How to handle a “doorknob” media ambush during a crisis

Businessman running across streetRecently I posed this question on a discussion board for crisis communications professionals: in the midst of a crisis, what advice do you give to execs or corporate spokespersons who are ambushed by the media as they head for their car?

For the record, I usually advise they remain calm, remember to breathe, put up a hand for some quiet and agree to three questions. I also advise they do this with one hand on the car door, which indicates they are planning to get in but will not flee right away, leaving behind the dreaded “no comment” and all the attached negative fallout from having said it.

Then deliver appropriate promises to get back to everybody with more details and keep those promises!

From PR pros on both sides of the pond, and north/south too, I got a rousing response to this question. I also learned a new term – well, new to me, at least. Doorstepping. In other words, getting nailed by the press at the door – any door. Car door, front door, back door, office door or cottage door. On site. At the university. School. Hospital. Anywhere.

We didn’t all agree with one another, but that said, I think the variety of advice offered was solid gold. To post it all here would require something more book-length, so here’s a smattering of the crisis communications expert commentary:

Richard Flynn, Communications Manager at Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the UK initially said the situation shouldn’t come up in the first place. “Once the communications professional knows there is a crisis looming, they should implement their crisis handling plan which should include organising a press conference as quickly as possible.

“Once the media descends on the organisation you have lost control and are unlikely to regain it. Fragmented comments made to different media outlets eventually add up to one thing -inaccurate, speculative coverage.”

Good point and absolutely correct, when you know a crisis is coming. But what about when you don’t?

Bob Wade offered this thought: “…media are 24/7 and that ‘unknown’ could break while we are all fast  asleep, and the first we know of it is when the media scrum is around the CEO’s front door.”

So what to do?

Several pros opined that spokespeople should know their key messages almost as well as they know their own names, and be ready to offer them up at a moment’s notice – even when walking quickly for the car. Others said fine and dandy, but not always possible, especially if they were caught unawares and didn’t yet have a prepared response to the (take your pick) scandal, flood, hurricane, shooting, arrest, cruise liner on its side, out-of-hand demonstration, etc.

Wade said he always trained UK government ministers to at least give the ‘3 P’s’ – Pity (condolences to victims), Pledge (co-operate with any investigation, we’ll get to the bottom of this) and Praise (outline how your organisation is/will do a good job to put things right). “You can deliver the ‘3 Ps’ without really knowing what is going on,” said Bob.

He offered up Richard Branson’s response at the Greyrigg train derailment as a perfect example:
(Embedding is disabled for this video so you’ll need to go to YouTube to view it)

While the press release hit all the appropriate notes (or Ps), the actual  video of Branson walking around the train wreck, and his short clip  (right near the end of the video) nicely displaced a thousand words you could make at this point, and he aced the first “P”.  (We won’t delve into the other spokesperson’s responses here, because he got caught out in speculation, and that’s a subject for another blog.)

Visuals carried the day, and Branson came out of it if not actually smelling of roses, as a positive and caring person.

But back to the ambush, because while Branson did everything right, he wasn’t ambushed. He broke off his vacation to go to the site.  The perfect response in a crisis of that sort, btw.

Wade insisted that every PR pro will “face the ambush at some stage in your career, whether you’ve been doing it for five minutes or 40  years. The ambush comes when sudden ‘unknowns’ come into play, particularly if you are in reactive mode as your opponents hold all the cards.

“Then its rock n’ roll, and you need to make sure your key player knows how to go nose to nose with the media. That should be done with a slow but determined walk to either car or away to some other destination, with hand gently raised to demonstrate you need to get through without pushing. Never try to walk between cars though as the media will trap you on both sides – always give your 3 Ps, then stride off purposely where you have a clear path.”

And watch out for denial – it’s the kiss of death in a crisis. As British crisis management guru Jonathan Boddy says, it’s important to ensure people within an organisation understand that doorstepping can and does happen.

“’It couldn’t happen here / now / to me…’” is a very dangerous mentality to have for all aspects of incident management and business continuity. “says Boddy.

Make sure your spokespeople have the tools they need, all the time, for every eventuality, he adds. If they don’t have the answers, help them find a way to say that and commit to quick follow-up.

“The key tips are to understand where safety is and keep moving towards it, have something to say – a short line to offer around the  organisation’s understanding of what is happening and their response to it, and very importantly a commitment to continue to communicate. This message should be shared across all those people who might be expected to speak on behalf of the organisation, this way the media get a coherent and consistent message.”

Also, many on our thread stressed “knowing key messages” and “staying on message.”  Our tendency as communications professionals to pound away at these points  always makes me nervous.

In my view,a spokesperson who recites key messages by rote resembles a talking puppet, whether they are moving away from a media swarm or  standing at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Artificiality shows, and it’s distracting.

Canada’s national public news (CBC) regularly runs tweets across the screen during a daily political analysis hour called Power and Politics,  and invariably someone trashes a spokesperson for mouthing key messages.  The message gets lost and amusement takes over.

And I’m not suggesting anyone go “off-message”, either.  Help your spokesperson to make the messages his/her own, in a natural, unforced manner. Spontaneity is not an evil, unless the spokesperson is a complete fool; in which case, they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But back to our swarm; do watch out for surprises in the form of activists who  have wormed their way in, as Dennis McGrath of McGrath-Buckley Communications Counseling described in his response to my initial doorstepping question. I’ll leave him with the last word on unwelcome activist aspect of things.

“They will stop at nothing to be heard and get on camera. … I’ve had union organizers try to push their pudgy fingers through my chest.  Typically, the press don’t want them interfering with the job they have to do, though issues like strikes and some consumer type protests can change that and give them center stage. This is often where security has to step in quickly and as unobtrusively as possible to get them … out of the room/way. “

I got caught out this way once when an enraged neighbour butted in to a beautifully staged outdoor press conference. He became the story and I lost control. Great learning experience.

So the simple question I thought I’d posed at the beginning of the conversation stream, morphed into a thorough airing of many  eventualities, and lots of differing takes on ideal spokesperson responses.

Feel free to jump in and add your thoughts.

About Jane Carthew Davidson

As a former senior public relations specialist with a large publicly traded multi-national chemical company, Jane Carthew Davidson produced the company’s award winning annual report for several years. Later, she was media relations specialist for Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), where she wrote speeches for the executive team, trained spokespersons across the province, and developed talking points and strategies designed to clarify the role played by property assessment within the municipal taxation system. Jane is a former business reporter for the Globe and Mail Report on Business, and the Toronto Star’s Business Today. Her articles have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Medical Post, the Anglican Journal, the Financial Post and most recently, the Globe and Mail’s special supplements on subjects as wide ranging as organic farming and new investment regulations. On several occasions, Jane’s media savvy and quick research skills enabled her to win broad media attention and investment queries from Canada, the Unites States and Europe, for a unique medical device start-up venture. Following Peterborough’s Flood of the Century in 2004, Jane handled media relations for the City of Peterborough, developing and implementing the communications plan for the city’s media outreach to afflicted citizens, concerned insurance companies, city staff and other government stakeholders.
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