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Who knew that the Government issues advice on dealing with a crisis media management incident?
Well, somewhat surprisingly it does.
I recently stumbled on a page on the Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport’s part of the gov.uk website entitled ‘handling media attention after a major incident’.
That title is a little misleading because this broad document also seems to cover reputational crises and advice for individuals facing press interest.
It includes sections on why you would want to speak to the media, what you should consider if you want to speak to the press, and why the media would be interested.
While it is undoubtedly beneficial for citizens to have access to advice like this, there seems to be a concerning amount of emphasis placed on not speaking to the media.
Lines like: ‘it is your decision whether or not to speak to journalists’, ‘remember if you do not want to, you do not have to’, ‘you should be aware that providing information can sometimes lead to more coverage and interest’ and ‘you should remember that you do not have to answer any questions’ appear throughout the document.
While it is true you don’t technically have to speak to the media, it is hard to imagine a major incident or wider reputational crisis where that particular strategy would end well.
In fact, turning down interview requests seldom makes sense.
Although you can put off interviews in the very early stages of a major incident until next-of-kin and staff have been informed, not speaking to the media during a crisis is a really bad strategy.
Battening down the hatches and hoping the bad news goes away is no real strategy at all.
While it can certainly feel like journalists are the enemy during a crisis media management incident when they put you under intense pressure, engaging with the media is absolutely crucial both in terms of shaping and controlling the story and getting messages across to your customers.
Turing down interview requests during a crisis can also cause organisations to appear defensive and secretive and can damage relationships with both the media and customers. And if you don’t talk, you can be pretty sure reporters will find other people to talk to and fill the void, including your competitors and customers.
There is also the risk of being empty-chaired, a move journalists use to embarrass organisations who have not put a spokesperson forward and imply their actions are indefensible.
In a world of 24 hour news channels and the immediacy of social media, communication matters more than ever during a crisis. Organisations need to be proactive, transparent and, if appropriate, accountable with the media.
Instead of issuing advice which suggests that not talking to journalists is a realistic option, the government’s document would be much more effective if it provided an overview of the sorts of information journalists typically look for in the early stages of a crisis.
Here are the questions a crisis spokesperson could expect to face:
What happened / went wrong?
Where did it happen?
When did you become aware of the problem?
What action have you taken?
Who is affected?
Were there any warning signs?
Who’s to blame?
The role of the crisis spokesperson is to use these questions to get across messages that show the organisation cares about those affected by the event, is taking action to determine why it happened, and to prevent it from happening again; and put the incident into context and provide reassurance that this is an isolated incident.
And they need to be able to back these points up with examples.
On our crisis communication training courses we use the CARE acronym to highlight exactly what spokespeople need to get across in crisis messages and interviews. It stands for Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples. And communicating - with CARE - is absolutely crucial during a crisis.
*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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