Snap judgments

07 May 2008

It seems that lately you can't turn on the television without seeing some sort of excerpt about the tragic and seemingly unstoppable spiral of Britney Spears' life. Once reputable news shows now feed off of the public travesty of this once acclaimed singer and one can't help but think that maybe, probably, the media is at least partly to blame. Because that's what the media does. It capitalizes on loss and hardship for ratings and news stories. It brings down good people and good businesses with bad press. It opens up cans of worms to use as bait while fishing for something bigger.

The Britney Spears debacle is a classic illustration of what can happen when a once manageable problem becomes entirely unmanageable. It is bad public relations or media management at is worst.

But what, might you ask, does this have to do with construction and risk management? Well, as Donald Trump recently found out, a lot.

On January 15, 2008, at around 2 p.m at the SoHo construction site of the new Trump Tower in New York City, Yuri Vanschytsky fell 40 stories to his death. The incident immediately attracted national news media attention and in a matter of hours, all eyes were on The Donald and the reputed shoddy construction practices at his site. Neighbors strongly opposed the 46 story tower from the beginning, calling it an eyesore and complaining that the construction crews were careless and sloppy. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which led a boycott against the tower, reiterated the problems the building continues to cause in a statement to the local news.

Crisis control

“First and foremost, our thoughts are with the victims of the tragedy and their families and loved ones,” Berman said. “But this is a tragedy that never should have happened. This building was illegal and never should have been approved by the city.”

He continued his blast against the project by saying,“But the city bent over backwards to push it through, and then the developers worked at lightning speed to get the building up while the legal challenge has been making its way through the system. The building was already a monument to greed and hubris; now, sadly, it will be a monument to tragedy as well.”

Is all this true? Sadly, no one can say for certain. The building did receive a number of citations from the city Buildings Department, but what the media fails to inform the public is that citations on construction projects, even ones deemed safe and reputable, aren't all that uncommon.

But perception is reality and in this case, the stop work order that was issued pretty much confirms it. Is bad press completely to blame? No, but the negative media coverage has made it increasingly more difficult for this project to recover.

In that sense The Donald, Britney Spears, and the company you run are all facing the same demons. When a crane flipped and landed on the 405 in California during rush hour traffic last year, media management was paramount. In addition to the clean up and recovery efforts the company had to undertake, there was a back room response that had to happen at the same time. Statements had to be issued, post accident changes had to be implemented and every angle the media could use to vilify the company had to be thought of and addressed.

Bad things can trigger bad news and even the safest of companies can find themselves the center of attention at times. But with an action plan and a few considerations, companies can mitigate their bad press and help alleviate the media migraine that is sure to follow. When developing a plan, though, be sure not to make the two most common mistakes:

1. Not responding within 24 hours of the crisis

2. Not responding in a problem-solving matter

When a crisis arises you need to be composed and professional. The 'T's and 's in the word accident need to be crossed and dotted and your response needs to be genuine and robust. The following are five key considerations to keep in mind when dealing with the media.

1. Respond within 24 hours

When too much time passes it can make you look guilty. Plus, the negative publicity has more time to penetrate public opinion.

2. Demonstrate leadership

The president, CEO, or other top official in your organization should be the one to address reporters. The words that come from the mouth of a senior executive in the company will be more credible than those of a spokesperson.

3. Be accessible to the news media

Avoiding or hiding from the media only confirms suspicions that you may be guilty or concealing something. Make phone calls from the media your first priority.

4. Be honest

The media is like your mother. If you lie, it's only a matter of time until you get caught and once you do, she will make you pay tenfold.

5. Show concern

Demonstrating that you care about the people affected by the situation will help you win the public's understanding.

As time moves on and your business continues to mature, the propensity for accidents and media coverage increases. Most of us will never reach public opinion in quite the same way as Donald Trump or Britney Spears yet, nevertheless, we need to be prepared. It sometimes seems that the deck is stacked against us and no matter how hard we work or how much we care; there is something or someone that's working just as hard against us. But we continue to try, as that is our duty.

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D.Ann Shiffler Editor, American Cranes & Transport Tel: +1 512 869 8838 E-mail:
Matt Burk VP Sales Tel: +1 773 610 9467 E-mail: