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Creating a Crisis Deliberately

Most crisis management means trying to keep your clients out of the media and minimizing the people affected, but sometimes it pays to start a crisis deliberately.

A small businessman is suing a huge manufacturer that wronged him, but the manufacturer is hiding behind a wall of attorneys while continuing to make profits from its actions against the plaintiff.

A loved one goes missing in the South Pacific and the distraught family can't get law enforcement authorities in the U.S. or overseas to make an investigation a high priority.

A group of retirees from a single firm have filed suit against the takeover expert who acquired their company and, from their perspective, cheated them out of certain retirement benefits.

A tiny environmental group with relatively little money wants to discourage or even stop the plans of a large real estate developer who has millions.

These actual situations are examples of when crisis management tactics were used for a purpose diametrically different than I usually write about, or practice. Typically, most of us in this field are trying to keep our clients out of the media, trying to minimize how many stakeholders are concerned and affected.

But some of the same tactics we use on the "defense" side of such matters can also, very effectively, be used to deliberately expand the scope of a crisis, to encourage others who might otherwise not be involved to GET involved and concerned. To create public pressure on those we oppose, pressure that can sometimes work more quickly than legal tactics -- assuming we can even afford a protracted legal battle.

The key to a dramatic growth in "David vs. Goliath" battles on issues and lawsuits has been the Internet. As has been learned, painfully, by many large organizations who could previously use attorneys and obfuscation to hide from or ignore plaintiffs and activists. The Internet makes everything available to everyone, everywhere. News can't be contained to a single geographic area. A single PR Newswire press release will automatically appear on a large number of websites that subscribe to PR Newswire, even without any further dissemination of that information. If someone is criticizing your organization and knows how to use the Internet, what the CRITICS perceive as a crisis will become widely known to your stakeholders.

However, those attempting to create a crisis usually start off as unknowns. And because anyone can be a publisher on the Internet, the media and general public has become increasingly jaded about online criticism. To succeed, would-be muckrakers need to ensure that their online campaign is:

Credible -- if it's poorly written and not factually verifiable, that undermines credibility.

Legally Sound -- if a legal matter is involved, plaintiffs run a risk of being sued for defamation if they don't restrict their allegations to those made in an actual lawsuit. And win or lose, a defamation lawsuit will cost plaintiffs money to defend. However, there is certainly precedent for intentional lawbreaking (e.g., environmental protests involving trespassing) if you think the results are worth the cost.

Sustained -- a single announcement, online or offline, garners a bored response.

Interactive -- provides means for those browsing information to quickly get more, or to subscribe to a list which is sent updates in newsletter or similar format.

Motivational -- gives your target audiences, people whom you want to take action, reason to do so. Too many such campaigns merely generate limited sympathy or empathy.

Strategic, Not Ego-Focused -- I've seen a great many protestors, plaintiffs and assorted activists stage colorful stunts just to get some short-term attention. The question one needs to ask is, "Does this really influence people (current and prospective stakeholders in this matter) to take the actions I want them to take?" Or are the activities planned more for personal ego-satisfaction than to achieve a strategic goal?

The latter bullet point describes the category in which most such efforts fail. The people making the protests want change -- but they really don't take the time to understand what actually will effect change in their particular situation.

Many years ago, I chatted with a Greenpeace member who was leading a very well-organized protest against one of my clients. I said, "you know, we're in the professionScience Articles, we're both engaged in crisis management." He agreed!

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Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. (BCM),, a website at which you can access, for no charge, more than 500 articles on crisis management-related topics.

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