Crisis Management: Set Your Media Expectations Low In A Crisis: Understanding the media
If you want a glimpse of how a crisis at your company might be covered by the news media, go to the local video store and check out Akira Kurosawa’s film classic Rashomon.
Rashomon shows a savage assault from the totally different points of view of victim, attacker, and witness. Each person’s account is so contradictory that you cannot discern the truth.
As a strategic communications consultant, in spite of my best efforts, I sometimes feel trapped in a real world Rashomon as I watch wildly divergent news reports of controversial issues involving clients. It happened again recently. I tried to prepare my client to expect inconsistent reporting. I even steeled myself – a former journalist. The conflicting reporting was still amazing. Thank goodness the essence of our message emerged from most of the stories.
Here’s what we experienced plus some recommendations to help you try to minimize mixed media messages during tough times.
My client was under justifiable journalistic siege after a serious incident. We wanted to announce an important plan laying out specific improvements. We did not hold a news conference involving all the reporters, but met with them individually. Several reporters were white-hot with their intense coverage, and we did not want them to hijack a press conference with nasty questions.
Here is the kind of reporting that ensued. Remember that we initiated the press coverage and announced specific actions.
- Major Daily Newspaper story – Headline and content consistent with what the client announced and consistent with the history of the incident.
- Major Daily Newspaper story – Same.
- Weekly Newspaper story – Our announcement is used as a jumping off point to attack the client. There is scant reference to our specific announcement.
- TV story – Reasonably accurate, but the interview with my client announcing his plan is not used at all. This station has been running critical stories for weeks.
- TV story – As with one newspaper story, the announcement is turned against the client by the reporter in a manner that implies guilt. There is not one mention of the announced plan created to make improvements – the very reason the reporters were contacted.
The remaining stories fall somewhere between the extremes.
While I wanted to complain, I did not. None of the reports exceeded journalistic license. Yet it was frustrating to realize that the public’s impression of the client depended upon such inconsistent coverage.
So what can this experience teach us? Old principles of mine take on fresh currency:
Act at lightning speed in a crisis.
In a crisis you must move quickly to tell your story before a one-sided view takes hold. Make your best case in the first story if you can. By the time I got involved in this case, several weeks of negative news coverage had already accumulated with little counterbalancing information. I believe this lingering negative atmosphere convinced reporters that there was something seriously wrong, and made them more aggressive. Had we acted sooner we might have kept reporters calmer.
Avoid a press conference when reporter’s “guns are cocked.”
Consider holding one-on-one interviews that may reduce or at least confine the heat. Meeting with reporters in a group setting in an environment of attack journalism may expose you to hostile interrogators who can commandeer the gathering. They may also create peer pressure for their colleagues to mimic an aggressive approach. Caveats: 1) One-on-one interviews consume much more time. 2) Remaining focused through multiple interviews is difficult for a client.
Set ground rules for media interviews, but remember you are the one giving the quotes.
Sometimes you need to restrict the length and scope of the interviews to avoid giving reporters unlimited opportunity to fish for damaging quotes. Given enough time to talk, almost anyone will ultimately say something unhelpful, especially when under tough questioning. Caveat: Setting ground rules suggests you are defensive and withholding information, and may antagonize reporters.
Create a problem-solving process perceived as reasonable and fair.
Outsiders must perceive your corrective actions as beyond reproach and not self-serving when you are amidst controversy. An internal investigation may be seen as a whitewash, but a probe by a respected outside expert or third party may be seen as trustworthy.
Don’t overlook any victims or perceived victims.
Remember that victims are the focus of most news stories, so – if possible – make peace with them to avoid their stirring up public resentment. Avoid polarizing opponents who can keep negative stories alive. Opponents and victims can sabotage your best efforts.
Do the right thing, stay open, and be patient.
Do the best you can, remain available for press inquiries, and hunker down for the long haul. Sometimes a crisis is so severe that there is no quick fix. Once negative momentum sets in, reversing it is like changing course on an aircraft carrier steaming flank speed in the wrong direction. However, if you are pursuing an honorable course, I believe that the public will ultimately recognize that you are not the enemy.
Living through a public crisis will feel like film noire. Nevertheless swift, persistent, and sincerely corrective action might reduce ferocious contradictory news coverage that would thrust you into a role in Rashomon.