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What Were They Thinking?

Crisis Communication -- The Good, the Bad, and the Totally Clueless

Steve Adubato, Ph.D.

Publication Year: 2008

Some corporations spend millions of dollars on so-called "crisis communication plans." Others offer lip service, avoiding the subject like the plague. They simply hope for the best, praying that they never face a crisis. Either way, as Steve Adubato says, "Wishful thinking is no substitute for a strategic plan."Nationally recognized communication coach and four-time Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Steve Adubato has been teaching, writing, and thinking about communication, leadership, and crisis communication for nearly two decades. In What Were They Thinking? Adubato examines twenty-two controversial and complex public relations and media mishaps, many of which were played out in public. Among cases and people discussed are:The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol scare: Perhaps the best crisis management ever Don Imus: Sometimes saying "sorry" is too little too late Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: Authority does not put you above questioning Bill O'Reilly: Know when to stop defending yourself and save face Former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman: Proof that your written words can come back to haunt you Hurricane Katrina: A natural disaster that led to a larger governmental disaster The Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal: Denial won't get rid of the skeletons in your closet Arranged in short chapters detailing each case individually, the book provides a brief history of the topics and answers the questions: Who got it right? Who got it wrong? What can the rest of us learn from them?

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-11

My personal introduction to crisis communication is burned in my memory of events I would like to forget. In 1984, I was a twenty-six-year-old New Jersey state legislator who had quickly learned how to use the media to my advantage. But I was naive and unprepared for my first public relations crisis. During my second year in office, I found my photo on the front page of the...

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Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol Scare: Getting It Right

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pp. 12-19

When it comes to crisis communication, virtually every organization’s performance under pressure is measured against Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Extra Strength Tylenol/cyanidelacing scare in October 1982. Although it occurred in a very different media environment than our present one, this case is still...

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The Exxon Valdez Oil Tanker Spill: The Invisible and Clueless CEO

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pp. 20-26

Nearly two decades after it happened, the response by Exxon executives to the Valdez oil spill disaster remains a prime example for how not to handle a crisis. It was March 24, 1989, when the nearly 1,000-foot oil tanker was moving through Prince William Sound in Alaska headed for California. There was no storm, no wind, no ice, and no rough seas. With such calm waters there...

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The New York Knicks: Know When to Fold 'Em

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pp. 27-37

Sometimes when you or your organization faces an embarrassing incident (often the precursor to a crisis or scandal) the best crisis response plan includes actions to get the situation behind you as quickly as possible. In cases involving explosive charges such as sexual harassment in the workplace, it is often advisable...

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Chaos in a West Virginia Coal Mine: “They're Alive!”

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pp. 38-46

Company and government leaders called it a problem of “miscommunication.” Others called it a “communication breakdown.” Any way you look at it, what happened on January 2, 2006, to the Sago miners and their families in West Virginia after a coal mine collapse was unimaginable, unconscionable, and...

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The Church’s Pedophilia Scandal: Skeletons in the Closet

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pp. 47-56

The problem of pedophilia in the Catholic Church and the crisis of communication that surrounds it is nothing new. Certain priests, sick and dangerous ones, have been molesting young boys (and to a lesser extent girls) for decades, shrouded and protected by the organization’s unwritten, apparent code of...

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Dick Cheney: Misfiring Under Pressure

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pp. 57-67

Dick Cheney, vice president to George W. Bush, has never liked or trusted the mainstream media, particularly the Washington press corps. During his tenure in the White House, he didn’t court reporters, editors, or key media decision makers, and his press conferences and interviews were few and far between....

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The Glen Ridge Rape Case: “Stand by Our Boys”

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pp. 68-78

The story broke on May 23, 1989, but the impact continues to be felt in the small suburban community of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The details are still shocking: A seventeen-year-old mentally impaired girl named “Leslie Farber” (a pseudonym) was...

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The Death of Pat Tillman: The Cover-up Is Always Worse

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pp. 79-89

One would think after more than thirty years since Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon left office in disgrace in the wake of Watergate that professionals, particularly those serving in highlevel positions, would do all they could to avoid obvious “Nixonian” communication mistakes, especially relating to...

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Rudy Giuliani: A Tale of Two Leaders

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pp. 90-103

I write this chapter as we approach another anniversary of 9/11, and like all Americans I have my own vivid and hard-to-forget recollections of the events of that horrific day. Also like most Americans, it was 9/11 and the following chaotic and unforgettable days that cemented for me the reputation of then New...

