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In the firing line

Every organisation operating in the public arena dreads becoming media cannon-fodder. TV news magazines, where spokespeople can be mocked if their cause is unfashionable, are probably most feared. But even daily newspapers and radio are increasingly adopting tactics which even their editors would have decried as 'tabloid journalism' not so many years ago.

Some tips:

  • If your activities are likely to attract media attention when they go wrong, include media management in your crisis contingency plans. Have draft statements prepared and spokespeople trained for each possible contingency. It's too late to work out what to say when the TV crews drive in your front gate.

  • Make sure that more than one spokesperson is trained. Factories don't always wait for the boss to return to New Zealand before they explode.

  • It's usually best to 'front up' to the media if something has gone wrong. But if you believe the story is a media 'beat-up' which will be forgotten next week, a good case can be made for not making any comment. Just because the media want a story doesn't mean you have to be part of it.

  • 'Fess-up if you mess-up'. If the organisation has erred in some way, state the facts truthfully without attributing blame. The media feeds on lies and half-truths. Remember, the aim of the exercise is to get the story over with, so that you can clean-up and get the business back to normal as quickly as possible.

  • Don't be drawn into hypothetical scenarios by reporters. 'What-ifs' invariably involve scenarios which are worse than the actual event. Don't be led down this path unless you want to scare the public witless.

  • Say sorry to those affected, even if the event was an Act of God. Despite what John Howard believes (and what some lawyers will argue) an apology is not an admission of guilt. It is simply a statement of remorse that people have been harmed.

  • If the event has been serious and involved injuries or loss of life, the head of your organisation should front up to the media. The boss is the only person who can credibly speak for the organisation in times of crisis.

    Many large NZ corporations use their PR line managers as spokespeople. This makes good sense for minor matters, such as rail fare increases, but is ill-advised when there's a train crash and lives are lost. 

  • If the event is a major calamity (passenger train wreck, factory explosion, dam burst), get your ceo or chairman to the site immediately and don't be worried if he/she weeps a little.