Media relations 101: How to manage a public relations crisis

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By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report

If anything can be learned from the public relations disaster raining down upon some large companies right now, it is how to properly handle a communications crisis.

This stuff is taught in bachelor’s level college classes required for people seeking degrees in communications, public relations, journalism and, in some cases, even marketing.

EVERY company, at some point or another, will face a public relations problem. It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. A public relations problem can develop in ways that corporate officials never envisioned, which is why they are called problems.

However, an unforeseen problem can be managed so it doesn’t become a full-blown crisis. All it takes a little advanced planning.

Step 1 – Identify who the media is

The first step to any marketing or public relations program requires companies to know who works in the media and how to get in touch with the editors and journalists. It is such an essential first step that summer interns learning the trade are often assigned the task of updating media contact lists.

If your company cannot put its hands on a list of reporters, editors and publishers within the industry and your local area — and that list is less than six months old — then it’s time to call your local community college and acquire an intern. They often work for free, so don’t let that be an excuse.

While journalists would be idiots to release private contact information to the public, it is almost a given in this type of work that journalists should provide contact information to key leaders within the industries or markets they serve. This applies to manufacturers, suppliers, dealers, campgrounds, associations, and any firm seeking to sell something to or serve someone in the RV market.

Whether a company is headquartered in Elkhart, or Anytown USA, it is essential that the CEO have immediate access to the name, cell phone number, work phone number, email address and snail mail address for industry and local journalists. If the company is publicly traded, you might include national business press in that list, too.

Here’s the best way to determine who should go on that list. Close your eyes and imagine an explosion at the company taking place at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. Which journalists are most likely to be asking questions by Monday morning? Put them on the list.

It may be industry publications, local newspapers, radio stations, television stations and even bloggers. If the journalist has an audience of any significance and is seen as an influencer, it is a good idea to know who he or she is and how to make contact.

Step 2 – Establish relationships with the press

Okay, this might sound self-serving and like I am making media people out to be bigger-than-life celebrities that companies need to cozy up to in forming relationships. But, I assure you, that is not the case.

Yes, media people are single-minded, self-righteous, self-centered pigs with delusions of godhood. I get it. But, sometimes, you might just encounter one who is human and is open to a productive, mutually-beneficial relationship.

But, establishing relationships goes well beyond sending press releases. It involves communicating with the journalists on a regular basis. Get to know them, and help them to get to know you and your company.

People do business with people they know. People do favors for people they know even better. When is the best time to call in a favor? When you really need one, and have a reservoir to draw from.

It’s not likely that you’ll ever see me out on a lake fishing with the executive of a company serving the RV industry. If I did, I’d fear becoming fish bait or ballast – especially if I’m outnumbered.

However, company leaders may want to extend an invitation to journalists to visit their firms, have lunch, hook up at a conference, get a tour of the facility, meet key staff members, get a product demo, etc.

Trust me, it is infinitely better to have an established relationship BEFORE a crisis hits, than it is to try to start one when the heat is on.

Step 3 – Establish a hotline for media

Who defines a crisis? Companies and the media are often at odds as to whether an event rises to the level of a crisis. However, the best definition is that it’s a crisis when more than one media source reaches out to ask questions about the same situation.

It is astonishing to me how few companies in the RV industry – multi-billion dollar enterprises – do not have a single point of contact and a backup for journalists to reach if they have questions about anything to do with the company.

If the company has a policy that the only person authorized to speak to the media is the CEO, then the CEO is the contact person.

CEOs who are a little more trusting may delegate that responsibility to someone else. But, just like the company needs an established contact list for journalists, the journalists must have the name, work phone, cell phone and email address of the person to contact when information is needed – and needed immediately.

Step 4 – Respond to media inquiries

Whenever media representatives reach out to a company, it is absolutely essential that company officials respond immediately – even if only to explain they can’t respond.

Huh? That sounds silly.

Media people are often working on a deadline and when an important story is underway, they need answers quickly. It’s not just a competitive news environment that is driving that need, although it is a factor. Journalists often feel an obligation to readers or viewers to deliver as many facts as they can about a major situation.

Look at it this way, would you rather respond to 10 journalists seeking information, or 10,000 private citizens seeking the same answers and calling the switchboard to get it?

