Crisis Management: Avoid Adlibbing to a Reporter: Crisis communications
When you pay a sales call on an executive, you prepare. When you speak to 50 people at a civic club, you prepare. Therefore, if you are about to give an interview to a reporter who will convey your words to thousands and perhaps tens of thousands, you prepare. You wouldn’t adlib sales pitches or speeches, so why “wing it” with a journalist who may hold your reputation in his hands? And yet it is astonishing how many professionals wing it. Let me put it bluntly… don’t! Never talk to a reporter unprepared.
Here’s a cautionary tale about the dangers and some tips on holding off reporters until you are ready.
The friendly, likable, verbally agile CEO of a client company was the designated spokesperson for a serious issue. Calls from the media about this topic went to him for comment. He was a master at responding. It had been that way for weeks when a New York City reporter called the CEO who immediately responded with on-the-record comments. And why not? The executive had addressed this concern numerous times, his messages were firm, he’d been media trained, and felt ready. Then boom! He was stunned to find an exceedingly belligerent reporter in attack mode on the phone asking questions about an entirely different matter about which the chief executive had little information. Imagine it. You are the senior representative of your company and a reporter from the biggest city is grilling you on an unfamiliar subject and he’s taking notes.
The call did not go well, tempers flared, and an embarrassing news story seemed imminent. Thankfully, the CEO – with an assist from several of us – jumped back into the fray within minutes and salvaged the situation. The CEO – probably as good as they come in talking to reporters – learned two hard lessons: Before you start talking, know 1) what the reporter wants and 2) what you want to say. Also, senior executives should let someone screen their calls or – if they insist on answering their own phone – should practice these delaying tactics.
The system delay. Let an assistant or receptionist answer your phone with this standing response for reporters. “I am sorry, but Rick can’t talk to you at the moment. He will be happy to do so in a few minutes. What is your deadline, and may I tell him what you want to discuss?” A PR firm can also run interference.
The personal delay. If you prefer to answer your phone then say to a reporter, “I am sorry, but I can’t talk to you at the moment. I will be happy to do so in a few minutes. What is your deadline and what you want to discuss?”
Note that you ask their topic, are sensitive to their deadline, and promise to call back (in minutes – not hours). Your tone should convey willingness to help.
Ensure that you or your representative follows through. If the article directly concerns you or your company and is significant, it is your responsibility to respond quickly. The reporter might not call again and could proceed without your input. Some might assume your slow response means no comment. Speed is essential.
If your business has high media exposure then you may want to ask more penetrating pre-interview questions. What is the thrust of the story? What has the reporter already learned and from whom? Who is the audience?
In hostile situations, you may want to limit the scope and time allowed for the interview. In particularly adversarial or delicate situations you may want to record your discussion or have a third party witness (although such steps can convey a lack of trust and could incite a reporter). In rare cases you may not want to talk at all.
Oh, and what do you do before you call back? Prepare your 3 key messages, know your answers to worst-case or blindside questions, and always be the quiet voice of reason regardless the attitude of the reporter.