Preparing a Quick Media Response

If the day ever comes when a media response is required immediately by your business, how do you respond? For example, your organization is being asked for its opinion about a major development project that has been given the go-ahead (such as when Edmonton’s new Ice District was announced), the community centre beside you receives a large expansion grant, or your company has received an award from the city.

Or what if something negative happens involving your company or its products and services. Sometimes things happen that are beyond our control or only involve the company indirectly: a customer takes to social media to complain about a malfunctioning product or contacts the news media instead of giving your company a chance to respond, a neighbouring business burns down, or you find out that the LRT route will go directly through the area your business is in. Sometimes you might have some advance notice through a phone call requesting an interview, and sometimes media will just show up to canvass people in an area affected by an event.

Regardless of the situation, here are some tips to help you prepare if you’re in a media interview situation, whether you have a few minutes or a few days to plan a response.

1. Try to keep the situation from getting to the news media in the first place (if it is negative).

Always ask social media complainers to private message (PM) or call you. Sometimes a social media complaint post can quickly escalate to using hashtags to notify local media, especially if the individual’s complaint connects to a larger social justice issue, and taking it offline lets you deal with the concern without airing the individual’s details publicly. It also prevents the situation from escalating to the point that the complainer is only interested in doing exactly that—complaining, and reaching as wide an audience as possible while doing so—without actually giving you the opportunity to resolve the situation before it gets out of hand and reaches the news media.

2. If you can’t respond immediately, say when you will respond.

If you receive a call from a member of the news media but aren’t able to respond immediately, say that you will reply, but ask for some time to prepare, whether that could be a few hours or a few minutes to gather your thoughts, and then call the reporter back. Whatever you do, don’t say you’re unavailable for comment or refuse to comment, or that is exactly what the media will say your response was. For example, you could say “Sure, I’d be happy to answer some questions: can I take down your name and phone number and call you back in 20 minutes?” It is better to be able to say something in response to an issue that involves your company rather than have the reporter say you “declined to comment” or “were unavailable to respond to questions,” or to end up having them ask neighbouring businesses for their opinion about you instead.

3. Gather all the facts you can find.

Larger corporations have prepared crisis communications handbooks with background information on the company along with responses to deal with various scenarios (e.g. a company is hacked and customer account information is taken). However, most smaller businesses or independent contractors will not have such prepared responses ready to adapt to the situation at hand. Some of this information might already be on your company’s About page (how many employees, locations, brief company history, and so forth), but you should also note down the who, what, where, and when related to the particular situation (not necessarily the why and how, especially if you are not sure of that yet: more on that in the next point).

4. Stick to the facts.

Don’t be tempted to guess at why or how something may have happened, or to say what you think the company’s response might be, if that hasn’t been determined yet. Whatever you respond might come back on you if it isn’t actually what your company decides to do to rectify the situation, or if it turns out there was a different cause. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and say that the issue is currently being investigated and that you’ll provide more details as they become available (we’ve seen this being used recently by Zuckerberg in his responses to the senate when he replies that he’ll have his people look into it).

5. Think of a few key messages you want to get across, along with responses to possible questions.

Key messages are the overall take-away you want to put forward through the supporting facts you’ve put together. Some examples could be that your company creates high-quality products, cares about its customers, has an excellent safety record, etc. If you keep these key messages in mind while responding to a reporter’s questions, it can help you control the overall message the reporter will convey. Thinking of responses to sample questions you may be asked can help as well: for example, a common opening question in response to an incident involving your company is, “Can you tell us what happened?” Having the who, what, where, when and other facts from point #3 above can really help you when it comes to answering a reporter’s questions, while also keeping in mind the key messages you want to convey through your responses.

6. Do up a media release.

Doing so lets you control the overall message a bit more than if you just respond to a reporter’s prepared questions. If you don’t have staff on hand who know how to do up a release, or someone you could contract to do one up, you can prepare a statement and post it on your website or social media pages such as Facebook. Many smaller businesses do not have a list of media contacts to send a release to, but you can email the news director or use a general news submission email (usually listed on the newspaper or news station’s website) to let them know you’ve posted some information (and they may have already found it while looking on your social media pages or website for more information about your company).

7. Consult professional advice.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to contact your lawyer for advice at $200+ per hour. There are situations in which you need to contact a lawyer, but when it comes to responding to complaints and maintaining your company’s image, contracting a communications consultant (at a much lower hourly rate) to advise, write, or edit your responses can be the difference between major reputation damage and a resolved minor complaint. However, this takes more time than the above steps, and is something that you might set up if you have issues that require ongoing media relations expertise.

The above is, of course, a very brief primer for a field that is complex enough that most large corporations have a team of media relations specialists working on these issues every day. Most smaller businesses do not have the resources to keep such as team on hand, so if you’re ever in a situation in which the media has contacted you and they are waiting for a response, follow some of the tips above and you will have a game plan to get started.