What To Do When The Media Comes Knocking

Linda Jagiela
Posted on July 19, 2013

Four years ago, I researched and created the following process for developing a crisis communications plan. That plan was printed in LCT Magazine in July 2009. I have refreshed the process to make it current.

Here is a common scenario for operators following the stretch limousine fire in San Francisco on May 4:
• • •
Your phone beeps, “News channel 6 wants to do an interview with you about safe transportation in limousines,” says your reservationist.
• • •
Do you take the call? That stern voice in the back of your head says, “Be careful!” But the other happy voice says, “Of course you do. On air time with your company featured as an expert on safe limousine transportation is worth lots.” Or is it?
• • •
You go ahead and give the interview. You answer the questions of the cute, perky, little reporter. She tells you it will air tonight at six.
• • •
At six, you put the television on in the office and watch the news leading up to your story and the teaser says, “Is riding in a limousine really safe or would you be better off driving yourself?”
• • •
All of a sudden the stern voice is back saying, “You should have listened to me.”

Dealing with the media is a learned talent. Watch any politician give non-answers to very specific questions and you will realize the value of such talent. A reporter who recently called me for an on-air interview after the terrible limousine fire in California told me that I needed to trust the media when I declined to speculate on the cause of the accident. I just laughed at the irony of that.

As a reporter, I can write an accurate report using the exact words a person said, and depending on the context of the quote, can change something very positive into something negative or to what I wanted it to be. I would never intentionally misuse my interviewee’s context, but there are those who do.

The media consists of people who have opinions that may differ from yours. They are trained to look at the camera the correct way when speaking. They know how to put intonation in their voices to emphasize their points. We have all seen the cute little reporter interviewing the guy and all you see of him is his profile with the giant nose. When this guy does look at the camera, his eyes are darting back and forth and you are surprised to see that “sneaky eyes” (when they pan down to his collar) is a priest. You get my point.

Rarely, do people naturally look good talking on camera. Reporters and actors go to school for this. Be careful. Even if the piece of the story you are giving is positive, when it is juxtaposed next to a fire or an accident, your company could be misperceived as the company it happened to. I often have the news on in my office without the volume. If I looked up and saw that I could easily be confused and I probably would not have time to turn up the volume before they moved on to the next piece.

The things you say to the media, which are taken out of context, could have larger legs than you ever anticipated. For example, if I were to say to a reporter after a few limousines had blow outs which caused injuries on a highway, “The only way to prevent this from occurring is to have run flat tires!” My words could then be used by regulators to show that the law should be changed to require that all limousines must have run flat tires. We all know this is ludicrous but I said it and now I need to back pedal and try to fix it. The ramifications of my words can reach farther than I ever anticipated.

Crisis Communication Planning
You should be prepared to communicate under pressure. Even if the crisis has nothing to do with your company, you could be at risk. Media outlets nationwide reached out to local limousine companies after the California accident. Some companies did speak up and portrayed a good image for their businesses. Others did not. Retractions and corrections are typically on the second page of the paper on the very bottom. Have you read any lately? Me neither. The headline “Correction” didn’t compel me to read it.

The time to create a crisis communication plan is now, when you don’t have a crisis. It’s not a “one and done” process. Just like other processes in your company, your crisis communication plan should evolve with your company. Do not write it in a vacuum and then put it away. You must share it and train on it. It only works if everybody knows about it and understands their exact roles in it.

Pick a spokesperson. The first step is to choose who you want to speak for your company. There should only be one spokesperson. You also should train an alternate in the unlikely event that the communication is about you or your demise.

Talk to the experts. Once you have selected the spokesperson, seek the advice of an expert. Even seasoned veterans can come off as buffoons. Learning how to say it and what to say will make your company come out of a crisis with your reputation intact. How you and your employees act can make or break your company. Here’s the scenario: Your bus is in an accident and you just this second heard about it. Your reservationist tells you that the driver is on the phone. You pick up the blinking line, but instead of the driver, you have picked up a call from a local reporter who wants a statement from the company. Are you prepared to handle this call? You haven’t even gotten all of the details and now you need to react. This scenario happens consistently. Learn what to say and not to volunteer any more information than what is being requested. When you don’t know an answer, state that and let the reporter know you will get the answer in a timely manner. Never ad lib to the media.

Pre-plan. Sit down and write a list of every type of crisis that could possibly happen in your company. The most apparent would be an accident with injury or loss of life. There could be a fire in your office. An employee could be arrested. These are all types of things that we see on the news every day of the week. After you make the list, come up with what you would like communicated in each of those scenarios. Put it aside and review it again in a few days. Then talk to your legal counsel and see how he feels. You might be surprised when the holes are shot through it. What we say and what is conveyed may come off as two entirely different things. Remember that perception is reality. Thinking and preparing now could make the difference of surviving afterwards.

Teach your staff about the plan. Devise a set of rules and guidelines on how your staff should respond if questioned. Make sure they know the name of the spokesperson and why you have put together this plan and practice. Make sure when you train new hires that you include crisis communications. There are many canned templates for these plans on the Internet. Do your homework and find one that fits your organization.

Train, train, and train again. Put together an ongoing program for crisis communications. This topic should be addressed regularly with your staff. Consider videotaping the training along with some role playing. This will help reinforce why crisis communication is so important. Putting the plan together without conveying it to your staff is equal to not having a plan at all.

Crisis communications should be in the vocabulary of you and everyone awho works for you. With any type of crisis communication, cool heads will prevail. A little bit of preparation today can make the difference for the future.

Related Topics: handling the media, How To, public relations

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