When a business or organization has a crisis, media members scramble to be the first to report the news. Today, every journalist—print, digital, and television—has access to social media in real-time. The added pressure to hurry sometimes causes journalists to shortcut fact checking, use limited sources, and misquote people in their race to be first. How can you help? Here are five tips for helping the media stay accountable in a crisis. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and you are encouraged to add to the list in the comments.
1. Keep basic information on the event housed somewhere online so you don’t have to answer every request personally. Put up a dark website page if you have one prepared, populate your Facebook page with information, or put a press kit portal on your present website so you don’t have to waste everybody’s time answering questions about information that is already public. You can refer most media members to this information first.
2. Keep a media log. When I took the FEMA online training years ago, one of the first things I learned was the importance of keeping records in a crisis. People that are monitoring the phones, email, and social media should be keeping a chronological log of every contact point with the media. Who contacted you? What media outlet? When? What was their need/deadline? Did you follow-up? When? Do they need to be connected with someone for information?
Whoever is vetting media requests should also have a real-time sheet of important information including frequently asked questions, and be able to point media members to a website, spokesperson, or other digital sites where their questions can be answered. If there are press conferences or a press release schedule concerning the event, that should be made known to media as well. Follow up on all requests that need additional information.
3. If a media member still requests quotes or an interview, ask for a list of questions along with a deadline. It’s important to honor deadlines. Stonewalling is not a good tactic. If you truly don’t have the information they need at that time or it’s a matter of legal issues, tell them. Also, tell them if there will be an update so they can check your online media. If you are answering your own phone calls, when a media member calls, tell them you’ll call them back. Get a name, a number, and the name of an organization. Don’t grant an interview on the fly. Assure them you will get back to them and tell them when. Ask about the nature of their questions, but be warned they may say they’re not sure. If they say their deadline is immediate, tell them politely that you can’t talk at the moment, but would be glad to call them back or answer any questions via email.
4. If you do grant interviews, be sure and record the conversation. Purchase an inexpensive digital recorder and keep it with you during a crisis. Most are small–about 1/3 the size of a cell phone. To prepare for a phone interview, make sure and test it to find out where the optimal location is to record the conversation. Have someone call you, put them on speakerphone, and do a dry run. If your office does not have a speakerphone option, Olympus makes an inexpensive earpiece device that can plug directly into your digital recorder. Always tell the media member politely that you are recording the conversation before you begin. If they ask why, just let them know you want to keep a record of your interviews. Simple as that.
5. Ask the media member when and where the interview will appear and make sure you record it (TV or audio) or save it (print or online). If they tell you they don’t know, make sure you or someone else finds the piece. I often ask media members to send me a courtesy email when the item is published. Save copies of all television, audio, and published pieces on the subject of your crisis, including ones where you are not quoted. This should be part of your overall monitoring/management plan for a crisis.
If you find you have been misquoted and it is minor, don’t worry about it. If you feel you’ve been misrepresented or grossly misquoted, you may want to reach out to the media member politely through an email and ask about the incident. Just remember that media members are not obligated to print everything you say. They can cut and paste to present the interview however they please. Misquoting is not contextual—it is just verbatim. Stay on message, be brief, be responsive and cooperative. Here are some tips from media trainer Brad Phillips on how to deal with a biased reporter.
Working with the media can be frustrating and it can be enlightening. Remember to use your own media channels to get your message out there. As John Wooden said, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” I like the Boy Scout motto the best—“be prepared.” A good source for how-to information on working with the media is Brad Phillips’ blog, Mr. Media Training. A search of the word “interview” will produce many helpful articles on how to handle media interviews.
What other tips could you pass along? Start the list in the comments.