Given today's 24-7 news cycle, local and national broadcasters, bloggers and publishers are all looking for their next story. And the resulting amount of content that is published online alone is amazing. Most sources estimate that more than 2 million blog posts are uploaded daily.
When you add in the stories published through traditional media like radio, television and newspapers, the amount of content becomes overwhelming. If you or your organization becomes the center of this attention, do you know what to do?
A business we work with found itself in this position just a few weeks ago. One of its customers identified a security issue. Unfortunately, the employee to whom the customer reported the problem handled the whole thing poorly. The next thing the company knew, a reporter and camera crew from a local news station were at its door asking the employee involved to comment. And the employee did just that.
The comment wasn't helpful. The company suffered several days' worth of negative publicity. It eventually moved to fix the situation, but the damage was already done.
Clearly, public relations issues can happen in both small and large organizations. When they do, the most important factor is your response. Here are five tips to help you prepare, should these situations happen to you.
1. Have a plan for dealing with the media.
Your first decision is whether to agree to an interview on the story. If you choose not to comment, that won’t stop the media outlet from running the story, regardless. It will probably say that you declined comment. However, you will not avoid the hot seat, and the potential for being made to look bad. Your face (via file photo) will likely turn up on camera in any case.
If you do choose to comment, beware of several things:
- You are highly unlikely to convince the reporter not to run your story.
- Your interview will be edited.
- The media outlet can choose to take your comments out of context and may simply misstate what you are trying to say.
Therefore, if you are going to accept an interview, have a very simple message, and stay on point. Don’t get sucked into conversations for which you are not prepared.
2. Determine who at the company will speak to the media.
Whether you plan to speak to the media or not, you don’t want to have random employees, who may not know the whole story, participate in interviews. Communicate to your employees that they are to refer all requests for interviews or statements to a specific person.
If you are going to communicate with the media, identify a specific person to be the spokesperson. In a small business, this will likely be the owner or a senior manager. In larger concerns, an employee such as the head of HR will be the one to communicate with the media. Regardless of who speaks, make sure that the person has a concise message and stays on point.
3. Consider hiring professional help.
Depending on the size and severity of the story, you may be well advised to hire a professional who has experience in crisis management. Such people can provide useful input into how to handle a difficult situation. If you are likely to face criminal or civil charges as a result of the report, consult an attorney who has experience with these types of issues.
4. Don’t take actions that will make the situation worse.
If you are facing charges such as unsafe working conditions in your plant, this is not the time to give the VP of manufacturing a big bonus. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how often companies make mistakes like this when they are under the spotlight.
Our advice is to be very careful about handing out bonuses, promoting people or holding company celebrations. Don’t let your actions make it look like you aren’t taking the issue seriously.
5. Own up to your shortcomings.
If you have made mistakes, our advice is to own up to your shortcomings, fix them and take what you have coming. Trying to cover things up almost always makes matters worse. With this said, if you are facing criminal or civil prosecution, follow the advice of your attorney.
Of course, you will be better off to avoid such situations in the first place by not engaging in activities that are illegal, immoral or unsafe. Further, it is important to create a culture in your company that doesn’t tolerate such behavior.
Having checks and balances, so that it is unlikely that one rogue employee can consistently behave in a way that will get the company in trouble, is critical. However, if the time comes when you and your company are in a bad spot, these five tips will be helpful -- especially if you have done the requisite advance planning.