The cookie monster and healthcare (How not to deal with a media crisis)

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On Tuesday, a Canadian media relations crisis consultant shared with a closed group some insights on what to do — and not to do — when you are caught in the  glare of the media spotlight. His example: Stephen Duckett, an Australian who moved to Canada and became president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, a “superboard” to oversee the province’s healthcare system.

Shortly after his appointment, the provincial government imposed a significant ($1billion) budget cut on Alberta Health Services. Implementation of these cuts by Alberta Health Services was unpopular and controversial. (Wikipedia).

In 2010, Duckett attended a high-level (and publicized) meeting about the province’s emergency room situation. Reporters were waiting outside the meeting room door, and the resulting video (for good reason) went viral.

The incident, of course widely reported on local news at the time, led to some further fun, when a viewer completed a mash-up starring, of course, The Cookie Monster.

The media consultant said that Duckett lost his job just a few days after this incident. (True, but later he settled for $100,000 in severance and he appears to have landed on his feet as head of the Australian Gratten Institute’s health program director.)

Obviously, this guy had either failed to receive (or ignored) basic crisis media relations advice. His most obvious error: He wasn’t prepared for the ambush. It would have taken just a few seconds for someone to peek outside the door, see the waiting camera crews, and for him to prepare a brief scripted remark that he appreciated the media’s interest, and that he would be available at the set press conference scheduled, and would be happy to provide individual interviews right after the news conference. Then he could have enjoyed his cookie in peace.

The consultant shared another story, also career-damaging. A sports reporter arranged for a one-on-one night out with the team’s coach. They had a few beer and shot the breeze. Then the reporter asked the question about the coach’s expectations of the team’s performance next year. The coach said the team is rebuilding and everything is going well, and he was really pleased with the progress, but the team’s standings might drop by one level in the standings next year as the rebuilding continued.

This led to a headline: “Coach predicts last place finish for his team.” The team, it seem, had been in second-last-place the previous year.

Obviously, you need to be thoughtful and careful in dealing with the media, especially when the unexpected occurs. No one can predict exactly when or how a media crisis will occur, and most of us are totally unprepared for the shock of being put in the public spotlight.

Larger organizations can contract with specialized media crisis consultants. They’ll provide training, help you prepare a policy manual and set out basic rules, and (probably most importantly) provide an emergency crisis number you can call when you are about to be put under the spotlight. If you are a smaller firm, you may find some guidance and reference to these consultants through your relevant industry association.

Generally, the advice goes this way:

  • Have a plan — set out the policies and procedures for media encounters and share this with anyone who comes in contact with the media;
  • Have a designated media spokesperson and backup, so there is always someone who can respond, but only one person. Receptionists and frontline employees who come into contact with the media should quickly and courteously deflect all media inquiries to the designated spokesperson. The spokesperson generally should be someone very senior (like the president or CEO);
  • The person (people) who will actually speak with the media should have a simple “buy time” message they can use when they receive a surprise media call. This could be: “Thanks for the call. I need to get some more information so my facts are accurate. Could I call you back in 20 minutes?” Then you need to follow up with the call — but now you have a bit of time to prepare your response, and if necessary, consult with your emergency media consultant;
  • You should realize that (even if its seems reasonable) nothing is off the record. Note that cell phones allow for damaging images/sound clips from what would have been closed-door meetings/events. Also remember that “friendly” reporters are just doing their job; they may seem nice, but they are seeking to loosen you up so you will tell them what you really think — even if that isn’t the most politically-correct thing to do;
  • On the other hand, you can’t hide the truth. It is generally wiser to be up front and straightforward; but there are grey areas; should you apologize or not; should you admit responsibility or try to hide — especially when you are thinking about the lawyers, as well as the media/public perceptions;
  • Finally, you should consider the various likely things that can go wrong, and how you would co-ordinate communications, responses, and reactions. You can’t predict everything, but if you have an emergency plan in place, you’ll be under much less stress when the crisis happens.

I have some fun breaking some of the media’s conventional rules, because of my rather rare status as a journalist/publisher. Most working journalists don’t own their own media businesses. (Yes, there are freelance writers, but I happen to be the president of the company that employs/contracts with writers, sales reps, production staff, and everything else associated with a publishing business.)

This means I will often send stories for review/approval before publication (but you should never expect that co-operation from other journalists who want nothing to do with the “advertising guys”) and I generally screen out any self-promotional publicity seekers who are not also advertisers. (There are a few exceptions. They “get it” that we publish specialized industry publications and are careful to promote community service initiatives rather than products, or their legitimate point-of-view on controversial public interest issues.)

However, when I conduct interviews and explain how I do things, I also make clear that my model is not the norm. Be careful when you are dealing with the news media. Prepare, and have a plan. Or you might end up being  like the Alberta Health Cookie Monster or the team-disaster red-faced coach.

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