The media will always seek to be the first on the scene of a crisis. Many journalists on local papers will listen in to the emergency service frequencies for leads, enabling them to arrive on the scene often as the story is still unfolding. The advent of social media has sped up this process even further, by opening these channels up to a wider range of people. 

As the methods of communication have quickened, so has the ability of journalists to get hold of a story. In some cases journalists will be aware of an issue before a company’s own crisis team. In a famous case from 2009, an embarrassing video of Domino’s employees messing with food remained on YouTube for two days before the management reacted. 

By the time the video was taken down it had been blogged and shared nearly one million times. 

In any company, employees need to understand how a crisis situation can develop, and the role the media can play in that process. 

Below are five lessons your employees should understand about dealing with the media in a crisis:

  1. In order to be first to an exclusive, the media will often target members of staff for comment. Journalists may phone a general office number and attempt to speak with the first person they get hold of. Another favoured method is ‘door stepping’; interviewing people as they arrive or leave the office. This is not only a direct method of contact, but also makes for entertaining viewing. As an organisation you should have very clear policies in place for how employees should handle an approach by a journalist. They should be trained to be confident enough to direct enquiries to the correct contact, and understand how ‘off the record’ comments can often end up in a press article.
  2. Journalists will monitor social media, with alerts set up for a range of key words. As part of crisis communications awareness, staff should understand that any comment on social media can be taken as official comment for the company or ‘a company spokesman’. Employees should be free to use their own social media channels, but should be aware of the implications of making ill-advised comments, and be encouraged to refrain from engaging in external dialogue.
  3. Think about the structure of the company. If there are several regional offices it is likely that the local media at those locations will know about a crisis situation before your own head office. The head of communications or external affairs should be trained to handle the communications in this situation, but if they are 500 miles away at the head office it won’t be possible to leave the media waiting for comment whilst they travel to the site. In this situation staff should be fully trained to deal with the media, and be empowered to understand how and what they are and aren’t able to say.
  4. The first information received by the head of communications about a crisis should come from an internal source, not the media. Your company’s internal training programmes should test both internal and external crisis communications strategies. There should be a clear understanding of the internal crisis communication structure within the company. If statements have to be signed off before being sent to the media it should be very clear who has ultimate responsibility for this. It is very likely the person responsible will be unavailable. In this situation everyone in the organisation should be aware of who is second in the line of responsibility, and have relevant contact details for that person.
  5. Instant communications make it impossible to leave a vacuum for several hours whilst a company waits to sign off a statement. The media abhors a vacuum and will simply fill it with conjecture and speculation or the views of opponents. It also gives the impression that a company is either not dealing with the crisis, or is trying to ignore it in the hope it goes away. Holding statements should be prepared and drafted long before a crisis hits, and given to the media until further information can be provided.

Senior management should understand how to effectively deal with the media, but it is just as important that those lower down in the organisation are also aware of the correct protocols. 

Crisis communications plans should be regularly updated with thorough, robust testing. Through stress-testing a crisis management plan it is possible to discover whether it works practically as well as theoretically. 

The media will always seek further information on a developing story, and will use a range of methods to try and get this information. Through effective training a company can ensure all its employees understand how to communicate both internally and externally during a crisis situation, to minimise the impact on corporate reputation. 

Article by Tom Curtin, who is the Chief Executive of Curtin and Co, a consultancy specialising in crisis communications and reputation management.