Drew Levinson
Drew Levinson

There’s no way to predict when a crisis will happen, but your company must be ready to handle one when it occurs, especially when it comes to communicating with the media.

I was a journalist for more than 25 years. Nothing makes news like a crisis, and I covered my fair share. I know what reporters need from companies, how interviews will be conducted, how the questions will be posed and where the finger of blame will initially be pointed.

Now, I’m on the other side, working with biotech and biopharma companies developing new drugs and treatments to save lives. We help those companies fine-tune their messaging and delivery to present to the media. I also prepare the C-Suite and senior-level executives for that “Oh no!” moment when there’s a crisis and they have to face the media to talk about what happened.

Before going any further, let’s define crisis. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a crisis is a “difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.” It’s a time when leadership must make difficult and important decisions because the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Lives, reputations and jobs are at risk, especially in biotech. You can count on journalists “knocking on your door” to find out what happened to whom and why.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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It’s in these moments that require what the Finnish call Sisu, which means finding the strength of will, determination and perseverance to act rationally in the face of adversity. That’s exactly what a company in crisis must do, all the while in the glare of the media spotlight.

Be proactive in order to be reactive

The great UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” I’ve seen it too many times. When a crisis happens, the company in peril flails from the get-go. The top brass ask: “What do we do?” “Who do we call?” and, of course, “What do we do about all the media inquiries?” If you have a crisis plan, you already know the answers to those questions. That’s why having a robust crisis communications plan with a specific focus on the media isn’t optional, because the very first phone call you receive could—and many times will—come from a journalist.

Here are the must-haves for working with journalists during a crisis:

  • Develop a holding statement, which includes: an explanation of what happened; a list addressing the primary concerns for family, those impacted and other stakeholders; and a call to action for what the company will do next.
  • Identify appropriate spokespeople: the need to be media trained; equip them with the key messages the company wants to convey.
  • Follow the three C’s of crisis communications: express to the media concern for those affected by the crisis; show the media that top-level executives are in control of the situation; and let the media know the company is committed to finding out what happened and is resolving the problem.

Rip off the bandage

Imagine you’re a small biotech company conducting a clinical trial for a life-changing drug for a rare disease. Suddenly, one of the patients in the trial dies.

I’ve worked with companies where this has happened, including one in the oncology space. This company was conducting an early-stage clinical trial when one of the patients died unexpectedly. Not only was it heartbreaking for the family, but it was also potentially devastating for the future of this promising drug and the company developing it.

Without a crisis plan in place, the company was forced to quickly cobble together a holding statement for the media. Until they knew why this tragedy occurred, leadership couldn’t say much more other than it happened, and what they were doing to get more information. It was also essential to address the family immediately to express empathy and sympathy. Drug companies are businesses designed to be profitable, but more importantly, these drugs are being developed to treat people and save lives. This point needs to be emphasized when addressing the media.

Biotech companies must be ready for other crises, including news of a drug failing in a trial or not getting FDA approval. The media is certain to cover it; and how a company reacts is vital because stakeholders—including investors and potential investors—will be closely monitoring. In these scenarios, we advise preparing a holding statement as quickly as possible, and if a press release is required—which it is for public companies—be transparent and don’t “bury the lead” in the press release. Journalists will see through it and publicly skewer you. Instead, rip off the so-called bandage, acknowledge what happened, discuss next steps and explain how you’re committed to resolving the issue.

For organizations large and small, a crisis could very well be their defining moment. What they do in a time of crisis and how these actions are portrayed in the media can make or break their destiny.

Don’t be an ostrich

Stories about the crisis will be written whether your company participates or not, so get your side of the story told. Instead of others telling the story for you, control the narrative as best you can. Don’t put your head in the sand like an ostrich in the hopes it will go away.

Time is critical in every crisis. Journalists are working as fast as they can to get the story and publish it. That’s why it’s imperative to work as quickly and efficiently as possible to tell your side. With that said, still take the time to get it right.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Ellen Glasgow said, “What happens is not as important as to how you react to what happens.” As a former journalist who’s both reported on crises and helped companies in crisis, I can assure you the reactive part will be a lot more successful if you’ve been proactive in putting a crisis-ready media plan in place.


Drew Levinson is EVP and Head of Media Relations at LifeSci Communications and a former CBS News correspondent.