8 Tips for Handling Media Interviews During a Crisis

When your organization is in crisis mode, answering a reporter’s call is likely the last thing you want to do.  You don’t have the time to devote to an interview and you definitely don’t want to say the wrong thing!  However, one of the keys to successful crisis communications is sharing the right information in a timely manner.

If the crisis involves public safety, it is crucial to get important messages out to the public accurately and quickly. But the right response isn’t so obvious when you’re dealing with a crisis, such as a lawsuit, employee dispute, worksite accident, or another issue that can damage your organization’s reputation.

As a former Executive Producer of a local news station, I’ve seen a lot of crises handled well… and others that were not.  Here are eight tips for successfully navigating a media interview during a crisis:

1. It sounds evasive or worse, like you’re hiding something.

It is much better to respond, “I don’t have the answer to that right now, but let me follow up with you when I know more.”  It must be a priority to follow up after making that promise.  The more you cooperatively work with reporters, the more likely they’ll portray you in a better light.  And if you’ve been advised by your organization’s legal team not to answer certain questions, it is fine to say: “Due to the ongoing legal case, I’m not able to talk about that right now.”

2. Pause and think.

If a reporter approaches you in person when you’re not expecting it, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a few moments to prepare. Another option is to ask if you can schedule the interview for a later time if you are unable to do an interview on the spot.  If you absolutely cannot do an in-person or phone interview with a reporter, send a written statement so it doesn’t appear that you’re ignoring the request for information.

3. Remain calm. 

Don’t get angry. If a reporter puts you on the defensive, correct the record calmly and get back to your key messages. Remember that reporters ultimately have the power to shape public opinion, depending on how they write their articles and which quotes they choose to publish.  Angry or inflammatory quotes are more exciting, so they’re more likely to be printed.

4. Stick to what you know.

Only answer questions pertaining to what you know or have the authority to speak about within your organization.  If you are asked a question that is out of your wheelhouse, it is advisable to say, “I don’t have the answer to that right now, but I will see if I can find someone else who knows.”

5. Reporters may try to coerce you into speculation.

A good way to avoid this trap is by saying, “I can’t speculate on that. What I do know is _____.”

6. Don’t discuss cause, fault, or liability.

 The most difficult questions immediately after something bad happens are “why” and “how.”  Reporters and the public may have opinions about why or how something happened, but opinions aren’t facts. Stick to confirmed information and refer back to tip 5 – don’t speculate.

7. Never make comments “off the record”. 

Assume everything you say from the time the reporter arrives until the time that person leaves is “on the record.”  This is true even if you specifically say, “This is off the record.”   Even if the reporter is no longer taking notes, the tape recorder is shut off, or the camera is not rolling. ANYTHING YOU SAY MAY BE REPEATED.  I’ve been asked by clients if there are any professional standards or consequences for a journalist who reports something that was supposed to be “off the record.” Unfortunately, there is not.  Journalists are not legally obligated to respect your off the record request, even though ethically they should.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask the reporter questions. 

In fact, asking your own questions right away when you receive an interview request can help you better prepare for the interview.  Feel free to ask questions such as “What have you heard?”, “Who else have you contacted?” and “What type of information are you looking for?” before or during an interview.

Hopefully, well before your organization’s crisis occurred, you already developed a Crisis Communications Plan.  It can help identify spokespersons, communication channels, and protocols that will make your life easier if or when a crisis occurs. If you don’t have a Crisis Communications plan in place, put that on your to-do list.  Check out this blog by Andrea Boe, AE2S Communications Practice Leader, about developing a Crisis Communications Plan

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