By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
As part of the growing but invisible elite who "manage" the public's perception of major corporations, celebrities, and even billion-dollar, nonprofit organizations, your options are virtually limitless. And if it's excitement you crave, consider a future in public relations' most thrilling and fastest-growing specialty--the discipline of crisis management.
As a crisis-management expert, you will work behind the scenes to shape the day's news cycle, pitching stories, meeting with editorial boards, even ghostwriting opinion pieces for major newspapers. And if you have a taste for intrigue, you can branch out into opposition research--where you cull from the background and history of a client's adversary to find that perfect vulnerability.
Best of all, as a crisis-management expert you can realize the dream of financial independence by earning up to $450 an hour! That's what the top talent at the Bloomington-based GCI Tunheim, a subsidiary of the prestigious international PR giant GCI Group, raked in after "spinning" the headlines for Allina Health System during the spring and summer of 2001.
At the time, Allina was in dire need of a crisis-management team. Under investigation by both Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch and the federal Office of the Inspector General, the health giant was facing a raft of wide-ranging allegations, including claims that it had abused its "nonprofit" status by spending too much money on corporate perks. Without proper "context" and "story conditioning," a gullible public might have gotten the wrong idea about those $52,000 golf retreats and $10,000-a-week consulting retainers that are essential to curbing the cost of medical care.
To some people, hiring one set of consultants to address criticism about the hiring of other consultants might seem, well, just plain silly. But in today's PR-driven corporate climate, it is business as usual! In 1999 alone, the total billings of the nation's top 100 PR firms increased 28.4 percent over the previous year to an amazing $2.2 billion, making it among the three fastest growing sectors in the American economy.
In fact, public-relations professionals are involved in 35 to 75 percent of the stories you read and watch. One study, completed in the mid-Eighties and cited in the Columbia Journalism Review, found that 45 percent of the stories in sampled newspapers "either came verbatim from PR releases or with perfunctory additional reporting." Given the "news" media's dependence on PR, you can see why Allina was willing to pay more than $306,000 for four months of service from a team of crisis-management professionals.
We know what you're thinking: "This all sounds great. But how can I learn the secrets of the professionals? I don't know the first thing about crisis management." Well, friend, wonder no more. Tunheim's techniques are now yours to learn, and benefit from. As part of an agreement with Attorney General Hatch, Allina has turned over hundreds of top-secret documents outlining the strategies employed by Tunheim and other Twin Cities' PR professionals--including independent political consultants Jim DeMay and Joe Loveland--who worked for the healthcare company. Stamped "trade secret" and "attorney client privileged," these documents outline the tactics employed by top professionals in a real-world crisis. So here, for the first time, are the 13 secrets of crisis management--the key to your future!
Secret #1: Convince the client they need YOU. Speak their language.
Let's face it. In today's buzzword-laden business environment, if you can't talk the talk, you'll never get the chance to walk the walk. First, show the client you are their kind of people. Tunheim's mastery of corporate jargon is displayed on the home page of its Web site (www.gcitunheim.com), where a series of words and phrases scroll across the screen in seductive slow motion: collective best, frictionless, can do, impactful, deep bench, available. Tunheim's declaration of corporate identity, just a few clicks away, is a tour de force: "We are professionals who deliver big marketplace impact for client partners with strategic marketing conceived by top flight senior talent." Who could resist? As it turns out, not even Allina, even though the conglomerate lists 22 full-time communications specialists on its staff directory.
Secret #2: Prey on the client's fear.
Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But in the crisis-management game, the only thing a PR professional has to fear is a lack of fear. It is the juice that drives the client to you in the first place, the emotion that sustains the most lasting and lucrative client/provider relationships. A "Media Vulnerability Assessment" completed by Tunheim in May 2001 provides a textbook example. Presented as an easy-to-read chart, the document lists 17 potential PR disasters looming in Allina's near future. At the time, Allina had taken some hits in the press for its "executive compensation packages," and there had been reports of a federal investigation of the healthcare company's billing practices. But as Hatch pressed on with his audit of the company's expenditures, Tunheim wisely made the case that things could get much, much worse. In one scenario, Tunheim raises the specter that Twin Cities media will soon be engaging in stakeouts of Allina executives "ala 'Roger & Me'"-- a reference to guerrilla filmmaker Michael Moore's legendary on-camera stalking of General Motors CEO Roger Smith. And just in case that "very high to definite" prospect doesn't equate to more billable hours for their crisis consultants, Tunheim assembles a laundry list of other potential embarrassments: on-camera ambushes of doctors "driving luxury cars." News reports excoriating Allina for refusing to hospitalize accused quadruple murderer Larry Dame on the eve of his alleged crime. Even the possibility that Allina might be fined for defrauding the federal government and that reporters would actually publish the details. Cleverly striking a more relaxed note, Tunheim rates the final example as only a "medium risk," on the grounds that "complexity of finances" might diminish media interest.
Secret #3: Connections, connections, connections.
