How NOT to speak to journalists, by Tom Chapman

PR professionals and journalists generally have a love/hate relationship. They need each other to ensure that news gets disseminated, but journalists are also keen to get all the details out of a company whenever a disaster or crisis arises. As those in PR work towards damage limitation, this frequently pits them against journalists.

One of the most famous examples of how not to talk to journalists came from the mouth of Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP. While apologising for a devastating oil rig explosion which claimed the lives of 11 men and caused the worst oil spill in American history, Mr Hayward stated, “I’d like my life back”. Not only did this portray gross insensitivity, but greatly underestimated public opinion surrounding the disaster. As a result, this arguably ruined Mr Hayward’s reputation and permanently crippled BP’s image.

Although this is an obvious example of how not to talk to journalists, there are other phrases and actions which will destroy your client’s reputation if uttered. As a result, if you find yourself in a PR crisis, you must not:

Ignore it. Due to the rise of the internet and social media, bad press can spread within a matter of hours. Consequently, companies must react to these incidents when they occur. Otherwise, the situation will only get worse. One key example of this is the Domino’s pizza scandal.

In 2009, two employees were filmed on YouTube doing disgusting things to customers’ pizzas. According to PHA Media, instead of acting on the clip, the company refrained from issuing an immediate statement as it was concerned about more people watching the video. Unfortunately, during its inaction, the clip was copied, viewed numerous times, and users started writing negative Domino’s reviews in the comments sections. Furthermore, the company faced further criticism for not adequately responding.

We can take a valuable lesson from this, if people don’t know about a disaster already, they soon will. Ignoring it will only make it worse.

Say “no comment”. Although I said that PR disasters need immediate action, responding without a plan is foolish. Even worse, if you don’t have a statement prepared and just say “no comment” to a journalist, this automatically conveys guilt and suggests you have something to hide – making the situation much worse. In this situation, a much better alternative is to take down the journalist’s details and state that you will respond with a full and detailed response once you know all the facts. Consequently, this tactic allows you to buy time and get all the details right before speaking to the media.

Use an untrained spokesperson. The CEO of a company might seem like an ideal spokesperson, but Mr Haywood proved that this is not always the best idea. This individual must be adequately trained to deal with the media and should communicate your brand’s key messages and handle difficult questions with ease. If this person is not available for comment, then it is vital to have a team of back-up spokespeople on standby. For example, this group could include directors, executives, PR professionals, and managers. Just remember, all of these individuals must receive media training. If they are good orators but crumble under pressure, your efforts will be wasted.

Deliver mixed messages. Speaking of media training, spokespeople must ensure they are communicating the same messages. If journalists receive inconsistent statements, this only suggests that your company doesn’t know what’s going on. Instead, you must create an FAQ document and ensure that all spokespeople adhere to it. They must understand which key messages to get across and acceptable holding statements. By doing this, you should prevent journalists from receiving differing information.

Panic. When a PR crisis occurs, just staying calm can almost win an argument. Otherwise, any erratic responses will automatically make you look guilty. For example, in 2013, UKIP member Godfrey Bloom spoke to journalists about the use of his phrase “bongo, bongo land”. The interview ended with him losing his cool and storming off. This didn’t necessarily make him look more racist, but it definitely ruined his argument.

To summarise, to prepare for media interviews means planning for every conceivable disaster far in advance. Simply put, if you haven’t started thinking about what could possibly go wrong with your client, now is a very good time to start.

Tom Chapman, content specialist at agency VL Digital

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.

Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.

PR Masterclass: The Agency Growth Forum PRmoment Awards Winners 2023 Media Point PRCA CIPR Creative Moment ESG Awards