Crisis Management: When to Call All Media For Help: Crisis communications
One day after two kidnapped teenagers were rescued from a man apparently about to kill them, the first thank-you by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department went to – THE NEWS MEDIA. When was the last time you heard that?
Actually media thank-yous have been frequent lately because of high profile child abductions and intense reporting on victims, families, and abductors. In the teenagers’ case, officials said widespread news coverage helped searchers locate the suspect’s car in the nick of time. California’s new Amber program – using electronic highway signs to ask travelers to be on the lookout – also helped. Amber and the media likely saved those Palmdale girls.
With so much latent media power available, should you ever try to take advantage of it when your company or institution faces a crisis and you want to maintain public trust? Why dare attract intense media attention? Wouldn’t you open a Pandora’s box by inviting reporters to turn their cameras, microphones, and laptops toward you?
Good questions. There are at least two reasons to be cautious about calling out the media posse. First is the crisis communication maxim “keep the box small.” That means if you make a mistake that gets – or should get – public notice, don’t call any more news reporters than necessary to announce how you are correcting it. Why broadcast your problem to thousands of people who might not even know that you stumbled and don’t necessarily need to know about it? Generally you contact only key reporters in your immediate area. If you fumble in Chicago, for example, why tell New York about it? That’s keeping the box small. Obviously, national problems are another matter.
The second reason to go slow in calling in all journalists during a crisis is what I call the Stockton Rule. “Be careful playing the media card.” Winston-Salem lawyer Ralph Stockton warns that if you solicit journalists’ attention to serve your purposes, there is no assurance you can control what they will do once you have aroused them. Therefore, call only when necessary and carefully considered.
Having said that, when DO you call in all the media you can round up? The answer lies in the teenager kidnapping case as well as those tragic child abductions. You mobilize the media “militia” when you need to save lives or protect the public. Time may also be a critical factor. Some sample cases (and examples) for a major media alert:
- Fire, chemical spill, or incident that endangers lives, animals, or property and an immediate alert could protect them. (A burning gasoline truck on a highway.)
- A situation or incident that impacts lives, animals, or property over a widespread area. (Drought imperiling the water supply and public conservation is necessary.)
- Recall of a dangerous product. (E-coli in hamburger.)
- Plant-closing, major layoff, expansion, relocation, or acquisition causing broad economic impact. (A primary employer in your area.)
- Resolution of a crisis that previously generated widespread media interest. (Arrest of a child kidnapper.)
- Death or serious illness or accident involving a well-known public figure. (Charlton Heston’s Alzheimer’s disease.)
- Correction of a widespread incorrect rumor that is frightening or endangering people. (A false report of a contaminated water supply.)
The force of news media collectively focused on a single story is awesome, but be careful when you tap it.
Finally, I have mixed feelings about one aspect of the stories of personal tragedy. Did you see the two rescued teenagers and their families describe their ordeal to the nation? Did you see the parents of the missing and/or killed little girls do the same? There’s a pattern of families talking publicly about awful personal experiences. Sometimes they are justifiably pleading for public help or awareness or simply sharing anguish.
I have not asked psychologists about the wisdom of this tell-all tendency of families. I hope the victims bare all because it is cathartic and therapeutic. Sometimes, however, I wonder. A friend once talked to the press about a private illness in hopes of raising public awareness. She later regretted her revelation and loss of privacy which SHE initiated. She wished she had said nothing.