Missing: Crisis Communications Hits Home
By Jessica Switzer
One of the many rites of passage as a PR professional is the ability to help an organization or individual navigate a crisis. I earned my stripes in the early '90s as head of corporate communications for a publicly traded consumer software company, Broderbund Software. There were two—yes, TWO— failed acquisition attempts of our company. Communicating why this had happened, especially when our CEO had initially been very positive on both acquisitions and then changed his mind—twice—was no easy task.
Later, as if by karmic intervention, the story of our company’s acquisition of a smaller company played out in 12 consecutive issues of the leading industry trade magazine, The Software Industry Bulletin.
While our company was in mid-acquisition, the founder died of AIDS and left his grieving parents in charge of running things. Another competitor with a litigious history popped up and tried to smear my company’s reputation by briefing the press on how my company was taking advantage of grief-stricken parents to try and steal a company for less than it was worth. This was inaccurate, but perception is everything.
This was a tough time for me professionally. I was the lucky one who had to fly to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit the acquisition “target.” I will never forget when my counterpart burst into tears as he handed me his files. But these moments toughen you up for later crises.
As a firm believer in the “know what you don’t know” truism, I hired a mentor, Chris Boehlke, who still runs her own independently owned PR firm here in San Francisco. We met on a Friday and, along with our legal counsel and the head of my division, we briefed Chris on the situation regarding the acquisition, which we knew would soon hit the trades.
As a newly public company in the limelight (there were fewer but more visible IPOs back then) it was only a matter of time before the business media and then our customers and other audiences could be influenced by the situation.
Over the weekend, Chris drafted three documents, which we used religiously. Since that time, I have yet to help manage a crisis communications effort without drafting these three simple documents: Talking Points; Q and A; and a statement from a designated spokesperson.
The tools of the trade
The Talking Points document is invaluable and provides internal and external help by spelling out agreed-upon key messages. When more than one party is involved—for example, in the case of an acquisition -- Talking Points in the case of an acquisition—Talking Points should be created from both perspectives.
In other words, it simply spells out why this deal is positive for Company X and then why it is positive for Company Z. This allows both communications groups to gain agreement and reinforce what is being said by each other. Talking Points should be no more than three key bullets for each party, just enough so that you and any other key spokespeople can memorize them. They are not wordy, and they get the point across quickly. A good Q and A is critical as well. This arms all participants with the answers to the questions that we may not want to be asked. It also helps confirm what answers have been agreed upon by the communications experts. A statement should be on hand to be made available to the press if needed.
I have seen VPs of Marketing and founders visibly relax upon review of these documents. I can feel them thinking “NOW I know what to say!” and their comfort level rises once they understand how PR plans to navigate an announcement or crisis.
Respond quickly before the wildfire spreads
My fascination with crisis continued beyond my days as company spokeswoman for Broderbund Software. I began to attend panels and talk to other professionals. As a Board Member of the PR SIG of the Software Publisher’s Association, I chaired a panel on crisis communications for the annual conference. Karen Alter, head of global marketing at Intel, agreed to participate.
Karen had just recently launched the “Intel Inside” campaign and ingeniously raised consumer awareness for the chip company through an aggressive partner marketing campaign that later became legendary. This had tough ramifications when, about a year into the campaign, Intel shipped a faulty chip that ran incorrect processing calculations. Most of the faulty chips were shipped in lower-end consumer computers, and only became problematic if more advanced calculations were run on the processor. Intel shrugged off the problem and refused to fix it unless the customer could claim they were engineers or architects in need of running high-end processing calculations.
You can imagine how much fun Walter Mossberg, Personal Computing columnist for The Wall Street Journal, had with this company announcement. He went so far as to publish the very calculation that would crash the processing circuit in the pages of his column and blasted Intel for its arrogance. To Intel’s credit, Karen not only agreed to be on my panel, she stole the show. With the crisis just two months behind her, and still raw from it, I will never forget her words: “We had become a consumer company without realizing it,” she said. She also admitted that the company had been too slow to respond to the crisis, that they had been wrong, and had not acted quickly enough to remedy it. In other words, had they offered to fix the chip—no questions asked—and replace the product (which they later did), the crisis would have been averted.
