By Victoria Hurley-Schubert
Imagine this based-on-real-life-scenario. You’re sitting in the office when you receive a phone call from a reporter at a major daily newspaper. “A political candidate has just called for the immediate ban of associations like yours because he believes they are guilty of fraud in multiple states,” the reporter says.
Take a deep breath, you have just sunk waist deep into a pile of reputation quicksand. How you respond could affect how your organization is viewed within the industry and outside of it. Once a reputation is tarnished, it can be a long, difficult struggle to regain the public’s trust. What you need to do — and I cannot stress this enough — is remain calm. Ask the reporter to explain exactly what is going on, from the beginning of the story. You need to understand everything that has led to the reporter picking up the phone to call you. These situations often seemingly come out of nowhere and there is no shame in asking questions to clarify what has led to this point. Do not offer any statements during the call, just collect the information and let the reporter know you will be looking into this and then responding.
Be cognizant of timing. Newspaper reporters work under hourly and daily deadlines. We recommend that you work with a public relations professional— preferably a former reporter —to help you craft an appropriate timeline and response.
Your thoughts will probably be racing as you struggle to compile enough information to construct a coherent understanding of what is going on. That is completely understandable under the circumstances. To help guide you through the process, here are the steps you can follow:
Examine the 5 Ws: Be methodical as you set out the facts. Who made this statement? Was it one person or multiple people? When did they say it? Was it today, last week or last month? Where did they say it? At a press conference, to a colleague or to a reporter? Why did they say it? Everyone has different motivations for speaking out. Is this person trying to score political points in a close election race? Are they out to deliberately sabotage your organization? Or did they perhaps misspeak about something they don’t quite understand? Whatever the reason, lay out the facts as you know them.
Confer with Trusted Advisors: You are battling a whirlwind of emotions and struggling to remain calm. Surround yourself with a small group of people whom you trust and outline the situation — either via phone or in person. Get their thoughts and input on the situation. Please include your public relations professional in this process.
Outline How You Will Respond: If the allegations are false, lay out why they are false and back up your explanation with facts, not opinion. Make sure you stay “on message.” In other words, devise two or three key points before you call the reporter— and then repeat them again and again to reinforce your side of the story. Remember that the reporter has no personal stake in this issue, he or she is just out to collect and report all sides of the story.
Respond: Be firm and factual, not defensive. You have every right to be angry if your association or industry has been accused of unethical, even illegal, behavior, but keep your feelings private. Spokespeople who come off as defensive often appear as though they are hiding something. Your goal is to outline the situation in a calm and rational way.
Public relations debacles are bound to hit every organization at some point. How you respond to criticism will speak volumes. Make sure your response is calm, well-thought-out and based on facts, not opinion or emotion. A polished and reasoned response will reflect poised, thoughtful and honest leadership.
Victoria Hurley-Schubert is a public relations and social media specialist at CMA Association Management. She can be reached at email@example.com. If you would like to leverage CMA Association Management’s experience, we would love to chat. Please contact us at 800.852.4269 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.