10 Tips on Managing Media in a Crisis
It is inevitable. However you define the term --- be it a product incident that results in serious injuries, or an ill-timed leak or other reputation-altering rumor --- at some point, your firm or company WILL experience a "crisis." But there are some specific tactics that can help you weather the media storm more gracefully.
1) Don't wait for the crisis. Have a plan. Just as you do with office fire drills, put a corporate crisis team & action plan into place before anything happens. Assign roles (w/ back-ups). Occasionally assemble, and review the plan. For law firms, your team will likely include the firm's managing partner, the firm's head of PR and/or communications, the CMO and the firm's own legal counsel, among others. Unless you are experienced in crisis communications, for truly tough matters it would also be wise to have a pre-established relationship (at least an introduction) in place with an experienced outside crisis agency that you can call upon on an as-needed basis.
2) Ask for some time. When you get that call, take a deep breath and make sure you understand what is being asked --- but don't respond immediately. There is nothing wrong with asking for some time to get back to the reporter with a response; two hours is a reasonable request (but one that may not be granted, if a reporter is on deadline). Most reporters are fair and will try to work with you if they can. As quickly as possible, gather the troops (see TIP #1) and the information you will need, in consultation with your PR and crisis team.
3) Secure your staff. Some reporters have been known to pick up the phone and call anyone in an organization, including associates and administrative staff, in search of information or comment. Draft any necessary internal crisis memos carefully, as if you are expecting them to be leaked and published, because this very well could happen. Ensure that all staff, legal and non, have been well-trained, via formal media policy or otherwise, to immediately forward any media requests to PR.
4) Avoid negative statements. (Remember "I am NOT a crook!"?) Similarly, avoid parroting back potentially negative questions in your answers ("No, it is not true that I am a crook.") You don't want to give that negative language any free real estate. Instead, go straight to your stand-alone statement about who you ARE and what you are doing.
5) Reconsider the "No comment." While it is sometimes necessary to decline to comment, an actual "No comment," in response to a question, can seem defensive. (It would be better if you simply could not be reached for comment.) But also consider that you can't outrun a crisis and, if you don’t tell your own story, others will happily tell it for you.
If a reporter from a reputable media outlet is giving you a chance to present your position, consider providing a comment --- even if it is provided via written statement, instead of interview, to maintain greater control. And if it seems that, based upon the facts they have, the reporter may present an inaccurate version of the story, you might also consider asking if you can speak on background, if only to correct those inaccuracies in real time. While a good reporter is always objective, when a source opens up and tries to explain a situation, they will sometimes be more empathetic as well.
6) Surround your story. If you have regularly been disseminating positive information about your firm online, if and when a crisis occurs the news won’t be quite as visible --- or at least for not as long. If a negative story constitutes your only online presence, of course it will make its way immediately to the top of your search results-and stay there. But if bad news shoots to the top of your search results, one good way to move it down is to keep churning out other, positive, rich and SEO-optimized company content, to compete. (Also, for heaven's sake, stop clicking on the bad stuff! Doing so will only keep it up at the top of the search results.)
7) Don't feed the trolls. This tip pertains particularly to online (social) media. While being aware of what’s said about you online, and responding strategically, are part of good customer service, if someone is merely riding your crisis for attention and to abuse, engaging will likely only make things worse. As difficult as it can be to resist, it may simply be better to let things die down on their own instead of impulsively responding to comments on an individual basis. If you decide a response is necessary, it should be undertaken thoughtfully and in consultation with your PR & Comms team.
8) Practice, practice, practice - Ideally on camera (if TV, in-person interview or press conference are possibilities). Consider bringing in others to assist you with mock interview prep. Encourage them to throw tough questions at you or your spokesperson, with the goals of desensitization and eliminating surprises. Remind your spokesperson, too, about the definitions of "on the record," "off the record" and "on background." While media training, rehearse answering the worst questions you can think of --- the ones you most dread being asked --- until you can answer (or “bridge”) them all in a friendly and relaxed manner. Click here for some helpful media training tips for lawyers and other professionals.
9) Stay on your guard. The reporter, while no doubt a nice person, is not your pal. No crisis conversation with the press is casual. Don’t joke. Always assume you are on the record, unless you establish and trust you aren’t. Never assume you will get the opportunity to review your quotes before they are published.
10) Confirm accuracy. When it is published, if something in a story is wrong, politely provide the reporter with objective evidence to back up your position, pulling in their editor only if this gets you nowhere. But, in order to be corrected, the story must actually be factually inaccurate --- not merely stylistically imperfect in your view. No do-overs or commenter’s remorse!
BONUS TIP: Perhaps my best advice for managing media in a crisis is to take a breath and try to remain calm --- especially if you've done all the right things to prepare. Yes, there may be challenges ahead, for you to tackle. But news cycles and attention spans continue to shrink exponentially. And the unfortunate odds are that someone else's crisis, or difficult story, is just around the corner. We'll all likely get through.
Have some questions or need help with a crisis? Contact us at email@example.com.