As a senior executive, you might be too busy to give thought to statistically implausible scenarios. It’s easy to brush off the possibility that you may one day be thrust into a media spotlight. Your company might seem too niche to be of interest, or your operations just too well-run. What could possibly go wrong? Well, lots.
The day a big story breaks about your company is not the best day to start thinking about media relations. Your PR team knows this and trust me, they’re all over it. They have met your industry’s beat reporters, they know the local media personally and they have reached out many times with story ideas and assistance.
When a crisis hits, reporters are going to leverage those relationships. They will start with the PR team – but ultimately, it’s you they want.
“In a crisis, you need to speak with one prepared voice than can perform under pressure. But, more importantly, the media and the public want to hear from the people in charge,” said Irene Bakaric, Principal, MediaPrep, a crisis communications and media training consultancy. “They want to hear from the leaders and not middle managers or the PR department.”
Build your own relationships with journalists
Bruce Johnstone, financial editor at the Regina Leader-Post, has seen many crises erupt over his 30 years as a business journalist.
“The companies that perform the best in emergencies have well-established spokespeople with good media relationships,” said Johnstone. “Building these types of relationships will pay big dividends when something goes wrong – and it usually does.”
It’s helpful that your PR team can provide a warm introduction to a journalist who wants an interview, but wouldn’t it be nicer if you weren’t meeting them for the first time on a very bad day?Tip for C-suite: Work with your PR team to set up some introductions whiles seas are calm. Don’t go in with story expectations, just have a friendly chat on the phone or go for coffee. Share your history and ask them theirs. Let them know what your role is at the company and what you have to offer as a resource. Perhaps you have expertise on matters beyond your current role. Be clear that your PR team should remain a first point of contact.
Make honesty the best policy
It goes without saying that honesty is the best policy when dealing with the media. Above all, reporters want to be right. Good reporters will do thorough research and speak to several people before running a story. If the facts don’t add up, they’re only going to dig harder. They may not start out trying to “get you” but if they catch you in a lie, this is how it will turn out.
“If you’ve developed a strong relationship with the media, based on mutual trust, your company will get the benefit of the doubt from the media when bad things happen,” said Johnstone. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to hide bad news or cover up for you. But they will do their utmost to make sure your side of the story gets equal play, which is about the best you can hope for.”Tip for C-suite: Read the interview brief that your PR team prepares for you! Ensure your comments echo what has already been shared publicly. Avoid jeopardizing your PR team’s reputation by contradicting them in an interview.
Get in front of it
Getting out in front of the problem is also the best policy when dealing with bad news.
“Nature — and the media — abhor a vacuum, and nothing is worse than saying nothing or ‘no comment’ when asked about a particular complaint or problem,” said Johnstone.Tip for C-suite: This is where professional media training pays off. Training will provide you with “bridges” and other ways to deal with a situation when you can’t comment for various reasons, or when you just don’t know the answer. Reporters need you to say something and they will use whatever you do say, so give them a quote that makes you both look good.
Make yourself available to the media. Nothing builds suspicion more than contacts who don’t respond quickly to media inquiries or who ignore repeated messages.
“Go out of your way to explain your side of the story. Unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair reporting is sometimes the fault of lazy journalists, but it is frequently the result of lazy or unresponsive spokespeople,” said Johnstone.
Tip for C-suite: Don’t hang your PR team out to dry by ignoring or refusing media inquiries. You’ll destroy their relationships as well as your own reputation if you do – which can negatively impact perception of your company in coverage.
If time or circumstance makes it impossible to conduct multiple interviews, work with your PR team on written comments that they can attribute to you in an email or in a news release, or hold an in-person press conference or conference call (or all of the above) to address the group en masse.
Stay in touch
Creating media relationships means regular communication with journalists. It doesn’t have to be once a week, but stay in touch and keep the flow of information open. For example, free your PR team to let journalists know when news is coming up. Follow journalists on social media and share their articles with your network or leave a kind comment. They will notice!
“Sometimes it takes a bit of time and history to develop a relationship,” said Johnstone. “It’s based on trust and familiarity developed over a period of time. They’re just business relationships; no more than that. You get to know people as human beings, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”Tip for C-suite: As relationships progress, be sure to let your PR team know where things stand – and certainly fill them in on any promises you’ve made.
Send news releases
News releases put your company’s precise position on public record, quelling rumours and ensuring your official statement is easy to find online. Using a newswire service lends legitimacy to your effort and assures journalists that the source has been verified and the information within is safe to report.Tip for C-suite: Use your influence to move news releases quickly through the approvals process. Rumours spread quickly online and the longer a release is held up internally, the more difficult it will be to undo reputational damage. Give your PR team something to go out with fast – a tweet, a short statement they can share via email – anything to prevent a long silence in the face of breaking news about your company.
Being honest and forthright works on both sides of the coin. Journalists also have to keep up their end by doing a balanced job of reporting. However, accuracy and balance cannot be achieved without good and timely information from the company.
“C-suite executives are at the top because of a long list of skills. But speaking to the media may not be on that list,” said Bakaric. “With media, there are many potential pitfalls that could cost you your reputation. So why not be prepared? Media training is an investment that pays dividends.”
Resolve in 2016 to benefit from your PR team’s expertise in media relations. Make hay while the sun shines and invest some time learning about and introducing yourself to the media.
How are you building media relationships? Tell us in the comments below, or tweet us @CNWGroup.