In real estate just three things matter: location, location, location. A similar principle applies in PR. Political, corporate, and media elites are often intertwined. Once you learn how to exploit these connections, you'll never lack for work. As usual, Tunheim sets the standard, tapping former Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey to do battle with his successor. (In a virtuoso display of timing, Humphrey is put on the Tunheim payroll on March 19, 2001, less than a week before the agency lands its contract with Allina.) Tunheim's inside knowledge of the workings of the attorney general's office extends to namesake founder and CEO Kathryn Tunheim, whose husband, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, once served as Humphrey's right-hand man. Tunheim also partners up with some other insiders to help rescue Allina's image: Former Humphrey press secretary Joe Loveland, an independent consultant, and Lee Sheehy, a former Humphrey deputy who now serves as general counsel to Public Radio International, both become part of the crisis-management team.
Secret #4: Pay attention to proper KARE and feeding of the media.
As a PR professional, you must work closely with reporters. But always remember to keep your friends close--and your enemies even closer. With a history of reporting the Allina scandal more aggressively than other Twin Cities televisions stations, KARE-TV (Channel 11) becomes a top priority for Tunheim's "friendly" story pitches. The importance of matching the right story to the right reporter can't be underestimated. Got a story about parish nurses? KARE anchor Diana Pierce is the perfect fit, given her "deep religious convictions." And while you've got Pierce on the phone, why not have her transfer you to Dave Clutter--the station's "traffic guy" and an afternoon-drive-time host on Christian radio station KTIS-FM (98.5). Everyone at KARE is a candidate, from the cherubic reporters on KARE's teen-targeted show Whatever to the "KARE Basket" segment on their Sunrise program. A subsequent week-by-week plan boasts a carefully constructed sequence of positive stories about Allina. To impress the client further (remember Secret #1), make sure to demonstrate your familiarity with the local media's inner workings. Slip it in casually, as Tunheim does in the memo that notes a "history of friction" between KARE's news director and general manager. While KARE gets special attention, Tunheim is careful not to neglect other media professionals: "Give [Star Tribune editor] Dave Shaffer an investigative story of his own; Engage Pat Kessler at WCCO-TV somehow."
Secret #5: When you're getting paid by the hour, keep the meter running.
When you find a client willing to pay your "professional services" rate of $10,000 a month, don't be the one to let go. Make the love last. In its media-vulnerability assessment (see Secret #2), Tunheim lays out the groundwork for a long and lucrative relationship with Allina, warning that the federal investigation of Allina's billing practices could last until 2004. Jim DeMay, a crisis-management consultant hired by Allina, also deftly positions himself for an extended ride: "We recommend taking advantage of the first 60 days to develop a more comprehensive campaign beyond the targeted constituency groups and beyond the anticipated July 1, 2001 release of the report from the office of the Attorney General."
Secret #6: No advice is too obvious.
Just because you're a crisis-management "expert," don't fall into the trap of ignoring the obvious. Tunheim's bold suggestions include: "Strengthen belief that Allina is a good corporate citizen....Refute inaccuracies that may surface in the Hatch report....Respond to media inquiries with messages that test as believable." The firm also urges Allina to "show humility," to aggressively dispute Hatch's charges of financial impropriety, and to apologize to the people of Minnesota for "the perception that the organization was loose with its customers' money." In his proposal for a $53,000 contract with Allina, consultant DeMay offers similar, billable advice: "Allina is a good corporate citizen. Allina is involved in your local community. Allina is not a big blue building in Minnetonka."
Secret #7: Take simple sentiments and make them complex.
President Dwight Eisenhower once famously remarked to an aide before a press conference, "Don't worry, Jim. If that question comes up, I'll just confuse them." In the world of crisis management, convoluted speech can also be helpful in attracting and retaining clients. In an April 5 memo, Kathryn Tunheim is hoping to convey the following message: "Because of the AG's investigation, Allina needs to clean up its image." She does so with the following, virtuoso display: "The overarching question I would use to move into this mindset is the following: when this is over, what needs to be perceived as true? I've highlighted a couple words here for emphasis, and for clarification. 'this,' of course refers to the situation triggered by the actions of the Attorney General, and the sequence of events that he, and we, have undertaken since his initial trigger. 'Perceived' is important to note because we are interested in trying to take responsibility not only for our business decisions, but for our reputation." Simply dazzling.
Secret #8: Everyone loves a tough guy.
By the time clients get around to actually hiring a crisis-management expert, they are usually a little skittish. After all, they are presumably in the midst of a crisis. One reliable tactic is to strike a take-no-prisoners posture. In a work proposal penned by DeMay on May 4, the veteran political operative vows to "lead a war room effort for the first sixty days of the project." He promises--with just the appropriate dash of confidence-inspiring swagger--to be at Allina HQ "all day, every day." He also suggests a strategy of "casting doubt on those who unfairly attack Allina." As part of the proposed budget, DeMay even recommends $4,500 be set aside for "opposition research." An April 18 Tunheim memo looks to "identify Hatch foes and use to Allina benefit." The same memo contemplates taking anti-Hatch stories not only to Minnesota Public Radio (where Skip Humphrey puts in at least two calls to staff reporter Patty Marsicano) but also to "National Media." Remember, though: the tough-guy act is strictly for the benefit of the client. Tunheim knows this, and--like the pros they are--urge Allina to publicly emphasize that it has "gone to great lengths to cooperate with the attorney general."
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.