The way an organisation deals with a crisis is often remembered long after the crisis itself has passed. The key to working with the media during a crisis is to be prepared, be direct and be as open as you can.
Plan and practice
- Be prepared.
- Have a plan in place for how you will react from the moment the telephone rings.
- Identify the crises most likely to affect your organisation and develop 10-point checklists of the first actions you will take in response.
- A designated spokesperson - usually the most senior person in the organisation, to show the issue is being taken seriously - must be made available for media comment.
- But put the right person in front of the camera. Any negative perceptions that result from a nervous performance will be very hard to shake.
- Someone in the organisation with constant access to the designated spokesperson must be on call to the media 24 hours a day for the duration of the furore.
- Have contact numbers on hand for key government personnel and media and also an external issues management consultancy, should it be required.
- Make a list of other potential key stakeholders and their contact details.
- Have a crisis team in place, including the spokesperson, the senior manager (often the spokesperson), the staff member with the best knowledge of the subject matter, a lawyer, an insurance advisor, a logistics person to assist with organising a press conference venue and other resources, and a communications specialist - preferably backed by an external advisor who can bring an outsider's perspective to the issue.
- Have on hand the details of grant recipients and the background to grants.
Speak out - quickly
- Provide journalists with clear and credible background material - this helps to build a sense of accountability and efficiency.
- Ensure the designated spokesperson has undertaken media training so that they are comfortable standing in front of a camera and responding calmly to questions.
- Training should enable the person to provide succinct "grabs" that summarise an organisation's position in a single phrase. They should be able to insert this message regularly, even when the media might be taking a different tack.
- Every minute counts. You can completely lose control of an issue by letting even 30 minutes slip.
- Being mentioned in a story without your point of view being included can make it very difficult to achieve a balanced story later in the day.
Get your message right
- Clear lines of communication within your organisation are vital.
- Never get angry or defensive with the media under any circumstances. If you do, you will appear to have something to hide.
- Never say "no comment."
- Do not avoid disclosure. If something goes wrong, there is no point in hoping that it will remain secret. Exposure will be only a matter of time.
- Never blame other people (or the media for blowing an issue out of proportion) when your organisation is at fault.
- If legal or insurance requirements prevent you from admitting liability or fault, you can still express sympathy, empathy and regret.
- If damage to your reputation may be more costly than any legal fallout, you might decide to admit fault and issue a genuine apology as soon as possible.
- If your organisation is a government body, it may be useful to refer the problem to an independent review or inquiry as soon as possible, as a circuit breaker.
Pick up the pieces
- Once the dark clouds have blown over, take a step back and look at how you handled the media storm.
- What worked and what didn't'?
- Review your relationships with key stakeholders and the media to see what you can do to strengthen them. It is vital to establish good relations in the good times.
- Restore confidence using public relations and advertising if your brand has taken a hit.
What to do when the media comes knocking
- Admit there is a crisis.
- Decide who will be your organisation's public face (ideally this should have been decided previously).
- Release as much information as you can, as quickly as you can.
- Say only what you know to be true. Don't guess.
- Challenge information you know to be wrong.
- Show concern.
- Avoid personal slanging matches.
- Ban the words "no comment."
- Don't run from the cameras. It makes you look as though you have something to hide.
- Stay calm under pressure, or swap places with someone who can.
- Consider bringing the media into your organization. This demonstrates that you are being proactive in dealing with the crisis.
- Talk in everyday, easily understood language. Avoid jargon.