It is very likely at some point during your in-house career you will have to deal with the news media. This can be both exhilarating and challenging. Not too long ago I attended an Association of Corporate Counsel chapter program on dealing with the media that provided some useful insights.
The diverse panel included a TV reporter, the general counsel of an entertainment company, a former GC of a Fortune 500 company, a public affairs specialist, and an lawyer specializing in white-collar crime and securities issues.
The panelists addressed the tension between the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle and lawyers’ natural inclination to get all the facts and avoid damaging admissions. They emphasized the importance of preparation, from thinking about how to handle a crisis and having a crisis communications plan, to individual media training and preparing for interviews in advance rather than just winging it.
There were differing views regarding “on the record” (put the statement in quotes and identify the speaker), “background” (put the statement in quotes but only provide general description of speaker), and “off the record” (cannot attribute or use). Regardless of the rules of engagement, everyone agreed it was crucial to have a clear understanding of the facts, focus of the story, and reporter intent.
Each panelist emphasized a common theme: Be clear and concise. One panelist did just that when he said, “Know your message, stick to it, be brief, be clear, be confident, and shut up!”
The panelists also touched on admissions and apologies with views ranging from “admit nothing,” to “be sympathetic,” to avoid apologizing unless you are willing to accept the consequences of an admission.
• Remember discussions with your public relations representatives may not be privileged.
• Avoid statements that enrage your adversary, especially when it is a government entity or a regulatory body.
• Be thoughtful and choose the appropriate spokesperson for each media encounter.
• If you are going to be interviewed, practise your answers.
• When you make affirmative statements, be sure of your facts.
• Speak clearly (e.g., in plain language — not complicated legal jargon or acronyms).
• Know your client and its culture, as it will be a major factor in how you deal with the media.
• Bring in public relations or communications professionals early so they are aware of what is going on.
Additionally, I would note it is important to anticipate issues or problems that might eventually peak the interest of reporters. Identifying issues early will provide you with more time to get the facts right and determine how you’re going to respond. Most importantly, it will put you ahead of the news cycle and help you position your organization in a more positive light.
To be sure, the biggest mistake most organizations make in these circumstances is failure to respond in a timely fashion. Time is not on your side when it comes to the media. Speed is critical. What’s at stake if you are slow to respond? Potentially everything. Keep in mind the effect of bad press coverage is often permanent.
If you’re working on litigation, you might be inclined to say “no comment.” Try not to. Saying “no comment” positions you and your organization in a negative light. It also gives the impression you have something to hide. Instead, use media inquiries as an opportunity to reaffirm your strongest argument about the case or provide information about the next steps in the case.
It’s also important to stay positive. Don’t get defensive or complain. Instead, think like a consumer and tailor your messaging accordingly.
Also keep in mind the plaintiffs’ bar has traditionally been very proactive in using the media to build cases and enhance visibility of a lawsuit the minute a case is filed. For example, leveraging the media has been a very effective tool in creating a critical mass in class action litigation. You see stories about these types of cases in the news every day.
Whether the story is about the company facing civil liability or accusations of criminal conduct, a bad turn in business, an employee complaint, or an unhappy customer –– you must be ready to field calls from the media, have a strategy for responding to questions, and be prepared to address the difficult questions. This excellent article from the ACC offers 10 tips to mitigate risk when a crisis occurs.
Think before you speak and use good judgment to protect your client’s brand at all costs. Finally, remember this advice from Will Rogers: “Never miss a good chance to shut up!”