In some ways, talking to patients, agency partners and the public through the media is the easiest part of a crisis. It’s also one of the most risky as it relates to protecting your EMS agency. The job of media outlets is to share the information of what’s happening with the public, but not necessarily to share that information in the way you want. Assuming you’ve already read through Part 1 of this series and already have your simplified and clarified message finalized, let’s jump right in to some best practices for talking to media during an emergency.
Six Best Practices for Talking to Media during a Crisis
1. Designate One Spokesmen. Answers and statements to media are best when they funnel through one person to ensure consistency. When it comes to the media quoting the agency, you’ll be much happier in the end if the same person is quoted in every interview. That said, every media outlet will contact your agency separately for a comment. If you’re planning a press conference, let other communications team members answer calls and emails, and tell reporters to attend the media briefing for more information. The more time the spokesmen can spend doing interviews instead of scheduling interviews the better.
2. Acknowledge Questions Quickly. You don’t need to know the answers, the public just needs to know you’re working on getting the answers. Failure to respond to media quickly and acknowledge an issue implies the agency doesn’t know, doesn’t care or doesn’t know what to do.
3. Respect their Timeline, Not Your Own. Reporters have deadlines, and they don’t work for you. During a crisis, think of it like you work for them. You can’t make a bad story go away, but you can make it less severe. If you make the reporter’s job harder, why would they give your agency any breaks? The easiest way to stay on a reporter’s good side is to ask them what time they need an answer by, and if at all possible get them an answer before the time they request. If you know you aren’t going to have an answer in time, tell them. They will understand it takes time to get answers, and it won’t always be possible by their deadline, but they still have a story to write or tell regardless. If you tell them late, it makes it harder for them to write or tell the story, and you run the risk they’ll take that extra stress out on you and your agency in the story they tell.
4. Don’t Let the Head of the Agency or Other Key Leaders Speak. This recommendation will be a surprise to many, but I believe that an agency’s leader should never be the one to explain what went wrong immediately as a crisis is occurring. Let your hired PR firm be on camera as the bad guy explaining the problem (that’s one of the services we offer for our clients to help protect them). If you don’t have a PR firm, have your public information officer (PIO) give a written statement that doesn’t quote the leaders by name. Only after we have an answer and a solution should the head of the agency or leadership talk to reporters, so they can take credit for fixing the problem instead of being seen as the problem.
5. Crow Tastes Better Warm than Cold. Mistakes happen. If you’re going to need to accept blame eventually, apologize for the mistake quickly. Why suffer extra news cycles of damage when you can shorten the window and focus on fixing the problem.
6. Show How You Fixed the Problem. In the days and weeks after the crisis, share your story of how you’re fixing the problem and how you’re making sure a similar mistake never happens again. If you have new technology or equipment to avoid a future problem, announce it and add it to your website so people know the issue has been resolved. Post “thank you” notes and comments from once unhappy patients demonstrating your commitment to making things right. Highlight employees that went above and beyond to fix the problem and protect customers. Create a case study showing your commitment and ability to make changes that protect and help your customers and the public. You won’t be able to erase the initial mistake, but you can celebrate your efforts to fix it.
Be Proactive to Help Craft the Story in the Media
Finally, I would argue that during a crisis you need the media a lot more than they need you. They’re telling the story whether you help them or not. If you want them telling the story in the least damaging way, you need to respect them and use them to share the message you want accepted by your employees, the public, your patients and your agency partners.