Turning a PR Crisis into a Media Opportunity

Posted 10 March 2004

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. 

What is a Crisis?

A public relations crisis can result when either the media or the general public perceive a conflict between you and the public interest. Such perceptions may result from the publication of controversial research, from a shift in popular attitudes about animals and animal care, or even from the actions of a particular doctor. These perceptions may be inaccurate, but inaccurate or not, adverse public opinion creates a crisis in public relations because it requires immediate action from leaders of the profession.

 

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. 

What Journalists Want

It is important for you to know what journalists look for in a story. This will help you when providing them with stories that you would like to see published. For a story to be important, it must involve something that affects a large number of people. A release about parasites that kill California sea lions or about the intelligence of seeing-eye dogs will have more news value than news releases about organizational elections and board appointments.

 

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? 

How to Manage a Crisis

Once a PR crisis is upon you, there is no substitute for responding on the spot with a brief, accurate statement that will immediately satisfy the press and the public. Advance preparation is often impossible in a crisis; it may be necessary to respond to questions in installments.

 

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.

Examples of Crisis Management

  1. Suppose you receive the following call on a story you've never heard. "Hello, this is Bill Smithers at the Sentinel. We've got a wire service report here that the chief veterinarian at the municipal zoo has been charged with gross negligence. Groups are saying that this is just the tip of the iceberg in a nationwide scandal. What are your comments?" Without being defensive or cringing, you might answer along these lines: "This is the first I've heard of it, Bill, so I'm afraid I can't give you an informed answer. All charges of abuse should be investigated. I think we should remember that most veterinarians are very concerned about animal welfare. I'll look into this and call you back in an hour or so."
  2. Suppose that you're confronted with this provocative question: "A local group is charging the profession with 'cowardly subservience to the economic ambitions of drug companies' on the issue of animal experimentation. Why is it that so few veterinarians are speaking out against abuse of laboratory animals?"

    To handle this question you must first realize that the question is loaded so that any attempt to answer it on its own terms will hurt you and those you represent. You'll find yourself either a) denying that animals have rights, b) joining an attack on animal experimentation, c) tacitly admitting that veterinarians are subservient to drug companies or d) accusing researchers of animal abuse — none of which you want to do. Furthermore, a "no comment" will allow the allegations to go unanswered.

    Your best strategy in this case is to take the offensive without being offensive. If you're on television or radio for an interview, you can't present involved arguments. Instead, you should point out the complexity of the issue, as well as the general bias and inflammatory language of the question. Something like the following may be appropriate: "Really, Marvin, I'm afraid that I have to take exception to the implicit assumptions within your question. I think that before we can reach any conclusions, we need to recognize that this is a very complex issue.

    Veterinarians are deeply concerned with both animal and human welfare. I really think that we do the public a disservice when we deal in simplistic and emotional allegations rather than dealing with specific cases. However, to answer your question, I think you'll find that veterinarians have been among the leaders in preventing cruelty to animals."

    This response is useful because, by appealing to objective facts and specific cases, it clears the air of the questioner's not-so-subtle implications, and thus unloads the question.

    Whether straight or loaded, questions and answers are the stock-in-trade of crisis management. The better prepared you are to handle them the more satisfied you will be with the outcome.

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