If you’ve ever experienced being in the eye of a media storm, you’ll never forget it.
And I’m sure you’ll recognise at least some of the things you’re about to read. Over my 17 years as a news correspondent at BBC News, I’ve seen it time and time again: the look of bewilderment on faces looking out onto a bank of cameras that has suddenly popped up. The nervous shuffling of a spokesperson, who would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. The beleaguered tone of the press office at the other end of the line, wondering when it will all blow over – and how bad the reputational damage will be when the storm has passed.
It does pass, of course but what happens next depends on how you handle it at the time. And no matter what has drawn the storm – whether it’s bad behaviour, bad choices, or just bad luck – how a person or an organisation survives the media ordeal isn’t just up to chance.
In fact, it’s something any company can prepare for. I have a tried and tested strategy for anyone facing a crisis, from how to prepare in advance, to how to repair whatever damage has been done.
Here are two top tips from my ten-point strategy:
1. Expect it, and be prepared. Think about what crises might affect your organisation in future, and have a plan for your response.
The ground is littered with the remnants of companies who dealt badly with a crisis. Some recover, but take a massive hit in revenue, or reputation or, often, both. And there are some famous examples. The Chinese technology firm Huawei suffered a bombshell in 2020, when the UK government ordered operators to remove its equipment from 5G networks. Huawei had built up a good reputation in the UK. Its technology was popular. Its brand was solid. Then the news articles began.
Why did the UK media go to town? Partly because there was absolutely nothing to stop them. In my professional opinion, the crisis communication from Huawei was miles away from what was needed.
That takes us on to tip number two:
2. Control the narrative. As much as you can. Take your chance to tell your story, and give the facts, before a journalist digs them out and tells a different one.
Don’t guess, imagine or give possible explanations if you don’t know they’re true. Robustly correct information you know is false. You have a window, so use it wisely. If you have access to professional support, this is your last chance to give them a call, because the potential to make things worse is equally alive at this point. Let’s look at another example: in 2015, I was one of many journalists arriving at the entrance to Alton Towers. An accident had occurred at one of the attraction’s flagship rides – The Smiler – and two people suffered extremely serious, life-changing injuries. A horrifying thing for anyone to go through. Extremely traumatic for their families and loved ones, likewise for the rest of the people on board.
Alton Towers couldn’t change the headlines. A terrible thing had occurred. But what about the narrative? What about the opinions, the column inches, the commentators? If they had refused to talk to the media, the media would have filled the void. So they engaged. Immediately, thoroughly, openly. They acknowledged. They took responsibility. They apologised. They showed empathy, sympathy, understanding.
They acted like grown-ups. And from the most awful of situations, they vowed to help, support, talk, learn and grow. And so the headlines were about the accident, and the human damage done. They were not about a corporation hiding from their responsibilities. They showed a face, and it was a very human one.
The lesson? Bad things happen. How you deal with them is extremely important.
I have seen crises that come out of nowhere and knock a company for six. And I’ve seen it many, many times. Take it from me, get someone to help you with tip 1, before you need someone to help you with tip 2. And one final bit of advice:
When the storm blows over, take some time to regroup and rebuild. Then look back at exactly how you handled the situation. What went well and what went badly. Use the experience to plan for next time. If you’ve taken a hit in the public eye, now it’s time to try to rebuild your reputation. Storms come. Be prepared.