There you are, tapping out a press release about quarterly earnings or your employees' charitable toy drive, when the phone rings.
A news outlet is investigating your organization, and things are about to get ugly for your well-crafted imaging.
When investigative reporters call, you won't be able to refocus their story on that hilarious YouTube video that HR just made. But there are ways you can handle the crisis through a combination of savvy and openness.
"Being the focus of an investigation by a reporter is a gut-wrenching experience for a company," says Gil Rudawsky, crisis communications strategist for GroundFloor Media in Denver. "And the fallout will continue to haunt you for some time. That said, there are ways to minimize the shock."
Experts emphasized that investigative stories require a villain, and once you are established as the bad guy, it is difficult to change that. But it is still possible to limit the damage—and maybe even come out ahead.
Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations, cites an Oxford University study showing that companies responding ineffectively to a major crisis tend to lose 15 percent of their stock value. Those that manage it well actually gain 5 percent.
"It's the way that you handle the allegations against you," Phillips says. "Crises are an opportunity to demonstrate your competence."
Experts note that every case is different, but here are a just few of their suggestions on what to do when the Eyewitness News Five at Eleven Consumer Watchdog Team shows up:
1. First, plan ahead.
Long before you get the call from a reporter, you need to plan how you will deal with the crisis and who will speak for you, says Carmine Gallo, principal of Gallo Communications.
"What are the potential crises that could affect this company or this industry, and who is our stable of spokespeople who will be notified immediately and will be able to speak on the subject?" he says.
A former reporter and anchor for CNN and CBS, Gallo was hired by growers after the E. coli outbreak of 2006 killed three people and sickened hundreds, when the industry was scrambling to deal with the crisis. After that, growers began inviting reporters to visit farms to see the steps that had been undertaken to keep food safe, laying the groundwork for the future.
2. Don't just blab. Ask.
At the Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, the investigative editors had a rule: No surprises. That meant sources should have the chance to respond to all the specific charges in a story about them.
Before you comment, "You have every right to ... get as many details as you can about what the focus of the investigation is, who the person is talking to, what documents they have," says Rudawsky, a former editor at the Rocky Mountain News.
Ask what sources will be quoted; if the reporter won't name them, at least find out what they are saying. Ask for copies of the documents the report will be based on.
3. Do an internal investigation.
Once you know whether there is any merit to the charges, you can figure out how to respond.
One reporter was basing a story on a transcript he had been provided in a class-action lawsuit, Rudawsky says. But it turned out the plaintiffs had given the reporter only a partial transcript, and the issue at hand was answered later in the full document. When the company provided the full transcript, the story was killed.
4. Get out ahead of the story.
Lying won't work; it will just make you look bad. If your company has indeed done something wrong, it's usually best to announce the news yourself before the story runs, says Phillips, a former ABC and CNN journalist who blogs at Mr. Media Training.
"You're almost always better positioned if you are the one putting out the bad news yourself instead of waiting for the media to break it," he says.
5. Make yourself available.
If your organization is innocent of the charges, it's difficult to prove a negative, Phillips says. But don't drop into a defensive crouch behind the attorneys.
Instead, he says, try calling a reporter and say: "You have your facts wrong. I want to meet with you. Are you going to be at your desk in an hour? I'm stopping by."
Be ready to answer every question. That kind of openness can influence a reporter, he says.
6. Express sympathy for the victims.
We all know to respond quickly in the age of the Internet. But how about stopping to express sympathy for those who were hurt, regardless of whether you are at fault?
If there has been a tragedy associated with your company or industry—an oil spill, infant crib deaths, car wrecks blamed on faulty designs—the worst response is to be quoted saying, "This is a terrible thing for our company because we're going to lose money," Gallo says. Show that your organization is made up of human beings who care.
7. Consider a legal warning.
Bluster will backfire, and you shouldn't issue idle threats if the story is correct. But if a media outlet seems committed to airing a damaging story even after you believe you have demonstrated that it is false, a legal warning can work as a last resort, Phillips says.
You can state: "We have demonstrated to you that the information you have is wrong. If you decide to run that ... then we will take legal action against you."
If nothing else, this puts the media outlet on notice. It will force reporters or producers to have a conversation with high-level editors and attorneys. It also makes them go back and double-check every detail of their reporting.
8. Create a discrete response website.
When "60 Minutes" began investigating Lance Armstrong this year, he created a website and posted his drug testing results before the story aired, Rudawsky says. He refused to talk to the reporters, forcing them to quote his response on Twitter and the website.
Taco Bell responded online when it was sued over incorrect allegations that it used filling that was largely non-beef. It created an ad campaign under the title, "Thank you for suing us."
Often companies create separate websites with different URLs so they don't harm their messaging on their main site, Rudawsky says. They can post relevant documentation, response videos and customer testimonials.
When lawsuits are dropped, the media tend to give the stories little play, leaving brands to recover from the harm to their name. After the plaintiffs withdrew the case against Taco Bell, the company launched a witty ad campaign, asking, "Would it kill you to say you're sorry?"
9. Use social media.
You've been racking up all those Facebook fans. Now's the time to lay out your side, driving people to your website or YouTube channel.
Although Phillips generally doesn't recommend taping interviews from the PR side, if you do so and there's a nasty edit, you can post the tape so the quote is delivered in context.
A Rudawsky client once created a video response to a negative TV news piece. "That response," he says, "got more hits than the actual [news] video."