“By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark”, someone once said.
It is astonishing how few companies or organisations have even the barest preparations in place to handle the media in the event of a crisis. Yet the media’s response can swiftly move events from crisis to catastrophe.
Most large organisations have a crisis plan, and many practise it regularly, but it invariably deals only with internal response and recovery. The plan hardly ever takes the media onslaught into consideration.
For example, you must be prepared for the arrival of the media village that is likely to gather in the event of a crisis breaking – either outside your organisation’s headquarters or at the focal point of the crisis. That could be the scene of an accident, the source of a damaging allegation or a factory closing. The media encampment might comprise several satellite trucks from the main broadcasters, radio cars and legions of camera crews, reporters and photographers. Where will you marshal them – outside on the pavement, or inside your offices?
Then, as the questions begin, what will you tell them? How much can you tell them? Can your spokespeople hold the company line under intense questioning?
When your organisation is suddenly engulfed by a crisis, silence is not golden. However grim things are looking, it’s generally best to release a statement of some kind to the media – and do it fast. The longer you leave it, the more quickly the evidence will build up against you in the mind of the public. The media will interview eyewitnesses, survivors, victims, those affected by the crisis and, most worryingly of all from your organisation’s point of view, experts. They will have a lot to say about what has happened, some of it ill-informed or possibly guesswork. When, eventually, you decide to confront the media several hours later, you will have lost a considerable amount of ground which is then very difficult to recapture.
You need to decide in advance who will speak to the media. Who will undertake interviews for the various broadcasters and newspapers? Don’t just rely on your most senior people. They might be on holiday, or ill. In any case, they will be closely concerned with managing the crisis itself. How many people do you have who can deal confidently and skillfully with the media and go before the cameras when a crisis breaks.
Never forget the social media. It is a forum where speculation, misinformation and allegation can breed fast. More and more, news or comment appearing on Twitter or Facebook drives the mainstream media. Having people available to monitor and control the social media is vital in handling a crisis.
So many problems, so many questions. Yet the answers are vital because they will determine whether this is seen as a crisis met with assurance and skill, or portrayed as an accident waiting to happen.