We live in a time when the healthcare professions, including veterinary medicine, are receiving more attention from the general public and, especially, from the news media. This attention often strengthens the positive image of the veterinary profession with news of advanced treatments, "wonder drugs," and more personalized care. This increased scrutiny also brings with it increased possibilities for a public relations crisis.
Prevention is the best approach to crisis management. When a crisis becomes a disaster, it is usually because a communications network designed to provide a rapid response was never established or was allowed to deteriorate through neglect. Because print and electronic news services are the PR specialist's main links with the public, it is vital to understand how their reporters work.
It is important for every member of the profession to identify popular attitudes and issues that will eventually affect the profession and, if negative, to respond to them early. This means looking for abuses within the profession and addressing them before they become damaging news. Admit mistakes and cooperate, within reason, on negative as well as positive stories.
Nothing arouses a journalist's predatory instincts like the scent of a cover-up. Concealment is the green light for a reporter to go after the story. A well-known newspaper science reporter says that media specialists "should be candid, because the facts can usually be discovered anyway, and it hurts to hide them." This doesn't mean that the media has the right to run roughshod over a press liaison or a member of the profession, but remember that media belligerence often results from years of talking to "stonewalls."
While consistent and thoughtful communication with the media is the best way to prevent a PR crisis, a troublesome phone call or news story that requires a response is almost unavoidable. What steps can you take to contain the crisis or even use it positively?
Your first contacts with the media are the most critical. It is during these early exchanges that you must give credible answers while obtaining some leeway for further review of the problem. Fortunately, although all reporters want quick answers, good reporters want accurate and informed answers. They know these are often unavailable at a moment's notice.
The reporter needs something to print. Give them the best information available and remind the reporter that more time is needed for a complete answer. Promise to call back at a certain time and keep that promise. The basic principle here is never leave a reporter empty-handed, but don't say anything you'll regret later.
Knowing how to answer depends not only on the availability of information, but also on discerning what question is being asked. Although many reporters just want facts, plain and simple, others may have a hidden agenda into which they'd like to fit your response. It's vital to answer with an eye toward both.
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