Can software really help in a crisis?

Software has long been a staple of disaster planning in industries like petrochemicals or nuclear energy, where computerized scenarios can plot everything from the spread of hazardous plumes to large-scale evacuation routes.

Software has long been a staple of disaster planning in industries like petrochemicals or nuclear energy, where computerized scenarios can plot everything from the spread of hazardous plumes to large-scale evacuation routes.

Software has long been a staple of disaster planning in industries

like petrochemicals or nuclear energy, where computerized scenarios can

plot everything from the spread of hazardous plumes to large-scale

evacuation routes.

But now some PR firms and other companies are getting into the software

game, producing programs designed to help companies prepare for,

simulate or fight threats to their reputation in times of crisis. That

includes anything from sexual harassment allegations to product recalls

to industrial accidents. If the software catches on, corporate

executives one day might just as soon go to a computer to figure their

’Reputation Management Index’ or check their ’Outrage Meter’ as phone a

human consultant.

Or maybe not. Predictably, purveyors of the new software, including big

guns such as Hill & Knowlton and Edelman, say their products are

important tools for enlightened companies. Just as predictably, crisis

consultants who don’t work with software are skeptical or downright

antagonistic, seeing the programs as little more than a psychological

crutch to be tossed away when zero hour arrives.

Both sides agree that there is little chance that crisis software, much

of which is still in testing, will take money out of the pockets of

human strategists anytime soon. But the question remains what inroads

automation can make in the era of reputation-sensitive companies,

high-paid consultants and instant ’round-the-clock news.

’Software is going to make more and more of the PR functionality

available to more companies,’ predicts George Salvat, director of

Milwaukee WebWorks, which is developing an Internet-based crisis

communications program for small businesses.

Salvat says software like his, which includes templates for creating

documents and scripts for dealing with media and government agencies,

might make companies more likely to follow through and handle crises

rather than try to hide from them.

’We in the PR business would be unwise to ignore this,’ Margaret Nathan,

president of Strategic Communication in Salt Lake City, counsels on the

strategic role for software. ’Software and the use of technology in

business continues to be a big piece of what we do.’

To others, the notion of seeking any sort of salvation from a computer

screen is anathema.

’Never have, never would,’ answers Robert Irvine, when asked about

recommending software to clients. ’There needs to be a reality check on

these things.’ Irvine is founder and former president (now retired) of

the Institute for Crisis Management, a Louisville, KY agency, and author

of When You Are the Headline: Managing a Major News Story.

’I can’t see companies being foolish enough to entrust their hard-earned

reputations to a bunch of software,’ says Steven Fink, president of

Lexicon Communications in Los Angeles and author of Crisis Management:

Planning for the Inevitable. ’Conceptually,’ he says, ’it sounds like a

lot of snake oil to me.’

Three applications

Reputation management software has evolved in three general categories:

simulations, databases for cataloging incidents and developing plans,

and communications tools for use in actual crises. Simulations receive

grudging approval from crisis pros, who see little to fault in

preparation and training, no matter how great the likely difference

between a rehearsal and the real thing.

’The biggest problem you have in crisis planning is testing ideas and

getting people ready,’ says James Lukaszewski, who runs a crisis

management firm in White Plains, NY. None of his clients, he says, has

inquired about software. Lukaszewski concedes that the computer age made

reputation management software almost inevitable, but, he cautions,

’This is not a front-line defense tool, this is a back-line preparation


Agencies Hill & Knowlton, New York, and Corporate Response Group,

Washington, DC, offer CD-ROM-based simulation packages. The latter’s

Exman is designed to help users create their own crisis drills by

prompting them to assess their vulnerabilities and then devise exercises

to test and strengthen those areas. As participants complete the

exercises, they store ’lessons learned’ on Exman’s database for

incorporation into crisis plans.

Ken Paul, London-based crisis coordinator for BP Amoco, says his office

purchased Exman to help prepare an emergency response drill. He found

the software ’intuitive’ and ’timesaving,’ but thinks that for maximum

effectiveness it must be installed networkwide, rather than on a

smattering of individual computers.

Robert Wilkerson, president of Corporate Response Group, acknowledges

that software, by its very newness, clashes with the corporate culture

of many communications departments.

’Until PR professionals accept software as a tool, it doesn’t help

them,’ he says.

Hill & Knowlton’s simulation, The Virtual Crisis, introduces a mythical

company and a smarmy exec who’d rather hear his female junior

colleague’s ideas over dinner or, better yet, breakfast. H&K says it

made sexual harassment the theme of the exercise because of its

potential to crop up in any type of company. At H&K-run simulations,

participants watch the single incident snowball into a class action

lawsuit, then huddle for timed segments to hash out media and internal

communications strategies. When they come back, the crisis takes a turn

for the worse - the simulation introduces alarming financial news for

their ’company.’

