Crucial crisis management advice for a common conundrum
Editor’s note: Many thanks to crisis management/community relations pro Judy Hoffman for allowing us to publish the following article.
Perhaps you have heard the term “ambush interview.” It can mean several different things to media trainers like myself. The dictionary defines ambush as “a surprise attack.” It could happen when you have been called in because of a serious incident and media people — complete with cameras rolling — literally jump out of the bushes as you are leaving your home or arriving at your office. Or it could occur during an interview you have agreed to hold about a particular subject, but the reporter springs a totally different subject on you, asking aggressive questions.
Like most people, your first instinct might be to say, defensively and with distinct body language, “NO COMMENT!” Then you may remember that you’ve been told by various people – media consultants or internal communications experts – that this is not a good approach because it immediately signals to the reporter that you are hiding something. “Guilty as charged,” as a reporter friend of mine used to say.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Do not say those two words, “No comment.” They have been used so often by people who don’t have a good story to tell that they practically invite a conscientious reporter to dig into whatever accusations have been made or explore a negative story they have been told.
Do not take a swing at the cameraman or try to rip the camera out of his hands. All of that will be captured on film or reported on back at the studio. The visual drama will make it a great news story from their point of view. And it will make you look bad – guilty, scared, and rude.
Do not just turn on your heel and walk away from them, ducking into a door and locking it. Again, this will be captured on film and played on air to make you look like you are desperate to avoid admitting something bad.
Do not say, “That’s an interesting question,” while walking away from them. (I only mention this as it is something I recently saw recommended by another crisis communications consultant. Seriously???)
WHAT ARE YOUR ALTERNATIVES?
As is so often the case, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on the situation and whether you are the right person with the correct information to answer the questions, assuming that the questions are valid and reasonable. So let’s look at several different situations.
If you have just been made aware of the situation and you have not yet been briefed on the specifics, tell the reporter who accosts you on the way to the Crisis Management Center, “I can confirm at this time that there has been an accident involving our company. I can’t tell you anything more about it because I simply do not have the facts yet. As soon as we have verified information, I will get back to you.” Then, of course, you must return at least to give them the basics of the who, what, where and when and a brief description of what the organization is doing about it. Promise to provide more detailed information when it becomes available.
If you are not the proper person to answer the question, refer the reporter to that person, whether it is an emergency responder, a government agency, a law enforcement official, or someone else. Be courteous and helpful, but do not attempt to answer for anyone else when it’s not your role.
If the question is reasonable, but you don’t yet have the information to answer it with certainty, simply say so. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know the answer to that yet. I will research it and get back to you.” Do NOT use this answer if you know right away that the question is one where ongoing legal cases, confidentiality or proprietary issues will prohibit your talking about it.
If the question is based on untrue or unsubstantiated claims, point that out firmly to the reporter. “I’m sorry, but I can’t answer your question because what is being stated is (1) simply not true or (2) based on unproven allegations at this point.”
If the question calls for you to speculate on something, be very clear. “We make it a habit not to speculate. We are working hard to find out exactly what happened and it does no one any good to guess about things. We are taking this matter seriously and will get back to you when we have gotten further along with the investigation and we have verified facts to report.”
Judy Hoffman is Author of “Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat: Dealing Effectively with the Media in Times of Crisis”, www.judyhoffman.com
Editor’s Comment from Jonathan Bernstein: Here’s another option to add to the excellent list Judy provided. Buy yourself some time by telling the reporter, “I’d love to speak with you, but why don’t we do it where it will be more comfortable for all of us. Can you come over to my office (or wherever is convenient, a space you can control). If the journalist agrees, it buys you some time to think about what you’re going to say and, in your own space, it’s usually easier to avoid looking defensive.
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