Your mobile rings; it’s from a journalist asking for a response to a damaging story being published in an hour or two. What happens next is a frantic scramble.

The Challenge: give accurate information and maintain integrity.

This is especially relevant for accident-prone organisations: airlines, hospitals, aged care facilities, mines, amusement parks, and more.

1. Have a Crisis Plan 

Hope is not a plan. Disasters happen and create chaos, sometimes lasting. Speed and a smooth process is critical.

2. Be Quick – work to the deadline

Typically, the call will come late; the journalist has spent all day preparing the story, getting the facts and interviews, and pictures if it’s for TV. Ask for as much information as possible, on the allegation, and for the deadline: you may have as little as an hour.

Fact check: You may not have time to find out the full facts behind the allegation, so you will end up with bits of the picture, like a jigsaw half-complete. It’s often messy.

3. Check the journalist

A quick ‘Google’ will tell you if the journalist is a scorched earth, been around a long time, little empathy, don’t-mess-with-me-and-my-deadline type; or a balanced, accurate, good listener, both-sides-of-the-story kind of person. This will take a precious but important five minutes. It will influence what happens next.

4. Do we participate or not? 

This is the hardest decision: “Am I better off in, or out of, the story?”

If I participate do I amplify the story? If I don’t will I lose the right to get my side of the story across? Or maybe it won’t be published? Less so these days, but sometimes a publisher requires, from the journalist, both sides of the story.  Even if you are experienced with understanding media, it’s always gamble.

Maybe you can plead time and get the story held over for 24 hours and establish the complete picture.

5. Three types of messages

So, we’ve decided to respond.

Note: “No Comment” is not a good response – it conveys guilt. There are ways to not comment without saying “No Comment”; for instance, “We’re not permitted to comment about an employee’s details, but safety for us is always an absolute priority, and our track-record is excellent.”

In your response, spoken or written:

  1. Do your best with the facts available. Remember empathy.

Check:

  1. Are we being honest? Tick
  2. Are we being transparent? Tick
  3. Try and convey the company culture and values
  4. Make it personal – make yourself human. “I do this because I love what this company stands for… .” It may not fit in a news grab, but at least the journalist you are talking to will hear it and possibly adjust his/her impression of you.

All this is tough on a tight deadline.

6. Don’t get Defensive 

Listen to yourself or your spokesperson, and check your writing.

7. Apologise? 

Maybe you discover the damaging allegation is true. Quick decision: if we come clean now will it save reputation damage later? Honesty is a wonderful thing.

8. Call in the lawyers?

It’s the nuclear option. But if the story is inaccurate, a nimble specialist media-lawyer can help you either stop or slow a story. For instance, knowingly publishing a factually-wrong story may indicate malice – a red flag for lawyers. Note: your average corporate counsel won’t know how to do this on the deadline.

9. Followup

Clean up the mess after. At this frantic pace there will be loose ends. There will be people internally and externally to contact, including the journalist.

Stay true to yourself and the company. The stain left by the damaging story can pass. A stain on your reputation takes a lot longer.