Monday, September 25, 2006

Who owns your story?

If you or your business has ever been the subject of intense media scrutiny, it can be a daunting experience. Reputations can be made and lost in the heat of a battle.

Some people and companies try to duck for cover when the media comes knocking on the door, hoping the story will go away. And sometimes it does.

But what if it doesn’t? And who do you want controlling the agenda when your reputation is at stake?

Let’s look at a recent example we all remember well.

Following the devastating accident at Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania, Australian Worker’s Union secretary Bill Shorten immediately put himself up as a spokesman for the workers. As the events unfolded, he was the one the media turned to to find out what was going on.

While mine managers said "no comment" and promised to provide details soon, Bill Shorten was expressing concern for the families, questioning the safety credentials of mine management and generally setting the agenda of the day.

Put simply, Bill Shorten owned the story. Not the mine, not the families, not the town or the Mayor or the Government.

While mine management did reclaim some ground once it sorted itself out (and who could not feel for Matthew Gill as he faced the media day in and day out), the agenda had already been stolen.

How different things might have been had Beaconsfield Mine taken the early lead and owned its own story right from the start. The trapped miners would not have been released any earlier.

No lives would have been saved. But Beaconsfield Mine management would have come out with a stronger reputation as a result. And in business, reputation equals money.

Have a look at it the other way around. Bill Shorten came across as a person in control, concerned for the future and doing something. He came out at the end of the day as the media's next candidate for Prime Minister. Not bad for your reputation, eh? (assuming one would want to actually be the Prime Minister!)

If you ever find yourself the subject of media scrutiny, here's five golden rules to help you through:

1. Tell the truth - every single time.

2. Be the first to talk to the media about your issue.

3. Be open and honest. If you can't talk about something then say so.

4. Plan for interviews. Find out what the reporter wants to know so you can answer their questions.

5. Know your message and make sure you get it in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is the crisis over yet?

There are probably 40 textbooks in my office devoted to public relations, media or communication – every one of which includes a section on crisis communications.

It seems to be one of the fastest growing areas in media and communication management, and there are plenty of experts out there to help out when disaster strikes.

But the recovery stage of a crisis, disaster or emergency can be harder than managing the emergency itself.

During the crisis stage, everyone is focused on immediate needs and it can be quite exhilarating for the various players involved – particularly the media. But as soon as the excitement is over the challenge for the media is to keep the story alive, so they move into the aftermath stage often before anyone else does.

There are plenty of definitions of the difference between an issue, an emerging issue, a crisis, an emergency and the recovery.

My definition is simple – the transition to recovery begins the minute the media starts to play the blame game.

It is during this transition period that your reputation is most likely to take a pounding.

The most critical thing any organisation can do at this point is to take hold of and keep the agenda.

It’s important to not let a vacuum develop during this stage – a vacuum the media will fill with rumour, speculation and heart-wrenching stories of individuals who have slipped through the cracks.

And for people affected by the disaster, it is often the time when they feel like others have lost interest in their cause. So it is critical on both counts that you pay attention to filling any information gaps.

In the end, it’s your reputation that suffers if the public and the media think you were only interested in the crisis when it was a big story. You need to keep on caring long after the glory of the crisis is over.

CreativeTerritory gives clients the following advice during the recovery phase of any crisis:

  • Appoint your recovery team when the threat of the crisis is still emerging, so you achieve a seamless transition from crisis to recovery.
  • Be the authoritative source of information on the recovery. If you don’t, one of the media outlets will be.
  • Coordinate all information through a central source so your messages are consistent and packaged in a user friendly way.
  • Do not let an information vacuum develop that may be filled by uninformed speculation or mischievous rumour.
  • Use the web as much as possible to stop the media and public tying up people and phone lines unnecessarily.
  • Make sure you don’t give the appearance that you have “packed up and gone home” once the “glory” of the emergency is over.
  • The media will not go away just because you ignore them. Make sure journalists are delivered stories and vision in a format they can use and that they can access the people and information they need to do their job.