It feels scary, but the media can be an ally.

The worst has happened: a major crisis is underway affecting your organization. This could be anything from an embarrassing social media gaffe to a physical emergency and everything in between. But now reporters are blowing up your phone, your email is even more unmanageable than usual and you’re trying to handle it all while getting smart, timely messages out to the public.

Take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.

Nick Lanyi, a consultant with RCG and former journalist, lays out five steps to help work with the media instead of against them during your most chaotic moments.

  1. You won’t have all the answers in the first hours of a crisis, or even in the first days. But you need to say that. Don’t leave reporters hanging, even if you can’t actually answer their questions. “I’m looking into that. I’ll get back to you.” “I can’t talk now, but we’ll have a statement in an hour.” These perfectly acceptable responses allow the media to know you’re on top of things, even if the situation is still unclear. “Your success in shaping the story will depend in part on keeping that conversation going, even when you need to push back or say no,” Lanyi writes.
  2. Your usual media relations team probably isn’t enough to handle this storm. You may need to quickly tap agencies, consultants or commandeer other internal comms resources to stay on top of it all. Lanyi specifically recommends assigning a “traffic cop” to monitor incoming media and social media inquiries and ensure they’re handled in a timely fashion.
  3. Don’t freeze anyone out. It’s an inevitability of the profession: some journalists and outlets are friendlier to your organization, and some might be a bit tougher. During a crisis, it’s tempting to only respond to the outlets that tend to be nicer to you. Lanyi recommends against only engaging with friends. “In fact, (more negative) outlets are arguably the top priority during the crisis because they can cause the most damage to your reputation,” Lanyi writes. “The resources in time and effort that you devote toward shaping negative coverage is often worth more in a crisis than generating relatively positive coverage.”
  4. Schedule briefings. While responding to every request, as discussed in No. 1, is a noble goal, it’s sometimes physically impossible in a national or international crisis. That’s where mass briefings or press conferences can come to the rescue. Not only does it help get information to the broadest swath of reporters, but it also can buy you time when you get questions you don’t have answers to yet: “We’ll answer that during our briefing tomorrow.”
  5. Why is planning the last step and not the first? Because the acute phase of a crisis is only the beginning. The media will likely cover your recovery or redemption arc, and shaping that narrative is just as — perhaps even more — important than what’s come before. Lay the groundwork now when you still have the media’s attention. Ask them what their next coverage steps are and how you can facilitate them.

Remember, the media isn’t out to get you. It’s out to share quality information with its audience. Help them do that, and you’ll likely find your organization’s reputation comes out looking better and better.

 

Read Lanyi’s full advice here.

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