© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
To Talk or Not to Talk?
by Joan Stewart
Editor's Note: Joan Stewart's expertise is how to get publicity. In a crisis, however -- unless we're intentionally engaging in "trial by media" -- we're often trying to minimize publicity while attempting to achieve some balance in coverage that does occur. This article was not written with the needs of crisis managers in mind, but you will find, nonetheless, that it has definite relevance to crisis communications.
When a reporter calls you on the phone and starts asking questions about a bad-news situation, what do you do? Jump in with an answer to the first question even before you know what the story is about? If so, you could find yourself in hot water, or wasting time in an interview that has absolutely nothing to do with you or your company. It's time to turn the tables on the reporter and start asking the following questions so you can learn as much as you can about the reporter and the assignment. Armed with that information, you can then decide whether you want to talk.
What is the story about?
If you don't know the answer, you shouldn't be talking to the reporter. If the story is about something that has nothing to do with you, you can tell the reporter that, and the interview might come to a rapid end.
What angle are you taking?
This is a nice way of asking, "Do you have any preconceived notions about this story?" It's also a way of finding out whether the reporter has an agenda, or is out to make you look bad.
What is your deadline?
If deadline is in two hours, you won't be able to buy much time and you will have to decide quickly whether to talk, then provide the answers in that same phone call. But if the deadline is in two days, you can stall for several hours or a day until you have time to gather the information the reporter needs and prepare your answers. To stall, simply ask the reporter what he or she wants to know. Then say you want some time to gather your thoughts and get other pressing business out of the way. Ask if it's OK if you call back first thing tomorrow. Then be sure you do.
Who will be interviewing me?
If the reporter wants an in-person interview and wants to bring along another reporter, beware. Two reporters interviewing one source usually means the reporters are part of an investigative team. It also gives the reporters the advantage because while one reporter is firing questions at you, the other one can take notes. You will have little if any time to pause between questions to collect your thoughts.
Am I critical to the story?
If so, let the reporter explain how. It will give you an idea of how prominent a role you will need to play in the story.
How much do you know about this topic?
The reporter's answer will be a good indication of whether he or she has done the necessary homework, has talked to other sources, or is simply on a fishing expedition. If the reporter doesn't know much and you think you need to proceed with the interview, this is a good chance to education the reporter. Don't forget to offer any written materials such as reports or news articles that might help. This is also a chance to set the record straight and to convince the reporter that the angle is wrong, or that there's a better angle that should be pursued.
Who else have you spoken to and what did they tell you?
You need to know whether the reporter has spoken to your competitor, or to someone who might make you look bad. If so, you will want to make sure your comments are part of the story.
How long will the interview take?
If the interview will take two hours and you can only spare 30 minutes, you should tell the reporter that. If the interview will only be 10 minutes, you might not necessarily need a lot of preparation.
Can you tell me what topics you will cover in this interview?
This is a sneaky way of saying, "What are you going to ask me?" You'd be surprised at how many reporters will actually give you the questions beforehand.
May I bring along an associate with me to participate?
If you're the CEO of a publicly traded company, and the story is about your company's poor performance in the last quarter, you might want to make sure your chief financial officer participates.
May I tape-record the interview?
If the topic is sensitive, or you must have a tape of the interview, you have every right to ask this question. Understand, however, that if you tape the interview, the reporter should be able to tape it too.
May I bring props with me?
If the interview is for television, you might want to be prepared with props such as charts or graphs that will help explain a complicated story.
What's the format?
Is it a live TV interview or will it be taped? If it's a live radio interview, does the reporter want you to be available to talk to callers on the air?
Let's assume that you have the answers you need and that you decide to proceed with the interview. You can negotiate terms of the interview before it is conducted. Here are things you can negotiate:
- The length of the interview.
- Where it is conducted. If you don't want the reporter inside your company, you can agree to meet him or her someplace else. But don't offer to meet the reporter over breakfast or lunch if this is a particularly sensitive story, or you don't want a long interview. You could find yourself trapped in an ambush interview.
- "Off-limits" topics. Let's say you're a public figure whose nasty divorce made headlines six months ago, but it has nothing to do with the topic of this interview. You have the right to tell the reporter that you want questions about the divorce to be off limits.