A tool for preparation

Dick Hyde, H&K executive managing director, says the agency has

conducted a handful of test presentations of The Virtual Crisis, which

he says gives participants experience in working under pressure as a

team and a taste of the extreme unpredictability of crises. Hyde sees

reputation software’s greatest potential in training and preparation

rather than in real-time crisis management. He says one target of the

firm’s upcoming marketing campaign for The Virtual Crisis is young

dot-coms, where workplace etiquette might have taken a back seat to

business development.

Dan Donovan, manager of media relations at Dominion Resources, a utility

holding company based in Richmond, VA, participated in The Virtual

Crisis with company executives from several states. Skeptical at first,

Donovan, a former newspaper reporter, says he appreciated the deadlines

imposed for creating documents. One of his bosses complained there

wasn’t enough time to complete assignments, says Donovan, who adds,

’That, to me, was the point.’

Merrie Spaeth, president of Spaeth Communications, a Dallas-based

strategic consulting firm, says crises typically arise from companies

failing to ’think through’ volatile situations or heed signs of trouble

Databases, she says, make symptoms harder to ignore.

’Data management, particularly in larger companies, can play an

important analytical role if it gets to the right people high up in the

organization,’ says Spaeth, noting that some of her clients are

experimenting with reputation software. But she is ready with a caveat:

’Software doesn’t have good judgment and it doesn’t change people’s


Three database programs - Ki4, Crisis Plan wRiter and Outrage - offer

different methods of collecting and organizing information to be used in

preventing or fighting crises.

SeNet Corp.’s Ki4 Reputation Management lets companies document internal

incidents such as discrimination claims or accidents. Users can then

consult SeNet’s proprietary Reputation Management Index, a series of

bars and charts that score how the company is regarded on various issues

by its own employees.

’If you can’t identify problems,’ says SeNet president Jim Kartalia,

’anything could turn into a crisis.’

Kartalia says about 200 companies tested earlier versions of Ki4. SeNet,

based in Oakbrook, IL, is raising capital to market the finished

product, which it has already provided free to those same companies

Future versions, says Kartalia, will include industrywide information to

let users compare the reputations of competing companies on various


CommCore Consulting Group’s Crisis Plan wRiter prompts companies to

create a crisis plan through researching likely problem areas, choosing

a crisis team and designating key audiences for crisis communications.

Planners also enter details such as where to find additional office

supplies and where to hold interviews. Post-crisis, the program asks the

team to analyze its actions and their effect on key audiences. It then

grades the team’s performance.

Andrew Gilman, president of Washington, DC-based CommCore, says the rise

of the Internet and 24-hour news cycles makes the speed and

accessibility of crisis planning software indispensable. But ease of use

can also impart a false sense of security, he warns.

’If you don’t drill based upon your plan,’ Gilman says, ’you’re not

anywhere near fully prepared. It’s like the fire department buying a

truck and never figuring out how to use the pump.’

Gilman would like to see crisis software’s utility expand to include

integration with hand-held devices and keystroke access to insurance and

legal documents. He says some users have complained about the time it

takes to negotiate his software, but he points out that this means they

are contemplating the issues it raises, which will pay dividends in a


Technology vs. the experts

Most consultants interviewed scoffed at the idea of software supplanting

human beings, but Peter Sandman says he’s planned for just that.

Sandman, a risk communications specialist in Princeton, NJ, co-created

Outrage Prediction & Management with an Australian safety consultancy,

Qest Consulting Group. The software asks users to describe their

potential problem areas and potential enemies and answer multiple-choice

questions about both.

This leads to a final score on the Outrage Meter, which forecasts the

magnitude of a would-be reputation crisis. The software then guides

users back to their answers; the greater the changes they commit to

making, the more the meter cools off.

Although Sandman says he has more business than he can accept, he also

admits the software is selling slowly. ’Companies don’t really care

about replacing the pricey consultant,’ he observes. ’They don’t want

(Outrage), they want the human being. That surprises me, because the

software is better. It’s got so much stuff in it that you never have

time to cover in an individual consultation.’

Little-marketed in the United States, Outrage has seen wider use down

under. Southeastern Australia’s United Energy, a retail utility

provider, purchased Outrage to better handle customer and media

inquiries during a controversy over utility privatization.

’It worked pretty well, though it’s somewhat laborious to use,’ says

former CEO Keith Stamm.

Stamm says the software helped company executives move off the defensive

and stiffly legalistic public comments they were used to making. Press

coverage became more positive.

’It’s really the concept and getting the culture right rather than

relying on a specific piece of software,’ says Stamm.

