Crisis Media Relations: Prepare or Perish

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Part 3 of our examination of crisis response media relations includes correct preparation and presentation. Your ability to handle curve balls thrown at your during a crisis is all about preparation.  Anticipation, preparation and positivity – in both tone and body language – is paramount to successful media relations during a business crisis.

Be Prepared – Or Buy Time to Get Prepared
A major error made by many company spokespeople, from CEOs to communications department employees, is to “wing it” when the press throws a curve. Company spokespeople should NEVER answer questions for which they are unprepared. A spokesperson’s failure becomes the company’s failure. Often, that person standing in the glare of TV lights, being fired sometimes hostile or confrontational questions worded to garner a juicy sound bite for the evening newscast, is the only measure the public has by which to judge your company.

How should spokespeople field questions for which they have no adequate answers? It is always better to say, “I don’t have that answer for you right now… but I will have it for you shortly.” Speaking off the cuff can lead a company from crisis to disaster in a matter of sentences. Worse, a spokesperson who has no answer and hasn’t the honesty to say so can taint the entire presentation. The minute a spokesperson starts to hem and haw, the press has the upper hand and the briefing is likely to go completely south.

When a question is pitched during a live press conference, and the spokesperson has no scripted answer, the spokesperson should defer an answer for a few minutes. S/he should request “time to get that information in front of me,” and move on to other questions, promising to come back to that question. The support team should immediately craft an on-message response, write it down and deliver it to the spokesperson on the podium to give the reporter a measured and correct response. The company looks professional and in control, and control of the press briefing stays in company hands.

If taking reporters’ phone calls, the spokesperson should explain that s/he is in conference, but will call back to talk within the hour—then call back as promised. Also, the spokesperson should ask when reporters’ deadlines are, to demonstrate that s/he understands they are under the gun to file a story.

The spokesperson can then take a short time to brainstorm with the crisis team and craft a message in keeping with the company brand. It is good policy to offer as much information as is reasonable given the situation and – Media Relations any confidentiality issues. Speed is of the essence; the company wants to get their side of the story to the press before competitors or injured parties can weigh in and tilt public opinion against the company.

Go Live, Stay Live
When a spokesperson steps in front of TV cameras, chances are s/he is broadcast in a “live” feed to news programs and their hundreds of thousands of viewers. In such situations, the spokesperson must be kept abreast of breaking events. No one should have to deliver a crafted message on camera while some savvy media team is simultaneously broadcasting a contradictory event or unauthorized interview. During the briefing, the monitoring team should be on the phone helping to balance the statement with coverage as it unfolds. Spokespeople can be alerted to step away from the podium for an update. This on-the-spot adaptation further reinforces the perception that the company is on top of things and will not be vulnerable to “ambush-style” questioning.

Refuse to Speculate
Reporters and journalists will invite spokespeople to play guessing games, make predictions and generally “suppose”—anything to keep them talking, in hopes of getting a few more quotes for their stories. The toughest thing to do at a press briefing is stick to the script. Companies must make it a policy to say what they came to say, and no more.

Be Open and Positive
By treating news conferences as dialogues instead of confrontations, companies can positively alter the tone of press coverage, and lessen the concerns of the public, employees, and business contacts. The spokesperson should provide as much information as possible without jeopardizing the company’s reputation, and without releasing confidential information. Direct, honest communication with the press and public helps by:

  •  Averting antagonistic behavior among the press
  • Offering the company’s side of the story for consideration
  • Discrediting any malicious rumors
  • Building goodwill
  • Ensuring fairer coverage in the future

Conventional wisdom has it that company spokespeople should tell the press as much as they know about a crisis. Full disclosure also represents the company as having nothing to hide. That being said, crisis management must strive to time the release of information to best benefit the key audiences. Confidentiality, liability issues, and the fact that some information may be too complex or technical to easily and clearly convey in an oral presentation, may require that some information be withheld initially or presented through vehicles other than the press briefing.

This can be decided in the planning process, and appropriate documents can be included in media kits when specific crises occur. Other information may be released in later interviews, or be deemed necessary to release only if a reporter asks a question.

Body Language Is Important
In training spokespeople, don’t forget that positive body language is critical when facing television cameras and photographers. TV is a visual medium— the eye provides our primary sensory input, so what viewers see is often of greater import than what they hear. Uncertainty, discomfort with the cameras and lights, defensive responses or even a combative attitude all transmit very clearly on camera, usually to negative effect. This is why practice and regular re-drilling is critical for all spokespeople. Having a well-rehearsed message often helps a spokesperson appear more confident, and a calm bearing in the face of tough questions will serve to make the press look out-of-line, while the company will give off nothing but positive vibes.

How are you handling your Crisis Media Planning? Do you have a crisis media plan, a media relations team structure and understand how to interact with media to control the company message? Help your brand emerge from crises with reputations and brands intact.

Jim Thomas and JC Thomas Marketing Communications help businesses increase revenue through creative marketing ideas and intuitive software.  You can reach Jim at 704 .377.9660 ext. 2521 or at jim@jcthomas.com