|Tom Becker, Liz Janisse & Jonah Pitkowsky co-authored this article.
From supply chain breakdowns and ransomware attacks to employee misconduct and reputational challenges, crises of all nature tend to attract attention from one particularly influential group of stakeholders: the fourth estate.
The importance of how an organization shows up in media coverage during times of crisis can’t be overstated. With media coverage heavily influencing public perception, the impact on your bottom line is clear: Share values can rise and fall with a single headline.
So, when a crisis hits and you’re staring down an influx of inbound media inquiries, your media response strategy can’t lose sight of the big picture.
Whether running interference against a barrage of press requests or navigating an in-depth look from an investigative reporter, it’s important for legal and communications professionals to have a clear picture of the top priorities that are likely to dictate your media relations strategy, and ultimately, how you tell your company’s story when it matters most.
You can never have too many friends
Journalists wield a great deal of influence with the potential to serve as incredibly valuable partners for communications professionals. At times, however, corporate leaders are hesitant to engage with media partially out of discomfort with uncertainty. Ultimately, it’s an art and not a science. Though some media engagement opportunities come with their own challenges and constraints, by and large, building relationships with reporters—including before a crisis strikes—is critical to the management of your organization’s reputation.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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To meaningfully invest in relationships with journalists, it’s vital to understand the day-to-day realities that drive their work. Pressure to meet deadlines, oversight from editors and difficulty reaching parties for comment are realities of the job that often put reporters in a challenging spot and can impact the tone and nature of both your interactions and their reporting.
When communications professionals are attuned to the needs of journalists—particularly in times of crisis—their engagement tends to yield strong, more balanced media coverage. This engagement comes in many forms, including the simplest effort of letting a reporter know you received their inquiry.
Your approach here will likely set the tone moving forward, which brings us to another consideration …
What to say when you can’t say anything at all
Any communications professional will tell you that the words “no comment” are loaded with implicit meaning and often exemplify an evasive media relations posture. While legal or other confidentiality constraints often render companies unable to comment on a particular matter, how exactly you communicate that inability to comment in your conversations with journalists makes a difference.
While sometimes ignoring a press inquiry may buy the company more time to weigh its options and assess the outcome of the final article, the relationship impact can be significant. Any marginal difference in the resulting storyline doesn’t outweigh the opportunity cost of walking away from a valuable journalist relationship. At worst, such a move could make you and your communications advisors look disorganized or inattentive, a perception that could stop reporters from taking a collaborative approach in the future.
Journalists operate in a competitive environment in which the first to publish or get a great scoop matters. Responding to one outlet and not another, or failing to take care of your local and trade reporters once national reporters swoop in, are critical missteps that could impact their willingness to engage with you down the line.
Two-way street: request for comment
Though media relations is undoubtedly more of an art than a science, we rely on journalistic ethical standards and protocols from top outlets to set a clear standard of what’s expected from reporters covering our organizations. Media outlets often require reporters to give all parties referenced in a story the equal opportunity to comment. But doesn’t the door swing both ways?
We’re frustrated when a reporter fails to give us the chance to comment but is also quick to ignore emails when it stands to benefit our position in the resulting story. If we refrain from commenting, will it make us a smaller part of the story? Without our input, can the story be substantiated enough to even go to press?
Oftentimes, the short-term gain—seeing a published story before deciding if a statement from you must be part of an updated version—keeps us from seeing the more valuable big picture: the significance of meeting journalists with professional courtesy to lay the foundation for lasting relationships.
While each media inquiry will need to be evaluated in its own light, taking into account factors like deadline, outlet, reporter, topic, timing and tone, we need to embrace the opportunity to treat journalists the way we want to be treated: confirming receipt of inquiries, letting them know proactively when we need to pass on offering a statement and opening rather than closing lines of communication.
Next time your organization finds itself in crisis, consider the long-term implications of your crisis media relations strategy with an emphasis on the value of:
- Maintaining and nurturing relationships with journalists.
- Thoughtfully communicating a non-response during times of crisis, and …
- Appreciating media outreach for what it is: a chance for your organization’s voice to be heard when it matters most.
Liz Janisse is a Director, Jonah Pitkowsky is a Consultant and Tom Becker is a Senior Managing Director on FTI Consulting’s Crisis & Litigation Communications team based in New York.