Keep Calm: your key priorities for media crisis interviews

27 September 2017

The chances are you’re keen on the idea of generating media attention. Your organisation has an innovative approach and deserves publicity. You’d like the media to cover your business, social enterprise, or charity.

After all, that’s what most people think about when they approach an agency like Keep Your Fork. Can we help you to tell your story? And we probably can.

Which means that there’s an element of choice: you’re choosing to pitch to the media, hoping journalists will write about you or give you an interview opportunity.

But the flipside of the coin is when when something goes wrong and the media come to you. When you’re caught up in a crisis. When a story about your organisation is going to be “out there” whether you like it or not because something awful has happened. When you don’t have a choice about media exposure.

And whether it’s a mistake of your own making or an incident you had no control over, if you’re in the media spotlight because of a crisis there is nowhere to hide. You can’t ignore the attention even if you think it’s unjustified. You haven’t chosen to be in the spotlight; you don’t want to be there – but you are going to be.

So what should your priorities be in terms of media engagement in a crisis? How do you keep calm and carry on?

There are plenty of examples of what not to do. Businesses and charities have destroyed long-won reputations in an instant by failing to engage appropriately when the media want answers – now – about an incident.

This year, America’s United Airlines’ CEO, Oscar Munoz, gave a textbook example of how not to issue an apology: “I apologise for having for having to re-accommodate these customers,” he said, without, er, actually apologising for the fact that someone had been forcibly dragged off one of United’s overbooked aircraft and badly injured in the process.

Or do you remember Tony Hayward? As CEO of BP, which was involved in a dreadful marine oil spill (the Deepwater Horizon incident which killed several people and caused an environmental catastrophe), Hayward did a number of TV and other media interviews. Halfway through one he uttered the words, “There’s no-one who wants this thing over more than I do, you know. I’d like my life back.” And that was it: that clip of Hayward saying he wanted his life back played out on media worldwide. It was viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a damning indictment of his and BP's lack of care and concern for the people killed and affected by the disaster.Keep Calm & Keep Your Fork

Keep Your Fork aren’t in the business of taking the blame away from you if your business has done something it shouldn’t. Please don’t ask for our help if you’ve followed sloppy practices and as a result people have been harmed, or if you’ve been found out for not delivering what you said you would, or you’ve sought to do something edgy and that strategy has backfired. But crises can affect every organisation, even the most exemplary. And crises happen quickly and need rapid responses.

That doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead for “what if” occurrences. Your risk management planning shouldn’t only identify the potential problems, disasters and worst case scenarios that could impact you and your customers (and seek to prevent them but to map out what you’d do should they happen), it should also identify who would take the lead on communications in those scenarios so you can prepare accordingly. Many organisations even invest in some media training to cover potential eventualities and crises.

If you are involved in a crisis, you’ll need to face journalists. Usually it’s best if it is your CEO or MD doing this – but your planning needs to cover what your team say when they answer the phone, and how you respond on social media.

And then in a crisis management interview, your number one priority is to show that you actually do care about what's happened. That concern needs to be real and genuine: if you don’t care, then find someone else in your business who does (and perhaps think about whether you’ve got your priorities in life right!)
Let’s say (dependent on the operating sectors of your business or organisation does) you’ve had an infrastructure failure that has caused delays, a product failure, there’s been an accident, an outbreak of food poisoning, a product recall, or there’s been a software outage and some of your customers haven’t been able to access their accounts for 48 hours. You’ve hurt, harmed, or severely inconvenienced people. Some of them are livid. You need to take action to deal with the issue, but you must engage with the media, and any interviews you do need to start with concern and sympathy.sorry

Your first words in the interview set the tone. They should usually include an apology showing you’re sincerely sorry about what’s happened and how it has affected people. And whatever the interviewer’s first question to you (even if it sets up a false premise of blaming you for something that wasn’t your organisation’s doing), your first response should show you care, and demonstrate your real sympathy and concern (you are a human being, aren’t you?!) Throughout the interview, you need to maintain your tone of sincere concern, by using words and expressions that do genuinely reflect how you feel too (it's likely that a 20-30 second clip out of a longer live interview could be used later).

Then as your second priority you need to go into explanation and action, initially by expressing your determination to fix things (or prevent anything like this ever happening again), to find out why and how the incident happened, and explaining what you are doing and will do about it, and why. A common error in broadcast crisis interviews is to go straight into this, before showing that you do care and are remorseful. Yes, journalists want facts. Why has the crisis happened? And, presumably, behind the scenes your organisation is working flat out to find out why the crisis has occurred and prevent it happening again. But you might not yet have all the facts. And you mustn’t speculate if you don’t have all of the answers, but you should explain why you don’t have them yet and when you will. Don’t be defensive; do explain.

Nor must you blame, say, your subcontractors (even if they are at fault: the buck does stop with you and you need to take responsibility). Your explanation should show that you can be trusted to do something about what’s happened, and that you’ll be open and honest with people affected. Explain concrete actions you’re taking, and continue to express appropriate sympathy and remorse. You’re concerned; you are taking action. Be honest, open, and polite (even in the face of hostile questions).

Thirdly – and optionally, depending on the circumstances, you can offer crucial perspective that puts the incident in a context, but do not bring this in too early, otherwise it looks like your priority is only to defend your organisation. And even if you’ve been through the first two stages you can blow it here if you don’t maintain your concerned tone when you are offering any perspective. Do not defend what is indefensible.

Be readyFinally: practice before you’re faced with a real life crisis. Watch and listen to examples of good and bad media crisis interviews (I have many that I show and play during practical media training sessions). Be prepared. Decide who would deal with calls from media and how. And do engage with the media: you probably don’t want to, but if you refuse to do crisis interviews (or run away when a journalist approaches you) you appear defensive. Don’t let your media response escalate any crisis you’re involved in and become part of the story. Crises happen suddenly, but you can choose now whether or not to be prepared.

If you know you need to gather key messages and a crisis action plan and learn the practical skills to make the best of live radio or TV interviews, then it’s a great idea to book onto our forthcoming Media Interview Skills full day masterclass. Running on 25 October and hosted in partnership with the University of Sheffield at our clients’ stunning new Jonas Hotel, you will be in the capable, reassuring hands of our top Fork team: established broadcaster, presenter and media professional Jamie Veitch and lifelong reporter and event compere, Jo Davison

And if you would prefer one to one coaching or an in-house event for your own top team, we can offer that too!

Article by KYF Senior Associate, Jamie Veitch.

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