When a crisis hits home
Many other companies have since learned about rapid response, and have successfully averted further damage to their reputations by responding quickly to a crisis. We at Ruder· Finn are often hired to testify before Congress, to assist in helping manage an escalating crisis, or to help avert potential crisis. We strive to prepare our clients for these tough situations.
It is hardest to be prepared when things get personal. These experiences and many others were invaluable after I later left my company to start my own firm. They prepared me for the worst PR crisis of my life that hit too close to home. My family called upon me to assist in the efforts to find a missing person: my own stepsister.
Amazingly, it felt as if everything I had learned in crisis communications had happened so that I could help my own family and bring Serena’s wrongdoer to justice. This is also the story of a crisis communications plan that evolved from a desperate need to find a stepsister—and then, as the prospects for finding her grew slimmer, from a desire to gain justice, to encourage a manhunt, to apprehend her probable murderer.
I share this story with you now because the tactics we learn in our professional careers really do cross over to the “private” sector, and there are times when assisting in counseling a crisis can help catch the bad guys, even if it can’t help you find a sister in time to save her. Like a surgeon who is required to operate on a sibling, or a lawyer who is asked to help counsel a family friend, as PR professionals, our expertise in crisis communications is little preparation for a missing person’s case that hits home. But our talents and training do prepare us for the steps necessary to navigate a crisis and to mobilize multiple families behind a media effort with a purpose: find the missing relative and help law enforcement find the suspects. In Serena’s case we had a problem. No single law enforcement entity was willing to take responsibility for her missing person’s case. This is also the story of how we helped nudge the FBI to action within days of wiring a news release.
When a family member goes missing
On Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002, I was about to head off to an obligatory company annual summer picnic that a client of mine was throwing near their offices in Marin County, California. None too happy about giving up a valuable weekend afternoon, I hesitated when the phone rang just as I stepped for the door. I answered it. Amazing how one call can change your life—for better or worse.
My father was on the line, and he started telling me that my stepsister, Serena, had gone missing in Tahitian waters. Ever the optimist, now his tone was flat, and an ominous feeling washed over me since it was so rare for dad to sound so worried. The last thing he said to me was, “This could be very bad and you should prepare yourself for the worst.”
He was right. This is the story. Serena joined her boyfriend, Bison Dele, a former NBA star, on his catamaran to sail the Pacific in the summer of 2002. Her experience with men had been frustrating and fairly limited for a 30-year-old, and she was hesitant to join Bison Dele on this ambitious sailing adventure. He employed a full-time captain on his boat, often a chef, and when she expressed her concern about leaving her new job as a real estate agent in New York, he offered to wire money into her bank account so that she could keep some income in escrow, giving her the financial security to do the crazy thing and join him. The plan was to sail from Australia to Tahiti to Hawaii. In need of convincing, she was no dummy. She was also in love with him. She agreed, finally, and this decision ended her life and changed our family forever.
She disappeared sometime after July 4th, and neither she, her boyfriend, the captain of the boat nor the boat itself had been heard from by the time my father called me. One scary development hung over the facts of the situation like the cloud of a bad, unbelievable crime drama: Bison’s brother, Miles, who had traveled to Tahiti to visit the couple on the boat, and likely been sailing with them, had been apprehended by Phoenix police for attempting to cash a check for gold bullion.
The catch was, he was posing as his brother, Bison, and had his brother’s ID. While Phoenix detectives smelled a rat, and had been alerted to possible missing persons and concerns by Bison’s family friend, they decided not to detain Miles. They called a close and concerned family friend who flew to Phoenix from California, picked up Miles, spent five frustrating hours trying to get more information from him, and then finally drove him to the airport and let him go.
