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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Crisis Communication, The Community, and SARA Title III

It is obvious that major disasters such as the Exxon oil spill in Alaska will continue to focus heavy media attention on environmental issues of all kinds. The environment is a media “hot button.” So, let’s talk about SARA Title III and communications.

Here is what the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association has to say about SARA Title III and your relationship with the news media:
“Media relations, like community relations, cannot be initiated AFTER you have a problem. Understand and be prepared for the fact that local media may interpret your Title III information as a serious community problem.
“They have a job to do and can’t wait while you explain that you are really a responsible manager with excellent programs in place.
“Developing good working relationships with media members covering your plant is not a magical process but rather one that requires time and effort. Selection of a spokesperson or media contact person is vital.
“Your representative should be someone who understands your operation and the needs of various media, is articulate, and is able to put complex information into more understandable terms. Above all, the spokesperson must be someone who has your confidence so he or she can speak for the organization without confirming every word.
“Good relationships with the press and broadcast reporters pay the same kind of dividends that well-nurtured community relations can bring. If you have established yourself as open and responsive and have tried to bring the whole story to the media, you will stand a better chance of receiving fair treatment. If members of the media know who you are, how to reach you or your spokesperson and have received credible, useful information in the past, you will earn the media’s respect and trust.”
Those words from the C.M.A. are right on target.

MEDIA COVERAGE INCREASING

Environmental news is front page news, no longer relegated to the back pages. Pieces about chemical emissions, oil spills and pesticides have replaced crime and political corruption. This is the age of Environmental Journalism. For journalists, it is the number one issue!

To deal with the media, savvy executives are learning “journalistic jujitsu,” which uses the media’s strength--their desire for a story--to advantage. Release the story...but control the flow of negative information in a responsible manner. By being candid and careful, you can turn a bad situation into a positive public relations opportunity.

But understanding the media and learning how to deal with reporters is not something that can be absorbed through osmosis. Seminars on media response have replaced motivational exercises and stress management as the training of choice in many companies. The seminars, usually conducted by former print and broadcast journalists, provide executives a chance to learn privately from their mistakes rather than see them in tomorrow’s newspaper or on the nightly news.

Be honest, be candid and beware. Assemble the facts pertinent to the story. Know what you want to say. Candor receives more positive attention than “No comment.”

In times of crisis, candor with the media and therefore with the public is a technique that is starting to catch on with those who work at improving news media relations. You can’t escape the crisis, but you can mitigate the final damages and restore credibility by showing compassion and concern. Exxon did not; Perrier did.

Look how well Johnson & Johnson handled the media during the Tylenol scare. They turned a negative into a positive and regained their market share. And how about the manner in which Lee Iaccocca handled the odometer rollback scandal. He bought full-page ads, he went to the national news media, and he apologized. He used the media to Chrysler’s advantage. More recently, we witnessed the use of candor with the media in times of crisis from John Hall, the chairman of the board of Ashland Oil. He accepted full responsibility for the 1988 major oil spill that ended up in the Ohio River. His company took its lumps, but negative news coverage and editorials were greatly reduced because of his openness and candor. This honesty and openness is the wave of the future in crisis news media relations. And the surprising result of candor is that an executive’s credibility is enhanced among those who matter most--employees, customers, stockholders and the media.

Besides increasing credibility, being candid with a reporter usually gets his attention. More than likely, a reporter who has been treated fairly will take a second look at releases touting new products or services rather than pitch them in the round file. The upshot is positive coverage of those “good news” items you want to get before the public.

“SARA” MEDIA GUIDELINES

Dealing with the media is not something to be passed off to other staff members or dismissed as unimportant. It begins with a commitment to learn and follow basic guidelines such as:

  • Answering questions as directly and briefly as you can in a positive manner.
  • Making yourself accessible to reporters.
  • Providing supplemental information in the form of fact sheets.
  • Having a professional understanding of the media’s needs.

Just as important, DO NOT:

  • Mislead or lie.
  • Say “No comment.”
  • Talk “off the record.”

The list of do’s and don’ts could cover pages. but what is important is the recognition that dealing with the media requires special techniques and a commitment to understand journalists.
But what can you expect from the news media as they continue to uncover your yearly SARA Title III reports?
There are certain things that are likely to happen, and you can prepare yourself by taking a proactive approach and develop a strategy. Here are some points to remember when you are formulating that policy:

1. They are looking at your EPA requirements as a news story! They don’t care about the federal government, the EPA, or your facility. All they care about is the news story. So be prepared for a tough journalistic approach.
2. What you tell reporters about Title III and “SARA” may be all they know about the subject. Many reporters--perhaps most broadcast reporters--do very little research on the subject of a story. They do not have the time! So what you tell them is what they know. Radio and TV reporters may cover up to ten stories in a day. They literally are running from one story to the next, with no time for preparation. On the other hand, be more cautious around print reporters...they cover only one or two stories each day and have time for research. While most folks fear the people with the microphones and the cameras, you can always get in more trouble in an interview with a newspaper or magazine reporter.
3. While journalists say they are constantly involved in “the never-ending search for truth,” what they really seek is “interesting information.” If that “interesting information” happens to be fact, that is a bonus. In journalism, objectivity is not truth, it is balance. Reporters consider themselves mirrors of society. They just reflect what is going on.
4. Never argue with a reporter; you cannot win. Arguing with a reporter is like trying to sew buttons on a poached egg. There is just no way! Remember this old saying: “Never pick a fight with one who buys his ink by the barrel!” Always remember: they have a barrel full; all you have is a ballpoint pen.
5. Reporters like to personalize their stories. You are into technically correct information. They are into controversy and opinion. Be prepared when they ask your opinion: “Would you let your own kids work here?” “Would you drink water from the area of the spill?” “How do you know your employees won’t get cancer in ten years?” Are you ready to answer those kinds of questions? Have you rehearsed?
6. No matter what you believe, reporters are not out to cause panic. While everyone thought the news coverage of Three Mile Island was irresponsible and sensational in nature, this was not the case. The President’s commission on Three Mile Island reported after investigation that 60% of the news presented during the crisis was “reassuring.” The preponderance of reassuring reports over alarming statements was 73% to 27%. What you say and how you say it become the keys to how the viewer or reader will judge the story. In other words, you have a lot of control over the tone of the story by your actions and your specific language.
7. Do some homework on the news media; read some books; take a seminar on media relations--but whatever you do, prepare yourself. There is absolutely no substitution for preparation in dealing with the news media, especially in a crisis.

Never forget this phrase: Perception is truth! No one goes out and buys a book about your business. Almost all of what they know about your industry comes to them from the news media. You may have a wonderful industry that never screws up the environment, where your employees can eat lunch off the factory floor, but if the public believes you are insensitive polluters of their air and water, that is what you are. Perception is truth, and it always will be! You must live with this understanding.
That is why news media relations should be of deep concern to you and your company.

As you contemplate SARA Title III and the news media in general, keep this phrase first and foremost in your mind, because in dealing with the news media in crisis, there can be no more meaningful advice:
“By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark!”


Bill Patterson is Vice President of The Corporate Communicators, a division of Hameroff/Milenthal/Spence, Inc., a major advertising and public relations firm in Columbus, Ohio. He specializes in training business people in how to deal with the news media in times of crisis.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No. 4, p. 25.

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