Media Relations During a Crisis: Be Prepared, Then Execute

The worst time to determine how to deal with media is in the midst of a crisis. You are going to face many challenges internally and externally, and dealing with the media will be one of the most important, and possibly difficult, tasks at hand. An organization should have a crisis communications plan in place in the event that you and your management team are faced with such an unfortunate event.

When a crisis strikes, people are stunned. They may have difficulty grasping the nature of the event and their reasoning and responses will be affected. It is wise to have a clear step-by-step plan in place that can guide the response team. This is not the time for learning “as you go” when mistakes can compound the existing problem.

No one wants to think about a crisis before it happens, but that’s the best time to think about it. A crisis can kill a business. Developing a plan and knowing how to execute is not as daunting a task as it might first appear. Being ready in advance helps you to remain poised and respond appropriately.

Commit to having a plan
The first step is to commit to developing a plan. You know that the plan will help you to be more poised and better able to deal with all of the pressures and problems bombarding you when the unexpected hits. You have taken the first step towards outlining everyone’s role during a crisis. There are several elements to a plan, but you must be flexible and ready to change your plan as circumstances change.

Identify and select the crisis communications team
For most organizations, you need a small team of senior executives to serve as your crisis communications team. The team must be led by the CEO or top executive. Other key members should include your public relations executive, legal counsel and the heads of major company departments, such as finance, personnel, and operations. During a crisis the team will provide advice while keeping the business running.

Develop a comprehensive list of key personnel
The list includes the names and contact information of all senior executives and managers. Contact information should include mobile and home phone numbers, vacation home phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other alternative contact information. These people form a “communications tree” of leaders who must be contacted immediately when a crisis breaks. Each will be responsible for relaying information to members of their teams. Diligently maintain an up-to-date copy of the list and make sure the team members carry it with them.

Designate a spokesperson
There should be a single person who speaks for the organization during the crisis. This person is the face and voice of your company during a very crucial time. The top executive of the organization will have the most credibility. If this individual has not received media training, schedule the training immediately.

Designate a media coordinator
This is important for both your organization and the media. It is important that someone is dedicated to responding to the needs of the media. This is not the spokesperson, but the coordinator should be prepared to help ensure that all media receive the same information at the same time. Do not show favoritism to any particular media. Also, help the media with on-site needs if a prolonged crisis has media camped out by your facility.

Keep your Web site updated and develop information sheets about your organization and every major program within your organization
As soon as a crisis strikes, media will be visiting your Web site. As a matter of course, your Web site should be up-to-date, easy to navigate, provide important information about the company, including easy-to-find contact information. Have handouts prepared for media when they arrive on site. Be prepared to address any earlier crises or legal issues the company has faced in the past.

Rehearse the plan
Once you have your team and process in place, it’s a good idea to rehearse. Hold brainstorming sessions with your crisis communications team about how you will handle various scenarios. You can conduct actual mock crises and evaluate how your team handles each situation. Outside consultants can assist with this process.

Part of the brainstorming or rehearsal process will include the following issues that must be handled during the actual crisis.

Calmly assess the situation
You do not want to start taking questions from the media, or any other outside parties, about the crisis until you have been able to assess the situation. However, it is a good idea to quickly alert the media that you will be available to speak as soon as you have gathered the facts. Once the crisis hits, your team must begin work immediately. You do not want to appear to be delaying or stonewalling, but be sure you know what you’re talking about. If your facility has been damaged to the point it is unusable, you may have to find a new location for command and control.

Develop key messages
Besides the standard messages about your company, you must determine your key messages regarding the issue at hand. Be prepared to address all of your audiences (external and internal). Be honest. Speak directly, state what you know and admit when you don’t have answers. Don’t speculate. Stick to the facts—often something appears one way and turns out to be quite different upon further inspection. From the perspective of legal exposure, it is essential to avoid premature conclusions or to be unnecessarily critical.

Schedule regular times and a place to speak with the media
If the crisis passes quickly, this won’t be necessary, but during a prolonged event, you should set a regular schedule and location to meet with the media. If there is nothing new to report, tell the media. Keep the lines of communication open to tamp down speculation. While being open, you can control who the media speaks with from your organization. That must be only the designated spokesperson.

Your spokesperson must be kept briefed on any developments related to the crisis. In a situation that attracts attention 24 hours a day, you will need to have at least one alternative spokesperson so that the primary representative can get some sleep. Seriously consider regularly updating information about the crisis on your Web site.

Maintain a media list and log
Hopefully, you are already proactive regarding media relations, so you have a list of media you know. As a crisis unfolds, you will deal with media outlets you don’t know. Learn the names of reporters and producers. Seek out their contact information. Don’t exclude bloggers and online media resources. Learn deadlines. When you promise to follow up with a reporter—follow up. Log all of your contacts with media during the crisis period.

Remember your audiences
The media is only one of your audiences. Employees and their families are very important, and will experience strong emotions during a crisis. Some of them may be directly impacted by the events and you will have to respond to their needs. Neighbors, especially those impacted by the crisis, must also be kept informed. Someone should be assigned to collect information from audiences and ensure the spokesperson also communicates with them.

Some businesses may have to report to government entities. At least be aware that they monitor media coverage. You may have investors. Each of these groups should receive information. All of these groups want to hear from the top executive leading the crisis communications team.

Remember, the media will be speaking with these constituents. If you are communicating with these audiences you improve the chances that they will say something positive, or at least not extremely negative, about your organization.

You’re only human
You and everyone experiencing, reporting on or responding to the crisis are people who will act human. It’s okay to show compassion. Let people know that you’re concerned. Be sincere, honest and fair. When you’re tired, take a break.

Hopefully, you will never face a crisis. If you do, being prepared, professional and honest will help defuse the situation. The media and other audiences will recognize that you are being open and not evasive. That will earn you some benefit of the doubt when you need it most.

This article is excerpted from PR News' upcoming Crisis Management Guidebook Volume 2. It was written by Kevin L. Sullivan, the chief marketing officer for Fisher & Phillips LLP. To order this guidebook or find out more information about it, please visit