Despite Miles’ vague references to pirates and needed ransom money, he refused to give any more information, and the police could not hold him or press charges against him for impersonating his brother. As events unfolded it became clear that Miles was likely the only person who actually knew what occurred on the boat. But he slipped through our fingers. When this occurred, we had more than a missing persons case. We had a manhunt.
How to get the FBI to take a missing person's case
The first problem was that no law enforcement agency was taking responsibility for the search. This was a situation made increasingly complex because two missing persons—Serena and her boyfriend, Bison, were U.S. citizens while the captain of the boat, which belonged to Bison, was French.
When a missing persons case begins in Tahiti, French Polynesian waters, the French police have jurisdiction. And while this was beyond U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction, it involved U.S. citizens. Nobody could even prove the boat was missing at first, and despite this, the Coast Guard hesitated to get involved.
The FBI, in turn, looked to the French police. And the French police weren’t doing anything. One of my first calls was to my good friend at ABC World News Tonight, Senior Producer Richard Sergay. Richard called a close friend who worked at 20/20 who became interested and assigned an investigative reporter to the case. I later got just as much information from her and her reporter as I did from the FBI. Richard helped me stir the news pot and within days there were a dozen FBI agents assigned to the case. I spoke with the Phoenix police sergeant. I wanted to make sure it was okay to wire a news release, and since he was closest to the case, I wanted to discuss my strategy of going out to the world.
I had already cleared this with the families, both Serena’s parents and Bison’s mother, but it is important to work closely with the police to ensure that you do not do anything to jeopardize the search. In speaking with the sergeant, I learned the first rule of investigative police work: they want to find the missing people and apprehend the bad guys as much as you do. This kindly sergeant told me, “If CNN starts calling my office, the FBI will get involved.”
That was all I needed to hear. I felt we had his support to go to the media. My next call was to the families. I advised them that we distribute the news release internationally, with a photo of Serena and Bison. Then the plan was that I would hit the phones and start calling key media. The more international the better: CNN, ABC News, the New York Times, etc. Anything that might be picked up and read in Tahiti by someone who could have seen the boat or the crew on board.
On September 11, the one-year anniversary of 9/11, as the grim facts began to take shape, Bison’s brother Miles, who was at large, began calling his mother and a family friend and telling his version of what took place on the boat. According to him, there was a fight between the two brothers during which Serena and Captain Bertrand, in an attempt to break up the fight, were killed, Serena by accident and Bertrand in order to cover up one or more deaths. It is very likely that Miles, who admitted to using a gun on board the boat, murdered his own brother as well. About a month later he was found in a drug induced coma on a beach in Mexico and died about a week later, never regaining consciousness. The real story of what happened on the boat died with him. “Unfathomable” read the header of the September 30 issue of People magazine. And it still is.
There are helpful lessons, should you find yourself in the unfortunate place of assisting in the communications for a missing person’s case. These lessons can prove helpful to general crisis communications as well, so I review them for you below:
1: Establish a CentCom
In times of war, the U.S. establishes a Central Command and Communications HQ, where communications is centered. During the Iraqi war, journalists gathered at CentCom to report on news, and all communications briefings, press conferences and interviews were issued from CentCom. This serves several purposes: in the case of the Serena crisis, families and a few key friends who were part of the effort were able to make decisions and quickly act on them.
• Establish a regular call-in conference number and communicate it to all client constituencies; hold daily or twice daily conference calls at regularly scheduled times
• Use these time slots to review events and make decisions; making decisions quickly on a consensus basis is imperative in a crisis.
• Determine who the key decision-makers are and who needs to be involved in the decisions (there will be numerous, unpredictable decisions that arise in a crisis and the communications pro needs to know who the “go to” people are).
• Appoint one family member to speak for each individual if more than one person is missing or involved.
• Determine who the key spokesperson is.
2: Know how the media work
I asked a senior network producer why Scott Peterson got so much press coverage and do you know what she said? It is because he is a good-looking guy. Knowing how the media work and what they value is critical to a successful effort. Providing interviews and visuals is important.
