It’s five minutes past five in the morning. You had been hoping for another hour in bed before starting the two-hour commute to work.
Suddenly, though, your mobile phone starts ringing on the bedside table. The person calling you is the overnight security officer on duty at your company’s head office, where you work. He or she doesn’t even think about apologising for waking you up so early. There’s no time for that. In any case, what the security officer relays to you is enough in itself to startle you out of your sleep.
What’s happened is this. A team of thirty police officers has raided the headquarters of the major international bank for which you work. They’re accompanied by senior officials from your country’s tax authority. The raid took place at 4.30 a.m.
Armed with a warrant to search the building, the police officers and tax inspectors start impounding office computers and carrying them down to police vans waiting outside.
A local resident, taking their dog out for an early morning walk, happens to be strolling past the bank HQ. He films the police raiding the building on his smart phone and immediately posts it on Twitter.
Within minutes the media pick up the dog walker’s post and are bombarding the local constabulary with phone calls to ask what is taking place at the bank HQ. The police communications team inform journalists that they are not yet in a position to disclose the reason for the police raid. The spokesman says: “A statement will be issued once the police operation has been completed”.
Most media are therefore reporting that the reasons for the police raid are not yet known.
However, the overnight news editor on one of the country’s 24-hour news stations alerts the station’s crime correspondent, who’s also at home in bed. The correspondent has a good contact in the local police force who, off the record, informs the journalist that the raid has taken place because the bank is suspected of involvement in international money laundering.
The crime correspondent instantly gets on the phone to his or her news desk to update them on the reason for the police raid.
It looks like the news station in question might have an exclusive.
The “running order” at the top of the hour is immediately thrown up in the air. The news team ditch the existing “lead story”. Instead, at 5 a.m. the programme crosses live to the crime correspondent at home on his mobile phone, who informs the viewers that according to “my sources” the bank is “suspected of money laundering and is the target of a major police raid with computers being seized and taken away”.
When the overnight security officer, watching the TV on the wall in the waiting area of the bank’s reception, sees this go out live, he decides straightaway to call you.
After all, you are the bank’s Head of Communications.
Any company can face a crisis
It might not only be a police raid, or something similar, that results in a company’s comms team having to spring into action.
It could be a faulty product your company has manufactured that has resulted in several deaths.
Perhaps it’s suddenly come to light that the company you work for has been ignoring very important standards regulations, meaning that the products you sell present a danger to the public.
Maybe terrorists have driven a van into the lobby of your company’s office, smashing through the front windows, and opening fire on those unfortunate enough to be in the lobby area.
Or, there might have been a serious environmental incident at one of your company’s production plants – water containing toxic chemicals has leaked from a pumping station at the plant and has seeped into a nearby river, killing thousands of fish and presenting a serious danger to local children who like to go paddling in the river.
It could be that a discharge of deadly emissions has occurred, forcing 300,000 local residents to evacuate their homes because of the clouds of dangerous fumes now descending upon the neighbourhood.
Whichever of the above news stories might break, newsrooms across the country spring into action immediately. Reporters, camera crews, news producers, “fixers” and photographers are up and running straightaway. Both the pulses and the adrenalin of the news teams are racing.
This, after all, is why we got in to this profession in the first place – to cover major breaking stories like this.
Don’t go into hiding
For any company or organisation that finds itself at the centre of a breaking “crisis” story like this, the worst thing to do is go into hiding. The news media will be crawling all over the story.
We’ve had several examples recently of major companies that have gone silent despite being engulfed by a controversial or negative story. In one recent example, a British company, thousands of whose customers had been seriously inconvenienced, ignored the media in the immediate aftermath of the story breaking. Instead they simply put out some videos delivered by the company’s CEO.
In so doing, they completely ignored the fact that the media are there as representatives of the general public who want answers to their questions about what went wrong and why so many people’s lives were disrupted. Just putting out their own video comes across like a jumped-up dictator in a tin pot republic ordering his people what to think.
So where and when are the moments that the media will descend upon you, demanding answers?
If we go back to the police raid mentioned above, journalists will not be sitting back and waiting for the police statement that’s been promised once the police operation has been completed.
Oh no. Journalists will be chasing you, the comms chief, to ask for an interview with the bank’s CEO. Those phone calls will start when you’re still in bed, trying to digest what your security officer has just relayed to you and what you’re now watching on 24-hour news.
If journalists get nothing out of you, they head off in different directions.
Two things kick in straightaway.
Firstly, if the organisation at the centre of the breaking story doesn’t put up a spokesperson, journalists will go looking for one themselves.
Secondly, a media encampment will start gathering outside the bank’s HQ.
Facing the gathering media
What happens on the ground?
If the company or organisation at the centre of the crisis story does not put up a spokesperson fairly quickly, the news media will go hunting for the spokesperson. It won’t take them long to find out where the CEO lives and they’ll be camped outside very soon waiting for his or her departure for the office.
Should the CEO be heading into the centre of town to attend a conference that day, journalists will quickly find that out too and be waiting for their arrival.
As they’re walking out of their front door at home, or arriving at the conference centre, they will be subjected to what is called a “doorstep”. This is a polite way of referring to an “ambush” by the media.
