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Volume 31, Issue 4

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There's a fire in the plant, equipment has probably been damaged (nobody seems to know how badly,) a couple of employees are missing (did they even show up at work today?) and the phone hasn't stopped ringing for the past hour. Then you're told there's a couple of TV reporters waiting to talk to you about what is going on-- even though you don't know much about that yourself.

During difficult times reporters are about as welcome as a root canal. Of course, you don't have to talk to them. Instead you can employ what I call 'Option Two-- Freedom from the Press.' I coined the term when I observed a beet-red CEO of a large corporation (after a particularly difficult press conference) mumble 'In this country there is freedom of the press and it's too bad we don't have freedom from the press.' If you choose to employ Option Two, however, you should be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Reporters are just like other people-they need their jobs. Since they've been sent by their editors to 'get the story,' they will not return to their boss empty handed and be fired because you refused to cooperate. Instead they will speak to anyone who (1) looks like they know something and, (2) is available before their news deadline and works for your company.

This could mean someone who you don't personally know ' and who probably knows less about the emergency situation than you ' is going to speak on behalf of your company. This may result in a phone call from your CEO, whose view of company press relations may not include Option Two, your freedom from the press. Getting a new job could have personal benefits especially if your spouse is crabby about your lousy neighbors and your kids don't like their teachers. The point of all of this is that there are no good options except to talk to reporters, when you really don't want to talk to reporters.

For the purposes of this article I'll assume your company has already established a location for a media reception and briefing center near but not next to your command post. I'll also assume that you have a system in place that will provide accurate, up-to-date information. Let's move on then, to some tips on the basics of surviving your encounters with the media.

General Tips

The first and most important rule is that you should not view providing media with information as to the ongoing emergency as an adversarial proceeding. Be honest and open but DO NOT SPECULATE. The probability is that reporters will want to know a lot more about a particular event than you know at the time, especially during the initial phase. Provide reporters only with confirmed information. It is ok to say that you 'don't know the answer to that question because that information is not yet available.' It is never acceptable to answer a question with 'no comment'. The most important thing is to maintain your personal credibility and the credibility of the company you represent. If there's a reason why a question can't be answered tell the reporter why, and make sure you answer the question when it is appropriate.

The second rule is to talk about what your company is doing to mitigate the emergency (rather than what it is not doing) and recognize that it is most important to place public and employee health and safety issues on the top of your media agenda. If, for example, there has been a spill of hazardous materials you should first talk about the steps your company is taking to protect the health and safety of employees. This may include, for example, the fact that your company has detailed procedures to deal with these events and has conducted necessary training in these procedures for all involved employees.

The third rule is to be available to the media. A good idea is plan on conducting regular media briefings until the emergency has ended. If you're new at this game, the best way to handle a briefing is to start with a prepared statement. This is really an update on events that have transpired since the last briefing and should include the five 'w's' of the journalist's trade--who, what, when, where and why.Don't try to overwhelm the media with your technical knowledge. Use plain, easily understandable language to explain what happened. Avoid technical jargon.

The media will want to ask questions, so tell them just how much time can be allotted for that purpose and stick to it. Remember you're in control.

The fourth rule is don't say anything to a reporter that you wouldn't want to read about in tomorrow's newspapers. In today's highly competitive media environment there is no such thing as an 'off the record conversation.' Assume every microphone or television camera near you is 'live' at all times. Assume anything you say (even in the most casual conversation) that is conducted near a microphone or television camera could be in the next newscast.

The On-Camera Experience

The television cameras can be frightening and intimidating, but you can survive the experience. The important point to remember is that television viewers will draw their judgements on how well your company is handling the emergency based, to some extent, on what you say and how you say it. This means that your body language, particularly your facial expressions will be magnified because the camera will most likely, be focused on your upper body. A calm, serious expression on your face works better than a frown or grimace or, given the circumstances, an incongruous grin.

During a one-on-one interview, do not shift your gaze away from the reporter who is asking the questions. If you normally wear sunglasses, remove them before the interview. In small market television, the reporter and television camera operator will be the same person. The probability is that in these 'one horse' newsrooms the reporter will ask you the questions from behind the camera-where he or she can check to see whether it is properly functioning. If this is the case, speak directly to the camera. In larger markets the reporter will be accompanied by a camera operator and most likely will ask you questions while standing to your side. If this is the case, look directly at the reporter not at the camera.

As a general rule answer only those questions you are asked. Do not volunteer information not asked for. Edit yourself, by keeping your responses short and to the point. Most television news stories are short-averaging less than one-minute in length-and long detailed answers on your part will be edited. The shorter your answer, the less chance your comments will be edited.

If you make a mistake as to a fact during an interview, tell the reporter that you would like to correct your statement and then re-answer the question with the correct information. If you can, prepare for the interview in advance by developing answers to a few of the key questions you think will be asked.

In Summary

During an emergency the media plays an important role in keeping your company's stakeholders informed. You must take the extra and sometimes uncomfortable step to accommodate the requirements of reporters who may know nothing about your business prior to the emergency. This calls for availability on your part as well as the understanding that, by and large, representatives of the media want to report the story as accurately and honestly as possible. By providing the press confirmed information via regular briefings, and providing the opportunity for one-on-one interviews, you are taking the right steps to help communicate your company's story to the public.

Gerald L. Rockower is a 27-year veteran of the Public Affairs and Corporate Communications staff at the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. He is an experienced emergency communicator, and most recently served as the company's liaison to the Franklin County Emergency Operations Center during the January 1998 ice storm which disrupted electric service in six counties of northern New York state.