PR Under Pressure
As Managing Director of a publicly traded company that ran short of cash, I've had to face the focus of creditors, shareholders, and, of course, the media. Four years ago my media-production company, Business Essentials, which had been operating successfully for 15 years, merged with some Internet-related businesses. The resulting company, Infosentials Ltd., was listed for three years on the Australian Stock Exchange. In December 2000 we had contracts for several multimillion dollar deals, but the money didn't come in fast enough. So, we chose to go into voluntary administration -? the equivalent of receivership in the United States.
Maybe we shouldn't have taken that route, because some of the money started coming in just two weeks later. Meanwhile, the administrators insisted on us sending out letters telling our audiotape and CD subscribers that future programs could not be guaranteed ? - just as we were seeking subscription renewals. As if that weren't bad enough, the corporate authorities began to investigate whether we were trading while insolvent.
My 46 years in the media ? - in newspapers, radio, and television ? - didn't help much at first. Obvious jealousies gave certain journalists a wonderful opportunity to score some catch-up points. Some became really ugly in their reporting of my company's crisis, totally misrepresenting the truth. And then, when there was gossip that I would be buying back my original company from the one that crashed, all sorts of innuendos began to circulate. Something had to be done to get the real story told.
Furnish Facts to the Media
Having a good understanding of the workings of the media, and having given many companies advice in recent years on how to behave in a crisis, I figured I was the most suitable person to advise myself. First of all, however serious your crisis may be, you must make yourself available to the media. You can't complain about inaccuracies if you're not there to provide the facts.
Thus, two days before I was due to sign a contract with the Administrators to buy back Business Essentials ? - perfectly legitimately, with much benefit to the creditors and considerable personal financial risk to me ? - I contacted one of the more accurate journalists, who was writing for the most widely read business section in a daily newspaper, and offered him an "exclusive." While others might be offended and might not report the event at all, at least this paper would report the story fairly and be widely read.
This strategy worked perfectly. The published story was fair. It didn't make me look totally immoral and unethical, and other journalists left me alone.
Develop Useful Contacts
The lesson here, in terms of crisis management, is that all companies should choose a small number of journalists in key areas and exchange information with them. Get to know them (or their editors) well enough to be able to provide off-the-record briefings, knowing you will not be betrayed. After all, a good reporter needs to maintain contacts. If the press does the wrong thing, you will refuse to cooperate, which is bad business for the publication.
Having a friendly relationship with the media also means you may score some background information of value to you in relation to your industry. In return, you may be able to offer the press useful information about your industry, which will help ensure media accuracy.
You may prefer not to be quoted in some situations. Make that clear at the time, and only enter into such an arrangement if you have established a good relationship with the particular media person. Such relationships can also be beneficial to you in times of crisis, because that journalist will at least have a good understanding of your integrity, your company, and your industry.
Take the Initiative
My second suggestion is to be proactive. Some years ago, a major food company's product had infected large numbers of people, particularly children, with salmonella. The product was recalled promptly but, just as quickly, a law firm launched a class-action suit on behalf of the victims. A year later, when judgment against the company was due to be handed down, the company called me for some strategic crisis-management advice. Executives knew they would lose the lawsuit but wanted to know how to handle the situation.
Their regular advisors had told them firmly to stay away from the court and not talk to anyone. Mine was to be a second opinion. I recommended standing outside the courtroom to face the media, instead of ceding the space to the flag-flying legal firm. Indeed, they should seek an interview on the top-rated talk-radio station that afternoon. Figuring out what to say was the easy part. Had the class action not taken place, the company would have compensated the victims immediately, rather than endure tortuous court proceedings and enrich greedy lawyers.