In this debut episode of Chats with Chip, Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management joins me to talk about the journey that has allowed him to become one of the foremost experts in crisis communications.
PR Week says that Jonathan Bernstein is one of those people who should be on your speed dial in a crisis. A former journalist who came over to the Dark Side, he has been advising clients for more than three decades on every aspect of handling a crisis, from preparation to response and evaluation. He publishes the popular “Crisis Manager” newsletter, which he describes as being “for those who are crisis managers, whether they want to be or not.”
Jonathan’s career has followed an interesting path that made for some great conversation. It includes time in Military Intelligence, as an investigative journalist, an agency executive, and even a period as Manager of Corporate Communications at Playboy Enterprises.
About the Show
Chats with Chip features conversations with public relations and communications leaders, innovators, authors and visionaries. It is hosted by Chip Griffin, a longtime PR professional and veteran podcaster.
Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.
CHIP GRIFFIN: “PR Week” says that Jonathan Bernstein is one of those people who should be on your speed dial in a crisis. A former journalist who came over to the Dark Side, he now serves as the president of Bernstein Crisis Management. For more than three decades, he’s been advising clients on every aspect of handling crisis, from preparation to response and evaluation. He publishes the popular “Crisis Manager” newsletter, which he describes as being “for those who are crisis managers, whether they want to be or not.”
I’m very pleased to have Jonathan with us today.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Chip. Glad to be here.
CHIP GRIFFIN: It is fantastic to have you here, and I think I want to start by focusing in on that ‘Dark Side’ bit. You started out as a journalist, in this part of the field, at least; and you were actually working for someone who is well known to those of us who have some gray hair, Jack Anderson. Tell us a little bit about that.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, that was somewhat serendipitous, but partially maybe an exhibit of my dark side. I had been, for five years prior to working for Jack, in military intelligence, which, yes, is an oxymoron. But I was involved heavily in counterterrorism work, and I was a fan of Jack’s; had always read his stuff. And I decided that my skills in MI would translate well to being an investigative reporter, so I used the access that was at my disposal while in military intelligence to get Jack’s unlisted home phone number –
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: – in Potomac, Maryland. And I happened to be stationed at that point at Army Intelligence headquarters at Fort Meade, and I called him up and said, “Jack, this is Jonathan Bernstein with the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency, and I’d like a chance to meet with you privately.” And, obviously, he thought I had a leak for him; but when I met with him, what I said was, “Jack, I don’t have a leak, per se, although I think my knowledge would be useful to you. But I’m getting out of the service in three months, and I’d like a job.”
And he gave me a job.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, that’s fantastic. It’s good to know that the military was using its powers to snoop on Americans even back then. This is not something new.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Oh, no, not new at all.
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, while you worked for him you no doubt created crises for others to handle. So, instead of handling them yourself, you started down this path by causing problems for folks.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Yeah, or exacerbating problems they already had. You know, a lot of people came to Jack cold, and part of the job of his cadre of young reporters, of which I was one, was to take the cold calls and sort out and figure out which ones were actually good stories or not. And we had some pretty high-level leaks coming in; but, you know, the big muckety-mucks with stories would actually walk in and talk to Jack directly. I mean I saw Stansfield Turner, who was then the head of the CIA, come right in to our office because he wanted to talk to Jack.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, and for those who don’t have that gray hair, Jack Anderson was really one of the preeminent journalists of his time and was well known for exposing truths, shall we say.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Right, and this was before every media outlet had their own investigative reporters, and so he was syndicated in almost 500 newspapers. He was on “Good Morning, America.” He was on the radio. So, he was the source of investigative reporting for a lot of what is now traditional media, you know, worldwide, even.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Now, had you always had that bug that you thought you might want to be in journalism? Or, was it really just a more practical, “Hey, how can I leverage my skills as I’m getting out of the military?”
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: It was more I was a speech [and] communications major at the University of Maryland. I actually finished my degree – the last two years – in the service. And I actually never had a journalism course, but I was always simply fascinated by what he did, and I just had an “aha” moment at one point that this would be a good thing for me to go into.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And was it an uphill battle to get the job? Or, did he just sit down and say, “Yep, I’m going to hire you right on the spot”?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: No, he hired me on the spot. That was [crosstalk].
