Pick Your Mantra, Then Answer Journalists

July 3rd, 2017 by Matt Friedman

Sometimes, journalists just can’t help themselves. Even when not in an interview, they ask questions that get you thinking.

Last week, one of our clients hosted journalist, author and educator John U. Bacon as a keynote speaker at a charity fundraising event. In conversation before his speech, Bacon asked me a terrific question. When it comes to crisis communication, what is my top piece of advice? He told me his first. After covering and writing about PR crises and speaking to companies across the country, he’s partial to the mantra of former University of Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham: “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.” Sound advice indeed.

I told him that in a crisis engagement, I typically start with, “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.”

answer-hiBoth pieces of advice were relevant in a recent week when two separate clients received inquiries from journalists and, remarkably, top executives had the same reaction, “Don’t respond.” To protect client confidentiality, I can’t write about the details of each case. But in both instances, the counsel back to them was the same. There is no upside whatsoever in not getting back to the reporters with, at least, something to say. In both cases, the client executives listened to counsel and allowed for responses that, with the benefit of hindsight, likely protected them against small crises. In one case, the journalist was able to be equipped with facts that prevented, or at least delayed, a story from being written. In the other case, the client’s message made it into the story to provide valuable context (it spoke for itself, so others wouldn’t be given the opportunity).

Was the instinct shared by two senior executives at two different organizations in two different parts of the country the reflection of any kind of trend, such as the anti-media rhetoric coming out of The White House? From the inside of both situations, it seems more coincidental than anything else. One executive was trained as a lawyer and many in that profession believe that not returning a media inquiry is a way to guarantee that you won’t say anything that will get held against you (even though it invites many other repercussions).

But as we start the second half of the year, it’s an opportunity to remember why there are multiple good reasons to make sure you don’t ignore inquiries from journalists. Take your pick – “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story” or “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you” or any other adage you think applies other than “Don’t respond.”

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