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Secret #9: Get by with a little help from your friends.

You already know the priceless value of connections in landing a job as a crisis-management expert (if you don't, refer back to Secret #3). Connections are useful for other reasons, too. In a memo detailing a joint recommendation from Tunheim and fellow consultants DeMay and Loveland, Allina is urged to "consider using community partners to carry our messages to reporters whenever possible." Sure enough, "third party validators," in DeMay's parlance, are soon weighing in with a series of op-ed pieces in the Star Tribune, including a stirring defense of Allina signed by Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, and Metropolitan Council chairman Ted Mondale. Not surprisingly, there are undisclosed institutional and personal connections between the consultants and the validators. Tunheim executive Skip Humphrey's son Buck is an aide to Belton. DeMay served as Mondale's campaign manager. A May 4 op-ed piece in the Strib, answering calls to reform the state's healthcare system with a plea for restraint, is authored by Stella Koutroumanes Hofrenning. Hofrenning is an economics professor at Augsburg College, where--in a wonderful bit of synergy--Kathryn Tunheim serves on the board of regents.

 

Secret #10: Pitch, pitch, pitch.

As a crisis-management professional, you'll spend a lot of time and effort trying to discourage reporters from prying into the most embarrassing details of your client's affairs. The true pros also put energy into getting reporters to provide some positive ink or sound bites. Sadly, reporters don't always take the bait. But remember: your chief goal is to impress the client. And that requires that you "create a matrix of media stories to pitch." In its internal documents, Tunheim once again meets the challenge--devising scads of story ideas that never see the light of day but that do flatter the client: "How often HMOs say yes"; "A story on the 'people' who represent 'administrative costs' at Allina. Feature the janitor, the telephone rep., etc;" and a piece on the travails of Allina CEO Gordon Sprenger to "create compassion for the organization." ("Gave up his retirement to see audit through," the memo notes cheerfully. "Personally difficult time. Lemons out of lemonade.") At the same time, Tunheim develops a comprehensive "story placement" plan that outlines a strategy to promote a series of non-audit-related Allina stories for second-tier media, such as "Anoka County Community Newspaper" and "Other Religious Press." One proposal calls for the healthcare giant to take credit for a reduction in traffic accidents in Wright County because of its public-service announcements urging drivers to "put down the coffee," "stop checking your makeup," and "get off the phone."

 

Secret #11: Never underestimate the value of obfuscation.

The poets say truth is beauty, beauty is truth. That's fine for poets. But in the field of crisis management, specific truths are sometimes best sidestepped. Just ask the pros at Tunheim. In one memo, right after promising to "strengthen the belief that Allina is cooperating and has nothing to hide," Tunheim is quick to point out that this strategy does not include much in the way of details. "Keep as low a profile as possible on the specifics of the Hatch investigation," the agency cautions, citing a poll it commissioned which found that "people are more likely to believe Allina is irresponsible the more they know about the Hatch investigation."

 

Secret #12: Be discreet (or, Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain).

Unlike advertising, the success of a public-relations campaign is dependent on the invisibility of the folks pulling the levers. This is especially true when it comes to crisis management. The principle is celebrated on Tunheim's Web site: "We do not normally reveal client identity, except during food or product recalls....And since we build our crisis business by personal referrals born of solid relationships and success, we would never undermine a client reputation by identifying them in a crisis communication marketing effort....Some of our best work is, by nature of our being successful, unknown." To avoid the ensuing scrutiny of the PR campaign, Allina's attorney Doug Kelley devises an ingenious strategy. He drafts a letter to Tunheim informing the agency that it no longer works for Allina, it works for Kelley; thus the fruits of its labor ought to be protected under the doctrine of attorney-client privilege. Susan Eich, a vigilant Tunheim executive, subsequently sends a letter to Kelley informing him that future Tunheim billing invoices will not detail the specifics of the PR agency's work because of "confidentiality concerns."

 

Secret #13: In the end, Secret #1 is the only secret that matters.

Historians credit a former New York City newspaperman named "Poison" Ivy Lee as the pioneer of modern crisis management. His best-known work was in performing damage control for the tycoon John D. Rockefeller following the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, when 14 striking miners and their families in Colorado were killed by company detectives and state militia. The inventive Lee proffered a number of explanations for the massacre, including the theory that the miners themselves had provoked the troops. As it happened, Lee's campaign failed to squelch public outrage and, by most measures, was an abysmal failure. But, interestingly, it was success for Lee, marking the beginning of his lifelong business relationship with Rockefeller. This is the true beauty of the crisis-management profession. All you really need to do is get the job. Consider the Allina case. From the healthcare giant's perspective, the management of this particular crisis--criticism that it is wasting money on outside consultants--could not have turned out worse: In the end, the hiring of Tunheim becomes a crisis of its own. In June, after Attorney General Mike Hatch learns that Allina has contracted with Tunheim to do crisis management, he hauls the healthcare giant back into court and subsequently releases the bulk of the company's PR documents, effectively sinking the crisis-management campaign. And how did Hatch find out about the Tunheim crisis-management campaign? He read about it in a puff piece about the public-relations firm on the Star Tribune's business page. Within a month, Allina agrees to all of Hatch's demands, splitting its hospital and clinics from its HMO arm, and allowing Hatch to handpick replacement boards to govern the new companies. It is, in the words of an April 2001 Allina memo, "the worst case scenario"--hastened by the very damage-control efforts designed to stave it off. But for GCI Tunheim, Jim DeMay, and Joe Loveland, there is a sweet salve to this bitter defeat: the checks, totaling some $306,000 for less than four months' work, are in the mail.

So remember, friend--in the field of crisis management, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

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