By Linda Alexander,
When I was a kid, my mother used to say, “accentuate the positive.” I eventually discovered her optimistic aphorism was the opening hook of a popular postwar Johnny Mercer tune that continued with even more hopeful words of wisdom, “eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
Over the years, these words — and this song — have stayed with me as a kind of mantra, as well as philosophical component of my various careers.
But in this day of digital media, a crisis, i.e., bad ink, requires more than feel-good lyrics.
Stemming a potential media wound invariably calls for immediate action, comprising a workable plan with a flexible strategy and extensive outreach. In order to be effective, it is imperative that our clients trust us and are able to be as candid as possible.
My first experience with crisis management came early in my career.
Prior to becoming a communications professional, I was a writer, mostly for trade publications. When I segued into PR, the clients who came to me were developers of luxury condominiums, residential brokers, management companies and the likes.
In my world, the closest thing to a crisis was when a client was either overlooked for a story or edited out.
A few years into my relatively young career, I took on a controversial account. It was exciting and we were getting great ink. It turned out that some of that very press became a lightning rod for our client‘s more unconventional practices.
The positive coverage we had been accruing couldn’t completely counter the bad press, which ironically began with community blogs long before optimization, as well as a local politician trying to win an election.
Frantic, I called upon one of the great and generous communications pros in the industry for advice. He agreed to see my client and afterwards told me he couldn’t help someone who was not forthcoming. He suggested I resign the account: I did.
Lesson learned: You can’t tell the story if you only know part of it. So much of our business is based upon trust and we work closely with journalists who are, more often than not, really smart, inquisitive folks — and skeptical by nature.
When I was writing and constantly on deadline, I was often grateful to work with publicists who could quickly provide me with useful information and resources. So when I decided to open my own shop 14 years ago, my objective was to be a good partner to media by offering diligent follow-through and solid story ideas.
And when certain questions could not be answered because of confidentiality agreements, I knew the drill: rather than dodging the question, I would explain that some queries are unanswerable. But today, we also live in a world of opinion writers on blogs, as well as earnest online reporters who often don’t have basic tools, such as fact checkers, or even the time to use them because of 24/7 news cycles.
And there are those who are encouraged by a limited readership that latches onto bad news, often adding their own salacious comments — always anonymously, with irrelevant information and innuendo. And it gets optimized.
So in the rare event that one of our clients is the target of a potentially damaging story, the first thing we do is set up a meeting and get the facts.
We sit down, face to face, and ask the hard questions, the kind that we feel are germane to reporters’ stories.
From those answers, we develop strategies that our clients are comfortable with — and their lawyers, too.
I realize that most lawyers are inclined to say as little as possible in a crisis situation with media. Theoretically, it’s not a bad tactic either, just as long as the important points are made, clearly and succinctly. But when a lawyer advises our mutual client to avoid a query altogether and not return a reporter’s call, then that can be problematic.
Our recommendation, generally, is to have someone on our team reach out to the reporter to find out about the story and ask for a list of questions, which will also define the tenor of the piece.
If our client is uncomfortable with an interview, we act as spokespersons. The key here is communicating quickly. In most cases, reporters are on deadline and if they don’t get the information directly from the subject or spokesperson, they’ll seek it elsewhere; often from someone who is less informed. That’s where problems really begin.
We always accentuate the positive. So if the story that gets published is at all damaging, we will already be out there with a different message. The fact is, our clients do dynamic things and there will always be plenty of ways to sing their praises. To mitigate bad press, we go into mega communication mode by spreading the good word about their important work.