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Business

Five questions for Jonathan Bernstein

Corporate criminal fraud. Tainted meat on the menu. Prying reporters pounding on the door.

Meet Jonathan Bernstein, crisis tamer.

Bernstein, a University of Maryland University College graduate, steps in to smother public meltdowns like a lid on a crab pot. However, rarely is he the man before the cameras. As president of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc., which he founded in 1994, he guides international clientele through prevention, staff training and response.

During a stint in the Army at Fort Meade, he received his degree (magna cum laude) from Maryland and spent a year working for investigative reporter/columnist Jack Anderson. From there, he worked in public relations and later created and served as the first director of the Crisis Communications Group for Ruder Finn Inc., a prominent international public relations agency.

A self-admitted "alpha nerd" who was noodling in the early 1980s on what was to become the World Wide Web, Bernstein also was a part of the 1960s folk music movement in the Washington-Baltimore area. He still fantasizes about quitting his day job someday to make more music.

Most people try to avoid a crisis, but you have made a career out of running into burning barns. What's the allure?

My first career was in military intelligence covert ops. My second was investigative reporting "inside the Beltway" in Washington. I have at least 10 artistic representations of Don Quixote around my home and office. I sense a theme.

In your business, what constitutes a crisis, and are there various degrees, like DEFCON 3 or hair on fire?

I define a crisis as any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line. When it's still in the "could threaten" stage, you are probably still in a position to prevent a hair conflagration. Crisis preparedness can often prevent certain types of "DEFCON 3" situations. But it's not only the immediate intensity of the crisis that matters — it's also how long it lasts. The longer it lasts, the more damage you take, so being able to knock a crisis down from "DEFCON 3" quickly is critical to success in my field.

Crises can be divided into three categories:

1. Creeping Crises: foreshadowed by a series of events that decision makers don't view as part of a pattern.

2. Slow-Burn Crises: some advance warning, before the situation has caused any actual damage.

3. Sudden Crises: damage has already occurred and will get worse the longer it takes to respond.

It is not uncommon for what seems to be a sudden crisis to have actually, first, been a creeping crisis that was not detected. Appropriate measures, early in the process, can often prevent or, at least, minimize the damage from slow-burn and sudden crises.

Is the first rule really a variation on, "If you're in a hole, stop digging?"

The first rule is: implement your crisis response plan.

Contingency second rule: kick self hard enough to eject head from dark place if you don't already have a crisis response plan to which all employees have been trained.

Based on my 30-plus years of experience in this field, 90 percent of organizations in North America are either completely unprepared or seriously underprepared to deal with crises.

What's the most common mistake made in a crisis?

Playing ostrich, forgetting that there's a part of you which is still very exposed! The second-most common mistake? Being unprepared to deal with the impact of the Internet on all forms of crisis communications.

A close third would be planning only for brick-and-mortar crises (e.g., disasters) and not for reputation threats, which are much more common.

Are there steps business and civic leaders can take to make their operations and employees less prone to meltdowns?

Only the most nearsighted and foolish leaders would neglect to ensure that their organizations are as fireproof as possible via the good work of local fire inspectors and risk managers. Most (but sadly, not all) would ensure that fire prevention includes fire drills. There is a strong analogy between fire prevention and crisis prevention.

The crisis vulnerability audit is a directly comparable, but more comprehensive process than a fire inspection. It results in planning, and training, that make any organization far more resistant to crises. And, as with fire inspection, crisis prevention is what saves organizations millions, even billions of dollars in averted or minimized losses. Some insurance companies, interestingly, have now realized that providing liability policy coverage for crisis management services is a very smart move, one that will save them a lot of money in claims.

Jonathan Bernstein

Age: 62

Home base: Sierra Madre, Calif.

Education: University of Maryland, 1977, bachelor's degree in speech communications

Books: "Manager's Guide to Crisis Management" by McGraw-Hill and the self-published "Keeping the Wolves at Bay — Media Training."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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