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s impressive.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, he was impressed that I snuck into his presence. [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh] Yeah.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: He figured that kind of skill would be useful working for him.
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh] And I’m sure it was.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: It was. In fact, I have – I don’t know how much time you’ve got, but I have some interesting stories of tricks I pulled while working for him that turned into stories.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And now you know how to guard against those tricks – right?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Yeah, exactly.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, from Jack Anderson, did you then go immediately from there into PR? Or, did you spend more time in journalism?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: No, Jack – bless him – for all of the benefits of working for him, which were mostly the recognition, paid diddly. He paid less than I was getting in the service. So, I survived for about a year and then went freelance, working for anybody who would pay 50 cents a word, which was kind of the best going rate at the time. And with Jack as a credential, I was able to get lots of work over the subsequent four years or so before I segued to PR.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And the irony, of course, is that 50 cents a word these days would actually be fairly substantial – at least for anyone in the online world, where you’re lucky to get 25 cents a word.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Exactly. I mean for publishers or writers of any kind, the income reality has gone way, way down. And, as someone who’s had to actually mark down the price of a book that I sell published because of that reality, it has changed – definitely.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And so you spent some time writing, and then at some point, you ended up at Ruder Finn, which was – and, I guess, still is – a very prominent firm; and you ended up creating their first Crisis Communications Group.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Tell us a little bit about your agency experience.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, that was after 12 years in PR, Chip, actually, that I was head-huntered over to Ruder Finn.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Oh, okay.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: I entered PR laterally from freelance writing in 1982, as Manager of Corporate Communications at Playboy Enterprises. And I wasn’t on the fun part of Playboy, really, although it was fun; but it wasn’t right at the core – or hardcore – of it. It was in 1982: Playboy Jazz Festival, Playmate Promotion Agency – things like that – but it was the worst year in the company’s history, and I had a lot of crisis management experiences while there, because they lost their book division. They lost all the Playboy Clubs. They lost a casino they had in New Jersey. Christie took over the company as a novice, and there wasn’t much competence [in her?] at that point, although she did well. In the last press release I put out for the company after a year there was announcing a 40 percent reduction in force, a huge layoff – ‘including the whole PR staff. So, don’t call me, because I’m not going to be here.’ [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: But I found I had a knack for doing that, and I think a lot of my military and investigative reporting experience enhanced that knack, although I think a good crisis manager is kind of born with that ability, and then it can get refined with experience and mentoring. Then when I jumped to [the] agency side, I sought out that type of work; and by 1989, was doing that full-time for a large, local PR firm and then was head-huntered away to Ruder Finn and started their group.
But I don’t play well with others. I learned that in the military. I [laugh] learned that in [the] corporate world and decided that the best place for me would be self-employment. And after five years at Ruder Finn is when I started what was then called “Bernstein Communications,” which later became “Bernstein Crisis Management.”
CHIP GRIFFIN: And so what is it that you think doesn’t make you ‘play well with others’? Is it the internal politics? I’m always fascinated by folks like you and me who become entrepreneurs versus working within a larger entity and really what drives that.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, part of it is the politics. I don’t have the patience with it. One of the biggest assignments I ever had still to this day – they’re still an ongoing client – is Craigslist. One of the reasons Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster hired me is because I don’t fawn. I don’t kiss ass, basically. [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: But in [the] corporate world, there is a lot of that going on; and I just didn’t do it well, didn’t like it, and it was very clear that I didn’t. And, frankly, when I was younger, there was a degree of arrogance. I didn’t suffer what I thought were fools. Sometimes, people who didn’t know my specialty as well as I did – I always respected – if someone was an investor relations specialist, I wouldn’t dare consider telling them what they should be doing; and, yet, that happened a lot in the corporate world.
