Building good media relationships is your best insurance policy in a crisis

 

The first rule of crisis management is that if you only begin preparing for a crisis when it has already broken you are already too late.

 

Every business should have a crisis management plan in place and dealing with the media should be an important component of that plan. You need a simple toolkit, which includes: an assessment of the likely impact on your company’s reputation; an agreed process for collating and communicating essential information; and a designated structure for decision making.

 

In today’s fast-moving world, most companies understand the importance of being able to respond quickly and trying to gain control of the narrative before it is shaped by the media.

 

But what is less commonly understood is that good crisis management is not just about responding when you are in the eye of a storm – it is about how you conduct media relations day in, day out. Forging strong media relationships in the good times is an insurance policy for the bad times. It surprises me that so many businesses have failed to grasp this simple truth.

 

I was chatting recently to a very eminent journalist, a former colleague who is one of the best-known writers in his field. He had been very friendly with the chief executive of a key business in his sector, which he frequently writes about. But when the CEO retired, no one from the business made an effort to maintain the relationship or stay in touch.

 

For several months, he didn’t receive a single phone call from the Press office, or an invitation to come in for a chat with the new leadership team – until the day the business found itself in a difficult situation. Suddenly his phone rang and they wanted his help.

 

Journalists are only human and, human nature being what it is, that’s a much easier conversation for a business to have when there is a regular line of communication rather than when it’s a plea for a favour. Keep trusted journalists close, let them understand the context in which you operate and how that shapes the decisions you make, and you will find them more sympathetic when the heat is on and knives are being sharpened.

 

Some companies believe that they are better off using lawyers to scare off journalists rather than nurturing positive relationships. It’s certainly true that journalists have been cowed by the threat of legal action in a way that simply didn’t happen even half a generation ago.

 

Few media outlets can afford to defend themselves in the courts these days or want to get bogged down in legal correspondence. I know of an instance when one of the country’s leading regional newspapers decided not to report on a protest taking place in its town centre after being warned the claims being made were potentially defamatory.

 

But using lawyers to suppress media reporting can be a short-sighted strategy. If your stock response, when you are criticized, is to send a legal letter you risk being seen as aggressive and bullying. That is not a good look these days when customers expect you to be open and transparent.

 

And, when a crisis hits, you can be certain journalists will take greater delight in bringing you down to size, as Sir Philip Green found to his cost. Like it or not, that’s human nature.

 

By Tim Jotischky

 

 

Tim Jotischky is Head of Consultancy at the PHA Group, a leading London PR agency.

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