Although rare, any company can come under the scrutiny of the media spotlight when faced with a food contamination event including a product recall. The media may converge on your facilities with reporters trying to get interviews with anyone they can—be they employees at the site, consumers, or people working at adjacent businesses.
If this scenario were to play out at your company, would you be prepared to handle it? How would you deal with the media? What would you tell your employees? These are all difficult questions to answer, but they can be dealt with if you devise a crisis management plan specifically to deal with the media.
Steve Gray and Marv Rockford of the media consulting firm of Rockford Gray have spoken at industry events detailing what should be included in a company’s media management plan. They note that while many companies have crisis management plans in place, few of those plans address dealing with the media.
To develop an effective crisis management plan, consider the following:
• To start, the plan should have a checklist outlining what needs to be done and who is going to do what in case of a crisis. Each task should have someone designated to it—and a backup person, just in case.
• Write a template press release where the blanks can be filled in quickly and correctly and given to the media. One of the most useful tools is a “buy time” statement or “hold statement.” It engages the media and lets them know you’re trying to help them.
Gray recommends something similar to the following statement:
“…[I] can confirm that there has been an incident, but we don’t have details. We want to help you with your story, but we need to gather the facts before saying anything. I don’t have enough information to answer your questions. I know we all want to get the story right. Our spokesperson will be back in contact with you in 60 minutes to give you an update. All briefings will come from this safe area.”
• Appoint a spokesperson who can show that the company is in command of the situation, provide the information that is available, and who can demonstrate sympathy for the victim or victims. If the employer does not properly tell its side of the story, someone else becomes the source. Once the bad story is out, there is no way to reel it back in, Rockford says.
• Without a company spokesperson to disseminate information, reporters will seek out anyone for information. They will jump on the Internet and research past incidents and they will call on experts to speculate and even assign blame.
• All other employees should be told unequivocally not to speak to the media. If employees start answering questions before all the facts are known, inaccurate information is liable to get out.
• Don’t hide from the media, or take too long issue a statement. According to Rockford, “If you play hard to get, they’ll come right after you. Not presenting a spokesperson makes everyone a spokesperson.”
• Never say ‘no comment.’ “It means you’re hiding something. It indicates guilt,” Gray says. “It says we’re out of control here. We don’t know what we’re doing. It can sometimes be taken as a confirmation of information.”
• Remember that all this is secondary to first dealing with the victims and their families—the first priority in any crisis plan. Who are the victims will be the first question asked by reporters.
• A plan is useless unless it gets a dry run, warned Rockford, saying: “It doesn’t help if you have a plan but don’t take it off the shelf, dust it off and look at it occasionally and actually drill on the plan.”
Some tips for speaking to the media:
• Anticipate questions reporters will ask. Determine ahead of time what you will say and what you won’t or can’t say.
• Have fact sheets prepared. Prepare a written statement for distribution, preferably with the help of your attorney. Be sure to share this information with your staff. They may feel very threatened and/or demoralized by the bad publicity and may be receiving front-line questions from clients, families and friends.
• Speak in sound bites—short sentences and concise thoughts. Don’t ramble. Emphasize key points made in the news release, and don’t deviate from them.
• Avoid extremes. Do not defend yourself too strenuously, appearing too eager to avoid blame.
• Maintain an open mind and a good attitude about dealing with the media. Much of the time these professionals want to work with you, not against you. Your comfort level or attitude toward the media could influence the treatment you receive.
• Don’t lie. The media is relatively kinder to those who openly admit they screwed up. It’s disarming. Although they may not become your friend, they will at least realize that you have a conscience.
Communication management is just one of the many resources included in Western Growers Insurance Services’ exclusive program Western Growers Shield™ —designed to maximize your loss recovery—and minimize your exposure to risk in the first place. To learn more about this program, please contact me at (602) 757-7869 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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