Stories that have the potential to make us look bad are different, and answering tough questions at those times takes skill and self-control.
Maybe you are the successful executive director of a large not-for-profit agency and find yourself in the middle of an unflattering television news report about lofty executive salaries.
Maybe you run a local restaurant that is cited for health and safety violations.
Maybe you are the chairman of the board of directors of an organization that has just fired its chief executive officer and a news reporter calls you for an explanation.
Some people who might not have experience as part of a “negative” story are tempted to yell at the poor reporter, try to convince that reporter not to pursue the story…or mutter a simple “no comment” and hang up the phone.
But while a simple “no comment” might allow you personally to avoid contributing to a “negative” news story, it doesn’t mean you are off the hook. A smart reporter will go to other sources and get them to talk about you, and you can’t control what they might say. Letting other people describe events while you keep your head down can be damaging. That’s why we believe that saying “no comment” often does more harm than good.
The managers of a big Massachusetts shopping mall some years ago tried to avoid answering questions about why the roof had collapsed early on a Sunday morning during a storm, causing millions of dollars in damages and much more in lost sales. It was a huge story. The public and politicians (not to mention the managers of Sears Roebuck & Co, where the roof collapsed) wanted answers, and trying to get by without providing the public with information served no one’s interest — especially the mall’s owners and management.
Here are a few suggestions for preparing your organization for the occasionally difficult news event:
— Form a relationship with the men and women who report and manage the news in your community. Establishing trust with the press pays dividends over time because they are more likely at least to hear you out and weigh what you say carefully.
— If you believe you are in the right, say so. Many stories have multiple sides and perspectives. If yours is important, make sure you speak up. Oh, and don’t lie to a reporter. Ever.
— Sometimes, there are circumstances you can’t discuss, and it is OK to tell a reporter that while you might be able to make general comments, there are certain things you just cannot talk about.
— Different audiences require different messages, Knowing how to talk to all of those audiences — employees, customers, competitors, regulators — is essential, especially when bad news finds you. That’s called “crisis communications,” and we can help you navigate those difficult times.