Company officials have several choices in the way they respond to media inquiries. They are:

  1. We are aware of the problem, and here is everything we know about the situation.
  2. We are aware of the problem, but we are still trying to figure out what’s happening ourselves. We will get back to you by (insert time – NOT DATE – here). This is the stage where you can call in a favor and keep the hounds at bay for a day or two.
  3. We are aware of the problem, but can’t comment because:
    • Legally, we can’t say anything at this time.
    • Someone else will release a statement (especially when the situation involves law enforcement).
  4. What happened? Are you kidding? Nobody told us anything. We will need to look into the matter, but we promise to get back to you by (insert time).
  5. Go to hell! – Ironically, this is the preferred way of responding to media inquiries for many companies in the RV industry.

Step 5 – Don’t go silent

Silence is deadly – for the company. Silence is an incubator for speculation and rumors. Silence does not make the story go away. Nixon tried it at a grand level and it backfired.

Many executives have this notion that journalists must report both sides of a story. Consequently, the execs feel if the company doesn’t say anything, then the journalists are obligated to drop the story because they only have one side.

Fat chance.

Have you ever read the words, “We reached out to XYZ Company for comment, but have not yet heard back?” Or worse, “XYZ Company declined to comment?”

Statements  like that in news stories are almost guaranteed to diminish company credibility. The media will be seen as doing its job in asking, so the company must be hiding something by refusing to say anything. The media knocked, but the company turned off the lights and turned down the volume instead.

Rather than going away, the media is very likely to begin knocking on other doors instead.

Some media representatives — especially trade journalists — will roll over like well-trained puppies and set a story aside until the company decides to respond.

Others <ahem> will abandon the pail and shovel, and bring in a backhoe to start digging for information, especially, if the journalist feels the company is hiding something significant or playing favorites.

Companies might be able to squelch either a local media inquiry, or an industry media inquiry. But, it is unlikely they can squelch both. When it comes to national media, nothing will dissuade them from ignoring a story, especially if it is scandal-driven or will appeal to a big audience. National journalists undergo an operation to have their hearts removed.

Step 6 – Follow-up when it is over

During a crisis, a company’s best response is full and immediate disclosure. Willingly get all the information out upfront and as quickly as possible. There is far less pain involved. If you are going to have pain, do you want a two-aspirin headache, or a debilitating migraine? With a communications crisis, you actually have a choice.

Remember, Step 2 and the suggestion to establish relationships with media members? Despite common opinion, most journalists are people first. They want to get today’s story — today — but other stories in the future, too. They don’t really want to burn bridges.

So, when a company has a problem, many times the CEO can buy some time and even influence the tone of the coverage by being honest and working with journalists to get the story out.

How the company responds to a media inquiry often determines whether the story leads off on the front page and the first three minutes of a news broadcast, or it is buried on Page 16 next to the birth announcements. A company’s response also influences whether the story remains on the front page for one day or one week.

If the company has an established, friendly, professional relationship with the media, it is very likely that the firm will get a sympathetic response. Whatever happened will be seen as an unfortunate occurrence impacting a good company.

If the firm doesn’t have an established relationship with the media, what are journalists going to draw upon to craft the story? Whatever information they can find from whatever sources that are willing to talk.

If things didn’t go as well as it could have, and the company feels it was mistreated or its side wasn’t presented fairly, then it probably means that the company really didn’t have an established relationship with the journalist.

Or the journalist really is a single-minded, self-righteous, self-centered pig with delusions of godhood. Dealing with that requires a course in media relations 102 — or a fishing expedition on Lake Michigan.

Revisit Step 1 and seek first to understand. Something blocked cooperation. Try to determine what that was and then figure out a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Be honest. A cooperative reporter is likely to respond favorably to a company that proactively reaches out to share good news, responds quickly to bad news, and also helps the media person get to know the company, its mission and its leaders.

However, if a company has no relationship with the media, has provided no way for the press to reach the company or its leaders, refuses to communicate with reporters and, best of all, bashes the journalists for seeking other sources to get the story out, then lower your sails. You are in for some very rough seas.

Media relationships, like any good relationships, require time, attention and honesty.

If anyone would like to pen a rebuttal, I would be happy to publish it.

Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber

A journalist who has covered the recreation vehicle industry since January 2000, Greg Gerber founded RV Daily Report on April Fool's Day in 2009. He also serves as the editor of the publication and website. As an Eagle Scout, he has enjoyed camping for decades and has visited every state except Hawaii. A DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three young women, he has two grandchildren as well. He currently splits his time between Wisconsin, Texas and Arizona. Greg can be reached at editor@rvdailyreport.com.

Leave a Comment

  • John DiPietro says:

    Like you said….PR 101…basic pr. and even though you didn’t mention company names, we all know who you are referring to. And, the amazing thing is that three weeks after the news broke, no one is taking responsibility for dealing with the media telling WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE but certainly not WHY! Great piece.

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