Avoid the Ostrich Method
I came across this picture recently and couldn’t help but laugh at how many times I’ve had clients who have wanted to bury their heads in the sand and in some cases, I’ve wanted too as well. As tempting as it may be, you can’t.
Recently someone told me that they were not going to call a reporter back because they didn’t want their name in the newspaper. Guess, what? If you’ve already been contacted by the press, your name or your company’s name is going into the story no matter what.
Wouldn’t you rather have some control over the message rather than just staying silent and pretending nothing has happened?
I often have people come to me after a story has run and say, “Well, I didn’t want to say anything, but the story ran, so now can you do something?” I’ve even had colleagues say this to me. I’d love to think I’m some kind of super-lawyer miracle worker, but things just don’t work that way. Once the story is out, there’s no taking it back. While it may be wise to call a reporter and explain your side later or to even ask for a retraction, the reality is that it is too late.
The example that will always stick out in mind is a case I covered as a young reporter in Michigan. A teacher was arrested and charged for sexual contact with a student. It was huge news in a small town and this man’s mugshot was on every single newscast that night, in the morning, and in every area newspaper and website. I attended a splashy press conference and then did a liveshot that night from the school and all of my competitors and friends from other stations were lined up right next to me. Then, over the weekend, we got the shocking news that the prosecutor found that the claims had no merit and would drop the charges. He announced that the teacher was innocent and should never have been charged in the first place.
Once the story is out, there’s no taking it back.
We did a story, but it was a weekend so we did not staff it with more than one reporter. No one did. No one had a live truck available because there was some other huge sporting event going on. The prosecutor held a press conference on a Sunday afternoon, which wasn’t covered live. So even though everyone, including the media, had the intention of righting this horrible wrong, it was too late for this individual and his family. No one remembered the retractions. No one recalled the prosecutor’s apology. But everyone remembered that mugshot. While legally the matter was certainly “corrected” by the criminal justice system, in the court of public opinion, sometimes a missed opportunity can haunt you forever. Of course the individual in this case had no choice or control over the matter. However, most people facing a crisis or bad press, especially when the media has already called, do have the opportunity and you need to seize it.
I don’t tell this story to clients to scare them or even to compare what sometimes is a very minor crisis to the life-changing event this particular individual faced. But, it’s worth remembering that acting quickly and responsively can make all the difference. Burying your head in the sand may feel comforting in the moment, but eventually you have to poke your head out and you don’t want to see your name in a bad headline.