With the outbreak of swine flu in the past week, we see once again that when crisis strikes, there is little time to prepare, and quick and decisive action is critical to effectively responding. During such a time, one action you will likely be faced with is responding to the media.
Here are 7 things to remember in responding to the media during a crisis. In later posts, we will address steps to prepare for a crisis as well as responding to employees and customers.
7 Things to Remember in Responding to the Media During a Crisis
- Remain calm and breathe
- Contact your communications/PR specialist
- Get the facts
- Develop your message(s) and know what you won’t say
- Be accessible and available
- Avoid “no comment”
- Designate your spokesperson
1. Remain calm and breathe
When the media calls – or more often during a crisis, shows up at your doorstep – it is important to stay calm. A great way to do this is by breathing. Physiologically, by focusing on breathing, you can keep your heart rate moderated and maintain normal blood flow to your brain. This helps you keep a clear head to communicate effectively and decisively.
If, instead of staying calm and breathing, you immediately jump to action, and forget to breath, your body will involuntarily fire into “flight or fight” mode, causing a number of resulting behaviors, including increased adrenaline and respiratory rate, and decreased ability to think rationally.
By focusing on controlled breathing, you can maintain a sense of calm and clear thinking needed to execute a successful interview.
2. Contact your communications/PR specialist
It’s important to contact the person is in charge of working with the media, whether at your company or external agency, as soon as possible. They not only may be the first to be called by the media for a response, they will also ask you questions you may not have thought of, such as facts about injuries, ways you prepared for the crisis before it occured, what employees may be saying, or rumors you may need to respond to.
By alerting them and bringing them into the preparation immediately, they will not be caught off-guard when the media call, which could unduly cause even more questions and distrust. And they will help you prepare by putting themselves in the shoes of the media to role play and help you craft your response.
3. Get the facts
During one crisis I faced, a building was evacuated and nearly 15 emergency vehicles were on-site within minutes. News crews were on the way, I was sure. I immediately found the fire chief and asked him the basic questions: was anyone hurt, was the building evacuated successfully, did they know the cause of the fire? I was happy to learn there had been no injuries, and the fire chief praised the manner in which employees evacuated. I also learned that a fire drill had just been practiced 2 weeks prior.
Within a matter of 1-2 minutes, I had all the facts I needed to prepare our spokesperson for an immediate press interview. And it was just in time. The cameras were rolling when I reached our spokesperson. I gave him the facts, and he went on camera ready to share what we knew. In the end, the story was killed, and the media left seeing that there was no (bad) news to report.
4. Develop 1-2 concise messages and know what you won’t say
As in any interview with the media, you need to know what your message(s) is and what they likely will be asking. In the case of the fire scenario in #3, our messages were: 1. all employees evacuated safely, 2. there are no injuries, 3. we are working with fire officials to determine the cause.
You can see these messages are short – no more than 10 words, and two of them are only 4 words – and they are fact-based. In a time of crisis, you want to stick to the facts as much as possible, and practice Q&A so you can work on bridging to these important messages from a variety of different questions. During this time, you can also discuss and practice answering questions on topics you cannot share, such as exact injury counts or other facts that you may not yet know. These are all things your PR specialist can help you prepare for.
It is best in any interview, especially during a crisis, to keep the number of messages to a minimum. You don’t want to try and communicate too much – just a simple message of the facts and how you are responding is the most important thing to communicate.
5. Be accessible and available
In a time of crisis, news will break rapidly. The more you make updates available to the media and you are accessible for interviews, the better chance you have of controlling what story gets told. If you hide behind your office door or do not answer or return the media’s inquiries, the story will continue to be told without you.
6. Avoid saying “no comment”
Human nature is to distrust the person who answers “no comment”. It’s OK if you do not know the answer to a question. In the case of the fire example in #3 above, we did not know the cause of the fire. However, we did not choose to refuse all interviews because we didn’t know. Our spokesperson appeared on-camera and via phone and told reporters we did not know the cause of the fire, but as soon as we received more information from fire officials, we would let them know. They were satisfied with this answer and anticipated an update when the facts became known.
News media don’t want to be scooped. So, in the case where you are waiting on further details, the best course of action is to set a time when you will provide an official update to all media, even if it is to report that you still do not know anything new. The media will rest easier knowing they will get an update at the same time everyone else will. It doesn’t mean they won’t still try to go find out on their own, but you have made yourself available to them and helped them by providing a time when you will offer a new update on what you know.
7. Designate your spokesperson, and (if you have time) practice
It is important to designate a spokesperson who will speak to the media before they show up. This way, the person who’s going to be responsible for carrying the message to the public knows what is expected of him or her; they can immediately begin preparing by reviewing the facts, practicing the messages, role-playing Q&A, and all the while, breathing to stay calm for a relaxed and informative interview.