REQUIRED READING: Combine today's financial crises with a media landscape that has expanded exponentially with the acceleration of online and social media channels, and it is no wonder that the servicing industry and its debtors have been, and continue to be, ‘front page’ news.
In an effort to understand how to respond to the media, it is important to first have an appreciation for who they are, to respect their daily pressures and to have clarity with regards to their motivations.
Contrary to popular perception, reporters are not ‘out to get you.’ As a matter of fact, there are very few investigative journalists left in media today. The outlets don't have the operational budgets to carry them, and with news traveling at the speed of ‘tweets,’ there is less of a place for traditional long-form investigative journalism in our ’24/7′ world.
This is both a positive and a negative with regard to managing the media. The good news is that, with the exception of a few national publications, reporters no longer have the time or resources to dig deep and look tirelessly for issues or exceptions to the rule. The bad news is that most reporters today are stretched very thin – they are covering several different beats with some knowledge of all, but often little specialized expertise in any one specific arena.
Herein lies the greatest threat: an uninformed communicator with the ability to influence perception, both in their immediate medium (paper or broadcast) and, ultimately, on the Web. Unfortunately, these stories will run with or without your active participation, but there are ways to mitigate your risk and even somewhat control the process.
Monitor your brand
There are many things you cannot control when it comes to working with the media, but one critical process that is completely in your control is monitoring. Treat your brand like your child: Make sure you know where it is at all times.
One of the easiest and least expensive ways to do this is by utilizing a free online content detection device called Google Alerts. This service emails you when new Web content is published that is relevant to the search term(s) you have entered for the alert. Examples would include your company name, the names of your executive team members and, potentially, your competitors' names as well. It will not catch every single new Web page, but it will catch most of them, especially the ones from larger websites, including local and national news outlets.
For a huge company with global brands, this service is likely not the best solution, but for 95% of the business world, it is an outstanding and highly effective tool. Setting up this tool is easy – just go to the Google Alerts website and follow the instructions.
Have a plan
Every company should have an established and effective media-response process and plan in place. Although it makes no sense to attempt to script out a plan for every possible situation, a smart company will develop a ‘top three’ list, define its processes and practice its execution through regular drills.
The plan should identify the response team, including the approved spokespeople; outline clear responsibilities for each member; and provide the appropriate redundancies. Your plan is your insurance policy. Although it will not prevent a crisis, it will certainly keep you focused on finding solutions, not building processes, when you are in the middle of the ‘storm.’
Develop your message
Regardless of whether or not you are going to actively participate in the conversations taking place in the media, your response team should always have a clear and consistent message prepared and ready. These messages are often distributed internally in the form of digestible ‘sound bites’ in an effort to eliminate concern or bring clarity.
It is important to be honest. Stick to the facts, and don't guess or speculate. Be concise and direct. Importantly, you must assume that anything distributed internally will also be distributed externally. Therefore, it is imperative that you work from one foundational document that will likely be shared in both areas.
Establish response methods
Your company must return media calls. Avoiding contact with the media sends the message that you are either hiding, rude or both.
Calls should be returned promptly by a member of the response team. This not only demonstrates to the reporter that you are responsive, but it allows the team member to ask additional questions pertaining to the direction of the story. This initial call should never be returned by the company CEO or president.
Once that information is secured, the team can make an informed decision on the best way to respond to the reporter. There are three possible ways to respond: letting the reporter know that the corporate spokesperson is unavailable, forwarding prepared statements, and conducting open interviews.
Adopting a non-responsive posture is rarely a good idea. Prepared statements, however, allow you to provide some balance to the story without the risk of an open interview. These statements are ‘controlled’ content and should be written as direct quotes attributed to the company spokesperson.
Open interviews are the most transparent, but risk the greatest exposure. The potential benefit of doing a phone or in-person interview is to humanize a company. It allows the spokesperson to see and experience a face and a personality behind a company.
The greatest downside is that there is nowhere to retreat to once the conversation starts. Whether it is on the phone or in person, it is easy to get caught saying too much. Most importantly, there is no such thing as ‘off the record.’
Media relations, specifically crisis communications, is a specialty. Treat it as such. Create policies, both for social media and for traditional media, so that all of your employees understand the company's procedures as well as the consequences for not following them. Take the time to identify your media relations team, outline a response plan, document your process and practice.
Having a media relations plan is like having an insurance plan – you hope that you will never have to use it, but you will certainly be thankful for your advanced preparation if and when you do.
Mark Winter is the managing partner of Identity, a Bingham Farms, Mich.-based integrated public relations firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photo courtesy of Hanna-Barbera Productions)