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Working with Journalists During a Crisis

During my years working in Corporate Communications at The Boeing Company, we had a number of high profile incidents and accidents that challenged the company and helped us understand ways to better manage our media relationships.

I always enjoyed the challenge of managing interactions between our corporate spokespeople and the media. Both sides have a job to do, and what we share is pressure, deadlines, and the delicate dance required to get a successful outcome, which I always enjoyed seeking to achieve.

During a crisis, journalists would prefer complete and total access to information, and media relations practitioners want to manage the information flow to get the story out while protecting the reputation of the company. Quite often, these respective positions are at odds. But, there are some “ins and outs” to develop effective working relationships with journalists in a crisis. Here they are:

  • In the midst of a crisis is not the time to get to know your key media. If you are meeting media contacts for the first time once a major incident is unfolding, you will struggle to align your mutual interests.The time to get to know your key media contacts is when you’re in the midst of relative calm. Spend time understanding what your key media need, how they work, their personality quirks, and how to develop a working relationship that creates a sort of shorthand so that your respective expectations can be understood and managed.

    • Here’s an example: At Boeing, if a journalist who worked the aviation beat called on a routine working day and asked for some information on how a thrust reverser works on an airplane, we would probably provide that information. However, if a Boeing airplane had just crashed, and there was speculation (for example) about the thrust reverser being the reason for the accident, then we would probably not provide that information. After all, why would we want to fuel the speculation that may have nothing to do with the accident? Obviously, that might confuse your media contact wanting to write that story. But, if you’ve already developed a good working relationship with the beat reporter, then having ground rules established in advance can help set expectations and lessen tense interactions.

  • Given the high stakes that emerge during a crisis, it is OK to not have “friendly” working relationships with key media contacts. Of course, having friendly relations is the goal, but that is not always possible. Some journalists/organizations prefer to cultivate ”coolness” in the relationship so that it doesn’t appear too cozy. Thus, they might strike a less than friendly pose day-in and day-out. That’s OK. Your goal, and theirs, is to keep the relationship productive. Friendship is not required. I’ve found this type of relationship has limits, however, because caution built into the relationship precludes breakthrough communication. Some might refer to this as “trust.” But, if that’s how it is, then that’s how it is.

  • Focused journalists are the norm during a crisis. Understand your own requirements thoroughly. Given their mission, journalists are trying to get a scoop, or story, first. Thus, they will do what is necessary to achieve their goals. As a BBC World News reporter said in a recent TV promo, “I will not take no for an answer.” You should expect to feel pressured to provide information, context, data and insider company information so they can satisfy their objectives. Maintaining calm and understanding your own responsibilities will prevent possible mistakes. They have a job to do and so do you.

  • Ensure your spokespeople are familiar with the media, and have been properly trained. Again, preparing for a crisis in advance will allow you to effectively handle a crisis that is unfolding. Knowing your key media can help mitigate chaos. In day-to-day media relations, PR professionals are answering media queries and handling relationships and providing the “company story.” But, during a crisis, it might require an executive spokesperson at the highest level of the company, who has little experience in dealing with the media during a crisis, to respond. Therefore, it is critical that the executive be trained and briefed properly in advance.

    • Here’s an example: The British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is a classic example. The CEO, Tony Hayward, was ill-prepared to handle communications during a crisis and that was illustrated through the various wrong-footed statements made by Hayward. His classically inappropriate line, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back”, spoke volumes about his insensitivity towards stakeholders concerns. It also highlighted BP’s misunderstanding about the stakes involved in engaging the media/public. Journalists love colorful speakers who create “news.” Your job is to ensure the appropriate level of engagement is happening to protect the company.

  • Embrace the power of social media and media relations when working a crisis. Because social media is the fastest way to move, or to respond, to a story, then you must be prepared to anticipate how a story evolves and to use social media as a key communication channel.

    • Here’s an example: It was a July 4, 2013 holiday weekend in America when an Asiana Airlines 777 crashed at San Francisco International Airport. We were amazed to learn a Samsung executive on board the flight from Seoul that crashed had sent a dramatic tweet after escaping the burning plane. His video went global in seconds/minutes. Media people began calling us at Boeing, and luckily, we were able to follow with a tweet confirming the event soon afterward, thereby providing our initial statement that media expected. Still, because of the holiday weekend, and because of the speed of the passenger’s tweet, our response only came about an hour after the crash happened, which wasn’t bad considering our crisis communications team was on holiday. Truly, the game has changed. Understanding social media, and using it to help you manage and anticipate events, and to respond to them quickly, is critical to telling your story. In our case, we had some “canned” social media holding statements ready to go and deployable as soon as practical. When dealing with social media, you need to imagine a story breaking, and going potentially viral, quickly. So, be prepared.

Over the past 25 years, CS&A International has been devoted to the mission of continuously enhancing our clients’ crisis preparedness and resilience: we write crisis plans, conduct crisis leadership and crisis media communication training, coach senior executives and spokespersons and design crisis exercises. We can help your company and executives prepare, and manage your media relations and social media engagement optimally, to prevent a crisis from turning into a reputation train wreck.

Being prepared and having the knowledge that your organization’s reputation is “in good hands” is a good place to be.

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