Lessons in Crisis Communications

Uncategorized Posted Feb 11, 2008 by metropolis

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Publicity Club of New England’s “Lessons in Crisis Communications.”

The riveting panel included:

  • Nicole Gustin – Senior Associate in Communications, Marketing and Government Relations for the American Red Cross
  • Robert Brogna – Manager of Media Relations for Brockton Hospital
  • Janey Bishoff – CEO of Bishoff Communications
  • Paul Andrew – Senior Vice President of Weber Shandwick Worldwide
  • Pauline Alighieri – Founder and President of the Friends of Mel Foundation

The panelists shared their unique points of view on crisis communications, by presenting mini case studies on challenging events they worked on.

Nicole Gustin stressed that the Red Cross has a different definition of crisis communications, since the very nature of the Red Cross day-to-day activity is what most would consider a crisis: responding immediately to 2-3 events a week, usually fires.

Her case study involved two employees stealing money by creating fake clients and taking money that was assigned to them. The Red Cross was concerned that the two employees being charged separately could lengthen the news cycle on the story and raise questions about the security of donations to the Red Cross. To combat this, Gustin went to the media with the story of the Red Cross discovering the fraud on its own. The story became a one day local paper headline, “Oversight at Red Cross Increases After Arrest” and was never reported on again.

Robert Brogna spoke about putting aside his personal feelings on the day of the October 15th car crash that claimed the lives of Brockton Hospital’s chief of surgery and his secretary. Brogna was the only media relations staff member at the hospital when the crash occurred. He stressed the importance of talking to “everyone possible” to check the consistency of the information he was learning about the accident. Within a half hour, press arrived at the hospital. He told the press where they could set up (a parking lot across from the hospital) and promised a press conference. Due to HIPPA regulations, he was able to withhold information on those hurt in the accident until their families were notified.

Brogna learned that if ever he was involved in a similar scenario, he would remove the license plate from the car involved in the accident. A local TV news crew pulled the license number of the car and a reporter informed the husband of the driver that his wife was in an accident, all while cameras were filming.

Janey Bishoff spoke of a hoax at a local McDonald’s a few years ago. A young couple claimed they had found a mouse in a hamburger. The couple then called a TV news station, which filmed footage of the hamburger in question, and told the station, “the manager offered them a refund for the sandwich.” Bishoff joked, “Crises never happen at an opportune time.” The owner of the restaurant was on vacation in a cell phone dead zone, and she was in Florida. McDonald’s could prove the couple was staging a hoax because there was video of the burger being cooked at 1:30 p.m. but the couple did not cause a scene in the restaurant until 2 p.m.

Bishoff called the TV news station and explained McDonald’s side of the story, but the network still aired the footage. The next day, the morning show was stopping people in Downtown Crossing to show them the footage, and ask if they would still eat at McDonald’s. Bishoff got a statement from McDonald’s included in reports of the incident, and as the facts were revealed, the story went away. Says Bishoff, “Clients need to understand the impact of the written word.”

This hoax occurred before YouTube had become popular, and Bishoff wonders what would have happened if the video had been posted there.

Paul Andrew also spoke of dealing with a crisis surrounding a hoax. He represented Modern Continental when former engineer on the Big Dig John J. Keaveney sent the Boston Globe a memo purported to be written by a safety supervisor warning that parts of the roof could collapse. A Boston newspaper ran a story on the memo, without comment from Modern Continental in order to be the paper to break the story.

Andrew went to the paper that broke the story with information proving the memo was fabricated, despite receiving advice to bring the news to the rival paper. He felt the rival paper would have a field day with the news without him helping to fan the flames.

Pauline Alighieri was the only panelist who is not a media professional. She founded the Friends of Mel Foundation to raise money to fight cancer, in memory of her friend Mel Simmons. Her original goal was to sell bracelets to raise $5,000. Since then, thousands of the bracelets have been sold and millions have been raised.

In September 2007 an e-mail began been circulating claiming that an infant had gotten sick from lead exposure through the bracelets. Staff at Mass General Hospital received the e-mail and contacted the foundation. Alighieri hired contractors to test the bracelets and found out the rings of the bracelets contained lead. Worried that the public would turn against a project that has done so much good, Alighieri said, “I felt like a goldfish in a tank surrounded by piranha.”

Teak Media helped the foundation issue a press release, which was thankfully not picked up by many news outlets due to news that broke that day about toys being contaminated with lead. Alighieri then went to reporters to both inform them of the recall of bracelets and tell them of the work still planned by the Friends of Mel Foundation. Instead of turning against Friends of Mel, the public rallied to support them. Reflecting on the situation Alighieri offered this advice, “If you are genuine, people respect that.”