And the other, very big component for me is I want to work with who I want to work with, and I want the freedom to turn down a client. In the big agency world, you can’t do that. About 50 percent of my income for Ruder Finn was a nice salary, but the other 50 percent was because I was very good at business development. And they kept pulling me away to work on things where they were short on people, and I was getting less and less time to earn that extra money. That was pretty much the last straw; and I decided, no, I’d much rather work for myself, even if it’s making less money than, than continue to get my chain pulled all the time.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And when you stepped out, did you have clients lined up right away? Or, did you have to go through that nerve-wracking period where you wondered if you were going to be able to sign a client on the dotted line to keep it moving forward?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, the nerve-wracking period came later. I had a certain number of clients who followed me, but in crisis management work it’s rare that you have ongoing clients. It does happen over the years, and I certainly have some now that I’m their go-to guy when they need more training, or planning, or crisis response. But the few that I did take with me were enough to make my first year comfortable; but in the first ten years of my business, in particular, there were a lot of ups and downs. And there was more than a few times when, you know, I thought I was going to have to call the mortgage company and say, “We can’t pay this month.” I think there was probably a month or two when I did. But we got through that, and over time I got enough of a baseline of ongoing work and a bit more of a reputation, that it ceased to be an issue whether the rent was paid. It was just a question of whether we could take fancy vacations or not.
CHIP GRIFFIN: You mentioned that it’s obviously not a lot of ongoing client work in what you do. Do you usually get the call after the crisis has already hit the papers? There I go showing myself old-school by saying “papers” – right?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: Or, is it [that] people spot the crisis a little bit ahead of time and get you in to help? At what point, I guess, do you usually become engaged with your clients?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, that’s also changed a great deal in the last ten years, Chip, and I think because the Internet has made people much more aware of crises and how many crises could’ve been prevented if people [had] intercepted them earlier; or, damage could’ve been reduced if it had been dealt with better and quicker. And if you’d asked me ten years ago what percentage of first calls – cold calls – coming in were for crisis responses versus what I refer to as “crisis preparedness,” I would’ve said 90 percent were crisis response; the fire is already burning. These days, the percentages are almost reversed – not quite that level, but 60 to 70 percent of incoming cold calls that I get are for crisis preparedness and prevention work. And either they don’t have any crisis at all pending; or, as you’ve made reference to, there’s something in their future which may, or is likely to, rise to crisis level; and they want to take the time to get ready for it.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And do you think that shift is because there’s a shifted mentality to prepare sooner, or is it just your reputation – what you’ve become known for? How would you explain that?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, I think maybe my reputation and the fact that my website pretty consistently is the top-ranked consultancy in a Google search for “crisis management” may be the reason that I get the call. But I think everybody in my field – and it’s still not a very big field in terms of the number of people that do it full-time – have [sic] benefited from awareness – simply awareness of crises and crisis prevention. And all of us have also been engaged very actively for 20 years or so, probably, in educating the public about it. You know, I’ve had my newsletter for – I don’t know – 12 or 15 years and spoken widely about it and published about it. And my peers in the business have done the same thing, and then we can spread the word by Internet, which always helps. So, over time, awareness has grown. And also, there’s been a lot of pressure now on boards of directors and even pressure exerted by companies’ insurance policies for an organization to be better prepared. And I’ve had more than a few assignments that originated with either of those last two options.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. When you look back over the course of your career, how has responding to crises changed in that time? I mean, obviously, you’ve been at the forefront of using the Internet as a communications tool. It has clearly changed things, so I’m sure that’s a piece of it. But what other factors do you think go into the changing nature of the landscape when it comes to crisis communications?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean it is overwhelmingly the Internet. I mean I’ve been online since 1982, and I used the Internet as a research and communications tool then. But it wasn’t generally in the public awareness until after the early 1990s, and so the biggest change – it’s all Internet-centered – is the much higher need for preparation in advance: being prepared for instantaneous communication; being prepared for the reality that you can no longer contain a crisis, as you actually used to be able to somewhat geographically contain a crisis. That’s impossible now. And, you know, the need to pay much more information [sic – “attention”] to information security, because it’s much easier to breach confidentiality both internally and externally. So, there’s a need for what the military actually used to refer to as “situational awareness” – really taking in input from multiple channels on an ongoing basis to look for warning signs that you’re either about to ambush yourself, or get ambushed by somebody else.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. Now, you’ve also been very insightful in your use of content marketing. In fact, you were doing content marketing before it was known as “content marketing,” at least in the popular sense. What caused you to go down that path to market your work? And how has that worked for you?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, I did my research. I mean I looked at what was working for other organizations, both in the PR world and elsewhere. And back then, certainly a newsletter was the thing that people were doing, and it seemed to be working very well. And my first issue came out on February 1st, 2000, and there were a number of very good online organizations that gave you all the information you needed about starting a successful newsletter. I absorbed that information assiduously and did what they recommended; and sure enough, I got more and more people subscribing. And people would call me because they’d read my newsletter. Both the media and clients would call me because they’d read my newsletter, and it just grew from there.
