The call that shakes up your business or ego is guaranteed to happen when you least expect it. You might be enjoying a leisurely lunch with your family or perhaps reviewing reports at work when your assistant alerts you to a pressing matter.
“A reporter from The New York Post wants to talk to you about their hidden camera investigation. She says she needs to speak with someone right now.”
But the worst-case scenario occurs when the encounter with the media isn’t even announced.
You’ve seen it on TV dozens of times. The businessman is walking casually to his car when a reporter and television crew ambushes him on the sidewalk. Sometimes the businessman shields his face. Other times he tries to answer the impromptu questions.
When television is at its best, a camera gets shoved and doors get slammed. If you listen closely, you’ll always hear the reporter baiting the businessman with questions that by their nature imply guilt: “How could you leave a little old lady without heat for a week?” or “Tell us why you’re still doing business, even though the city has tried to shut you down?”
It can be an intimidating moment for anyone as the camera zooms into your face and the reporter invades your personal space. Where do you look? Should you approach the camera or back away? What do you say? Of course no matter what action you take, you will be judged guilty in the court of public opinion. You might as well slap the handcuffs on yourself because every person watching at home thinks you’re a crook and your business should be shut down.
The challenge with any crisis situation involves reaction. Unfortunately, with most crisis situations you rarely have time to react in an orderly or thoughtful manner. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a garden hose, being surrounded by flames. Most of the time, you’re forced to think on your feet, and that isn’t always a good thing, especially when a camera crew is recording your every move and word.
So what should you do if you find yourself getting ambushed by a reporter? If a reporter ambushes you like this unannounced, maintain your composure and show respect for the camera. There’s a reason why “innocent people have nothing to hide” is such a cliché. Instead of running from the camera, approach the reporter in a non-threatening manner, and say you will gladly talk on camera but in a professional environment.
Tell the reporter you have nothing to hide and will gladly talk on camera if it is scheduled. But don’t fall for the reporter’s bait. He’s going to throw out questions at you, while he has you in front of the camera. He might even insult you and invade your personal space. If he calls you slime for leaving a little old lady without water, look him in the eyes and say that you want a chance to respond on camera, but shouting is not the proper format.
Again, don’t let the reporter draw you to anger, and don’t let him lure you into saying something you will later regret. Assume the camera is always rolling, and everything you say is captured on TV. The reporter might keep asking you the same uncomfortable questions, but don’t get thrown off track. Keep repeating that you will talk on camera, but in the proper format and environment. Give the reporter a legitimate excuse why you can’t do the interview right now on the street.
Of course you will have a legitimate excuse because you will be headed somewhere when those cameras unexpectedly jump out of the bushes. A reputation takes years to build, but it can be lost overnight. This is why in today’s 24-hour news cycle, it is even more imperative to learn how to effectively manage a message. It’s even better if you can proactively steer the story from the start. The media loves stories with conflict and resolution, preferably a David and Goliath tale. But don’t fret if you are a small business owner going up against a media giant.
It is possible to influence the way your story is told. It is conceivable to alter the outcome of that story. The challenge lies in learning how to position you, your character and your story before the media has a chance to write it.
This article was written by Mark Macias, the author of the business book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media. It originally appeared in the All About Public Relations Web site.