggest mistakes without question are denial and what I would call corporate arrogance, or organizational arrogance versus confidence. Confidence says: “I can handle pretty much anything you throw at me.” Arrogance says: “I can do brain surgery when I’m not a doctor.” Big difference. And you know, I still am flabbergasted that people will call in all manner of legal specialists and pay a huge amount of money for the specialists, but they still don’t engage in professional crisis management. So that’s one of the biggest obstacles. And playing ostrich doesn’t work. Part of you is always sticking out, no matter what you think when you’ve got your head in the sand.

DG: True.

JB: Another big mistake is not really starting to work on a crisis situation until after it’s public. We get warning signs a lot of these things at a lot of times. My ongoing clients will call me and say, “Hey, we have a potential lawsuit coming up, you know, and here’s what’s going on, so we wanted to brief you about it now so you can start thinking about how we would respond if this moves ahead.” So that’s the way it should be done, but it isn’t the way it’s usually done.

Another mistake that maybe less people are making now but I don’t know, is letting your reputation speak for you. You know, “Our reputation is so good that nothing can knock us down.” And the first big company to prove that wrong was Arthur Andersen. They went out of business in the court of public opinion. They didn’t go out of business with a court of law, and the government didn’t put them out of business. And since then we’ve seen Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods and any number of other famous people, whose reputation didn’t help them all that much when their behavior was outed.

DG: I’m going to put you on the spot, Jonathan. My last question is: If you had one piece of advice regarding crisis management to give to the administrator of a long-term care facility, what would that be?

JB: Treat crisis preparedness as an investment, not an expense.

DG: Very good. Well thank you so much, Jonathan, for sharing your expertise with us. And to all our listeners, thank you for tuning in. For more information on the services offered by Jonathan’s firm, visit If you’d like to learn more about SmartLinx and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at

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