I’m Not the Crisis Insider: A Q&A with PRNEWS’ Seth Arenstein

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Loretta Prencipe, VP at RH Strategic Communications 

Seth Arenstein laughs when I say, “You’re the crisis insider,” pushing back that he’s simply the editor of PRNEWS’ Crisis Insider, a monthly newsletter. But, for some PR pros, Seth is synonymous with Crisis Insider and his columns at prnewsonline.com are a must-read — alternatively practical, forward-looking, and funny. Really, who else can write a column with the headline “For Transparency, It was the Best of Times and Worst of Times?

In November, Seth agreed to a quick Q&A to share his views on crisis and Twitter, his tips on what PR pros need to know, and his must-reads.

Q: This year — 2020 — will go down as the year of crises: social justice, pandemic, election/interference. What stands out to you?

A: I like to look at this moment as one where we have multiple pandemics: the social and political pandemic, the health pandemic, and, in its wake, the economic pandemic. But, in a way, they all have an economic aspect. 

Several things stand out. One is how critical communication is. Companies, at least those that cared, had to use more empathy and increase their internal communication, often the forgotten part of communication. Some brands also had to rethink their external communication strategy.

In addition, look at how COVID-19 started. There are reports, some confirmed, that Chinese officials had evidence of coronavirus in late November 2019. Instead of informing citizens, it silenced those, like Dr. Li, who spoke openly of what appeared to be an unknown virus. 

Eventually, Beijing acknowledged Dr. Li as a hero, but it’s first move was to lock him up. “No story here.” That’s what some companies do when facing a crisis. With China, besides being a bad way to react to a potential crisis, it gave the virus a few weeks’ head start.    

Another thing I will remember was the dichotomy of messages we heard in the early months of the pandemic. Much of the media was highlighting death rates, shortages of beds, PPE and ventilators in hospitals. It got to a point where some medical institutions ordered their staff to keep quiet.  Meanwhile, when I covered the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings, I heard certain members of the administration tell us they were doing a great job fighting the virus and that there were no shortages. No need to worry; everything was under control. 

And then there was confusion over testing and mask wearing. 

In short, communication and messaging were critical to the whole thing. Besides being awful, this moment is a huge communications study. The messaging was muddled — and still is. 

Last, I recall interviewing health communicators in late February before the US public — but apparently not certain politicians — began to become aware of the novel coronavirus. One thing I heard often at that early stage was the importance of referring the public to trusted health sources, such as the CDC and WHO. Of course, the issue there was that, right or wrong, the CDC and WHO were discredited. Again, the public was desperately confused about whom to listen to.

Q: How will this be remembered? 

A: I’m thinking that 100 years from now historians will ask, “All they had to do to cut down on anxiety and problems was to wear masks. Why couldn’t they do that? Why didn’t they do that?” Again, I think communication during this period is going be put under the microscope of historians. 

Q: What do you think about the use of Twitter as a crisis communications tool and its use by President Trump? 

A: I think Twitter is a great thing in theory. The immediacy of Twitter is fabulous for political leaders. For a journalist who can’t be at the capitol to ask a question, you can still get tons of info from the president, a secretary or a governor. Twitter is a great tool — again, in theory. How Twitter’s used and misused by different political leaders, factions, brands and others gets into politics.

Q: What’s the quickest turnaround from a crisis that you’ve seen? 

A: I was reading an article about Chipotle. It was a media darling before the E. coli issues, and now it’s back on top. But it didn’t happen fast. It took good crisis work over several years. [Chipotle] did their job: they identified what it thought was the problem, said what it was going to do to fix it, and then communicated its plan to the public. Now, much of the trust is back, and its stock price is soaring. 

Another example is the Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who got into all kinds of trouble [for racist photos of him in his yearbook] and still has a job. That was a calculated risk on his part not to step down. If I were in his circle, I might have told him to step down. But he is still there, and you rarely see references to that crisis. There’s Teflon and a fast recovery there. I would not have expected him to survive, especially with the times we are in. I’ve not studied what he did [in terms of crisis communication], but he doggedly moved ahead. That doesn’t always work.

Q: How do you like to work with PR professionals and sources? 

A:  Most of the time, I’m writing as a daily reporter. So, I like when PR pros respond quickly and meet the promises they’ve made. I’ve been in situations when someone promises to do an interview — and, right before getting on the phone with that person, I get an email that the executive doesn’t want to do the story. It happens more than you think. And then there are the usual things, such as finding a PR pro who reads your work before they pitch. Another good one is receiving a pitch on email, following it up immediately and getting an “out of office” message.

Q: What are some of your “must-reads”? 

A:  Besides the trades and the daily updates from newspapers, I almost always read Without Bullshit by Josh Bernoff. He posts every business day. Most of the time, he writes about companies that prefer corporate gobbledygook in their communication to straight-forward prose. 

I also like to read columnists from all sides of the spectrum, such as George F. Will, Peggy Noonan, Thomas Friedman, and Maureen Dowd, to name a few.  

It would be easy for me to spend the whole day reading, so I’m thankful for emailed briefs and newsletters that highlight stories and columns. I like The Media Today from CJR, the daily brief of Shelly Palmer, Brian Stelter’s CNN Reliable Sources, and the daily morning briefs of the NY Times, the WSJ and the AP. 

Another regular read are the columns of Mark Ritson at Marketing Week. Well before others weighed in, he was writing about how brands fell down on Black Lives Matter. He looked at companies that had a lot of messaging about standing behind BLM. Then he took a picture of the composition of their boards of directors. His combination of pictures and words was powerful.


About the Author: A former journalist and attorney by training, Loretta Prencipe leads the energy and sustainability work as Vice President in the Washington, DC office of RH Strategic Communications.  She’s worked with companies during challenging crises, including an illegal occupation of a client’s factory, investigation by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for potential environmental issues, and attempts by a utility to regulate an energy services company out of business.