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How to influence editorial decisions in order to prevent a media crisis

As part of my research for my forthcoming crisis PR book, I have studied many PR agency websites, briefing papers, and a couple of books on crisis PR. For a crisis PR lawyer, there is a conspicuous absentee from all of them, which is either the recognition of the importance of, or a methodology for preventing a media crisis taking place at all.

Crisis communications are second best

Everything I have read under headings such as “Crisis Communications” talks about trying to minimise the damage caused by a media crisis situation after it has broken and while it is underway.

This is like a doctor who is keen to treat you when you are ill, but will not vaccinate you to prevent you falling ill. The best thing that you can do for your company or client when confronted by a potential PR crisis, is to prevent it from happening.

In an electronic age, however much you invest in seeking to ameliorate the brand damage which a media crisis has caused by means of “crisis communications”, a destructive residue is bound to remain online. This can either generate its own problems, or can be picked up by other elements of the media in the future and be recycled in a subsequent damaging publication.

Achieve the optimum outcome

The primary focus both of my crisis PR seminar and forthcoming book is to achieve the outcome of a damaging and false story about your company, your product, and/or your senior personnel, never emerging into the mass media with the inevitable adverse consequences.

The only way to achieve this is to bring about a shift in the editorial decision from which the publication (or broadcast) will flow. Even if it is not possible to kill off the story altogether, it will normally be possible to prune it of at least some of its most damaging elements.

Understand how editorial decisions are made

The place to start is to understand how editorial decisions are made. It is via a two-stage process. The first is whether this particular news item warrants inclusion in news pages, or in some factual programme. Once that decision is taken in the affirmative, the next question is whether there is a countervailing regulatory and/or legal risk which must be set against the editorial desire to run the story.

This second stage of the editorial story is determined by an editorial lawyer, who, where the broadcaster or publisher is regulated, will also be responsible for compliance issues. This is an exacting task which I have for many years undertaken for newspapers and magazines (print and digital) films, television programmes and book publishers. My role when undertaking that work is both to assess and attenuate risk. Effective crisis PR requires priority to be given to persuading this individual that the risks of publication/broadcast outweigh the potential benefit.

A three-pronged approach

This is most likely to be achieved by means of three-pronged approach:

  1. A rapid and robust analysis of the facts to establish that the proposed story is “inaccurate or misleading” (to quote the Independent Press Standards Organisation Code);
  2. Communicating to the publisher/broadcaster that the story would therefore comprise a regulatory and/or legal breach; and
  3. Warning that there is a strong likelihood that the publisher/broadcaster will be held to account for this breach.

The need for speed

This exercise will require moving at speed, and being able to deploy the relevant regulatory and/or legal provisions with the greatest possible potency; though unreasonable deadline can and should be put back.

The golden hour

For sound legal and regulatory reasons, a newspaper or publisher will give you or your client advance notice of any looming damaging story. This is what I call “the golden hour”. How you spend it will determine whether the brand/reputation is zero, or substantial.

In fact, for a broadcaster you may get up to 10 days; though I have had to draft a letter, get it approved by a client and send it off to a broadcaster in 20 minutes. For a paper it is likely to be around 24 hours.

If the story is substantially wrong in whole or in part that time should not be spent working on “Crisis Communications”; but on doing your utmost ensure that the story does not see the light of day.

Written by Jonathan Coad, crisis PR lawyer

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