- Limits on photographers. If a reporter wants to bring a photographer inside your company and you don't want the photographer roaming around in an area where your creative team is working on point-of-purchase displays for a client, for example, you should say so.
- Submit questions in writing. If you don't want to be interviewed, you can ask the reporter to submit questions in writing, then reply with a written response. This will help you avoid a slip of the tongue in a delicate situation. This tactic is a good way around the problem of saying "no comment." Reporters who want the answers bad enough will submit them. If they don't want to bother, they won't be able to tell readers you refused to comment.
Editor's Comment: Answering questions in writing only is a method of last resort in crisis communications. It can be taken, by the media and the general public, to mean that you are afraid of being interviewed in person and/or have something to hide. In certain situations -- e.g., when it could truly endanger a legal case, when there is no effective spokesperson available -- it is still better, as Joan indicates, than saying "no comment."
All those tips will help you be media-savvy, confident and prepared.
Joan Stewart, a media relations consultant, publishes The Publicity Hound's Tips of the Week, a free ezine featuring publicity tips and strategies for working with the media. Subscribe at her website at http://www.PublicityHound.com and receive free by autoresponder the handy list 89 Reasons to Send a News Release.
Interactive PR Requires Grace Under Pressure
Reprinted by permission from Interactive Public Relations,
a Lawrence Ragan Communications Publication
Just as media can make a story spread like wildfire on the Web, the public can create a fast-growing crisis, too.
Consider this: In the 36 hours after Indiana University announced it had fired basketball coach Bobby Knight, IU's Christopher Simpson, vp, public affairs and government relations, received more than 3,000 e-mails-and few were flattering. He even turned over some of them to police because of their threatening language.
What's more, online rumors and websites began popping up, with inaccurate information and emotional rants from Knight's fans and detractors. One site even posted Simpson's home phone number-a move that brought unwanted calls and forced Simpson and his family from their home that night.
But the university's PR pros quickly realized the crisis wasn't as severe as they initially thought. Simpson recalls sitting at his desk, weighed down by the volume of e-mail and unsure how to respond. Then it hit him. "The phone wasn't ringing. We hadn't gotten much [regular] mail."
The lesson: "Technology is such that someone sitting in Topeka can quickly send off a nasty, and sometimes anonymous, note as easy as not." By contrast, Simpson's team only received eight voice mails and three letters.
"It felt like the whole world was talking about us. But after the dust settled, it [the firing] didn't have a negative effect on IU's reputation," he says. An independent survey of Indiana residents showed that more than 80 percent of the state either agreed with IU's decision or didn't care, he says.
Tip: Make your site the hub of your online response. In the IU crisis, it was rare to find balanced media coverage around Knight's departure because just about everyone, including reporters, held a strong opinion about him. To provide balance and perspective, Simpson and his staff used the IU website as an information hub of real-time news and facts about Knight's firing.
"We posted everything on the site," he says. IU also sent 22,000 e-mails to university alumni and other friends explaining the university's choice. The experience left two permanent changes in Simpson's department:
- A dark site. Simpson's staff can activate a crisis template at a moment's notice and respond to any crisis.
- Continued monitoring of chats and discussions online. In the heat of the crisis, Simpson also spent time responding to misconceptions and inaccuracies on the more heavily trafficked sites-a practice he continues today.
For more information on Interactive Public Relations, go to www.ragan.com/ipr or call 800-878-5331
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: What's the difference between "crisis management" and "issues management?"
A: "Crisis Management" is, as I use the term, a reaction to a public relations situation already urgent in nature, one that has damaged or can damage the affected organization. "Issues Management" is a broader term defining the wide scope of activities that can help an organization influence issues that could, if not properly managed, could become crises.
For example, a real estate developer with residents picketing at one of its communities needs crisis management. The same developer, seeking to avoid such events, might engage in issues management activities that could incorporate customer relations, employee relations, media relations, governmental relations, etc.
Strategic PR Conference with a crisis track, September 16-18, 2001, The Fairmont Hotel, Chicago. Register before August 10, 2001 to save $100. At this conference, you'll learn what to do in a crisis situation and how to protect your corporate reputation. Leading practitioners will help you craft a working crisis plan, combat online attacks and more.
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Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting. Prior to entering the PR world, Bernstein was an investigative reporter, preceded by five years in U.S. Army Military Intelligence. Click Here for information on the firm's services or call (626) 825-3838.
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