By Alex Liddington-Cox and James Fitzpatrick
There aren’t many assignments more stressful than facing the media when your company is in crisis. Whether it’s a door-stop interview, radio hook-up or a media conference, the stakes are high as the journalists (and through them, your stakeholders) hang on every word.
But it also presents a positive opportunity… an opportunity to restore trust in your organisation and confidence in your leadership.
Like any test or performance, the key is in preparation. If you’re well prepared, it’s much easier to come across as calm and confident in your delivery and you’re more likely to deliver the right message, at the right time.
You wouldn’t wing an exam or an interview with a prospective employer – so why wing a test that could make or break your career?
If you are presented with one such test, we’ve listed five things you should consider before you speak to the media:
1. Take Some Time
Never speak to the media without warning. There’s no way you can be properly prepared for an interview you didn’t know was coming.
Whether they reach out to you by phone, text, email, social, or in rare circumstances an ambush, it’s more than fair for you to ask for some time.
They’ll likely say they have deadlines but you are right to push back; if the story is good enough, they’ll wait (at least a little bit).
Some example responses you could use:
“Thanks for coming, I’m happy to speak to you in an hour.”
“Nice to meet you, happy to do an interview, please call my office to arrange a time”
They’ll probably keep pushing for a comment but you can keep responding with the same calm and polite response.
Whatever you do, don’t just stick your hand in front of the camera, say “no comment”, and run away.
2. Prepare Your Core Messages
Now that you’ve taken a moment to prepare, you can sit down with your team and work out your response.
This should involve more than writing a response based on “gut feel”.
You should walk through a process of outlining the facts, deciding your objectives for this media interaction, prioritising your stakeholder groups, and picking the appropriate core messages for the situation.
When we’re asked to prepare core messages for a client in a crisis, we follow three message formulas and models:
Coombs Message Strategy Formula
Crisis Shield Message Delivery Model
Crisis Shield Apology Model
We’re happy to share these; if you want a copy, send me an email.
Wearing the right outfit can enhance your message. The wrong outfit can undermine it.
What’s the image you want to project to your stakeholders? Would a confident executive in a business suit be the right message for you? Or maybe someone ‘on the tools’ in a company polo and work shorts would be more suitable?
It depends on the company and the crisis type. But it’s something you have to think about in those moments before you go out before the cameras. Any unnecessary distraction will take away from your message.
4. Get A Media Handler
Most people will get an adrenalin kick when they step out in front of the cameras – crisis or no crisis.
For this reason alone, you should get yourself a media handler while you’re preparing for the press conference. Someone from the PR or communications team is ideal, but anyone will do.
The media handler’s role is to manage the press conference – rather than let the journalists control the room. The handler will determine where everyone should stand/sit and they’ll introduce you and step in if needed.
When you’ve got a camera in your face and journalists firing questions at you, you are not well placed to decide when “enough is enough”. They know all the tricks to keep you talking. That’s why your media handler is so valuable.
Typically, a good plan heading into a press conference is to make a prepared statement, which you can control, then answer a few questions before leaving.
You should spend some time before the interview with your media handler preparing a game plan about how many questions you’ll take and when they’ll jump in to wrap things up and get you out of there.
In the press conference below, Australian cricketer Steve Smith fields an emotional press conference in response to allegations of cheating. Cricket Australia media handler Malcolm Conn sets the tone for the conference right from the start, and then steps in, allowing Smith to exit, when things get too emotional at the end:
5. Have an Exit Path
Even if your media handler gets you out of the interview at the right time, it might not be over. We’ve all seen footage of the media following a person of interest on a long walk to their office or car park after a press conference. They didn’t have an exit path.
Picking a press conference point that you can get out of easily is an often-forgotten piece of the puzzle. There needs to be a door that you can go through within a few metres of the press conference that you can close behind you.
Then, and only then, is the press conference over.
Also, make sure the door isn’t locked…