Talking to the Media in Times of Crisis

When it comes to public relations, a lot of times we think about media relations as the major component, but remember, the media are not your audience. They are a valuable conduit for getting your information out as broadly as possible. A key way to do that is to make sure that you’re collaborating with them. Communicating very promptly and accurately with members of the media as they spread your message is important.

How to Respond

A journalist’s job is to report the news, it’s not to take sides. They need the facts, and you’re the only one that’s going to be able to give them official confirmation of the details revolving around a situation.

If you don’t get them the right information, or they report something inaccurate that they are getting from other sources, or you make them look bad, it not only damages your ability to control the narrative, but it damages the relationship with the reporter as well. This can hinder future abilities to share good news or bad news.

If a reporter calls or emails you inquiring about the situation, they will likely ask for an interview in person, over the phone, or in these days, Zoom.

Do not switch gear and go full throttle into panic mode, especially while conversing with a journalist (who may describe your behavior and tone).

First, refer to your organization’s crisis communications roadmap. Do you have a spokesperson lined up whom you can connect them with? Perhaps you don’t, and your team is still swimming in the early stages of this storm.

If you do not yet have a comment or quote approved by your Public Relations team that is ready to email over for use in broadcast/print, you can be transparent in your process to a point.

Ask the reporter what specific questions they have for your organization and tell them you will work to get them the answers from the right person. This shows you are more than willing to get them what they need, get the public what they want, and gives you more time to get your plan together.

Setting Expectations

Especially in crisis communications, setting expectations on when and where new information will come will aid in your response to the media. Having a place where people can go for more up-to-date information will save you stress and time. You can use a webpage, Facebook, or Twitter account to post updates. A go-to place for all the facts, and you can correct misinformation as it arises. If you know which news outlets or reporters are following your organization’s story, you can simply email those contacts to inform them what the protocol will be (according to your own crisis communications plan).

Press Conferences

Always make sure you have a plan in place if press conferences are needed. You probably don’t see press conferences as often as we used to, especially now that there’s a virtual world and it’s a lot easier to pop up a virtual press conference and get people engaged in a Zoom room. But for widespread media attention on a larger crisis, on-the-ground support may be needed. It is critical to identify logistics for those occasions so that you don’t have to figure it out on the fly.

Media Training

If you have a spokesperson identified for each type of crisis scenario, everyone should be involved in an annual media training. And here’s why:

  1. Your college may have had a fantastic year and maybe your president was on camera multiple times, but maybe the conversations were about growth in the region, or more students coming to your college, or a new program that you’re launching. Those are generally positive stories, but if you have a negative crisis, that’s a different line of questioning and it feels a little bit different with a camera in front of your face recording everything you say.
  2. Practicing some of those hard questions with an actual camera is a great exercise to make sure everyone sort of knows the process, knows how a reporter may ask questions, and that everyone is prepared to answer the tough questions when the time comes to answer those questions.

Utilize and designate your spokespeople. Identify who you want to speak on key issues ahead of time. If you’re planning for a DE&I issue, plan to include your DE&I officer. Have your CEO briefed on all messaging that you would take in a different type of situation. You have your Title IX officer for example if it’s an issue of sexual assault. You’ll want your leadership as the faces-in-charge, but you’re going to need to bring in key spokespeople at various times. This will further establish your organization’s credibility, which is paramount in a crisis, and for a journalist’s story. It lets local viewers and readers know that you’ve taken the extra step, and you’re taking this situation seriously by bringing in experts in their field who can help.

Final Thoughts

Having relationships in place with members of the media in your local market, regional, and national outlets can be a huge asset. Pay attention to the current events around you and network when your organization is getting earned media. Get to know the reporters that skillfully cover breaking news and investigative pieces, and the ones who enjoy covering your industry. This will come in handy when you can call on the journalists you know to be trustworthy and experienced in their craft to come over and report on the news.

Media attention during a crisis does not disappear if you ignore it. You can’t hide forever.

Especially in today’s online landscape, being upfront about the situation empowers your messaging, and even in the darkest times, a resilient story can be the only light of opportunity seized.

About the Author

Rachel Spencer

Rachel’s expertise in strategic planning, qualitative research, brand messaging, public relations, and crisis communications has proven integral to AccessU for over 16 years. She began her career at a health and government-focused PR agency in Washington, DC, where she mastered the art of media relations. She later became the primary...

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