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

"I felt very much that I needed to say something," she says. "It's important in a situation like this to say something and let people know you're responding to the problem."

If Heller seemed confident before the cameras and tape recorders, it's because she had trained herself to be so. She recited her response aloud before meeting with reporters and had spent years honing her public-speaking skills.

It's vital, she says, for recreation managers to articulate their position in times of crisis. In order to do this effectively, she recommends regularly speaking in front of large groups. Making presentations at board meetings or seminars is a way to glean invaluable experience, she says.

Even the most articulate speakers, however, can falter if they don't know how to handle hostile inquiries. Managers should practice interviewing techniques, as well. Ask a colleague to give a mock interview, throwing tough questions at you and challenging your organization's positions.

"Interviews are a lot different than giving presentations," Heller says.

Responding to the problem, however, does not mean providing immediate solutions. Reporters repeatedly pushed Heller to say how her park district would improve security. She declined to give specific answers, rather than commit herself to something that may not have worked.

Instead, she promised to meet with police and park officials to discuss the situation. The group later decided to reconfigure the locker room and add more prohibitive signage. The press was notified of the meeting, but none of the TV stations or big newspapers reported about it.

This, of course, brings Heller to one of the most important things to remember in times of crisis: This, too, shall pass.

"Take the heat for about 24 hours," she says. "After that, they don't give a rat's [rear end]."

When it hits the fan

No matter who you are or how well your organization is run, negative press can find you. The key is to remain focused and professional. Here are a few simple do's and don'ts for managing a media crisis.

Don't bury your head in the sand: Avoiding the problem will only make you look guilty. The public—your patrons and stakeholders—will want answers and may judge more harshly if their questions are met with stony silence.

Do remain media friendly: As much as it may pain you, making phone calls to the media must be a top priority. Hold a press conference if necessary. Some people, however, find it easier to stay on-message in one-on-one interviews than with a gaggle of reporters shouting questions.

Don't lie: If you do one thing during a publicity crisis, tell the truth. Lying or intentionally misleading your patrons or the media only will cause more trouble. If journalists discover you've lied to them, they'll have even more negative things to write. In that case, your crisis will deepen rather than fade from the front page.

Do show leadership: The president, manager or executive director of your organization should be front and center during the crisis, and protocols for the rest of your staff should be in place and followed to the letter. While a spokesperson can help craft the message or provide reporters with background information, the public will want to hear from the leader. The leaders' voice, without question, will carry more authority and credibility than anyone else's at the facility.

Don't say "no comment": Like it or not, "no comment" always seems like a confirmation of the allegation. Instead say "We're looking into the situation" or "I cannot release that information at this time" and then provide a brief explanation why. It essentially says the same thing, but appears less obstructive.

Do remember this too shall pass: Negative publicity is never an enjoyable experience, but news (both good and bad) has a shorter life span than a fruit fly. In most cases, the problems will disappear from the headlines—and people's memories—within a few days.