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Crisis management - Si's top tips
14 Apr 2023
by Si Alton

As ex-journalists, we know a thing or two about crisis management. Luckily enough, we’ve not had to deal with any client crises recently but that doesn’t mean we don’t spot a crisis in the press!

Here, Si gives his top tips on crisis management…

How NOT to deal with a crisis

If there’s one thing the media LOVES, it’s a good old crisis. And boy, do the headline-writers have plenty to choose from at the moment: the Fuel Crisis, Energy Bill Crisis, NHS Crisis, and the all-encompassing Cost of Living Crisis.

But what do you do when you or your business is hit by a crisis of its own? How do you avoid your little problem becoming your local headline-writer’s dream?

One of the strengths of the J&PR team is we have experience on both sides of the fence. I was a journalist on the Shropshire Star for a number of years, desperate for a sniff of anything even resembling a crisis to give me a front-page story, and I have been a communications officer at Shropshire Council, frantically ignoring my phone so I didn’t have to speak to a reporter about whatever the latest crisis was we were dealing with.

I’m joking, of course. Ignoring the phone is actually in my top tips on how NOT to deal with a crisis…

1. “It’s no-one else’s business.”

There’s a classic irony in the sense that everyone is desperate for the media’s attention when they want to sell their product, but then clam up when something goes wrong. You have to accept there is a good chance the media will be VERY interested in your mistake - probably a lot more than the press release you sent last week about the launch of your new product.

But that’s just the way it is, it works both ways, and getting defensive or aggressive is not going to help.

2. “It’s ok, no one will find out.”

It is certainly a possibility that you’ll get away with it. Staffing numbers at national and local media outlets have been decimated in recent years, so the number of newshounds sniffing around, talking to their contacts and reading council agendas is fewer than it was. But thankfully (in my opinion), there are still plenty of good journalists about who may well discover your misdemeanour - even if it may well not be any of their damned business (see point 1).

Much better to start from the point of assuming that someone WILL find out, and plan accordingly.

3. “No comment.”

Now we get to the crux of things. Actually, no comment is probably better than an unplanned rant at a reporter (see point 4), but it almost certainly will not help the situation. If a reporter has enough information to run a story, the very fact they have contacted you to be met with ‘no comment’ means they have done their due diligence and are then able to print the story in good faith - whether you agree with it or not.

4. “I’m going to give this reporter a piece of my mind.”

It always surprises me how many people don’t realise that a reporter is writing down everything they hear during a conversation, whether over the phone or in person. From the second you say hello, they are scribbling shorthand at 100 words per minute in their notebook.

So if you answer their question along the lines of: “Now listen here, I have zero respect for you and your so-called profession and have absolutely nothing to say about my company dumping nuclear waste in the River Severn……and even if it was true, all it would take is a quick chat with your Editor on the golf course and your job would be toast, son.” There is every likelihood that every single word will be in the reporter’s notebook, which can legally be used in court as evidence to back up their story.

So, probably better to avoid that route.

The nuclear waste in the River Severn story is just an example, by the way, not from personal experience... I wish.

5. “Don’t answer the phone, it could be a journalist.”

It’s a cliche, but ignoring a problem will not make it go away. It will just make it worse. 

A classic example is when the boss ignores the PR team’s advice to get out in front of a situation, only for the story to get out anyway, usually resulting in a very negative outcome….and then who is to blame… (I’ll give you a clue, it’s never the boss).

If any of these scenarios sound familiar or break you out in a cold sweat, fear not - a crisis can be managed. It’s not always easy, but with quick, decisive action and a commitment to tackling the issue head on - with a set of clear key messages agreed at the outset - you can take control of the situation rather than simply hoping it goes away.