By Jed Bush

‘Crisis’ in Chinese: A Dangerous Opportunity for Jelly Doughnuts

When John F. Kennedy famously declared, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity,” a crisis communication credo was born. Kennedy, whose love of foreign expressions would later earn him an undeserved reputation of having an insatiable appetite for pastries and a more deserved one for habitually practicing translational malpractice, wasn’t the first to invoke the connection, but he did introduce the tidily packaged aphorism to the masses.

There’s just one problem: it’s not true.

The Chinese phrase for “crisis” is “Wēijī:” 危机. Wēi, 危, does in fact mean danger. However, Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that, in this context, Ji (机), represents an “’incipient moment; [a] crucial point (when something begins or changes).’ Thus, a Wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry.”

Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote that President Obama cannily dropped the Chinese character framing when linking crisis to opportunity in a weekly address; in doing so, he eschewed the august, bipartisan tradition continued by luminaries like Richard Nixon, Condoleezza Rice and Al Gore (who notoriously dropped the line in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize). Maybe he discarded it because his speechwriters felt the rhetorical device had drifted into cliché. Perhaps his fact-checkers stumbled upon a copy of a Chinese dictionary the night before. We may never know.

Still, the expression’s durability echoes our own philosophies at Firmani + Associates, beliefs drawn from a deep well of experience helping clients navigate crises. Stepping into a crisis with a clear plan will equip you with tools to steady your hand and, when appropriate, strike prudently and decisively as you steer through the storm. You might pick up a scar or two along the way, but, properly managed, a crisis will also bring the opportunity to reassure, to renew trust, to reinvent.

That said, resolving a crisis probably shouldn’t require butchering foreign languages along the way. Why not follow the lead of Homer Simpson instead?

“Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity”?

“Homer: Yes! Crisitunity!”

By F+A Staff

Mattel: Too Many Missteps?

It seems the last few months have been rife with crises, so we certainly had plenty to choose from this month.

One misstep that stands out is a recent kerfuffle with toy maker Mattel over a book called “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer.”

As part of Mattel’s strategy to position Barbie as a role model for young girls everywhere, they’ve given Barbie various professions, but this one that started with so much potential falls a bit short.

The story starts off promisingly when Barbie sets out to design a computer game. But things quickly go south when Barbie runs into trouble – and a computer virus – and has to run off to the IT guys to fix it for her.

Couldn’t Barbie, as a computer programmer, navigate this issue herself?

The Internet agreed and quickly took it upon itself to rewrite the story, which was originally published in 2010.

And while the Internet maelstrom took over, Mattel quietly pulled the book from Amazon and issued an apology over Facebook:

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.”

But does blaming the misstep on the year the book was published – 2010 – make up for the lapse in judgment? The idea of female computer engineers wasn’t too far-fetched even four years ago, making this story seem as an unfortunate slip in Mattel’s brand.

This case study reinforces the importance of monitoring blogs and other websites outside of the traditional news sphere. What started as a call-to-action by a disheartened blogger quickly spiraled into an online movement.

According to NPR, the blog that called for the re-writes has gotten more than 2,000 submissions.

We can only hope that Mattel had a robust online monitoring strategy to get wind of the problem before it spread too far. Blogs, Tweets and even online reviews have the power to mobilize an entire population.

By F+A Staff

Ride into your next media interview with the headlights blazing

Preparation is essential heading into a media interview, and the reporter isn’t the only one who should be armed with questions. Here’s what you need to know before beginning any interview:

  • what the interview is about;
  • what specific topics will be discussed;
  • from what perspective the story will be written;
  • who will be conducting the interview;
  • who else will be interviewed;
  • how long and in what format (e.g. phone, in-person, live or filmed) the interview requires; and
  • when the story will run or air.

Never consent to being interviewed on the spot, and remember that people who are interviewed before or after you will, or already have, shaped the reporter’s perspective on the story.


Ideally, when a reporter calls, whoever takes the call records the reporter’s information and then works with their public relations team to arrange the interview. Reporters are accustomed to working through PR executives, so while they may prefer to get directly to the source first, they will not be unduly disturbed. This allows time to determine the nature of the interview, discuss strategies in private before speaking directly with the media and determine the answers to the questions above.

By F+A Staff

Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error

MidMountain Construction is a Pacific Northwest construction company with an exemplary record of completing highly technical projects on time and on budget. The company has a great reputation for maintaining ethical practices and providing living-wage jobs to members of our community.

MidMountain Construction submitted a bid to build an important commuter rail project for Sound Transit. The firm was happy to learn that they were the apparent lowest bidder; the second lowest bid was $800,000 higher than MidMountain’s on a total contract value of $40 million.

Shortly after the bid opening, MidMountain received disappointing news. In the rush to submit the bid paperwork, MidMountain erred and failed to file a seemingly innocuous form. When the employee handling the paperwork realized his error, he ran back to deliver the one-page form, just 20 minutes late.

As a result of the error, Sound Transit declared MidMountain’s bid “non-responsive,” disqualifying the company.  The $40 million project was awarded to the second-lowest bidder, costing taxpayers at least $800,000. The winning bidder, obviously enjoying the fruits of the procedural error, began pushing to consummate the agreement as soon as possible.

MidMountain, through their attorneys, asked for our help.

We worked alongside MidMountain’s attorneys and crafted an outreach strategy that complemented their legal approach; while the lawyers fought in court, we took the battle to the elected officials who held oversight of Sound Transit. We presented each Sound Transit board member with a packet of information describing the impact of denying the bid to MidMountain, including what $800,000 could purchase for their tax-paying voters. To put this decision into perspective, the packet described in detail how many new teaching positions the forfeited money would pay for, how many firefighters’ salaries it would support, and other ways the people of Washington were going to be negatively affected by this decision.

In tandem with our written material, we also worked with the construction company principals to make one-on-one calls to some of the same board members so that they could better understand the political fallout of squandering $800,000 of taxpayer money over a minor procedural error.

We were able to engage a majority of the Sound Transit board members, either through our issue packet, or through one-on-one conversations over the course of a few weeks. Through this exchange of information, we were able to convince the Sound Transit board to rule that the tardy form was simply a “minor irregularity.” The decision to disqualify MidMountain was overruled, and MidMountain completed the project months later, on time and on budget.

By F+A Staff

The importance of finding a credible spokesperson

According to a study published in Public Relations Journal, a spokesperson’s title is less important than perceived credibility when responding to a crisis.

The media and the public respond favorably to compelling, energetic and trustworthy spokespeople.

Throughout our many years of media training experience, we’ve found most participants fit into two groups – confident and tentative. The good news, for both groups, is that these traits are common to the best media spokespeople, and even the most tentative can learn.

If your organization is working to identify or groom a spokesperson, keep these qualities in mind:

  • Authentic: The media, and audience, can tell that the spokesperson is genuine and believes in his or her message.
  • Natural: The public perceives the spokesperson as being the same on-camera as off, exhibiting the same passion, demeanor and values in private and public conversations.
  • Flexible: Being adaptable to change – whether it’s breaking news, technical issues or the availability of new information – and taking everything in stride.
  • Self-editing: The ability to simplify a message down to its most essential parts without saying everything, since doing so can complicate the message and confuse the audience.
  • Compelling: Use of stories, statistics and sound bites to make a message stand out.
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‘Crisis’ in Chinese: A Dangerous Opportunity for Jelly Doughnuts
Mattel: Too Many Missteps?
Ride into your next media interview with the headlights blazing
Lessons from the Trenches: Correcting a costly procedural error
The importance of finding a credible spokesperson