Keys to responding amid a brand crisis

That journalist wants answers now, because the story about your organization is about to go live. Are you prepared? Here are ways to deal with pressing questions from media outlets.

It’s been proven time and again that the best way to handle a crisis is through proactive preparation, not reactive answers.

Although a brand-damaging event can’t always be avoided, your team’s response to journalists when they catch you off guard or ask tough questions can steer the conversation.

If you haven’t prepared for a crisis before you receive the first phone call from a media outlet, not all hope is lost. Here’s how to handle tough questions and maintain control:

Stay calm, and put your game face on.

Stutters, awkward intonations and incomplete sentences have no place in PR. It can be hard to maintain your game face when a reporter catches you off guard, but it’s important to keep your cool and be articulate and confident.

Take deep breaths, listen carefully, and take notes. This can help you provide the best answers.

Don’t feel pressured to give answers at that very moment.

I once had a reporter call me and leave a vague message about something that smelled like a crisis. Because I didn’t have the full details, I emailed him to ask for more information. The moment I emailed, he called me on my desk phone.

Instead of getting flustered, I explained that I was happy to chat but wanted to get the full picture so that I could get him the requested information—all approved internally and within his deadline. I said that if he gave me the questions beforehand, I could make sure he got exactly what he was seeking from the appropriate person.

This afforded me time to evaluate what was going on and get messaging together quickly. It also showed that I respected his time and wanted to be helpful.

If you don’t have complete answers, make sure to get them before you share information.

Journalists are looking for the full story, and they know what questions to ask. Once you’ve learned what the inquiry is about, do a run-through of any follow-up questions the reporter might ask.

Start with the five Ws (who, what, where, when, why), and do some critical thinking about possible causes and implications. Even though reporters might not ask all those questions, preparing for them will help you answer completely and without hesitation.

On the other hand, make sure you’re not giving away too much, such as confidential information or something executives haven’t approved for external dissemination.

Correct misinformation-without becoming defensive.

Remember the point about listening carefully? Triple-check any facts or information cited by journalists in a conversation, especially if a brand spokesperson is misquoted or untrue information is shared. Mention it to the reporter, and suggest a correction.

Remember to correct misstatements—not offer opinions or commentary. Doing the latter can make the reporter feel that you’re trying to control their story, which can produce a negative outcome.

Queue up and brief the right spokespeople before you ever hand them over to journalists.

When the communications professional isn’t the appropriate person to provide comments, it’s natural to turn to executives or other leaders. Though this is a great way to get the journalist the most accurate information possible, you should carefully consider the preparation of the spokesperson during the potential crisis.

Can he or she answer difficult questions calmly and with the right amount of detail? Can you offer quick guidance if there are stumbles? If not, consider a quick messaging briefing with the spokesperson to make sure the talking points are sound, or simply find someone else.

Be as transparent as possible.

One mistake PR pros might make is not being honest. If you’re asked a question for which you don’t have the answer, it’s OK to say: “You know, I’m not totally sure. I’m happy to find out the right answer and get back to you soon.”

Showing journalists that you’re willing to do legwork for them will increase the chances that they’ll contact you when there’s no crisis, building the relationship and keeping you as a source.

Be as available as possible.

The news never sleeps. Journalists might want to reach you during non-business hours.

Make sure contact information is in multiple places, including ways to reach you (or another contact) after hours. Put contact information on your website, and include alternative channels (cellphone, Twitter, etc.) in your email signature. That way, you’ll get every opportunity to give your organization’s side of the story.

Although controlling the message about your brand is no longer possible, knowing how to answer tough questions can help you defend your brand during a crisis.

Stacey Miller is the director of communications at Cision. Follow her @staceylamiller. A version of this article originally appeared on Beyond PR.

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