As much as we would all like to deal with good news, all the time, the truth is that things go wrong. People make mistakes (or bad choices), accidents happen, and controversy reigns. As a PR or communications professional, chances are, at some stage during your career, you are going to have to fight some fires. You are going to have to respond to a media issue.
And, if you, or your company, find yourself in the midst of a media furore, the last thing you need is for it to turn into a full-blown media crisis. A media crisis has the potential to cause long-term damage to your business, to your brand, and to public perception. It can have a long-lasting impact on your bottom line.
So, if you find yourself with a media issue on your hands, these are some simple things you can do when it comes to handling a media crisis.
1. Have a media crisis plan in place
The best way to prepare for a media crisis is to have a plan in place before any issues arise. That way, if something does happen, you already have a plan of attack. The objective of this sort of plan should be to facilitate clear and accurate methods of communication to employees, the public and to other company stakeholders such as shareholders. It should also aim to curb long-term reputation damage and the erosion of public confidence. Every media crisis plan should include:
- An appointed company spokesperson, including their contact details. Usually, this will be the highest ranking company official (like the CEO or Managing Director) and the person with access to all the relevant information. If your company works in an industry prone to media issues, it might be useful for the company spokesperson to undergo some media training. Media training can help a company spokesperson better respond to media questions, keeping answers on message. In some instances, it might be useful to have multiple spokespeople, in case someone is uncontactable. That way, if journalists do come calling, you know whom they need to be referred to.
- Pre-prepared statements from company spokespersons. If you know that media issues are likely to arise around specific areas (for example, if you are an oil company, a likely issue would be oil spills), it can be useful to prepare statements ahead of time. This way, you know that all company messaging will be accurate and on message. It will also save stress, time, and approvals during an already stressful period.
- Pre-prepared communications tools. Similar to the point above, your media crisis plan should include a range of pre-prepared communications tools. These tools might include media releases, employee announcements, shareholder announcements, and even social media updates.
- A communications tree. This should outline a definite process for internal communications and approvals processes during a media crisis. For instance, the communications team might be responsible for all media enquiries, the communications manager might be responsible for briefing the senior executive, the CEO might be responsible for briefing the board of directors and for all approvals.
2. Fix the problem
If a crisis does present itself, first things first. Sort out whatever the problem is that caused the media issue in the first place. Ensure there is no risk to the public. And take all steps to ensure that the same problem will not reoccur. For instance, if a disgruntled employee has gone to media with tales of harassment, resolve the employee’s grievances first. Then, ensure that you have anti-harassment policies and procedures in place so that the same thing never happens again.
3. Do not hide
The fight or flight instinct is a basic human reaction. But, in the case of a media crisis, do not opt for flight. Do not try to run and hide from the situation. Avoiding or ignoring a media issue will not make it go away. All it will do is damage your reputation. The media will run with the story, regardless of your cooperation. So, it makes more sense for you to cooperate, and have your side of the story heard.
So, rather than hide, apologise (as long as your legal team gives you the green light – see point five for further details). In some cases, it might even be worth considering admitting that you were in the wrong (again, only after you’ve sought advice). Emphasise that you are doing everything in your power to rectify the situation (just make sure that you are rectifying the situation). Deal with the problem quickly, efficiently, and honestly. If you do, you will be perceived to have done exactly that, and your reputation will suffer much less in the process.
4. Keep calm
Regardless of what journalists and media outlets might be doing or staying, ensure that you, and the company spokesperson, remain calm. Media outlets will be looking for the story most likely to sell newspapers. An angry outburst is more likely to end up on the front page than a calm, collected, honest response.
5. Take the advice of your legal team
If the issue with which you are dealing has any type of legal ramifications, seek the advice of your legal department or outside legal counsel. Then follow that advice. Do not release information publicly if your legal advisors advise against it. They are the experts, so follow their expert opinion.
6. Release as much information as quickly as you can (if your legal team gives you the ok)
With the 24/7 news online news cycle, this point is more important than ever. If you receive information or updates during a media crisis, release it to the media as quickly as possible (as long as this has been approved by your legal team). Media outlets will be grateful for your cooperation and assistance, and you might even find that journalists are more likely to portray your company positively. You will become a trusted source.
7. Stick to the truth
Only provide information that you know to be categorically true. This is particularly important when your company spokesperson is answering questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then don’t answer it on the spot. Tell the journalist that you don’t know, but that you will follow up. Then make sure you follow up. Don’t speculate. Don’t hypothesise. Don’t guess. Never answer with ‘no comment’. Ever. It makes you seem like you know what the answer is, but you’re unwilling to give it. Probably because the answer will make portray you in a negative light. And, if media outlets are running with incorrect information, let them know. Provide them with irrefutable proof of your true alternative.
8. Show concern
If the media issue has arisen because of injury or distress to people or animals or the community in general, express your concern. Show remorse. Apologise for the injury or loss or damage. Acknowledge the feelings of the people most directly affected. But only do all this after seeking advice from your legal team.
9. Do not blame the media
There is absolutely no point in getting the media offside. So do not blame them for the situation. Do not insinuate that they are blowing the issue out of proportion. Do not insinuate that the whole thing is a fabrication, designed to sell papers. It will not go down well. You will not be portrayed in a positive light.
10. Learn from your mistakes
Once the media issue has been resolved, take a breath, and analyse the entire process. What aspects of your media crisis plan worked well? What aspects failed miserably? How can you improve on these in the future? What operating policies, procedures and processes can be amended to ensure the same situation never arises again?
If you are confronted by a media issue that is simply too big or too scary to deal with in-house, it might be time to call in the big guns, and get a professional public relations or crisis communications agency on board. Perhaps there’s even a PR pro in our directory that can assist: https://marketing.com.au/business-directories/public-relations-agencies
For more information about public relations in general, peruse our recent article, What is Public Relations: https://marketing.com.au/what-is-public-relations
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