And then as social media kicked in, [I] started blogging initially, because that was the first types of social media that existed. And as each new platform has come around, I’ve done the same kind of research to assess, “Does this platform do me any good?” “Will this do my business any good?” “Are my stakeholders interested in this particular area?” For example, for my stakeholders, Instagram really isn’t the thing. So, [a] waste of time for me. But Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Google+ – yeah, that works for my business.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. You know, speaking of your business, one of the things that has intrigued me in our previous conversations about the way you’ve grown your firm is that you’ve really created a very extensive network of subcontractors. And that’s certainly not unique in the PR space to use subcontractors for work, but from what I understand from you, you’ve really built it out to a level that probably rivals what large agencies might do, and I’m just impressed by that. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you decided –
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Sure.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – to do that and how it works.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, I recognize from the get-go that part of my personality is that I never wanted to be an employer. I never wanted to have to fire anybody; and I didn’t want to have to deal with personnel issues, per se, and the complexity of the way they have to be dealt with, as an employer. So, from day one, I ran a virtual consultancy. And when there’s more work than I can personally handle; or, when I need to assemble a team; or, when I need expertise that’s related to my work for my clients, but isn’t within my purview, [in] any of those situations, I initially sought out other professionals who were, perhaps, less visible than me [sic], but wanted the work and, yet, were quite expert. My original standard for that was at least 15 years’ experience, which also competed well with the big agencies, where you don’t have that medal, where you might have some very junior people on your team. My teams don’t have that. Only rarely has there been the exception, and that’s because the junior person is my son, and [laugh] –
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: – is extremely well trained.
CHIP GRIFFIN: It’s in the genes – right?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Yeah, and by “junior” – he’s 30 years old. He ain’t a kid; but, you know, he’s still relatively new in the business; and he’s already a whiz at the social media aspects of crisis management.
And then over time, that actually evolved to a formal database on Highrise of all my contractors, that I can sort by pretty much any field you can name – from location, specialty, fee levels. I mean any address, literally any field that you can imagine – a pretty comprehensive database. And I’ve got about 40 contractors who I’ve vetted, who I would not be at all reluctant to associate my name with; about 30 of those in North America, and the other 10 overseas.
CHIP GRIFFIN: You mentioned having experience was one of the criteria for getting into your network. Do you think experience is more important in crisis communications than, perhaps, other parts of the PR industry?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: I think so. I think that when you’re a more junior person, you can execute, you know, press releases for proactive PR reasonably well just based on any experience you might have had in college or shortly after college. The formula is very rote, and you fill in the who, what, where, why, when and how in an entertaining way suitable to your specialty; and off it goes. There’s no risk, per se, involved in making a mistake there. And that’s, I think, where you need more experience; because there is real risk inherent in making a mistake in my field.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. And you also mentioned working with your son. And I know off and on over the years, I’ve worked with my wife in my various companies. What’s it like working with your son?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, first of all, he’s a contractor like everybody else. And [laugh] –
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: – at some point, he may run the business; but he’s a contractor like everybody else, and we don’t work out of the same space, physically. He was in Long Beach, California. Now he’s in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And it’s great. I mean it’s been very smooth, but only because he gets it. And he’s humble enough that if I have to gently, you know, pull on my steel-toed boots every now and then, he takes it well. And when he makes a mistake, he’s usually the first one to tell me instead of me discovering it; and he’s teachable. That’s the number one thing you want in any contractor or employee, that they’re teachable. And we weren’t sure it wasn’t going to work out that way, and he understood that, but he has consistently proven himself over the last three [or] four years he’s been working with me. So, so far, so good; and I’m encouraged.
CHIP GRIFFIN: You know, I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever heard “gentle” and “steel-toed boot” in the same sentence.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, that’s a new one for me.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, in my military days, I used steel-toed boots in a less gentle way. So, there’s the contrast.
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh] There you go.
You know, you talk about what makes a good contractor, or someone good to work with on projects. What makes for a good client? I mean what are the kinds of clients that you sit there and say, “This is going to be a good engagement”? Because, obviously, you’re not going in there – well, except for the preparation side of things, you’re not going in there in a warm and fuzzy time. So –
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Right.
