Storm damage has knocked out your firm's infrastructure. While engineers work furiously to restore operability, your management team convenes to discuss another priority: how to restore your customers confidence in your company. Just as someone rushes in to tell you vandals have entered one of your main offices, the phone rings - it's a reporter from the New York Times. What do you do?
In a disaster, it's hard enough to simply handle the clean-up and recovery of normal operation, without the added burden of dealing with public perception and media hounds. Yet, to truly service your company effectively, you must address this growing issue. In today's environment, public perception is a crucial influence on whether a company succeeds after a disaster. Often, all a company has going for it after this time of trouble is its goodwill and loyal following. So working with the media to positively communicate the situation and allay the public's fears becomes especially important.
It's not your job to be a public relations expert ... it is advantageous if you understand the importance of working with the media and creating a crisis management plan, and know where to go for professional assistance in this task. It also doesn't hurt if you know a few basics of putting the best foot forward yourself.
So ... what do you do?
The best defense is a strong offense. So, once you determine what damage has been sustained, and you are serious about emerging from the crisis as a viable, continuing business, call in a media crisis management specialist. This specialist should become part of the planning team, who's initial responsibility is to create a specific crisis management plan for your company's situation and implement it.
If you haven't been that foresighted, or the bad new leaks before you've had the opportunity to take such action, don't panic. There are basic steps you can take to minimize the damage, while you get a specialist lined up to take over.
The first rule of thumb is to always be responsive. Don't dodge a reporter's calls, hoping they'll go away. They won't - and you give up control when, through your refusal to talk, you send them to dig other places for information (like your biggest rival). Deal with the situation honestly and openly, keeping control of the information you provide while answering the reporter's questions positively and responsibly. Repair the damage as quickly as possible, don't waste time pointing fingers at different sources, and don't dwell on the problem always point out positive steps being taken to remedy the situation.
Sound simple? It is, if a few basic rules of thumb are followed ... and if you're prepared.
The most obvious lesson- be responsive and available to the media' within your own terms. The media is to be respected, not feared; it is comprised of well-trained (for the most part) professionals, who are intent on doing the best job they can ... and their job is to get a story.
They seek specific, factual information - information which you provide them. If you're well prepared, you can furnish valuable, newsworthy information that puts forth your point of view, your perspective, your story. The key phrase here is if you're well prepared.
To help you prepare for dealing with the media, to help you gain confidence and comfort in dealing with reporters from all types of sources, following are some basic 'do's and don'ts' for effective - and advantageous - media encounters.
Prepare well in advance (like at the first meeting where action is determined). Identify in writing two or three authoritative, informational statements that are broad enough to apply to many different types of situations, but specific enough to provide real, quotable information for the reporter (or call in a specialist, who will handle this task as well as many others in this list). These statements will serve as your anchor when reporters call, giving you a reference and a focus when the questions come too fast, or touch on topics too volatile.
Establish, in advance, a clearly defined media policy. Have one or two official spokespeople for the firm, and make everyone in the company aware that all media calls should be directed to one of these two people, in a particular order. These spokespeople must be credible- be sure they are trained and well informed.
Be accessible to the media so they won't go to other sources for news or verifications of rumors. Another element of your media policy-' all calls from the media should be returned within 24 hours' the quicker you can get back to them, the better (I try to return all media calls within two hours).
Develop and frequently update a media list, both for local and industry media. Include names, titles, addresses and telephone numbers.
When a reporter calls:
Tell your story openly and honestly. Make a simple statement in direct response to the reporter's initial question, and follow up with additional specific information, returning to your two or three prepared statements as often as you need, to reiterate your point. Be straightforward with the reporter, and answer the questions as directly as possible, keeping a positive focus and always using positive language.
Make a note of the reporter's name and the name of the media when the caller first offers identification. This serves two purposes: you have an accurate record so you can follow up to see how the story appears; and you can use the reporter's name during the interview, to help you build rapport with the reporter.
Speak with one voice, consistently, through your designated and trained spokespeople only. Spokespeople are responsible for keeping each other apprised of any conversations with reporters, focuses of the interviews, and impressions of how they went.
Provide sufficient evidence for your statements. Reporters love numbers- try to give them numbers whenever you can - particularly when it helps you sell your own agenda.
Be responsive to the reporter, and take the reporter seriously. If you don't have the answer to a key question, tell the reporters that, and offer to find out the information and get back to them. This builds credibility, and offers you a chance to prepare more comprehensive, targeted statements for the reporter, that fits well with the focus of their article while still presenting your company in a positive light.
Treat the reporter with respect. Approach the reporter as a highly trained professional, a 'friendly adversary.' Assume they really know what they're doing, and stay alert and prepared throughout the interview.
Never lie. Your firm's credibility could be irrevocably damaged.
Don't speculate, or offer unsolicited comments in areas where you don't have specific information. Such off-the-cuff comments often come back to haunt you.
Never speak 'off the record' ' there is no such thing.
Don't avoid returning media calls, in hopes that they'll lose interest - they won't. And slow response can encourage a reporter to seek another --perhaps less friendly - source of information.
Don't debate the subject. Try to answer the reporter's questions calmly, authoritatively.
Don't overreact and don't exaggerate the situation.
Don't repeat negative questions or misleading words. If you repeat them in your response, they may be attributed to you.
Don't let the reporter state an inaccuracy without correcting it. However, be sure to correct it by stating the accurate information, in a positive manner --don't repeat back to the reporter the incorrect statement.
Don't argue with a reporter, even when provoked. You will inevitably end up making yourself look bad in print.
Don't make ad-lib comments. They will most likely be reported out of context.
Dont attempt to assess blame: rather, focus on providing positive, thoughtful responses explaining how you're moving ahead and correcting any problem raised.
Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a public relations-marketing firm that specializes in media crisis management. Based in Olney MD, Ms. Levine can be reached at ADVICE@wizardnet.
This article adapted from Vol. 10#4.