Tips for handling crises, from spammers to terrorist attacks

No one wants to deal with an atrocity—nor the media madhouse—like that of the Boston Marathon bombing. Or to fend off foreign spammers. But are you preparing for the worst?

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. Learn more about this session.

A crisis can be as terrifying and public as a bomb blast in the center of Boston, or as invisible as an attack by enraged foreign spammers that destroys a tech company.

Whatever crisis may hit your organization, you can prepare by learning from the crucible other organizations have passed through.

In a three-part set of Ragan Training videos, “Crisis communications: From the Boston Marathon bombing to foreign spammer attacks,” three veterans present case studies and offer tips for your organization.

Here are some organizations that have been tested by fire:


Minutes after the Boston bombing on April 15, Beth Israel Deaconess Media Relations Director Jerry Berger’s phone started ringing. He was in New York City, waiting to head home to Boston by train. He hadn’t heard of the bombing when the first reporter asked, “So how many victims did you get?”

As paramedics and medical staff at rushed to treat both victims and suspects, Berger and his shorthanded team were left to respond to a worldwide demand for time and interviews. Two of his three-member staff were out of town, and the third was trapped in the suburbs when Boston authorities closed down a bridge into the city.

The Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess dealt with 1,000 inquiries from worldwide media. An armored personnel carrier parked in the Emergency Department lot to search arriving ambulances for bombs and weapons. Both suspects ended up at the hospital.

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Crisis communications: From the Boston Marathon bombing to foreign spammer attacks.”

Berger had to deal with a fiercely competitive media corps that didn’t always crown itself in glory. One journalist tried to bribe a nurse $5,000 to take a picture of the suspect, Berger says. Another media outlet allegedly made up quotes from the chief executive and never corrected the error. Bogus and unsubstantiated information about patients’ condition circulated.

Among other lessons, Berger offers these two tips in the video “A Marathon to Remember”:

1. Paper is not dead.

Keep printed lists of contacts and other key information for when you work remotely with just a cell phone—or land line, Berger says. You don’t want to be desperately trying to connect to your computer with an iPhone just to retrieve phone numbers.

2. Make sure all staffers know the rules.

Everyone should know who is authorized to talk to the media so you can speak in one, clear voice, Berger says.

“You need to really, really reinforce that,” Berger says. “We kept the number of people who were out talking to the press to a minimum. We still had problems.”


Tech companies are often run by fast-moving entrepreneurs who don’t want to sit down and plan for hypothetical crises, says Leslie Campisi, managing director of U.S. managing director of Hotwire Public Relations. If your clients are like that, grab them by the ears and shake them. They have to listen up.

In “Crisis Communications: A Tech Agency Perspective,” Campisi offers these lessons:

1. Dig deep and learn everything about your clients

Remind them that you’ve got a non-disclosure agreement. (You do, don’t you?) You must be briefed fully. If they keep secrets from you, you can’t do your job.

One company Campisi represented at a previous firm acquired a firm that became the subject of a Wired magazine blog called Threat Level, “a blog you never want to be on,” Campisi says. The acquisition’s software enabled IT administrators to remotely activate the camera. Well, see, there was this school in Pennsylvania where students got to take laptops home and—precisely. You guessed it.

“Demand to get the details, so that none of this catches you by surprise,” Campisi says.

2. Internal communications is preventative medicine.

At one company, Hotwire had a big announcement ready to go, with a target reporter in mind, when a member of the board destroyed the whole plan by leaking the story elsewhere. The befuddled bigwig was so excited about the development, “he just wanted to call his friend and give her the story.”

It was mind-boggling to think that this could happen in an announcement of high-stakes news, Campisi says. Make sure the Pointy-Haired Boss, the Big-Headed Executive, and everyone else is aware of the PR strategy. And that they’re onboard.

3. Manage your CEO carefully.

Campisi once represented a company that created innovative anti-spam software that took the war back to the spammers.

Campisi says: “I think we grossly underestimated how much this would upset the spammers. We’re not talking about someone who lives down the street. We’re talking about very sophisticated spam houses that are in China and Russia, that are associated with nefarious activities.”

The bad guys attacked the client’s website. The chief executive officer rerouted the company home page URL to Typepad. So the spammers waged war against the entire platform. Many organizations suffered, and blogs from the media (among them The Washington Post) went down.

“Then we started seeing things in the news about how the CEO got into chat rooms with spammers to talk to them directly,” Campisi says.

The company, you’ll be amazed to learn, no longer exists.


In “The (Managed) Calm Before the Storm: The Many Virtues of Issues Management,” Won Ha, executive director of issues and brand management at Kaiser Permanente, urges PR pros to schedule regular meetings with those in the know.

He tells the leaders and subject experts: “This is your meeting. We have one hour. We’ve got an empty notepad. You tell us what worries you.”

This becomes your roadmap for identifying potential crises. This prepares you for when one actually erupts.

Successful crisis management means smart work in advance. “It’s not about sitting back waiting for that red phone to ring,” Ha says.


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