In such circumstances, it’s worth bearing in mind that the company CEO could be “on camera” (i.e. being filmed) from the moment when they walk out of their front door or when they jump out of the taxi to head into the conference centre. Therefore, if the CEO decides to hide his face behind his copy of that morning’s newspaper, this is gold dust for reporters – especially TV journalists. They’re already writing their script line, namely “The CEO of the bank was today running scared of reporters as the money-laundering scandal broke around him”. Not where you want to be.
When confronting journalists in this way, therefore, it’s best to say something at least, even if it’s only to send out the message that your company is dealing with the situation and is on top of things. Otherwise, you’re perceived to be running for cover and therefore guilty.
As for the media village that quickly establishes itself outside your office headquarters, it’s not going to go away. Live news cameras will be trained on the entrance to the building while the presenter in the news studio will be coming out with phrases like, “With six hours having passed since the scandal broke, there is still no word from the bank”. Again, not where you want to be.
With every passing hour that the bank doesn’t show its face, it is a further sign that it is either guilty or terrified.
Whether or not one of your executives is “doorsteped”, it’s always best to go out to meet the journalists who are camped outside. Either one senior figure should emerge and deliver a statement about the company’s position. Or, he or she could be joined by two or three colleagues. This is not a “formal” news conference to which journalists are invited and which is held in a small amphitheatre in the company headquarters. It’s an “ad hoc” news conference where journalists are all assembled in a bunch in front of you as you go out to confront them.
The ad hoc news conference
There are no rules and regulations surrounding an event like this.
It can be a recipe for chaos.
First of all, if you do decide to go out and meet the media make sure you go to where they have stationed themselves. After all, that’s where all the TV crews will have parked their satellite trucks and set up their communications. They are not going to want to move. So don’t tell them they’ve got to relocate to the back of the building, or somewhere else.
I recall once covering a terrorist incident in London, where I, fellow reporters and a host of camera crews were set up to cover the story a hundred yards or so from the incident. We were all lined up behind the yellow and black police tape sealing off the area.
A policeman approached, to inform us that the police would be holding a news conference about the incident. It would be held at a community hall a mile up the road. “Oh no it won’t,” we told him. “We are set up here with our cameras trained on the incident scene. We’re not moving”. The message to him was, “You come to where we are for your news conference”. He caved in and that’s what the police did.
When your spokespeople do go out to face the press in this way, it’s best not just to make a short statement and then depart. That looks like cutting and running. Even though you might not have a lot to say in the early stages of the breaking story, at least take two or three questions. This again suggests your company is not running for cover but is happy to be open and transparent.
There’s a lot more we teach people about how to handle a situation like this when we are training them to do so.
Having confronted the media in this way, you have at least sent out a message to the effect that you are on top of the situation and dealing with it. Otherwise, the media have a field day by reporting “silence” on the part of the organisation at the centre of the story. Moreover, it means those criticising the company in TV, radio and press interviews, not to mention social media, have the playing field all to themselves.
Having spoken to the media at the “ad hoc” press conference, you cannot leave it at that and think “job done”.
The television interviews
The next request from the TV news stations might be for a “down-the-line” interview. This is where the spokesperson is placed in front of a TV camera, a microphone is attached to their lapel and an earpiece attached. Normally this would take place in front of the company HQ or from the scene where an incident has taken place.
Here, the trick is to make sure you look directly into the camera lens throughout the interview. If the interviewee is looking all around them, they look very unsettled indeed. Also, make sure the cameraman has not planted you in an embarrassing position. For example, you don’t want to be standing in front of a demonstration by people demonstrating against your company. That would be highly embarrassing.
(Nor do you want to be positioned right in front of a palm tree, so that the trunk and leaves look as though they are coming out of the top of your head. This happened to me just as I was coming to the end of my posting as a foreign correspondent in South Africa. I was about to record a piece-to-camera about a day of anti-apartheid protests west of Johannesburg. My cameraman filmed the piece-to-camera and then asked me to move to the left for a “retake”. I was not aware of the fact that he had deliberately positioned me there because he was not recording a piece-to-camera to be broadcast as part of my report. No, it was to form part of a p***-taking video to be shown at my farewell party a week later. He placed me right in front of a palm tree. I looked as though I was a monster that had just arrived from outer space.)
Another call from the media will be for a “soundbite” interview. This is where a TV reporter will ask you several questions in a short interview but use only one of your answers to be included as the company’s contribution to a news “package” (report) that will be running at the top of the hour. Making sure you get across your key messages in each answer is the key to dealing with this particular interview format, another technique we assist with on our training courses.
The story develops
With every passing hour, of course, the story is changing.
Coming back to the example of the police raid on the bank, by 9 a.m. the police have wrapped up their operations and put out a statement about the extent of the alleged money laundering.
Several arrests might have been made. If this is the case, the matter is subject to a police investigation and is therefore sub judice. There’s only so much you’re able to say. It’s perfectly reasonable to make this clear in any encounter with the media.
If there’s no police enquiry however – let’s say it’s the environmental spillage – it’s worth making sure your spokespeople make regular appearances in front of the media as the story develops during the day.
Obviously, whether it’s a police raid or the causes of the environmental spillage, it might still be early days and the full story might not yet be clear.
In such circumstances, a lot of spokespeople come out with the phrase, “It’s too early to speculate”. Surely a company spokesperson should never be speculating at any stage of the game. So to suggest it’s “too early” to speculate leaves the impression that at some later stage the company will just let rip with a massive wave of speculation.
Not what you should be saying.