Caught in the camera flash

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Tom Curtin discusses how to ensure that following a crisis your spokesperson is fully prepared to stand firm in the media spotlight

On 09 August 2014, an 18 year-old black man was fatally shot by a white police officer in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Before CNN had fi led a single report on the shooting, more than one million messages had been sent about the incident on social media. Traditional media outlets were immediately playing catch up with a story that had already begun to develop on social media. In the absence of any clear facts, conjecture and rumour were able to take hold.

Whilst few organisations will face such an extreme incident, the case highlights the challenges that can be created by the fast spread of information. Companies are expected to provide a swift response to developing stories, and need to be ready to throw a spokesperson into the media spotlight at short notice.

So in this fast-paced environment, with potentially little or no information available, how can your company ensure your spokesperson is fully prepared for the media spotlight? Here are five key tips to be ready to face a potential media onslaught.

Monitor the media – both old and new

The first your organisation hears about a crisis shouldn’t be when the world’s media arrives at your door. Simple steps can be taken to keep on top of what is being said about your organisation online through the setting up of alerts and the monitoring of blogs. These alerts can also be a very useful tool in helping to anticipate and prepare for potential crises before they escalate. Through effective monitoring an organisation can ensure it won’t be caught off guard when a crisis hits.

It is also important to identify the journalists who are interested in writing about your industry, and cultivating a professional relationship. Whilst this won’t prevent a journalist from reporting negative stories about your company, it might encourage them to pick up the phone to you first to give you a right of reply.

Have a line and stick to it

In a developing situation it is highly unlikely that all the facts will be available straight away. Despite this, many spokespeople feel the need to provide direct answers to questions, when they don’t know the answers themselves. In this situation, an open ended interview is extremely dangerous. Journalists are like cats with a ball of twine – if they are able to find an end, they will keep pulling until the ball unravels.

Spokespeople can protect against this by having pre-agreed lines to take, which crucially must be signed off by the legal department. This may not be the most ‘media friendly’ tactic, but it is better to provide a bland interview with little interest, than to speak off the cuff and create unwanted headlines.

Conduct regular training exercises

Crisis communication plans serve a vital purpose for any organisation, but a plan which is left untested will not mature, it will rot. I have encountered many companies which have spent thousands of pounds creating wonderful crisis management plans, only to leave them gathering dust on the top shelf.

When a crisis hits, there is simply not the time to get down the crisis management plan and start reading. Ideally these plans should be robustly tested at regular intervals at least every 12 months. These tests should be hard, realistic exercises, which assess the ability to perform effectively under pressure, so that when the skills are required in real life spokespeople know exactly what is expected.

Control your environment

When conducting an interview or press conference it is vital that you control your environment. The more you can do to prevent unexpected distractions or interruptions, the better chance you will have of getting your argument across.

Whenever possible, interviews should be conducted behind locked doors, with only accredited journalists allowed to enter. This will lessen the chances of infiltration from any opponents who might want to use the occasion as a platform for their own agenda.

There should also be a clear ‘exit strategy’ when the interview is finished. Politicians in particular are very good at this. They will often take a handful of questions before concluding and swiftly walking away. This prevents any difficult follow up questions which you might be unable to address.

Agree the CEO’s role in advance

In a crisis situation there will be a natural temptation for the CEO to leap onto a white horse and ride into battle. This is a very dangerous position to be in, as it can leave the CEO in the direct line of fire. There is a very good reason why companies hire spokespeople; they are replaceable. After all, it is much easier to find a new spokesperson than it is to find a new CEO.

CEOs can play a very important role in a crisis, but these should be very controlled, ‘set piece’ events, including visiting the scene of any tragedy, or meeting with high level politicians. It is vital that this is agreed well in advance and has the buy in from the CEO. When a crisis hits they will still want to come forward, but this prior agreement will at least provide you with the opportunity to try and stop them.

Ready to respond

In an age of instant communication it can sometimes feel as if spokespeople face an impossible task in dealing with the media spotlight. However, through effective preparation and regularly reviewing crisis management procedures organisations can ensure that they are in a proactive position to deal with anything the media has to throw at them.

Tom Curtin is chief executive of Crisis Communications, a subsidiary of Curtin&Co. He has over 25 years’ experience of working in corporate communications, and is a visiting professor of crisis management at IMD Business School in Switzerland. He is the author the book, ‘Managing A Crisis: A Practical Guide’, Palgrave Macmillan – 2005.

Continuity coverThis article first appeared in the 2015 Q2 edition of Continuity – The Magazine of the Business Continuity Institute. To download your free copy, just click here.