Think the Harsh Glare of the News Will Never Happen to You? Think Again.
By Thomas J. Roach
If you watched the news about an employee killing three co-workers and wounding several others at the quarry in Cupertino, Calif., and thought, “That could be us,” you had the right reaction.
Any company, no matter how small or seemingly removed from the public eye, can be thrown into the news mix. Freak accidents, heroic rescues and horrific crimes are all part of the human experience and can happen anywhere.
In October, 47-year-old Shareef Allman became upset at a safety meeting at Lehigh Hanson's Permanente cement plant and quarry in Cupertino, Calif. He left and came back shooting with a handgun and rifle. He later died by his own hand during a shootout with police five miles from the quarry.
The nuisance of dealing with news media in a time like this is secondary to coping with the tragic loss of life, but once the crime has been committed, dealing with the news media may necessarily be a company’s biggest concern.
There are three basic rules to follow when working with reporters:
1. Don’t refuse to talk to them.
2. Always tell the truth.
3. Be prompt.
The rules of objective journalism require reporters interview everyone involved in the incident. Those unfamiliar with controversy and news reporting are usually tempted not to talk. The problem with not talking to reporters is that it releases them from their obligation to include your perspective. They will eventually have to write the story anyway, only without your point of view.
Talking to reporters doesn’t mean telling them everything they want to hear. If a crime has been committed and lawyers have forbidden that it be discussed, it should still be possible to talk about your concern for the welfare of workers and the public, what you do at your facility, and your history in the community. The newsworthy incident will be reported with or without you, but by cooperating with reporters it may be possible to control the overall perceptions of your organization.
The requirement for honesty should be obvious to any professional organization. If a source of information cannot be trusted on one issue, then it cannot be trusted on any issue. It is always better to confirm unflattering information than to misrepresent something. In fact, acknowledging something when it is not in your best interest proves your honesty and makes future statements seem more reliable.
Promptness is somewhat less important than accessibility and honesty, but it deserves consideration. Reporters are professionals with a job to do. That job requires getting information and getting it fast. Remember, these are the people who invented the word deadline. It is a professional courtesy to return their calls immediately and if they ask for information that requires research that you get back to them as quickly as possible. There is a tacit understanding that if you respect their deadlines you respect them, and they will treat your organization with more respect when reporting a story.
In addition to following the three rules, it is useful to try to see the world as reporters see it. How do reporters see the world? Good reporters see the world as their readers see it. They ask, “If I were picking up a newspaper tomorrow, what would I want to read?” Usually the answer is some form of bad news. We can criticize reporters for dwelling on it, but we should not be surprised. Bad news is of much greater interest than good news.
In the long run, every interaction with the news media is part of an ongoing story. The more interactions with reporters, the more they become familiar with the organization and its staff. If these interactions are handled in a forthcoming way with honesty and promptness, then rapport is built up and the
organization is better insulated against negative publicity in the