Three Steps to Preventing a Media Attack
Protecting Your Company from 'Investigative' Reporters
The best method for handling a media crisis is to assume one will happen to you in the future, and get ready for it now.
Unfortunately, you cannot begin to predict exactly what will happen and when. But you can take some all-purpose steps to provide yourself some protection.
A media crisis is like a house fire. If you can stamp it out at the start, or at least contain it from spreading, then you'll better your chances of coming out of it with an intact asset.
What intelligent executive of any well-managed firm would allow his company to operate without property insurance? Then why is it that intelligent executives are willing to risk their company's reputation, which is far more valuable than any physical asset, to the whims and vagaries of the mass media?
The intelligent executive will make media-crises management at least as high a priority as buying insurance.
Step 1. Assess Your Company's Exposure to 'Bad Press'
Before you are ready to play hardball with the media, you must be ready to play hardball with your own company's culture. Now is the time to assess just how likely your company is to expose itself to negative media coverage.
Your best bet is to hire an objective consultant - an fearless ombudsman - to conduct a thorough investigation and to deliver a confidential, candid report.
The ombudsman should look for these symptoms at every level of your organization:
- A tendency to ignore, ridicule or minimize any rules, regulations
or processes that are mandated - or even recommended - by any government o
r by any official oversight organization.
- An attitude of achieving success by any means necessary.
- Any unapproved changes to company procedures or policies,
particularly those that shortchange employees, customers or the public at
- An inclination in official reports to gloss over or to entirely
- Any lack of fairness in how company polices are applied between
any sectors, segments or strata of the company.
- A culture that creates a protected elite among your sales staff,
which allows these top producers to break the rules as long as they bring
in the bacon.
- Any façade that presents the company to the public as something
other than what it really it.
- A lack of administrative oversight when it comes to issues of
compliance with regulations.
- An environment that encourages employees to experiment with any
new methods that are yet to be tested and sanctioned by the organization.
- A climate that rewards managers and supervisors for overlooking
poor conduct among employees.
- Any enticement that encourages anyone to jeopardize public health, product quality or safety standards.
These are the weaknesses that allow an antagonist to convince the news media to join an attack. A solid ombudsman will fearlessly uncover these weaknesses, point them out to you and force you to deal with them. Better that than give an antagonist an opening to destroy your company.
Step 2. Create Your Rapid Response Team
If you plan to defend your company effectively, you should begin now to pull together your Rapid Response Team. This is the group that you will train and prepare to snap into action at the first sign of negative media coverage.
This team should include:
- A crisis communications counselor with legal savvy. This
specialist must have a solid understanding of media strategy and hardball
tactics. The counselor must also possess a healthy respect for the need to
act in ways that will not damage your company's legal strategy.
- A litigation attorney with media savvy. In other words, a lawyer
who understands that it is just as important to win in the Court of Public
Opinion as it is to win in the civil courts.
- A well-trained spokesperson. This should not be the crisis
specialist, or the attorney, or the CEO or any top executive. The
spokesperson must be courageous, articulate, informed and well-grounded in
handling the news media in live situations.
- The support staff that will take care of the many details that a
crisis will generate. The staff also must be prepared to execute the
tactics that are dictated by strategy and circumstance.
- A detective agency, which will act as your team's eyes and ears
in the field, gathering crucial information about your antagonists.
- A roster of independent experts who can be called upon to act as your company's champions when the situation or the courts will not allow you to speak for yourself.
In addition, now is the time to designate and to maintain a war room that is reserved for your Rapid Response Team. This room should be outfitted with multiple phone lines, personal computers, Internet access, encryption technology, fax machines and any other information/communications capabilities that it must have to function smoothly and effectively.
Step 3. Adopt the Powell Doctrine
The United States lost the Vietnam War because it adopted a policy of gradually escalating its military presence in direct response to the actions of North Vietnam. This strategy left the conduct of the war in control of the Communists. It was doomed to fail from the get-go.
A young career soldier named Colin Powell saw this mistake first-hand and vowed to abandon the escalation strategy when it became his turn to lead America into war.
His chance came during the Gulf War. Rather than easing into a conflict with Iraq, Powell pushed the White House and the Pentagon to adopt a new strategy:
- Establish an overwhelming military presence.
- Strike with power and speed.
- Give the enemy no chance to adapt.
This became known as the Powell Doctrine. If you plan to use Hardball PR, you are advised to adopt the Powell Doctrine as your personal credo.
Pre-crisis preparation is the Hardball PR version of establishing an overwhelming military presence. But that's just the physical aspect. There is a mental aspect as well.
When the day comes that you are under attack, you must be mentally prepared to strike your enemy down and give him no chance whatsoever to recover. You must be merciless.
If you lack the stomach to see this through, then forget about Hardball PR. Stick to the traditional tactics.
Copyright 2003 by W.O. Cawley Jr.
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