People get things wrong and they make bad judgments, it’s human behaviour. And organisations are only as strong as their weakest human link. Despite the corporate world spending more time and money than ever before on risk management and good governance, any business could still find itself at the heart of a crisis or investigation or, worse, in a trial by media, where the public is quick to judge, often without hearing the evidence.
As a former national journalist, I very much remember the old media adage: where there’s a conflict, there’s a story. Accusations or court cases involving fraud, public whistleblowing and regulatory scrutiny are business conflict laid bare, an open invitation to the media to dig deeper into a company’s problems. In media land, there is no such thing as “innocent until proven guilty”. As a huge number of international businesses and financial institutions have recently found, when it comes to allegations of fraud or other white collar crimes, an allegation, whether true or not, is there to be reported. It’s in the public interest after all.
So how can you mitigate the reputation risk when your business is at the centre of the media storm? Here are some tips from our team of expert communicators.
Prepare for exposure
The story may not get out: that’s what we all hope for. But if it does, you had better be ready. Each crisis will have its own rules. Sometimes, in an international PR crisis that reaches across many time zones, a short but clear statement is one of the most reliable and effective means to convey a message, so have it ready to go.
If the crisis has already reached the courts however, a press release is unlikely to do the job, especially with the media. In this situation, the preparation needs to be done even more carefully. Any communication with the media will need to mirror the language of any documents that have been submitted to the courts to protect you against any further claims. Your media advisors will need real experience in litigation support to avoid making devastating mistakes.
Keep it simple
While legal debate is often about overwhelming the other side’s argument with reasoned debate, the media war requires simple, clear and compelling communications. A typical quote is less than 25 words. A statement that is longer than this or, worse, contains multiple messages, simply ensures your key point won’t get across. Never give a journalist a choice in what message to choose.
Treat key journalists as individuals and avoid news conferences
Journalists are busy people, doing a difficult job, often in difficult circumstances. They hate being treated as a group rather than as an individual. Send them a news release and they’ll either bin it or spin it. If the latter, they will inevitably try to find a way to go beyond your news release to show they’ve worked on a story rather than simply turning the release around. A journalist prefers direct, individual communication. If your situation means you have to get an important message out around the globe as quickly as possible by press release, you should still take the time to speak directly to key journalists who have influence in your sector or market. Do this and the result will be better.
The worst example of media management is a news conference, or what we call “the bear pit”. Anyone entering a news conference risks one of two things: the embarrassment of discovering that your crucial development is of no interest to the media (except for those two very difficult and critical trade journalists who want to nail you) or, even worse, a room full of journalists each trying to ask the toughest question so they can prove they’re the best in the room.
No comment is not an option
“No comment”: the answer of the guilty. We all know there are times when you cannot say anything or don’t want to. But think of the impression this conveys. Research has proved the public’s perception that no comment means “guilty”. Instead, find another way to say nothing. Give a reason that explains the position.
“Off the record” is a trick
“Off the record, tell me something about your business that you don’t like!” Ok, so journalists don’t tend to add this second clause, but this is what they are often really thinking. Our advice is to leave “off the record” briefings to the experts who deal with the media every day. If your particular crisis has reached litigation stage, the contempt of court risk means such briefings are essential if a journalist is to understand your position. But never go off the record in an interview or you will find your direct comment appearing in print, attributed to “a source”.
Remember the whole team
Your business has many spokespeople. Every employee is perceived as an official of the business who can be quoted and will be believed, whether or not he or she knows anything about the situation.
Should you gag your colleagues or give them something to say? Should you keep them informed or tell them nothing? While the cautious approach may seem attractive, anonymous insiders generally breach gag orders. Our experience is that organisations retain the sympathy of their team by giving them some of (but not all) the information and providing guidance on how to speak about the situation. Give your colleagues some language they can share with their contacts and families, but make sure they understand that the risks of media misquoting are mitigated by passing calls to the experts.
Don’t forget to tidy up
Many people wrongly assume that a victory in court provides reputational vindication, that all the allegations made by your opponents will go away forever and today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s rubbish. That’s no longer true. The internet means that written news, rumours, debates and idle speculation are now permanent. Stories written at every point during the news cycle—from when the allegations were first made, to your triumphant announcement of a successful resolution on the court steps—will sit online unless you do something about it.
It is easy to forget that media reports of court cases are meant to be fair, accurate and contemporaneous. A reminder of this is often enough to get a media outlet to remove coverage that is no longer appropriate. Failing this, optimising your online profile can push critical coverage into search engines’ most distant ether.
A final word on dawn raids
After you’ve checked the warrant, identify who’s coming in. The media have no right of entry, even if they are doing a fly-on-the-wall documentary on a day in the lives of the Agency conducting the raid. It sounds unlikely, but we had a client who was raided by an Agency and its media pals. A camera crew arrived and started setting up before the client spotted them. We prevented use of the material.
Filling the void
Information about dawn raids is often leaked to the media by agencies seeking to justify their use of public funds. There is often a delay in a company responding when an allegation is made against it, largely because the allegation is made on very short notice. You need to respond quickly, so prepare for this eventuality as part of your planning for unannounced inspections.
Nature abhors a void and so does the media. If you say nothing, a story does not disappear, others will simply fill your void for you. Think of what happens if there’s a plane crash. The crash happens, no one knows why and an investigation begins. The airline waits for outcome but the media wants answers now. In lieu of concrete answers, they interview air “experts” to speculate on the causes of the crash.
Don’t let a crash happen to you. Say something quickly that mitigates your situation, is correct and won’t come back to haunt you later
The essence of reputation protection is to communicate quickly and simply. Don’t speculate, stick to the facts, answer the question and then stop talking. And get off the phone as soon as you can.