Effective crisis management #3: Learn how to deal with the media

There’s something about the prospect of a media interview that turns the average small business CEO’s brain to mush. All of a sudden they can’t remember how to get across a key piece of information about their company that could make or break a news report.

There’s something about the prospect of a media interview that turns the average small business CEO’s brain to mush. All of a sudden they can’t remember how to get across a key piece of information about their company that could make or break a news report.

Of course, not everyone is like that. Some company spokespeople are media stars who make the most of the rare opportunity to be quoted in print or on radio or TV.

But sometimes when the media come calling it’s not to get comment for a cheery story that may help boost sales; it’s to cover an incident or event that could seriously damage the company’s reputation. And that’s the worst time to have a mushy brain.

Media relations is a big part of crisis communications. When something bad happens at your company (an industrial accident, a product recall, a labour dispute, a regulatory infraction – it’s a long list of potential calamities), chances are there will be media interest, and it won’t necessarily be a polite call requesting an appointment to speak to you.

In times of crisis, reporters tend to just turn up unannounced and start gathering information. If you are unwilling or unprepared to give it to them, someone else most surely will, and often that’s someone with a grudge against you or your company.

Being prepared to deal with the media in good times and bad is the best defence against adverse publicity. It won’t necessarily prevent you getting roasted by the media, but it will at least give you the opportunity to tell your side of the story and will avoid having someone else do it for you.

One of the biggest complaints crisis communications consultants hear from clients is that the media disregard most of what they have to say. It’s usually true, but not because a reporter is vindictive; there is simply not the space in newspapers or the air time on radio and TV to publish and broadcast all the information a reporter gathers for a specific story. Instead, they sort out what they see as the most important and pertinent facts and comments for their report.

For company spokespeople trying to get their story across in an often complex and fast-moving situation, getting into the story with relevant facts and comments requires training and preparation.

Many small businesses neglect preparation for crises and are caught short when they occur. It’s too late to start media coaching when a TV crew is at the factory gate to report on a strike or industrial accident.

The following steps provide an outline of how to be prepared to deal with the media during a crisis:

  • Bring in a consultant – preferably a former journalist – who can help you understand how the media work and what reporters are looking for when they call you. Reporters are not your enemy, but they are also not your friend; they are professionals doing a job and will treat you with respect and understanding if you do the same. In today’s online and social media world, reporters work under tremendous deadline pressure and you need to be able to meet their deadlines or risk being left out of the story.
  • Crisis media relations needs to be part of a broader crisis communications plan, so make sure that’s also in place (see columns #1 and #2). Gathering relevant information when a crisis happens and deciding what you can release to the media are decisions that need to be made before reporters start calling.
  • Identify a company spokesperson and at least one backup. The spokesperson need not be the CEO or president (although in a very serious crisis, particularly if it involves injury or loss of life, having the company’s most senior executive as spokesperson demonstrates the right level of concern). The best spokesperson is the one who is most comfortable talking to the media, particularly TV (which can be daunting) and who can stay true to the messaging and information that the company has decided to convey.
  • Arrange media coaching for the spokespeople. Typically, this is a half-day or full-day session using an outside consultant who specializes in media interview coaching. Spokespeople will be put through a series of intense on-camera interviews to simulate what could happen in front of TV cameras and reporters during an actual crisis. These simulations are the time to correct mistakes and learn what to avoid during the real thing.
  • Finally, practice. Companies should hold a crisis simulation at least once a year and media relations should be part of it. Further practice could take place by having your trained spokesperson take part in media interviews that are not crisis-related. These provide great opportunities to practice interview skills in a less stressful situation, which helps build confidence.

Chris Freimond, MBA, ABC, founded Chris Freimond Public Relations (www.cfpr.ca) in 2006. Prior to that he was general manager of the B.C. operations of a global public relations firm. He also worked for 20 years in southern Africa as a business and political journalist. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University with a specialty in Public Relations and Communications Management, and is an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) with the International Association of Business Communicators. He is a former president of the B.C. chapter of IABC.

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