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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.

Video Transcript

Liam Cox:

A journalist calls at 4:30 for the 6:00 PM news with a story that has severe ramifications for the reputation of your business. What do you do? Peter Wilkinson, you have developed a nine-step guide on how to handle this situation.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah, so 4:30 for the 6:00 PM news, so really, you’ve got to get back to them by 5:30, you’ve got an hour. So, the first tip is in airlines, mines, age care centres, hospitals, other organizations that are used to a crisis will know this, is to have a crisis plan so people can immediately slip into a mode of operation that will give us the best possible outcome in the hour that we’ve got.

Tip two is to understand that deadline and do a fact check. Do what you can to find out the truth of the allegation that the journalist is going to make on the 6:00 PM news. The difficulty you’ve got in that hour is it’s almost certain that you won’t get a full picture, you’ll get a half picture, so a bit like a half-made jigsaw puzzle. So, it’s instantly getting messy.

The third thing you want to do is do a quick Google on the journalist. If the journalist is a seasoned journalist and knows exactly what he wants, has already formed an opinion, maybe ratings get a bit ahead of accuracy sometimes. Or on the other hand, the journalist is fair, balanced, really wants to get it right, empathetic, understands that there are two sides to the story, or there’ll be shades of grey in between.

So, between those two, getting your fact check done and understanding the journalist and the publisher, understanding the tug and the push and pull between those two, really valuable, as quickly as you possibly can.

Liam Cox:

Yeah. So, it’s absolutely critical just knowing who’s who in the zoo, depending on what publication and station they come from. Step four, and perhaps the most critical point, do we participate in the story or not?

Peter Wilkinson:

That’s right. And there’s only one question that you need to answer here. Is our situation made better or worse by appearing? Now, it does get a bit more complicated than that, because sometimes if you don’t appear, then the story won’t go to air, because the publisher insists on both sides of the story. Other times, you’ve got to make an assessment on whether your quote is going to make the story longer and will actually amplify the situation, or by having your quote in, you will actually balance the story. So, it does get more complicated than that.

Liam Cox:

So, step five, let’s say you decide to participate in the story. There’re three types of messages. One that’s never good is no comment, it never looks good.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yep. There are ways to say no comment, if you decide not to comment, you can say, “Look.” Let’s say it’s a mining accident, “We never comment on an employee’s particulars, however, safety is an absolute priority for this company.” There you are, we’ve done no comment, but made it… Put it in a form.

But certainly, we need to do our best with the facts available and in situations where it’s appropriate, don’t forget empathy. That’s the first thing. The second thing I would say is, and this is the second component in a message, make sure you get across the companies’ culture and the values in what you say.

And the third thing that is really valuable when you’re talking to the journalist, is say something like your personal values. “Look, I’m really committed to this company because of its corporate culture and the priority it gives to safety.” Now, that’s never going to air, but it does give the journalist a bit more of a feel for the quality of you and for the quality of the company.

And remember to check two things. Are we being honest? Tick. Are we being transparent? Tick. It may sound self-evident but what happens when you’re in a desperate hurry, in an agonist to get a statement out, you’ll say something that is not quite accurate. The trouble is a little bit of inaccuracy can, later on, turn out to be a big fat lie.

Liam Cox:

Step six don’t get defensive, which can be tough when you have a journalist breathing fire on the other end of the line.

Peter Wilkinson:

When you’re under pressure, it’s very easy to move onto the back foot. And listen to yourself when you’re doing it, if you are here a ‘but’ in one of your sentences, you know you’re probably going defensive. Almost always, you can change your sentence structure by using ‘and’ instead of ‘but’, sometimes it’ll change the content of the sentence, but it certainly changes the tone of the sentence.

And the next is whether or not you want to apologize. If you find that the allegation is true, then it’s a very quick decision to make, but sometimes a bit of short-term loss is a long-term gain in the company’s reputation. It’s a very difficult decision to make on the run. But again, people who are experienced in crisis, like those examples I’ve talked about, may well have a well-oiled machine to make that kind of a decision.

Liam Cox:

Step eight, it’s the nuclear option when you decided to call in the lawyers.

Peter Wilkinson:

Use this with caution because it can have a ripple effect through the publisher, and certainly with the journalist, and it can backfire and have an impact on the reputation of the company. But if you know that a mistake is being made and the journalist is determined to publish, then get a media lawyer. Media lawyer is a specialist area, the really good media lawyers who will act for you, know all the media lawyers inside the publishing house. And so, they will have a direct line, probably a mobile, certainly an email, and they can very quickly ring and explain to the lawyer, followed up by a letter, explaining that an error is going to air.

Peter Wilkinson:

If a company wilfully and knowingly puts something to air that they know to be factually incorrect, it is in legal terms, can be an indication of malice, which is a real red flag for lawyers.

Liam Cox:

And the final point is the follow-up, which is crucial in establishing relationships and trust most of the time.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah. So, what you hear in these kinds of situations is the journalist was a bastard. The journalist wasn’t a bastard, the journalist was doing the best that the journalist can possibly do, most likely, within a very tough gig. On the same kind of deadline that he forced you, or he, or she has forced you to be in.

So, the journalist who’s done a negative story on you today will probably be able to do a positive story, or a story more balanced in expressing your corporate culture and values, in a couple of weeks. So, a quick phone call… You would be surprised, and Liam, you’ll remember this, and I certainly do when I was a journalist, how rarely people rang to compliment you or to say something nice after a story. Certainly, you’d get abusive phone calls, you’d get the rounds at the table, but very rarely a complimentary, or a sympathetic, or an engaging phone call, and it pays dividends.

Liam Cox:

Absolutely, very rare to receive those complimentary phone calls after a story. Great tips, nine tips there, and plenty of experience has gone into those, 30 years as a journalist on 60 Minutes and Four Corners, and now 20 years in corporate affairs. Thank you very much. If you want to find those nine tips in written form, you can find those on the Wilkinson-Butler website and on our LinkedIn profiles. Peter, thank you.

Whether you need immediate short-term crisis support, or sustained help over the long term, we can help.

Call Peter Wilkinson on 0414 383 433

In addition to helping you with the above, our services can include:

Crisis Management

Crisis communications is a skill built on experience. We give guidance to boards and leadership teams, and are available 24/7.

Internal and external communications

Where required, separate strategies might need to be developed for engaging with the board, leadership team, staff, customers, clients, suppliers, shareholders, communities and the three tiers of government. This may extend to the international community. Tactics include:

  • The development of key messages for internal and external communications, including business continuity communications.
  • The development of a digital ‘crisis portal’ for the dissemination of information to all relevant parties.
  • The mechanics of informing stakeholders in changes of procedure, or cancellations to services.
  • Training/coaching spokespeople.
  • Writing/editing communiques.
Media Engagement

In this crisis, journalists are struggling under the pressures of shrinking resources and the importance of this story.

We work with journalists daily and have learnt from experience how we can best support them in this situation.

The benefit to our clients is that, with our help, journalists better understand their predicament. We do this by first understanding your situation and then developing a narrative and key messages that reflect it in a way journalists can appreciate. This can lead to a better outcome for everyone.

Social Media & Online Reviews – Monitoring and Responding

Ensure your online reputation is kept intact through this turbulent time. Many customers or clients may begin to leave negative comments/reviews on websites and social media.

We are communications specialists. We monitor all social and web channels (including Google Reviews, productreview.com.au, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and quickly respond to minimise negative comments, with the aim of repairing a damaged reputation.