Some of these crisis programs being developed are Web-based, including

those by corporate Response Group and WA-based Baron & Co.

Corporate Response Group is helping create a program that would allow

users in different locations to contribute and update crisis

communications on private Web sites before posting them publicly. These

would be used mostly by small businesses such as restaurants to know

what to do in a food poisoning crisis, for example. Plans and documents,

such as media scripts, could be stored there and used when the crisis


Edelman’s program, Crisis Preparation and Response (CPR), relies on what

it calls ’dark sites’ - sites where documents, video and other crisis

necessities are assembled but not made available until the crisis

actually hits. Hosted on Edelman’s own dedicated servers, the sites can

be opened to as wide or as narrow an audience as a client needs. Edelman

executive vice president Jon Goldberg wouldn’t name clients but says his

firm has used CPR dozens of times in the last three years.

Possible fallout

Goldberg says CPR has been successful, but he is unsentimental about the

role of software in crisis management. ’It may get you part of the way,

but it doesn’t get you all the way,’ he says. ’It could even leave a

company more vulnerable because it believes it’s protected when it’s

not. Technology cannot replace expert counsel.’

Baron & Co. president Gerald Baron says he expects most buyers of his

firm’s program, Public Information Emergency Response (PIER), to be

forestry, oil and manufacturing concerns. Currently in testing by a

Northwest refining company, PIER allows communications teams to draft

and approve documents on a secure site and then post them on a public

site for the media to see. Baron says he conceived the program after

working on environmental disasters with multiple agencies, all of which

exercised document approval.

He says he expects to launch PIER’s finished version by summer.

A group that, not surprisingly, has something to say regarding

reputation management software is lawyers. Unless operated by a

corporate legal department, and thus cloaked in attorney-client

privilege, databases, private sites and the like are vulnerable to

disclosure in a legal proceeding. Sites that disappear at the conclusion

of a crisis are fair game if a lawsuit ensues, says John H. McGuckin Jr.

of the American Corporate Counsel Association, meaning companies should

keep copies of everything they put online.

Databases that monitor internal incidents can therefore be a

double-edged sword. In the event of an employee lawsuit, McGuckin says,

they can become a source of additional plaintiffs for a class action. If

a company is sued by the government, however, a catalog of documented

incidents can indicate intended compliance with the law, and thereby

mitigate potential penalties.

McGuckin thinks companies should give their employees the benefit of the

doubt. ’It’s more beneficial to a company to monitor compliance efforts

and identify trends than it is to be perpetually preparing oneself for a

lawsuit that may never come,’ he says.

Reputation management software has had comparatively little time to make

any impact on public relations. For every consultant whose blood runs

cold at the thought of taking a back seat to a CD-ROM or a Web site,

another consultant sees a tool - one to be kept sharp and judiciously

used. Based on their trust and expertise in technology, companies will

choose how much to rely on software. The primary cause of reputation

crises, after all, isn’t going anywhere.

’The human factor in crises is the most difficult to predict,’ says

Corporate Response Group’s Wilkerson. ’If we could forecast all the

variables, we’d give it to a machine to solve.’



Name: The Virtual Crisis

Creator: Hill & Knowlton, New York

Type of program: Crisis simulation

Price: dollars 15,000 for one-day session

Status: Fully tested; about to be marketed

Name: Exman

Creator: Corporate Response Group, Washington, DC

Type of program: Crisis simulation

Price: dollars 1,495 (one computer), dollars 6,995 (one server), dollars

17,695 (multi-server)

Status: Available for purchase

Database programs

Name: Ki4 Reputation Management

Creator: SeNet Corp., Oakbrook, IL

Type of program: Database, with proprietary Reputation Management Index


Price: dollars 1,500 to dollars 3,500

Status: Available for purchase

Name: Crisis Plan wRiter

Creator: CommCore Consulting Group, Washington, DC

Type of program: Database and crisis plan template

Price: dollars 950

Status: Available for purchase

Name: Outrage Prediction & Management

Creator: Peter Sandman and Qest Consulting Group

Type of program: Database, calibrates potential controversy through

proprietary ’Outrage Meter’

Price: Approximately dollars 2,500 for individual license, dollars

15,000 for national license and dollars 40,000 for international


Status: Available for purchase

Communication tools

Name: Public Information Emergency Response (PIER)

Creator: Baron & Co., Bellingham, WA

Type of program: Internet-based crisis communications

Price: dollars 12,000 to dollars 30,000

Status: Being tested by Baron clients

Name: Crisis Preparation and Response

Creator: Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, New York

Type of program: Internet-based crisis communications

Price: Part of Edelman’s consulting fee

Status: Available to clients.

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