Maintaining grace under fire

Here's how to handle the press when you've got some serious explaining to do

Over the next several issues, Enterprise will present a series of articles on building effective media relations and ways of utilizing the media to your company’s best advantage. In Part 1 of our series, we examine how businesses should deal with a hostile press during conflict situations and turn what could be a public relations disaster into a second chance.

What would you do if you were a dry cleaner whose chemicals leaked into the sewer system or a grocer who sold contaminated meat and the media found out? “When you find yourself inundated with phone calls, the subject of glaring headlines and the butt of jokes on The Jay Leno Show, then you know you’re in trouble,” says Kent Matlock, president and CEO of Matlock & Associates, an integrated communications firm based in Atlanta. In 1993, Denny’s Restaurants, shaken by discrimination lawsuits, turned to Matlock’s agency for help in controlling the damage.

“Denny’s needed to quickly make a visible and firm commitment to doing the right thing before the problems snowballed any further,” recalls Matlock. He advised the company to start by building its legacy-a list of positive, meaningful things it had done or was planning to do.

Armed with a strong and positive message, company executives were then able to face the media and the public and begin turning Denny’s image around.

It’s best to get yourself and other key executives in your firm trained before a crisis ever hits. Most public relations firms provide their clients with crisis management and media coaching at fees ranging anywhere from $200 to $2,000 a day, depending on the intensity or scope of the training or the number of people being coached.

But let’s say it’s too late and you’re already in crisis. What do you do?

Follow these tips by Sylvia Cordy, president of Cordy & Co., a public relations media training firm in Chevy Chase, Maryland:

  • Tell the truth even if it hurts. Then explain what the company is doing to correct the problem. Emphasize positive points but don’t exaggerate. Cordy says to refer to the key messages you developed; then stick to them.
  • Get the important facts out first. Speak in headlines first. For example, point out that you have three objectives to cover and then list them.
  • Never go “off the record.” Casual remarks made during introductions, over lunch or on the way to the door all can be quoted. If you have a public relations expert available, allow her to sit in on the interview. She can protect you if you answer inappropriately.
  • Don’t evade a reporter’s question. Be direct. Address the question but then get on to the points you want to make. If the question contains language you don’t like, don’t repeat it in your answer, even to deny it. Don’t let the reporter put words in your mouth.
  • If you don’t know the answer, say so. Then get back to the reporter with the information or find someone else who can respond, and make sure they do.
  • Address the issues from the audience’s viewpoint.
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