Getting Off the Front Page

How can organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, get a bad new incident off he front page? Most organizations drool over the chance for front-page publicity. But what if the news and accompanying spotlight is uncomfortable? Got a Page One exit strategy?

Say, for example, a government agency is about to issue a less than glowing report of a business or contractor. Or an agency is undergoing a stormy relationship with a citizen group. More often than not, such issues of contention are not a surprise, but are situations that slowly have built to a head.

Make sure you are prepared with a crisis communications or reputation management strategy. Before reporters start calling, try these tactical steps that may help reduce the level of controversy, putting the issue in the rearview mirror by leaving positive impressions.

Clarity and tone: Be prepared to state simply where your organization agrees or disagrees with the critical source about the issue. Tone is important. Keep your words respectful and unemotional. Keep in mind the goal of managing reputations for the long-term.

Humility: Accept constructive criticism as potentially helpful. Be prepared to admit change may be needed.

Transparency: Be prepared to show reporters how your programs and policies work. I remember dealing with the media right after a MAX light rail car, being tested before the system officially started operations, struck and killed someone on a section of track where no one should have been.

Were there brake problems? A request was made by a reporter to review the vehicle’s safety inspection records. The unusual request was granted. There was no wrongdoing with the inspectors or operator. Opening up the records was a confidence builder.

Third parties: Are there respected experts or knowledgeable leaders in the community willing to say positive things about your organization’s performance? If so, get statements or refer the media to them. It’s better to have third parties put your group into perspective than you having to say nice things about yourself.

Is there a win-win? Despite critical public comments or bad news, are there enough positives in the situation – some facts opposing sides agree upon – that a “win-win” statement can be incorporated into the public response? Are there follow-up tasks you might implement or announce responding to action requested by critics? This tactic is another confidence builder.

Timing and transition: Have a first-week plan guiding a series of public responses that deals with negative news and comments. Use the second week to build sustaining tools, such as video and beefed up web pages. On week three, transition to more permanent communications tools, such as community presentations, which stress your positives as well as deemphasize the recent negatives. Start putting the front-page news in the past. But always be prepared to respond to the negative issues if asked.

These steps help build credibility, show flexibility and lower the volume on the noise as the controversy subsides. If you don't have a plan, get one. Don't wait for a crisis.