19 December 2011 By Northern Lights
Looking back through Northern Lights’ blogs I see I started the year talking about how to work with journalists.
It’s a theme I have come back to because throughout the last 12 months I have met so many people who are afraid of media interviews. Even senior people who are accomplished public speakers are wary and often quite terrified of dealing with journalists.
The News of the World ‘phone hacking story hasn’t helped the reputation of journalists but most journalists are not there to catch you out – they are simply doing their job.
Many businesses and organisations will at some point have to speak to the media. In the last year I have worked with several clients in education, professional services and charities on how to handle journalists’ questions if they have a crisis.
So how do you ensure that when your words and actions are under scrutiny from journalists that you won’t look foolish, inept – or worse still, dishonest?
Here are some of the key issues that have cropped up during media training sessions with senior people over the last year.
If you tell lies, you will be found out. If something has gone wrong in your organisation there is no point in trying to cover things up. A friend of mine was called in to provide advice and media training for the chief executive of a financial institution. He had personally been involved in a high profile deal that had gone wrong and there had clearly been some very underhand transactions. He was hoping that my friend would give him a ‘get out of jail’ card and he could fudge the truth in any media interviews. But her only advice was that he must resign and admit publically he had made a mistake. Only his public resignation would leave the business with some chance of recovering its reputation.
2. Have a crisis communications’ plan
Having an emergency plan is not the same as a crisis communications plan. Do you know exactly how you will communicate with key people in a crisis – they will include the media? Who in your organisation will be communicating with key audiences and what channels will you use to reach people who need to know? You might have a chain of command in your emergency plan but does that include who will give media interviews and who will brief people internally?
You can’t ignore social media in your crisis communications’ plan, so who will be on Twitter or Facebook watching what others are saying and giving out updates on a developing crisis or responding to posts from concerned stakeholders? And are the passwords and user names for your social media accounts written down in your communications’ plan?
It is also critical that you can quickly access any relevant records such as health and safety or CRB check documents. If a building is on fire and the media starts asking questions about safety you need to be absolutely certain that the necessary checks have taken place so that you can say so.
3. The right media spokesperson
Most large organisations will have a number of senior people trained to give media interviews. Over the last year I have found time and again that there will be one or two people who stand out in media training. They are comfortable, confident, but not overly so, and have empathy. For most media interviews a knowledgeable and experienced senior manager will be appropriate.
However, if you have a major crisis – perhaps people have died or dangerous chemicals have leaked – then you must bring out the top man or woman. They must be there to face the media and the general public or you could make a bad situation worse. Former BP CEO Tony Hayward compounded his series of PR gaffes in the handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by taking off on a sailing trip in the middle of the crisis.
4. Don’t speculate – stick to the facts
Journalists rushing to the scene of an incident will rarely have the full facts and will speculate about what has happened. If you are being interviewed by a reporter it is quite easy to be sucked into the speculation.
When we work with leaders on media training we create role play scenarios based on crises or incidents that might happen in that business or organisation. These scenarios will be a breaking news story that develops over hours during the training session – something like a fire, a contaminated water system or people trapped in a building.
We often find that spokespeople give away too much information in these role play scenarios and inadvertently join in the speculation. For example, in one scenario the reporter asked about the condition of people trapped in a collapsed building. The news had only just broken and the emergency services were on their way but the nervous spokesperson, eager to help, mentioned that he didn’t know if anyone had died. The journalist immediately latched onto the fact that this could be a significant tragedy. In a real situation such speculation would fuel media attention and be deeply distressing to the family and friends of people who were trapped.
So you must stick to the facts and only give out information that you know to be true. For example if a building is on fire and a reporter questions safety issues, then don’t say “we guarantee all our buildings are safe”. Such a statement could come back to haunt you if it’s proved later that the building was unsafe. However, you can say: “All our buildings have an annual health and safety check – in fact the last one was carried out two months ago” (or whenever it was).
5. Always assume cameras and microphones are switched on
Former PM Gordon Brown will probably never live down the PR blunder he made in Rochdale when he was caught on a microphone describing a voter as “a bigoted woman”. His made his off camera comments when he got back into his car, thinking he was off air. However, his Sky News microphone was still switched on and his outburst was broadcast to millions.
Prince Charles was also caught off guard – saying he “couldn’t bear” royal reporter Nicholas Witchell – when a broadcast microphone was switched on.
You must assume that every camera and every microphone is still live. If you are talking about a serious incident – major redundancies or loss of lives – you will be sombre and empathetic during any live media interview. But consider how it would look if the camera caught you off guard as you walked into shot. Even a smile or a wave to someone you knew would be inappropriate if you are about to comment on grave news.