How can you assure success with the media when calamity–fire, embezzlement, ownership or leadership change, workplace accident, sexual harassment, or similar events– strikes your business and catapults you into the spotlight?
Cultivate relationships in advance. Every organization needs to cultivate the media during ordinary times. In an emergency, you don’t want to be questioned by strangers, but by people who know you and your organization’s culture. Establish relationships through tours, briefings, regular press releases, and invitations to milestone events. Think of these steps as “partnering with the media.”
Train your people. Write and distribute a plan for crisis communication. Explain procedures for emergencies. Announce who will speak for the organization. Put your staff through simulated press conferences, videotape them in action, and critique them to find points needing improvement. Make sure new employees get this training.
Take initiative instantly. When a crisis happens, never wait for media professionals to approach you. Take aggressive steps. Remember, delay fosters distrust. Call your media contacts before they call you.
Spotlight your CEO. Put the CEO in the front lines as the spokesperson. While CEOs may justifiably delegate other duties, they must assume top visibility during a disaster. Readers and listeners don’t want to hear that she is “unavailable for comment.”
Be truthful. Tell the truth, without diluting or withholding. “Little white lies” mushroom into a huge loss of trust. Even one misleading remark starts a “feeding frenzy” not only among the media, but also among the general public.
Avoid estimates. Make no estimates of dollar damage, injuries, or loss of life. Lawyers, insurance companies, and others will make you wish you hadn’t. This is why CEOs say, “We must make sure the families have been notified” or “We are still gathering estimates.”
Refrain from “No comment.” Never say, “No comment.” Whatever you might intend, the interpretation is that you’re being evasive. Try: “I’ll have to get back to you later on that, after we have gathered relevant information.” Of course, be sure you follow through on that pledge.
Control press gatherings. Take control of press conferences. You have the right to say where, when, and who will attend. Assert leadership instantly, and don’t relinquish it. Videotape the press conferences. The tapes will become valuable when someone charges later, “I know what you said on TV.”
Follow up thoroughly and publicly. After the crisis subsides, debrief your colleagues. Assess what you did right, and what you can do better next time. Also, keep the public informed about how you resolved the situation– through interviews, tours, letters to the editor, speeches to civic clubs, special letters to shareholders.