Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't blame the media in a crisis

Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEO's are given to blaming the media during a crisis.  It doesn't work because crises are news and there are hundreds of leading journalists, commentators and broadcasters who must get the facts to satisfy the ever-increasing public demand.

Don't blame the media.  They are doing their job and if you are not involved in a crisis, you would expect them to give you the news. All too often journalists are blamed for being too intrusive.  But, if they don’t give us the facts, we soon ask why.

Of course the media is interested and if they can’t get it immediately, they will go somewhere else.   They must have a spokesperson to lead their story.

The prospect of taking the high ground and doing the interview or press conference may strike terror into the heart of most corporate leaders, however it must be one of their early priorities.   There seems to be a mind-set in some management circles that by providing the media with facts early on, they are going to be accused of mayhem.  It is just the opposite.  Every fact that is provided in the early stages will release the pressure from both the spokesperson and all the internal stakeholders. 

In the case of one therapeutic products company during an escalating product recall, the leading network “warrior” interviewer demanded he spoke to the Chief Executive so he could get the news “right from the horse’s mouth”.  He shouted down the phone that there would be hell to pay if the company didn’t come good and give the network the story.  “I will stand outside your plant with the company name in the background,” he shouted, “and tell the story as I see it until you submit”.  

The CEO was experienced in media interviews and took on the task of meeting the “warrior”.  His organisation’s image and, to a degree, his reputation, was on the line.  Certainly there was going to be some difficulty in getting the message across and there will be traps and perhaps his words will be twisted, but he must tell the story. 

The CEO met the “warrior” and turned the setback into a springboard.  Questions were asked about the quality of the product and its future in the market place.  The CEO positioned the product as essential and vital to saving lives and identified the problem in the product recall as being controllable and the company as being in control of that problem.  He offered cool, clear and instant advice to the public about how to get advice or information on the situation and by the end of the interview, he had total clarity on the company’s confident approach to managing the situation.   He retained the initiative throughout and was never outmanoeuvred.  The sad end to this story of investigative dynamics was that the interview was never used.  Was it too good to be true or too true to be good?        

For the uninitiated, a period of media attack can be disastrous.  A barrage of cameras, microphones and tape recorders coming at you from every angle.  How do you avoid being ambushed by the early questions and how do you contain the situation without looking like you are on the defensive?   You understand what the media will want well before an incident occurs.  You plan, prepare and practice.

The Radio and Television News Directors’ Association in the US was surveyed on media expectations of an organisation during a crisis or disaster.  They wanted to find out how television stations covered an incident.  They  also interviewed people from the public relations industry who had been involved in a crisis.  The most important responses were to the question of “when a crisis occurs, how often does your organisation want updated information?” The most frequent answers were “constantly”, “immediately” and “as soon as possible”.  Respondents to the research also wrote “as soon as new developments warrant the public being informed”.  

Don't blame the media.  Have a plan to respond when they come and communicate your core message from the start of any critical incident. Move to the high ground with your spokesperson and be seen as the centre of information. Work with the media to win and hold the high ground.