Dealing with the media during or after a crisis

Tuesday, 13 June 2006
david_carroof.jpgWhen a crisis happens, the media run right into the story and the last thing you need is the added pressure of the media demanding answers now. There are tips and tricks that you can do to help minimize that added pressure and to make sure that you don't lead your paddling school or company into more hot water.

Be prepared
The key is to be prepared before the crises. Work with your fellow staff or instructors to brainstorm what possible situation would be a crisis for your company. They could range from one end of spectrum of a minor injury all the way to a death of a student during one of your courses or guided trips. Other crises examples could be fire, theft or accusations of abuse by a client towards a member of your staff.

Once yuu have identified possible crises scenarios, you need to develop an action plan for dealing with the actual crises as well as dealing with the media.

Remember that the media are just doing their job just like you do yours. It is their job to figure out what happened and to bring that story to the general public. Accept that they will ask tough and direct questions. By being mentally prepared for that fact, you will be better prepared and look more composed when microphone is in your face.

Contact your insurer
The first step in dealing with the crises fall out is to contact your insurance company no matter how large or small the crises. If it is a big enough story that the media is interested, your insurance company should also be aware of the situation.

Possible Key Messages:
  • We value safety
  • We value life
  • We value our school/company employees
  • We value our business partners
  • We value the environment
  • We value community involvement
  • We support a drug-free, harassment-free work environment
  • We are responsive to students/participants needs
  • We are fiscally responsible
  • We anticipate and prepare for potential crises
  • We strive to share information and communicate with the community
  • Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy
  • We are doing all we can do to ensure that this never happens again
There are some key tips to dealing with the media in a crisis:
  • Designate one person in your organization to speak to the media. The spokesperson should be articulate, diplomatic, and sincere. Your spokesperson, in essence, becomes the "voice" of your business on the television, in the newspaper, and over the airwaves. If that person appears caring and concerned, your organization will be perceived as such. If possible, individual personnel should not speak with the media. Have a back-up plan in case this designated person is unavailable. Be sure to tell all of your staff who these people are and how to contact them when the media calls!
  • Anticipate questions reporters will ask. Determine ahead of time what you will say and what you won't or can't say. Have fact sheets prepared. Prepare a written statement for distribution with the help of your attorney. Be sure to share this information with your staff. They may feel very threatened and/or demoralized by the bad publicity and may be receiving front line questions from clients, families and friends.
  • Speak in sound bites -short sentences and concise thoughts. Don't ramble. Emphasize key points made in the news release, and don't deviate from them.
  • Develop a response other than "no comment." If a criminal act has allegedly occurred, as in the case of child abuse, issue a brief statement like this: "The safety and well-being of our youth are extremely important to us. We are cooperating with the authorities in their investigation, and any comments made before the investigation is complete would be premature."
  • Avoid extremes. Do not defend yourself too strenuously, appearing too eager to avoid blame; Do not lock yourself in your office, appearing to avoid responsibility.
  • Maintain an open mind and a good attitude about dealing with the media. Much of the time these professionals want to work with you, not against you. Your comfort level or attitude toward the media could influence the treatment you receive.
  • Announce that you take the problem seriously. Then take it seriously, even if you think the issue is non-existent or overblown. Whether it was a real problem before, it certainly is a reputation management issue now that the press has it.
  • Don't lie. If you (or your staff) screwed up, admit it. The media is relatively kinder to those who openly admit they screwed up. It's disarming. Although they may not become your friend, they will at least realize that you have a conscience. That realization alone can be the difference between a hostile story and one that respects the sometimes-complicated choices we all make when performing our duties.
  • After experiencing a disaster it is vital that a thorough review is undertaken of how the organization responded and coped with the emergency. Lessons can always be learned and these will not only improve the response should there be another incident, but could prevent a future disaster. It therefore makes sense to be sure to let the media know what you did in analyzing the situation and improving the response to avoid any future crisis.

Probably the best defence against negative publicity is a strong, positive relationship with the local reporters before anything "bad" occurs. If an incident occurs that could cause you and your organization grief. Be prepared with ready answers to probable questions and a couple of choice sound bytes that will look good in the paper or sound good when quoted.

Finally, a wonderful resource that I discovered out there is called "Basic Crisis Communications Planning". It is a 28 page pdf written for the League of Minnesota Cities. Even though it is written to help small and cities develop an emergency communication strategy, there is information for small businesses on developing press releases and setting up interviews. You can find a copy of the manual in our Resource Repository here .

-- Some tips taken from "Dealing with the Media in a Crisis" by Michael A. Taylor from the United States Elite Coaches Association

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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