Crisis communications and media relations can take many forms – and the press conference is not always the right answer. In part as a result of US Whitehouse coverage and any number of Hollywood blockbusters, you would be forgiven for thinking that the crisis press conference is the default option for every mass communication. In reality this couldn’t be further from the truth as for all the apparent benefits, there are a number of tiger traps to catch the unwary and ill prepared.
Let’s consider the setting – there is a roomful of potentially aggressive journalists facing your three company spokespeople. They are at liberty to ask whatever they want, with a variety of pre-dispositions and agendas, with the opportunity to piggyback each other’s line of questioning, all of which makes it far more difficult to maintain control of the exchanges, as compared to a one-on-one interview.
Rule No.1 therefore…on no account entertain a press conference unless you are well rehearsed and have the confidence to stay on message, whilst potentially fielding all manner of enquiries. A press conference is at its best is a control mechanism: you control when and where to hold it and what you say. But, once begun, you cannot control questions and how they are followed up! See Sepp Blatter (FIFA President– football’s global governing body) in action in May 2011 demonstrating the potential for ‘losing it’ in the spotlight of a conference:
So when do you consider hosting a press conference?
Essentially when all, or at least a significant number of the following criteria apply:
- If you or your organisation are guilty of a misdemeanour and it is imperative to `go public’ with the facts as soon as you are sure of them and have positive plans for rectifying the situation – this is particularly the case with a rolling crisis where there is significant potential for harm to public health and well-being e.g. banking failure, product safety issue, environmental disaster
- You want a forum for expressing and conveying concern and regret and you have a spokesperson who can credibly handle this role, i.e. someone with a “human face”
- When you need to put the facts straight, whether you are culpable or not: a press conference can provide an ideal opportunity to recap on events and ensure the media understand properly what has happened
- You want to seize the initiative and take control of a significant, fast-developing event where time is of the essence and the speedy dissemination of information is necessary
- You know that the news you have is of compelling importance to a wide audience, and that most/all news organisations will recognise that to be the case
- You are likely to be door-stepped by the media and you want to take relative control of the situation – the press may have gathered at the scene of the disaster or outside company headquarters
- There is limited availability of a key figure or speaker, making a sequence of one-on-one interviews impractical
- You have visual material/schematics, which is best presented to a group in this way
- You have fully prepared and discussed/rehearsed a Q&A document with all participants
- You can hold it on your territory and plan access and exit routes
As you can see, hosting a press conference is not to be undertaken lightly but requires sound rationale, well before any logistics and preparation phases are considered.
If in doubt…don’t!
Part Two coming soon – The Crisis Press Conference: Planning and execution