Controlling the Crisis Message: Build Trust Early and Often
There comes a time in the life of many businesses where there’s an internal crisis, and even worse, it becomes public. The CEO resigns in scandal, a major decision angers a certain community, or a slip-up on social media goes viral. I often get that phone call with the plea, what do we do now? Most times, the business has already received inquiries from the media and they need to respond. I often ask if the business already has a relationship with any of the reporters who have called or with anyone in the media. Almost always, the answer is no. Why would I talk to the media unless I have to? The answer is simple—exactly because of situations and crises just like this one.
Why would I talk to the media unless I have to? The answer is simple—exactly because of situations and crises just like this one.
Every reporter has a story to prove this point. I learned this early on as a cub reporter in Michigan. I had done weekly, if not daily, stories with the local police department and despite a generally untrusting nature, I had finally earned their trust. My stories weren’t fluff, but I’d like to think they were fair. And then one day, I got a call I didn’t expect. An officer called with an exclusive about a “bad apple” in the department, complete the details of his offenses and the discipline he was facing. As the officer explained to me on the phone, he never wanted to make this call to me but figured it was going to go public anyway and if his department had to face bad press, it might as well be with someone he had worked with before, trusted, and considered fair. He took steps to control the message as much as he could. And while there was no sugarcoating what had happened, my story was perhaps more fair that evening because I had context for it and knew all of the players involved. The relationship had already been built and didn’t start with that one negative story.
The lesson for me now as someone who represents businesses and individuals through crises is that it’s never too early to start building those relationships. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to the media with a good story or talking to a reporter to explain a complex situation they may not understand. They’ll likely remember that gesture someday or already have an established relationship with you, when you are likely not going to be so happy to share what has happened. In what often seems like a helpless situation, it can provide some sense of control.