Also, knowing which media to target is crucial to your success. Early on, I established a game plan with the families: who to contact, what kind of interviews they should do (based on reach and ability to accomplish our objective) and then I fielded all requests. America’s Most Wanted and other investigative news shows can be very helpful but can take weeks to air a story. Weeks can feel like a very long time in a missing person’s case. America's Most Wanted was very cooperative and agreed immediately to produce a story, but by the time it aired we were no longer looking for Serena and Bison. We were looking for Miles, who was on the run from the law and his family
3: Present the story visually
Providing photos and video is helpful in getting the word out. Broadcast journalists think visually. Coverage in People magazine means giving the reporter plenty of stills and closeups, ideally new photos that have not been wired or shown elsewhere. Broadcast producers are in constant search for the "fresh face" interview. The fresh face is the interviewee who has not been interviewed before. This can apply to print as well. Overall, the more materials you can make available in the form of still or video images, notes, or interview candidates, the more reasons you are providing the journalist with the means to expand coverage.
4: Use broadcast sparingly
Understandably, broadcast interviews can take a lot out of a family member who is in shock or grieving. Limit these interviews. In the case of Serena, I only encouraged family members to do interviews that had a broad international reach and then later a national reach.
Once the search for Serena and then for Miles was over, these interviews became pointless. A Fox News or 20/20 crew can invade a home for a half day, and once there will have more polite requests than you bargained for, so limit the interviews and decline them unless they serve a purpose.
5: There are resources available to you
PR Newswire and Business Wire can wire your news release, but you will need to either establish an account or hire a PR firm or consultant who can help you write and wire a release. If you include law enforcement contact information, be prepared to get approval from the contact. Be aware that the wire service will need to call the officer in charge of the case and confirm that they will be listed as a contact. They will need to do this prior to wiring the release. Hire professionals. Crisis Communications professionals, whether consultants or firms, can be invaluable during this time.
I hired Jonathan Bernstein for a few hours to review my plan and assist. Jonathan, a crisis prevention and response professional, has his own firm. I wanted to make sure my guidance to the families was not clouded by my own personal concern for Serena and for him to provide me with extra resources. His expertise was extremely helpful, and there are others like him that are but a quick Google search away for you, should you need them.
6: Maintain a method for people to get in touch
Post photos and information on missing person's websites through the FBI and other organizations, such as Missing Persons in the UK (for international cases) or Polly Klaas Foundation. Create a website and post information and pictures. Make sure the URL is easy to remember so it can be said on the radio and in interviews. A good URL is "whereis(name)" or "(name)ismissing.com." Contact information is critical, but unless family members are willing to be contacted directly, limit this. We as PR pros can receive crank calls and field overly ambitious reporters. One reporter called Bison's mother and blurted out, wrongly, that the bodies had been found! He had misinformation and wanted to be the first to get a quote from the grieving mother. A senior editor later called to apologize, but only after I called the reporter's boss and told him this was unforgivable behavior.
7: Scenario plan and remain flexible as needs change A missing person's case can close, and then the need for media interviews and awareness is no more. In the case of Serena, our missing person's case evolved into a manhunt once we learned that Miles had likely done harm to everyone on the boat. With him still at large, it became important to ask media to run his photo, to drive people to our website for more pictures and information. Everyone should remain aware of the PR objective, and should adjust when the objective changes.
For example, only allow interviews with media that serve your purpose. With a missing person's case, the media can be an invaluable tool in assisting in the search, but if the person no longer needs to be found, you must shut things down quickly to spare the family unnecessary interviews and public displays of pain. In retrospect, we all wonder if the media would have cared about our story as much if Bison Dele of NBA fame had not been involved. We doubt it, painful though it is, since to my family, Serena is the famous one. We can't bring her back, but with the help from our friends in the media, we tried to find her, and to this day I am sure that the media attention assisted in the effort to bring her disappearance public.