In the good old days, journalists would only have wanted to speak to your chief executive or perhaps, at annual report time, to your finance director. But these days, job losses are on every front page, and it’s inevitable that press interest will turn to HR, the people assumed to be wielding the axe.
The thought of talking to the press can seem terrifying, but it is no longer something that HR can fob off on their colleagues in corporate communications.
And as Lindsay Williams of Media Coach International says: “Fail to plan your messaging in advance, or equip yourself with the ability to handle press interviews effectively, or delay your response, and negative stories could spiral out of control, damaging your company’s reputation and your personal profile for years to come.”
As usual, preparation is everything. Think carefully about who should be your HR spokesperson. While the press will be expecting someone senior, you may not want to expose your HR director to the media. And it’s key that you pick someone with a degree of aptitude. However well written a statement may be, it will suffer if it is delivered by someone who lacks confidence and credibility.
Offer media training – bring in the experts and make sure that they are able to address any specific concerns that your spokesperson might have.
Briefing is key. Many people, however senior, are frightened that they might say the wrong thing to the media.
Make sure your spokesperson is clear about what they can and can’t say. If they are facing the media over a specific issue, sit down with them beforehand and talk them through a script.
It’s vital that you try to anticipate questions, although some journalists may be willing to submit these in advance. As Williams points out: “Prepare well and you can limit negative publicity in just one interview, boosting internal morale and encouraging business-critical employees to stay with the company.”
Get to know the media. This means that you need to know what publications or broadcast media are best suited to your organisation and industry. Build relationships so that when you do have something big to communicate, you have a sympathetic ear to bend.
And offer exclusives to loyal journalists – particularly if they represent a well-known publication or have a large readership.
Offer them access to your senior executives – for instance, if your annual results are worth boasting about, offer an interview with your chief executive and finance director. A journalist who benefits from this access is much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reporting bad news.
Breaking bad news
However skilled you might have been in dealing with the media in more prosperous times, chances are that journalists will now want to talk to you about bad news. This is where it pays to put together a crisis news management strategy.
Make sure the person representing HR to the media has ongoing access to experts. They should be debriefed after each interview, and provided with ongoing training if necessary. They will also need to stay up to date with what the company is doing, so that they can answer questions with authority and conviction.
For more information
- Manage the Media (Don’t Let the Media Manage You), William Holstein, Harvard Business School Press, £11.99, ISBN:1422121488
- Handling the media
If you only do 5 things
- Pick a good spokesperson
- Provide training for them
- Get expert advice
- Build relationships with the press
- Anticipate press questions.
Expert’s view: Lindsay Williams, managing director, Media Coach International
What are the biggest challenges?
There are two main challenges: staying ahead of the news, and staying in control. Once more than a few well-paid people know about an important decision, you can assume it will leak out. If you only start planning your response at that point, staff, unions, your rivals and even politicians will have already passed comment to the media, leaving you trailing behind events. Identify and prepare spokespeople well in advance, and remember the best way to handle going public with bad news is to do it as early as possible.
What should you avoid?
Never attempt to wing a press interview. There are a few simple rules of the game, such as not getting into blame games or repeating sensitive words the journalist might plant in their question. These are easy to learn and will prevent major pitfalls. And avoid talking about topics that are not immediately relevant to the agenda. Former England football team manager Glen Hoddle’s view of karma and its implications for disabled people should never have been discussed with a journalist, for example.
- Prepare your message in advance: work with someone who understands the press and how they react to information.
- Create relationships with key press: the first time you talk to them shouldn’t be to break bad news.
- Consider giving a scoop: if the first write-up is friendly and accurate, others should follow suit.
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