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Christie Whitman and the EPA: Coming Clean on Ground Zero

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pp. 104-115

Once the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, countless brave men and women willingly jumped in to save as many people as possible. Soon it became clear that few would survive the collapse of the Twin...

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Prudential’s Terror Threat: The "Rock" Gets It Right

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pp. 116-125

The threat of a terrorist attack is a constant worry in our daily lives—for good reason. Many terrorism experts believe that another attack is coming; we just don’t know when or where. Given this fact, it’s reasonable to assume that most organizations have a disaster plan that includes a comprehensive crisis communication...

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Virginia Tech: A Deadly Delay?

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pp. 126-135

On April 16, 2007, Cho Seung-Hui, a twenty-three-year-old South Korean native who was an English major at Virginia Tech, gunned down thirty-two innocent people on the campus and ultimately turned the gun on himself. There are many, including me, who believe that some of those deaths could have been prevented...

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Don Imus: “I Can't Get Anywhere with You People”

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pp. 136-147

Sometimes even veteran, accomplished broadcasters create their own crises and then make it worse by not immediately recognizing the severity of the situation. Consider Don Imus and his now infamous April 4, 2007, “nappy-headed hos” comments directed toward the Rutgers University women’s basketball...

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Jon Corzine: Getting It Right . . . And Getting It Wrong

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pp. 148-157

Sometimes a leader can handle a crisis in an extremely effective and strategic fashion yet struggle mightily to get a different—yet no less challenging—crisis right. Consider the case of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a multimillionaire who spent well over $100 million of his own money getting elected first to the...

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Jet Blue Airways: A Late-night Disaster

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pp. 158-167

Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman gets big points for stepping up and taking the heat when his airline made national headlines on February 14, 2007, for canceling 1,100 flights and stranding thousands of passengers in airports and on tarmacs across the...

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The O’Reilly “Factor”: Knowing When to Shut Up

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pp. 168-176

When FOX News producer Andrea Mackris accused the network’s superstar Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment and demanded $60 million from O’Reilly and FOX, all hell broke loose. O’Reilly, a tenacious brawler on the air, went on the offense; he said he would fight the charges to protect his reputation...

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Taco Bell’s E. Coli Scare: When Good Intentions Aren't Enough

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pp. 177-183

When your crisis becomes a punch-line for late-night talk show monologues, you know you have a serious public relations problem on your hands. Consider the case of Taco Bell and the E. coli outbreak that caused seventy-one people to get sick in five states in late 2006. In December, David Letterman delivered these jokes on his show: “You folks been to Taco Bell lately? They...

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The New York Times: Covering Up for Jayson Blair

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pp. 184-195

Throughout its 154-year history, the New York Times has employed some of the most talented reporters and editors in the field and has had its pick of young wannabe journalists with the most impressive credentials. As one reporter has noted: “There is...

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The Duke “Rape” Case: A Rush to Injustice

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pp. 196-206

By all accounts, Durham County North Carolina District Attorney Michael Nifong was a media neophyte who was politically desperate to win voter approval in his 2006 reelection campaign. So when a black stripper claimed that she was raped by a...

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Alberto Gonzales: Paying the Price for Playing with Words

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pp. 207-217

Alberto Gonzales was considered by many to be a decent, hardworking, and dedicated lawyer who felt quite comfortable being a judge. Yet, when he was appointed as U.S. attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement officer, the skills and tools...

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NFL Boss Roger Goodell: Scoring Big Points Under Pressure

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pp. 218-227

In the first few months of his first year as the National Football League commissioner, Roger Goodell demonstrated the kind of solid and highly credible media savvy that is often lacking with corporate executives who are under significant pressure—particularly those in professional sports. In 2007 Goodell faced a...

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FEMA Fails during Katrina: Talk About "Clueless”

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pp. 228-237

“I feel somewhat abandoned,” said FEMA chief Michael Brown to a congressional committee on February 10, 2006, regarding his perception that he was taking the brunt of the blame for the colossal failure of the federal government to deal effectively in...


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pp. 239-248

About the Author

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p. 263-263

E-ISBN-13: 9780813545530
E-ISBN-10: 0813545536
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813543611
Print-ISBN-10: 0813543614

Page Count: 262
Publication Year: 2008