CHIP GRIFFIN: – how do you distinguish between the engagements that you think are going to be, for lack of a better word, I guess, enjoyable, or pleasant than others versus the ones that you know are going to be a pain and maybe you even turn down?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Well, let me quickly interject first the most important thing on contractors is accountability – those that are going to do what they say they’re going to do and that say they’re going to do it [sic]. And I would rather have a contractor who might be technically less intelligent – on a scale of things still sharp, but maybe not quite as intelligent – who’s accountable, than someone who’s not accountable and is a genius. And I’ve had experience with both, so [I’m] just throwing that in.
Now, on the client side, the willingness to do the right thing. If they’re willing to do the right thing, if they’re not looking to obfuscate the truth, or bury it, or bury their heads, and have a real sense of ethics, that’s the number one thing that makes a good client for me. And when it’s apparent to me that a client, or potential client, is not like that, I will either resign the account – which I’ve done – or, I simply won’t take the account if I know it up front, which is what I did recently with Donald Sterling.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Okay. There’s got to be a story there.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: [Laugh]
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Yes. Well, you know, when all the brouhaha started about Mr. Sterling, I don’t know how many other agencies they might have called first; but one of his people called me, and she said that Mr. Sterling was interesting in hiring a crisis management professional. And, now, frankly, if had said, “I want to throw myself on the mercy of the public. I’ve been a real dork. I am very embarrassed by what I have done. I want to be a nice guy from now on,” I would have at least met with him. But what he wanted to do was to focus all the attention on the lady who ratted him out. And I said, “No.”
CHIP GRIFFIN: [Laugh]
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: [Laugh] That was –
CHIP GRIFFIN: That’s not for you.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: – no, because no amount of money is worth selling your soul for. That’s been part of my practice from day one.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, that’s great. I notice your name is “Bernstein Crisis Management” – not your name; your firm’s name, obviously.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Um-hm.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And not “Bernstein Crisis Communications.” Is that intentional?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Yes, because the communications aspect – first of all, I think it’s a more tactical name, and crisis management is a much broader umbrella, which encompasses everything from business continuity through crisis communications; and between me and my contractors, we cover the full gamut. So, hence, the bigger title.
CHIP GRIFFIN: So, along those lines, a lot of times when an organization is in the midst of a crisis, a lot of it comes down to what their actions are. Do you view your role as much to advise on what those actions should be as it to discuss how they communicate it?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: It depends on what kind of actions you’re talking about. There’s, like, put up. Your factory is burning down. Part of the actions is you put out the fire. But I should be – and I usually am – a member of a team advising the CEO on the consequences of different choices. And lawyers may advise on the legal consequences, pros and cons. I would advise on the reputation consequences, pros and cons. And, if appropriate, if I see a risk for business continuity, I will say something about that as well. So, if that’s answering your question.
CHIP GRIFFIN: It is. And this is the kind of conversation that I could go on with forever, but as regular listeners to my podcast know, I never go beyond 30 minutes. And so I’d like to sort of wrap up with a final, capstone question, which is, if you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: I’d probably spend a little less time trying to see if I could develop more business by public speaking. Even though I think I’m a pretty good speaker, and I was a speech major, that ended up being kind of a dead end. It was not a profitable thing for me to do for business development. So now, with rare exception, the only speaking engagements I take are ones that I’m just getting paid to speak.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Um-hm. Why do you think that is?
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: I don’t know. I really don’t. I try to figure it out. It seemed logical to me that seeing me in person and hearing me do my thing would work, and it does when I’m meeting with a client that’s already retained me. But in a conference audience, it doesn’t seem to do the trick.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah, and I’m just curious, because to be honest, it’s the same experience that I’ve had over the years; but I talk to many other consultants who say they get all of their business at conferences. Part of me wonders whether they’re just saying that, and they really don’t track the business that well; or, whether, you know, you and I just aren’t doing it right.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: That could be.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Well, you’ve certainly done a lot right over the last 20 years that you’ve had your business and more than that that you’ve been in this field. You are certainly a well recognized expert in crisis management, and I would certainly encourage all of my listeners to be subscribers to your newsletter and really digest what you’re putting out; because I think it’s fantastic advise and useful information.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
CHIP GRIFFIN: And I really thank you for taking the time to be with us today.
JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Okay. Thank you.