How to handle queries from journalists and manage crises

Tips shared are based on the book "Navigating Disruption: Media Relations in the Digital Age" (Photo adapted from Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash)

One tenet of news reports is in reflecting the viewpoints of key opinion leaders (KOLs), organisations, and the man on the street. These voices build a narrative of how things are like. These stories shape public opinion and they can affect the reputation of all stakeholders who are quoted.

Thus, for many organisations, the opportunity to speak to journalists is both welcomed and treated cautiously. Such coverage is free publicity, or ‘earned media’,

But, earned media can be a double-edged sword. This is the case if the story is negative; this can cause reputational harm to the brand. Examples of stories that are negative are usually about (i) trending complaints of the brand’s goods and services and (ii) indiscretion of employees within the company.

For organisations, here are 4 steps to manage journalists and their interview requests:

Step 1: Funnel all requests to the communications team

It’s important that all requests go through a trained communications team, who can assess the request/s and develop an adequate response. 

The communications team should direct the journalist to write in via email with questions, so that there is a black and white trail.

Step 2: Determine what ‘triggered’ the story

In their haste, journalists may skip providing context as to (i) what the story is about, (ii) what is the angle, (iii) where it will be published or broadcast, (iv) timeline, and any other details. 

If the email query is vague on details, the PR personnel should contact the reporter to understand what he or she really needs. Stories meant for the daily bulletin or newspaper are time sensitive, while features and documentaries have a longer timeline.

If the story has negative undertones based on untruths, the communications personnel should clarify the facts from the get-go. But the communications professional should keep in mind what information can be shared; information that is not publicly available should not be shared unless cleared with management. It is best to avoid any ‘off the record’ sharing.

Step 3: Gather the facts

Once there is a clear understanding of what the reporter needs, the next step is to gather information to provide the responses. 

If there are approved holding statements, those can be issued along with informing management. Otherwise, this begins the process of getting the questions to the relevant departments to provide data.

For more experienced communications professionals, they would usually have an idea of what to respond to the journalist. For myself, I would expedite the process by preparing a draft and getting the relevant departments to add information or check for accuracy.

Step 4: Crafting the response and clearing with management

Organisations can either (i) respond point-by-point to the list of queries from the reporter, or (ii) they can draft up a statement or statement/s to the queries. 

The danger with (i) responding point-by-point is that it is easy to take the reply out of context. This means there could be a chance of misinterpretation from the reporter or deliberate attempt to sway fit the facts into the narrative.

A more contextual response i.e. (ii) statement is better in that, if taken as a whole, it will leave no room for misinterpretation where the organisation is coming from.

A well thought through statement that conveys empathy and strong arguments will be best in crisis situations.

Conclusion

For positive stories, the earned publicity is a good opportunity and the responses should be cleared swiftly. 

Negative stories require a bit of calibration. If the story has merit, it would be best to provide a timely statement that conveys awareness of the problems, as well as empathy and thoughtfulness.

I share more on how to manage crisis communication situations in the book ‘Navigating Disruption: Media Relations in the Digital Age’.

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