Channel SurfingAs a follow-up to last week’s post about how to create an effective crisis communications plan, this week’s post will focus on actually executing part of it; namely, how to speak to the media and get your message across.

Avoiding the limelight may seem like an appealing option, but Toyota’s extended silence following widespread complaints of involuntary acceleration problems in their vehicles provides a cautionary tale of how a company can tarnish their own reputation by failing to react publicly. Once you do take the plunge though and make a statement, how do you ensure that you don’t make the crisis worse? Here are some pointers.

1. Explain the five “W”s – who, what, when, where and why

At the very least, you need to convey several key points to give your audience a solid understanding of what is going on. For example, you need to clearly describe the events that have taken place. You should also address the impacts the crisis is having on your organization and the people relying on your operations and most importantly the steps you are taking to fix the problem.

2. Allow room for feelings as well as facts

Regardless of whether or not your organization is to blame, people will be deeply affected by the crisis. This makes the first 30 seconds of your opening statement a critical time to step outside the role of an employee and express genuine empathy (not sympathy) towards those who are impacted. Being honest and open about your emotions will help remind viewers that you are a person and not just an organization trying to deflect blame.

Also, if there is a camera involved, you should look straight into it at some point. Continually averting your eyes can give the impression that you are trying to hide something.

3. Admit what you don’t know or can’t say

Pretending to know all of the answers will not only make your responses reckless but could also irrevocably damage your brand. Instead of speculating on what the right answer is or avoiding the question altogether, you should acknowledge what you don’t know and offer to follow up with the information later. Additionally, never speak for other people.

If a reporter asks you something you can’t discuss, one of the worst ways you could reply is, “No comment.” An expert in communications remarks that these two words are “the media equivalent of surrendering.” They make you look guilty and offer incentive for the media to search for the answer elsewhere. Therefore, the proper way to respond is to explain why you can’t disclose the information, e.g., you are waiting for more evidence before coming to a conclusion.

4. Get your facts straight

You should only relay accurate information. Start with your conclusions first and then provide supporting data. If you stumble on any words or make mistakes, you should explicitly state that you would like to make a clarification and then do it.

Moreover, don’t dwell on negative allegations and certainly don’t entertain “what if” questions. Write out a list of imperative takeaways and focus on those instead.

5. Repeat the message

More than likely, your audience will not remember most of what you say, which is why you should repeat your key messages several times. Use examples, comparisons and analogies to paint strong, vivid mental images of the points you are trying to portray.

6. Leave jargon to the experts and keep rambling to a minimum

If you have a broad audience, you should refrain from using scientific and technical jargon to mitigate the chances that your message will get convoluted. Likewise, don’t tell epic tales or fill time with too many minute details, as you may lose the attention of your audience or run out of time for vital messages. The best strategy is to articulate clearly and to speak in concise sentences.

7. There is no such thing as “off the record”

Even if you feel as though you have established a firm camaraderie with the media, don’t be foolish and try to talk “off the record.” You don’t have control over what gets printed and it’s nearly impossible to gain back the public’s trust once it’s gone.

Have you seen Toyota U.S. President Jim Lentz’s response as to whether or not there had been a cover-up as far back as March of 2007? Does your opinion of Toyota change for the better or worse after watching it?

Marlia Fontaine-Weisse is the Content Manager for Preparis.