For several years I’ve helped the Business School at the University of Nottingham as part of its MBA and Executive MBA courses. As part of their course, the students undertake a scenario that sees them appointed as a new management team of a struggling high street brand. To make things a little worse, they’re landed with a media crisis and have to deal with it through issuing a statement or press release then tackling a press conference attended by a few hacks (myself and a few esteemed colleagues).
For some students, it’s hard to see why PR, comms and the press would be relevant to their careers in business. Each year during our training I point out the value of being able to deal with the press and the way that coverage – good and bad – can affect business far more than many realise. While positive stories can bring new business, cement customers’ trust in your company and potentially make you more money, bad stories can do the exact opposite. Some CEOs and senior management may think ‘today’s story is tomorrow’s chip wrapping’ but their board might think differently if a negative story causes share prices to tumble as well as putting off customers and losing you business.
Unfortunately, for some companies, dealing with the media is something they only realise they need to do when it’s already too late – when something has gone wrong and they find themselves in the spotlight. As any wise person will say, failing to prepare is preparing to fail, so whether you own your own business or have a senior role (maybe even a junior one) it’s worth taking some time to think about your PR strategy – how you’ll proactively tell the stories behind your business, but also how you’ll react if you find yourself in the media for all the wrong reasons.
A few starting points – and things that often come up when we work through scenarios and press conferences.
- Preparation is key – from agreeing on your response, the approach you’re going to take to what’s gone wrong, the messages you’re going to deliver, and all the background that you need, there is no substitute for preparation. Not knowing your facts, appearing to make things up, or contradicting yourself and your colleagues will just make things worse. Prepare and you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation in a way that hopefully makes things better, not worse.
- Don’t use jargon – whether you’re being proactive or reactive, essentially you’re talking to the customer via the media and they probably don’t want to hear all the acronyms associated with your business. They also don’t want to hear hackneyed ‘corporate speak’ like ‘going forward’ or ‘customer-centric’. They want straight-talking people who mean what they say and say what they mean. The more straightforward you are, the more genuine and believable you seem.
- Don’t take it personally – it’s journalists’ jobs to get to the truth. They may come across as aggressive, pushy, bolshy, rude, arrogant, and all the other insults that people regularly throw at us. It may not be right, but it is often the way it is. As a representative of your business, you don’t get to do the same. Stay calm, don’t get riled, don’t panic. Get your points across calmly and succinctly and, as hard as it is, remember this isn’t a personal attack on you. The more you prepare, the easier this will be.
- Remember the human condition – people tend to see this media stuff as somehow different from the way they operate in ‘real life’. Journalists are human beings, so are readers and viewers. That’s why people get frustrated when company bosses seem uncaring, careless, arrogant and only worried about lining their pockets. When dealing with the media, remember basic rules of human interaction. Build relationships, be polite, be professional. It will all stand you in good stead.
There’s so much more to say, and no substitute for doing this stuff – even in a role play scenario – but I’ll leave it there. For more information, training, or help email email@example.com