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What to say and when to say it: handling the media when a crisis hits

8 June 2015

The recent sad death of Olive Cooke has resulted in a flurry of negative press articles around fundraising methods, charities’ use of data and CEO pay. Crises come in all shapes and sizes, usually out of nowhere: handling media enquiries quickly and professionally when a crisis hits your organisation is a major element of your communications response.

If the story of your crisis goes public, you need to issue an initial holding statement as quickly as possible and then prepare to make further statements as soon as you can. Your holding statement should show that you are:

  • empathising with any victims of the crisis;
  • taking the problem seriously;
  • working to investigate or tackle it; and
  • intending to report back with news as soon as you have it.

It’s crucial that you meet with other members of your crisis response team and discuss the fullest possible briefing of currently-known facts before you issue your holding statement. Even a bland statement can cause damage if it seems to lack empathy, make assumptions, or miss an obvious fact that is already in the public domain.

Preparing to comment

Ensure you are constantly updated with the changing facts of the crisis itself and any changing media responses. Once you’re sure you’ve understood the facts and their implications, you need to think about your timing and content.

Timing your statements

1. The general rule is “act fast but think carefully.” You want to move quickly to put your side of the story before unnecessary PR damage is done by delay. You also want to be seen as responsive, efficient and aware of the urgency of the situation; but it’s better to delay a statement slightly than to rush out an inadequately-considered comment that could backfire.

2. Once you have put out your initial statement, keep a watching brief on how the crisis and the story around it are playing out. Your statement may soon need updating or changing entirely.

3. While our 24/7 news culture may seem to necessitate statements or comments ‘on demand’, it can in fact allow you more flexibility to issue statements to a timetable that suits you. If your statement missed the 08:00 round-up, it can catch the 09:00 or 10:00 bulletin.

4. By the same token, while there will be news media updates throughout the day, you should resist any pressure to offer continual bulletins of your own. You could end up inadvertently injecting new life into a story that would otherwise have faded.

5. Consciously use time to your own advantage where possible. For example, social media allows you to post comments whenever suits you, whether or not traditional media channels choose to report them. And you can arrange a press briefing or conference at a time that works for your cause – such as when you are in a position to announce that your disrupted service is back up and running, or that you have suspended the trustee whose alleged misdemeanours have brought your charity into disrepute.

Media statements: content and style

1. Know the facts and represent them as accurately, directly and transparently as possible. Your position must be defensible.

2. Be honest: is your charity blameless in what has happened? Have you really been misrepresented? Or did you make a mistake? Everyone does sometimes, and your reputation is more likely to withstand a clean apology than an attempt to wriggle or blame others.

3. On the other hand, don’t be tempted – perhaps by decency or the desire to look decent – to take more blame than is justified. The most credible position is straightforward and proportionate.

4. Blameless or otherwise, it’s essential to show empathy to those who may have suffered or been upset or angered by this crisis. Obviously the tragedy of an injury or death is seen as much more important than your attempts at either self-justification or earnest confession. The same holds true for the possible distress of disrupted service users, or those who have been offended by unguarded remarks associated with your charity.

5. If there are genuinely extenuating circumstances or contexts, don’t be afraid to mention them. It may be important for people to understand that you have had to end provision of a particular service because of government cuts; or to know that you were the last charity of your kind to end this provision, keeping it going until there were no further avenues left to explore.

6. Where possible, detail the action you are taking to investigate and remedy the crisis.

7. Keep statements short, clear and to the point.

8. Don’t forget to report any success you have in resolving the crisis. The media will eventually stop ringing, but people may have been left with a negative impression of your charity. A good news story can turn around, or at least begin to turn around, the damage done.

This article is an extract from CharityComms’ Best Practice Guide to Crisis communications for charities. Download your free copy

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Reputation management is more than crisis response

Kay Parris

freelance journalist and editor

Kay Parris is a freelance writer, journalist and editor working in the not-for-profit sector.