Working with the media in a crisis

 In Branding, COVID-19, Crisis Communication, Marketing

As we navigate our “new normal” of living amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, many people are glued to their televisions, tablets and smartphones for the latest updates as our nation and the world responds. We crave news from the front lines as healthcare professionals work around-the-clock treating the sickest patients; updates on vital equipment being manufactured; news about possible treatments; stories about innovative ways companies are stepping up to make gowns and other protective equipment and on and on.

Working in PR and communications for more than 20 years, I can’t help but watch these news stories and think about the people at the CDC, hospitals and companies in the thick of responding to the crisis and how they’re managing the deluge of requests from the media for information and interviews. Although not at this scale, I can still sympathize as I’ve been in their shoes.

While organizations big and small most likely have dealt with crisis situations in the past, most have never experienced such an intense focus as they are now. In a recent blog post, we focused on three factors for effectively communicating with your key audiences during a crisis situation. In that post, we noted, “Speed, proactivity and transparency are three critical factors in an organization’s response to a crisis.” Those same factors apply when responding to the media during a crisis.

Managing the crisis internally and externally

While your focus initially is on getting information to your employees, patients/residents or families, members of the media will be calling, emailing or texting you to gather information and to schedule an interview with your CEO or other spokesperson.

As we mentioned in our last post on crisis communications, you need to be proactive in managing information about what has happened or what is going on if it’s an ongoing issue. As information is received, start putting together the who, what, when, where and why. It’s also important to have a member of your team monitor and report on what is being said in the media and on social media.

A first step for many organizations in communicating with the media is to issue a statement. A well-structured statement has several elements:

  • Acknowledgement of the event or issue
  • Expression of empathy to any victims or those impacted by the situation
  • Description about what response you’ve taken so far
  • Explanation about your approach to manage the crisis
  • Commitment to ongoing communication

Issuing a statement buys you some time to refine key messages and prepare for a press conference or an interview.

Preparing for reporter’s questions

Regardless of addressing media at once in a press conference or conducting one-on-one interviews, you’ll need to be prepared for answering questions. One common mistake is to become overly fixated by the questions. As a result, the interviewee likely becomes a passive respondent rather than a confident and credible spokesperson for your organization.

Your executive’s or spokesperson’s role in an interview is to effectively communicate the key messages about what has happened and your response plan.

While you don’t have to answer every question specifically, you need to respond. Though that may sound like a contradiction, it isn’t. By this, we mean that you should listen for the bigger issue in the question and respond appropriately. Here are a few responses to help you maintain control during an interview and remain on point:

  • “Let me put this into perspective …”
  • “The most important point to remember is …”
  • “Let me clarify …”
  • “Not necessarily …”
  • “Let me start by saying …”
  • “Before I tackle that …”

Media interview dos and don’ts

Hopefully, this isn’t the first time your executive or spokesperson is speaking with the media. As we recommended in our crisis communications post, preparation ahead of a crisis is key. Some of the elements of preparation include communications and media training for your senior leaders who may serve as a spokesperson. Here are a few media interview dos and don’ts:

  • DO express empathy.
  • DO remain confident in yourself and your message.
  • DO reinforce your key messages with facts, testimonials and anecdotes.
  • DO speak honestly and directly.
  • DON’T respond too quickly. Take a moment to pause and collect your thoughts before answering a question.
  • DON’T respond only with a “yes” or “no” answer. Elaborate to ensure you convey your key messages.
  • DON’T over answer. Stick to your talking points to remain on message.
  • DON’T speculate.

Leverage your website

If you have a press room or news section on your website, use it. According to a survey by the Public Relations Global Network, nearly 60% of journalists view a company’s website before interviewing its CEO. Other external audiences may check your website for updates on the situation. Leverage your website to keep the media and others updated as the situation evolves. In addition to updates, post other information, such as:

  • Background information on your organization
  • Bios of senior leaders
  • Organizational key messages
  • Frequently asked questions

The media can be your partner in communicating with the community at large during a crisis. While time is of the essence, be prepared. Communicate what you know at the time. You won’t have all the answers at the beginning. It’s ok to say you don’t know something but work quickly to find the answer. When you’ve gathered more information, provide as much detail as possible. Throughout any communication with the media, as well as your other key audiences, be sure your response reinforces your mission, values and purpose.

If you’re interested in media training or would like help preparing for your next media interview, Transcend can help.

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