Incoming! How to handle media requests in a crisis

Reporters don’t care how busy you are or how many hats you are juggling. Here are some tips and best practices for when and how to respond to crisis inquiries and keep your head on straight.

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It’s one of the greatest challenges any media relations professional will face: A crisis hits your organization out of the blue. Reporters have questions. Emails, texts and calls start piling up like urgent bills to be paid.

Though it’s tempting to retreat into a shell during a crisis—saying as little as possible to avoid further trouble—that’s almost always the wrong approach. If you’re not telling your story, your competitors and critics will fill the vacuum with a much less favorable narrative.

Your key stakeholders need to hear from you—and for many of them, media stories will be a primary source of information about the crisis.

Responsiveness in a crisis is also crucial for your long-term relationship with the news outlets that cover your organization. Think of all the times you’ve pitched stories, sometimes successfully, to these reporters—including stories that really aren’t that newsworthy! (We’ve all been there.)

When they’re covering a crisis involving your organization, these reporters desperately need you. If you can’t get back to them now, they’ll be much less likely to work with you down the road.

That’s why my first tip is to respond, even if you’re only saying “I can’t talk now, but we’ll have a statement in an hour,” which isn’t at all uncommon in the first hours of a crisis. In crisis comms, silence is not golden.

In the coming days and weeks, you’re likely to engage in a lot of back and forth with each reporter covering the crisis as new storylines emerge and fresh information arises. Your success in shaping the story will depend in part on keeping that conversation going, even when you need to push back or say, “No.”

Most organizations struggle to keep up with the pace of media inquiries, especially in the first few days of a crisis. So my second tip is to expand your media relations team, either internally or by bringing in consultants. Assign a traffic cop to create and maintain a running list of inquiries, scheduled interviews, promised follow-ups and the like—you’ll need more structure to keep track of it all than you usually need. (You’ll also want to increase the depth and frequency of media monitoring, including social media.)

I’m often asked about prioritizing media outlets during a crisis. It’s tempting, and sometimes strategically sound, to provide more information and access to reporters and outlets that tend to provide more favorable coverage—but let’s think counterintuitively for a moment.

In a crisis, your organization’s reputation is on the line. Reputation can be defined as your stakeholders’ opinions of you. You’ll want to shape the coverage of the crisis by every outlet that could influence those opinions, including those outlets that tend to be tough on you. In fact, those outlets are arguably the top priority during the crisis, because they can cause the most damage to your reputation.

So while it can make sense to steer particularly sensitive situations toward gentler outlets—the first on-camera interview with your CEO, for instance—it’s best to avoid freezing anyone out. The resources in time and effort that you devote toward shaping negative coverage is often worth more in a crisis than generating relatively positive coverage.

(Of course, some outlets are beyond the pale. I’ve got no problem with ignoring requests from fringe bloggers or others who may have a platform but aren’t relevant to your key audiences.)

Because the onslaught of media requests can be overwhelming, even with a beefed-up team, many organizations in a crisis use regularly scheduled briefings, press conferences or updates to highlight new developments. A daily update lets reporters advance the story while giving you a predictable, controllable window to present your organization’s narrative. It also provides you a backstop when reporters ask questions in the interim. “We’ll have more at our daily briefing” is a common placeholder response that buys you time when developing answers to difficult questions.

My final tip is to take the long view. During the crisis, develop a recovery strategy and incorporate it into your media relations tactics. In your conversations with reporters, try to get a sense of their plans for future coverage as the crisis is dying down.

If the sympathetic local TV news reporter shows interest in a feature on how your employees fared during the crisis, take advantage of the opportunity to showcase your heroes. If an aggressive reporter at the leading newspaper wants to do an investigative piece, consider steering her toward a narrative about your organization’s desire to identify and fix problems. I’ve found that the post-crisis coverage is as important as the crisis coverage in shaping stakeholders’ views of your organization.

Think of it as an opportunity as much as a risk.

Nick Lanyi is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, helping clients craft stories that move audiences to act. An independent writer and communications consultant, he led the public affairs practice in the D.C. office of Porter Novelli and was managing director at public affairs boutique LMG. Contact Kristin Farmer at KristinF@ragan.com to learn more about RCG. Follow RCG on LinkedIn.

Get more insights on how to respond to a crisis by joining Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.

COMMENT

One Response to “Incoming! How to handle media requests in a crisis”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Nick Lanyi is right that “It’s tempting to retreat into a shell during a crisis,” and that this is “almost always the wrong approach.” A better approach is to use his three tips.

    .1. RESPOND! Your response can not only protect your management but so impress management that your career may zoom upward.

    The best time to start your response is NOW even before you know for sure what the crisis will be about. This is possible because nearly always a crisis is caused by an accusation that your management either (a) endangers the public, (b) costs the public too much money, or (c) is unfair to the public as by discrimination, harassment or inaccuracy in some statement to the government.

    Fortunately, you can prepare to show that each of these accusations is incorrect or exaggerated by your assembling information now in a crisis defense file (your CDF) showing ways in which just the opposite is true.

    (a) Your management PROTECTS the public in at least six ways that your CDF documents with facts, pictures and perhaps even charts or film. You can have dates when such-and-such began, the photo and biographies of your senior executives who do things that protect the public, and perhaps letters of thanks from a world-famous expert like Dr. Andrew Zelenetz of Lymphoma Research Foundation who sincerely thanks your management for backing health research that may help save thousands or perhaps even millions of lives.

    (b) Your management SAVES the public money—again in ways your CDF documents with words, pictures, statistics, plus perhaps charts and film. Again, you should ideally have a letter—plus a photo and bio of the letter-writer—and this time the letter (or letters) should be from a consumer protection organization that your management has been glad to include on the annual donation list.

    (c) Your management does six different things—again, documented with words and illustrations—to promote fairness to women, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, non-binary Americans and “challenged” (the euphemism for handicapped) Americans. None of this is eyewash but should be a valid, honest presentation f the truth and if it isn’t already true then now would be an excellent time to start making it true.

    .2. EXPAND YOUR MEDIA RELATIONS TEAM. As Nick Lanyi wisely points out, “most organizations struggle to keep up with the pace of media inquiries” at the start of a crisis. Some PR firms are magnificently qualified not only to keep up with the inquiries (while you have more than enough other work on your hands) but to call in exactly the right experts to show that what your CDF shows to be true is confirmed by your experts and by articles in professional publications.

    Often an expert used in crisis defense may be a distinguished professor from a famous university because of the crisis PR reality: “Your Endorser is Your Endorsement.”
    The fame and prestige of the university adds to the impact of what the professor says.

    No matter how good you are now or will ever be, the cumulative wisdom of a great PR firms can add to success in crisis defense. So as you add to the power of your team, you add to the likely success of your crisis response, the protection you give your management, and the likelihood that the crisis may cause your career to zoom upward.

    .3. TAKE THE LONG VIEW. As can be judged from Nick Lanyi’s wisdom, taking the long view can make the troubles of today lead to triumphs of tomorrow. Once you get to know reporters even better because of the crisis—and once they know how full of facts you are because of your ability to cite from the expert information in your CDF—you can as Nick Lanyi puts it “get a sense of their plans for future coverage as the crisis is dying down.”

    If you have prepared well, the dying down of the crisis may begin the rising up of your career.

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