How a company deals with the media in a crisis or adverse event can make or break its future success. That’s because public opinion is far more interested in how a company responds to the situation than the crisis itself.
The problem is that most businesses are unprepared for the media scrutiny, believing they will never face a crisis. But to constitute a crisis for a small or medium business, it doesn’t have to be a massive earthquake or a mining disaster. It could involve redundancy disputes, sexual harassment accusations, issues resulting from natural disasters, accidents, crime or a multitude of other causes.
Every business in New Zealand could find themselves in the middle of one when they least expect it. Just ask Christchurch Casino management when workers complained about their employment rights following the recent earthquake and casino closure.
I could name numerous examples. Luckily for the Casino, they knew how to handle the media, as did Pike River Coal. But many don’t. Recent media coverage of the Kate Sheppard Retirement Village owner Lance Bunting clearly showed a lack of understanding. Residents of the Christchurch village had to move out because of severe liquefaction following the February earthquake. He refused all interviews, even when a TV camera showed up at the village. Then he retreated to his holiday home and sent his wife out to talk to reporters.
A crisis can take many forms. The key is to recognise this and learn how to handle approaches from the media before anything happens. If the crisis hits before you know what to do, it could be too late. For example, what would you do if a TV reporter and a cameraman arrived at your house as you were leaving for work asking you about some sexual harassment complaint that had just been laid against a staff member?
The last thing you should do is run, look angry, try to push the camera away or say ‘no comment’. These things all make you look guilty and are great pictures for the TV news. This is probably what the news crew is looking for.
What you should do is confidently say with a smile that you will look straight into it and you’ll be available for an interview at your office in two hours, or so. That way there is no publishable footage for the news, you looked relaxed and when you do see the reporter in two hours, you will be ready with your response.
Those who have been media trained will then know how to control the interview, getting their points across, rather than defensively answering the questions thrown at them. It’s important that you do front up to the media. Firstly, if you are not there to clarify the situation, it could get blown out of proportion. That’s because the media will find someone else to comment, and that person will not know as much as you. It could also be a competitor.
Research shows that this is vital. It shows that a crisis itself rarely affects a business negatively. What does cause problems is how the crisis is handled. While no businessman can eliminate the possibility of a crisis, if he takes control quickly, responds professionally and communicates well, his business is likely to prosper.
For these reasons, all businesses must have someone trained to communicate with the media, preferably the boss. This is not only to handle crises, but also other more positive situations. If your business is ever contacted by the media for some other purpose, it would be disappointing not to have the skills to make the most of the opportunity.
By Pete Burdon, Media Training NZ
Pete Burdon is Managing Director of Media Training NZ, a company specialising in media and presentation training.