By Tim Jotischky.
It can take a lifetime to build your company’s reputation, but it can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Finding yourself in the eye of a media storm is an experience like no other – you feel lonely and isolated.
The thing to remember is that, for journalists it’s almost never personal, it’s business. That’s why you need to treat it the same way and take a business-like approach to crisis management.
What Are The Rules?
The first rule is that if you only react when a crisis has hit it’s already too late. Though you often can’t anticipate how, why or when a media storm will engulf your business you can have a plan in place.
Your company needs a crisis protocol, which must include at least four key elements:
- An escalation policy to differentiate between a little local difficulty and a serious threat to your reputation
- A designated crisis team, with clearly defined roles for each member
- Simple procedures for gathering information as quickly as possible and an agreed mechanism for keeping internal and external stakeholders informed
- Designated spokespeople to respond and represent you in the media
How Can I Get Help?
You will not find all the answers in a crisis manual. Every crisis is different and throws up a unique set of issues, which can’t be run entirely by the playbook. Sound judgement and cool heads are crucial so having the right people around you matters.
However, a bunker mentality can quickly set in; when you feel you are being attacked unfairly it is easy to become defensive. External advisors can provide a fresh perspective as well as the necessary expertise. I couldn’t tell you how to run your business, but after spending 25 years on national newspapers I could tell you everything you need you know about dealing with journalists.
Some companies have arrangements in place with specialist agencies – in effect, an insurance policy. It allows you to list their contact details on your website so any media inquiries will go to them initially. If it is a routine matter, you can pick it up directly, but if it is an issue that could damage your reputation they will step in and handle it. You agree a fee in advance, depending on the severity of the situation, and the resources required to manage it.
Media and crisis training
Crises are unpredictable but one thing is certain: any business needs to have a public face to represent it. Yet too many companies fail to prepare for this eventuality.
Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward did not like doing media work and one of his first live TV interviews came in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in which 11 of his employees lost their lives. “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do, I’d like my life back,” he said. Hayward’s reputation never recovered from that disastrous slip of the tongue.
Media training teaches you two essential skills:
- How to communicate your core messages clearly and succinctly – a live interview is not a time for spontaneity, you need to have prepared your messages
- How to deal with difficult questions without avoiding them – politicians are ridiculed for answering the question they would liketo have been asked, not the one they were asked
Crisis training helps you apply these skills in a pressurised environment whilst a realistic scenario plays out in real time. The key to communicating effectively is to make a personal connection with the audience, speak human, don’t resort to corporate speak – and that’s never important than in a crisis.
Tim Jotischky is Head of Consultancy at the PHA Group, specializing in crisis communications, and former Business Editor of The Telegraph