Feature Article - March 2003
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Good PR

A crash course on handling public-relations crises, dealing with the media and developing strategies for generating positive publicity

By Stacy St. Clair

Heller, however, was unflappable. She stayed calm and on-message throughout the interviews. She explained the situation thoughtfully and carefully.

"We praised her in our newsletter to our members," Cohen says. "We thought she handled the situation beautifully."

Heller bolstered her defense by having the local police chief issue a statement saying the park district had done all it could. The two read each other's press releases before they were issued and talked about what they would discuss with the media.

"We wanted to make sure we were acting in concert," Heller says.

Both she and the chief explained how police patrols were stepped up at the facility following the first incident. They stressed that district personnel made mandatory locker-room checks every 10 to 15 minutes, as well.

The police chief's public backing of Heller's initial response proved invaluable.

"That was really wonderful," Heller says. "The press was trying to make a whole new train wreck out of it, but we let them know there was never any proof of [the first incident] happening. We were never able to corroborate it."

The Illinois Parks and Recreation Association also stepped forward in support of Heller. The organization's deputy administrator Tom Ford sent a letter to several newspapers, praising the district's actions and suggesting the man would not have been apprehended if Heller hadn't responded vigorously to the initial complaint.

"Next to moving her office into the locker room, we can think of no practical action Heller didn't take," Ford wrote in his letter to the editor. "The Illinois Park and Recreation Association stands with our member Barbara Heller. Her employees may well have saved hundreds of individuals from being victimized in a similar way."

Heller, too, considers her district's response to the negative incident successful. Her employees perfectly executed a process established years earlier in the event of a crisis. The procedure, among other things, outlines who should be notified about the situation and who should serve as the spokesperson.

In almost all instances, Heller is designated to speak to the media on the district's behalf.

"It's very important to have your leader front and center," Heller says. "Some people during a crisis want to run and hide their heads in the sand. You can't do that."

Elk Grove's policy also forbids employees from talking to the media during such situations. This ensures the district speaks with one voice and the most accurate information is released.

The rule, however, was tested during the voyeur incident. With Heller at the funeral and temporarily unavailable for comment, reporters began calling employees for information. Dozens of staff members were called, and all, it appears, declined to speak with the media.

"The press was really breathing down the necks of our employees," Heller says. "And no one talked. There is so much going on during an emergency, nothing would be worse than having people start popping off."

Heller also resisted the urge to let the press release speak for itself. She knew her patrons would want to see her on television and in the paper. She wanted to assure them the district was not ignoring their concerns.

More Flies with Honey

It's easier than you think to establish a rapport with a reporter. Journalists typically don't care about a subject's popularity or politics. Their favorite sources, in fact, are the ones who practice common courtesy and occasional acts of kindness. Some ideas for forging a better relationship with reporters:

Return phone calls. Reporters, too, are busy people and realize you won't always be available when they call. However, their jobs depend upon getting information from you. Try to return calls by day's end.

Be mindful of deadlines. Always ask reporters what time their deadline is and respect it. Calling with information after a story has run doesn't help anyone. Receptionists also should be instructed to ask this question when taking messages from the media.

Provide an after-hours number. News doesn't always happen during work hours. By giving local journalists an alternative phone number (home, cell or pager), you'll have an opportunity to offer your position on late-breaking stories. It also will reduce the chances of finding surprising headlines about your organization in the morning paper.

Call with story ideas. Don't wait for reporters to call you. If you have a story idea, don't be afraid to pitch it. Reporters always are looking for stories and typically welcome well thought-out ideas.

Rave as much as you rant. Never be afraid to call a reporter to voice an objection to the way a story was handled. Be sure, however, to call that reporter with a compliment when they do an exceptional job.