Stress isn't so bad when it helps the bottom line

After 50 years, Brotman excited by a new challenge

Public relations

March 21, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

In her 50th year of public relations, Phyllis B. Brotman has decided that, instead of slowing down, she'll compound the stress in her workday by handling only clients in crisis.

Brotman will head up a four-person crisis-management department for Gray, Kirk/VanSant -- a new venture for the Baltimore advertising and public relations firm, where Brotman is executive vice president.

"It gives you the chance to be more creative," Brotman said. "I like my adrenaline flowing."

Brotman also said that the firm expected to increase its revenue through the venture, noting that separate crisis-management units have become "profit centers" at other large firms.

Her job will be to handle crisis situations for existing clients and drum up new business among owners and managers of shopping centers, attorneys and elsewhere within the private and public sectors. Once a crisis occurs, an hourly rate of between $150 and $300 will kick in.

Typically, companies turned to crisis management to handle public relations nightmares such as plane crashes or the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. But, even much smaller events can trigger communications nightmares. And today's 24-hour news cycle fuels the demand for crisis management, industry experts say.

"There is an increased recognition that you have to deal with any situation that might evolve into a crisis as if it were one," said Michael P. Sullivan, vice president of public relations company Shandwick International's Baltimore office. "You used to say something, and it was on the NBC News or in the Sun, and it went away. Now it's on the Web."

Because the implications of a crisis are more far reaching than in the past, companies may be less likely to try to handle the matters in-house. At Shandwick, 75 percent of clients call on them for help when crisis strikes, he said.

"More and more companies and corporations recognize that in the event of a crisis you tend to get so close to the subject, so caught up in the moment and so immersed in the demands of the situation that it becomes valuable to have the perspective of some outside professional communicator brought to bear," Sullivan said.

A large part of crisis communications is advance preparation that involves assessing a company's vulnerability and practicing drills on the most likely scenarios, experts say.

"All of a sudden, your switchboard lights up and you have 2,000 calls," said Peter S. McCue, a senior partner who directs a corporate and crisis communications department at Fleishman-Hillard Inc., a New York-based public relations firm. "What are you going to do?"

One answer these days ought to involve the ability to provide a Web site response within 30 minutes, to buy some time, McCue said.

Part of Brotman's work will be helping companies practice for crisis -- something she started while still at Image Dynamics, the public relations firm she founded in 1966. That company merged with Gray, Kirk in 1997.

Brotman has had her share of calls in the midst of trouble. Several years ago, three clients had crises the same day.

The general manager of a Midwestern mall had angered an association of senior citizens who walked the mall for exercise by telling the seniors that they couldn't stay once the stores opened for the day, because their socializing tied up seats in the common area.

"The [television] stations crucified the mall," Brotman said.

The next day, Brotman orchestrated a meeting of mall walkers and media where the general manager apologized to the group, encouraged them to patronize the stores and offered them special discounts.

"The regular mall walkers came just to walk, they weren't customers," Brotman said. "So now we got them as customers."

Also that day, Brotman helped a mall in South Carolina faced with an onslaught of media after a child had been abducted and a Midwestern shopping center that was losing its anchor store.

Most, if not all, public relations agencies in the Baltimore market are probably handling these kinds of crises, said Brian J. Lewbart, president of the Maryland Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and vice president of marketing communications at Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc.

"Any agency already practicing sound public relations has the skills to do crisis management," he said. "There is a degree of expertise, though, that only comes from experience."

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