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.

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.

"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.

Tipping the Messenger

Journalists typically welcome news, no matter where it comes from. So why shouldn't it come from you? Some advice on getting good news about your organization in print and on air.

Pay attention to news cycle. Don't pick busy times such as Election Day or a major catastrophe to pitch a story about your organization. The newsrooms will be far too busy to consider—let alone cover—the idea. Slow periods such as summer and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day are often great times to suggest stories because news is slow.

Think trends. Have new programming or equipment at your facilities? Pitch it as light feature to a local television station or newspaper. When Styrofoam noodles became the must-have pool accessory in Dayton nearly 10 years ago, a community pool called the local paper and suggested a photographer come and take a picture. The photo—which featured dozens of children playing with rainbow-colored noodles—was so engaging, an editor sent a reporter back to the pool to write a front-page story about the toy's popularity. The next morning, that little pool seemed like the hippest waterpark in town.

Be mindful of history. Newspapers and television stations love to cover milestones, even if they serve as footnotes for bigger stories. For example, when the Midwest had an unseasonably warm winter a few years ago, local reporters were scrambling each day to find new angles on the obligatory weather stories. A couple of golf courses called to report the first-ever rounds played in December. The tips drew both television and still cameras to the links and provided free publicity for the courses.

All news, like politics, is local. Journalists love to localize national stories. If your organization has a tie-in to a national event, be sure to inform local reporters. The Illinois Parks and Recreation Association, for example, gleaned positive press last year by holding a seminar on how local park districts should be preparing themselves in the event of a terrorist attack. The topic tied into a pressing national issue and made the organization look both responsible and responsive to community fears.

Publicize your patrons. Often the best ways to get your facility in the paper are to promote the people inside it. If a patron has accomplished an important goal such as winning a national competition or overcoming a severe health crisis, let the local media know. In most cases, the heart-warming story will mention the role your facility plays in the subject's success.

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