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How to handle media in a time of crisis

Janine LazarusJust as an army should always be on red alert and prepared to go into battle at a moment’s notice, companies should be geared to manage their reputation, deal with often unwelcome media interest, and mitigate the consequences of bad publicity. Media consultant JANINE LAZARUS outlines the rules of media engagement in times of crisis.

At some point, most companies will experience some form of media or publicity crisis. That is pretty much a given. So, to minimise the effects of negative publicity, the possible loss of reputation and, ultimately, the loss of profit, what is needed is a “fat-free”, decentralised approach to communicating messages.

To this end, I recommend a less “top heavy” approach to interfacing with the media. Managing negative media interest involves far more than just preparing a “holding statement”. It’s about empowering key staff members with the ability to communicate succinct messages to the media, without having to waste precious time waiting for head office to respond.

While there seems to be a trend – albeit a slow-moving one – of blue-chip companies moving to a more decentralised media approach, government generally seems to stick to the staid, centralised method of communicating with the media, with the result that its messaging is often ineffective.

It’s no secret that the group CEO doesn’t always have the technical knowledge or expertise on the issue under the microscope. As part of an effective communications strategy, there should always be more than one well-briefed spokesperson from each business unit in cases when the big boss is unavailable.

This means that members of the team – from marketing and communications departments to spokespeople, experts on the issues, secretaries, switchboard operators and even frontline staff – all need to be able to communicate the same, clear message. Or, to use corporate speak, they have to sing off the same hymn sheet.

Being open and amenable to the media is critical. Reputation management is all about balance, preparation and being proactive.

A forward-thinking mindset is obvious, but this is often taken for granted. Never become complacent and think that it could never happen to your organisation.

Another golden rule of media engagement is never to lie or claim ignorance on a particular matter. The media are extremely good at recognising and uncovering lies, and the resulting story about a company’s deceit is often more newsworthy than the original issue.

So, can there ever be a bullet-proof way of interfacing with a journalist? There are basic rules:

It’s no good to come across as weak or a push-over, but having said that, it’s just as bad to come across as too aggressive, overly confident or arrogant. Neither approach works very well as reporters are quick to recognise and capitalise on weakness and arrogance.

Spokespeople are a brand extension of the company. How they present themselves is a direct indication of the strength or weakness of the company.

  • Janine Lazarus, CEO of Janine Lazarus Media Consultancy, uses her 24 years of experience in journalism and broadcasting to provide customised media training courses, strategic media consulting and crisis support to a large client base that includes blue-chip companies, parastatals and the South African government. For further information, please contact Leandi Streeter.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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