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

As the worst crisis in the history of the Elk Grove Park District, Ill., began to unfold, executive director Barbara Heller had to attend a funeral. A 42-year-old Chicago man had been charged with videotaping young girls as they showered in the suburban park district's locker room. Reporters, Heller had no doubt, would be calling her employees seeking comment and details.

Heller wanted to be in her office overseeing the taxing body's response to the arrest, but the funeral prevented her from getting to work until the afternoon. Her only option was to trust her staff would heed the protocols put in place for such emergencies.

She later would learn the procedure was followed to the letter. And in doing so, her agency's handling of the situation now is hailed as textbook example of managing a public-relations crisis.

"We consider Elk Grove the poster child for handling a negative situation well," says Gail Cohen, communications and marketing manager for the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association. "Barbara Heller did an amazing job."

Heller's suspicions about the media onslaught proved accurate the moment she arrived at the park district office. Television trucks and print reporters were camped outside the building, interviewing patrons and demanding answers from tight-lipped employees.

The media knew the man had been charged. They also knew of a similar incident a few months earlier that had never been made public. In the first instance, a girl reported seeing a snake-like lens peeking under a stall. She told a parent, who confronted the man.

The man, who was never identified, fled. It was the first—and until the arrest, only—report police received about a voyeur. A description of the subject was given to police, but neither authorities nor the park district issued a press release about it.

Officials decided to withhold details of the incident because they didn't want to needlessly worry the public. The Elk Grove Park District historically did not release information on alleged incidents that could not be substantiated.

The long-standing policy, however, mattered little to the reporters investigating the story. They began to suggest the district had made a grievous error when it opted not to inform patrons. They wanted answers.

Heller, however, did not fall victim to the journalists' demands for immediate answers. Upon returning from the funeral, she went into her office and planned her response. Among her first acts: sending an e-mail explaining the situation to employees.

"I have a long-standing policy that no employee learns about something impacting the park district from the morning paper," says Heller, who has overseen the Elk Grove Park District for the past eight years.

She then began working on a statement. She memorized the response, reading it aloud to make sure she could recite it without looking down at the paper. She also coordinated her reaction with the local police department, ensuring both agencies would be sending the same message to constituents.

When she felt ready, she called the reporters in one at a time. The press pool—which included TV stations from the country's third-largest market and writers from two of the nation's largest newspapers—could have intimidated a less-prepared official.

Bad Reporters and the Rec Managers Who Loathe Them

Every community has a reporter who just rubs people the wrong way. They ask stupid questions, demand answers and only seem interested in negative stories. When this reporter calls, you brace yourself for trouble. Here are five tips for handling an overly aggressive Lois Lane.

1) Remain calm. Hostile responses or angry words only cloud your message.

2) Reporters often ask the same questions in several different ways to provoke different responses. Don't fall for it. If they repeat their questions, repeat your answers.

3) Stand up for yourself. If you think the reporter has asked an unfair question, tell them so. If they've misinterpreted your comment, point the error out and restate your position.

4) Take the time to talk. Even if you personally detest the reporter, he or she will be the link between your organization and the public. It's important to speak with the journalist and explain your position, no matter how unpleasant the conversation.

5) Meet for lunch. If you've got a beef with a reporter, invite them to sit down and discuss the situation in a casual atmosphere. It's possible the problem is the result of a miscommunication and quickly can be remedied.