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Here’s an interesting question.
If your organisation was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons with a negative story or crisis would you be better off responding through media interviews or written statements?
An article I stumbled across earlier this week suggested that written statements could be the best course of action.
It argued that if the media has already decided your organisation is the ‘villain of the piece’ then there may be ‘nothing to gain’ from doing interviews.
It added that saying something you later may regret could give ‘fresh fuel to the crisis’.
This advice, though well-intentioned, is not something we would support on our crisis communication training courses.
Don’t get us wrong, written statements have a role to play in the crisis media management toolkit, but that is really just at the start of an incident, where details are still emerging, and an organisation needs to be seen to be aware and responding to what has happened.
These holding statements play a vital role in buying an organisation some time until it is able to get a better understanding of what has happened and get its messaging sorted.
But from that point an organisation really needs to start engaging with the media and that means media interviews.
Putting a spokesperson forward to face the media during a crisis can be daunting, perhaps even terrifying. But not putting someone forward can have more frightening implications.
For a start, it can appear that the organisation is hiding, secretive, defensive and waiting for the crisis to blow over rather than put themselves forward for scrutiny. The words “no-one was available from (organisation) to appear on our programme” or “we asked for an interview” never creates a good impression.
Some media outlets may go further here and ‘empty-chair’ the organisation – a move where a chair in a studio is left empty to represent a spokesperson who refused to take part in an interview. It is aimed at causing embarrassment and suggesting actions are indefensible. Although it wasn’t an interview, you may recall that Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg was empty chaired after declining an invitation to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last year.
Empty chair shaming for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Metro
MPs leave empty chair for Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg at fake news inquiry Sky News
It is hard to imagine a major incident or wider crises where a statement is going to be enough.
And if you don’t meet that demand for further information, the media is going to tell the story regardless of whether or not you take part. They will turn to others - potentially rivals and detractors - to fill the void if your organisation decided not to put someone forward, an approach which is likely to see it lose complete control of the narrative.
That vacuum could also be filled with doorstep interviews, a format which regularly trips up confident, experienced spokespeople.
Importantly, it can be easier to show compassion, remorse, care and reassurance in an interview than it is through a statement, particularly if a spokesperson has been empowered to put messages in their own words.
And, of course, another crucial factor is that the media has direct access to the audiences you need to reach.
But could a poor media interview actually make a crisis worse?
Of course, it is possible. The often-cited example is Tony Hayward’s careless “I’d like my life back” remark during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis.
But there are also many examples of skilful media interviews which have helped organisations better manage crisis media management incidents. Richard Branson’s crisis skills are often rightly praised and Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments, did an excellent job following the accident at Alton Towers which left people with serious injuries.
The pressure during a crisis will be more intense than other interview situations. So it is imperative that spokespeople have had practical media training that has exposed them to hostile questions.
Crucially, they also need to be able to remain calm when put under pressure and show humility and compassion.
The only time I would suggest an organisation should turn down an interview request during a crisis is when media trained spokespeople are not available. But organisations should rule out this possibility by ensuring they have several people who are capable of facing the media in this environment.
At a time of 24 hour news channels and the immediacy of social media, communication matters more than ever during a crisis. Organisations need to be proactive and transparent with the media.
And that means being bold and accepting those media interview bids.
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.
Click here to find out more about our highly practical crisis communication training.
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