A key question in strategic planning is how to deal with the media. Large clients have public affairs officers; small companies do not. Your problem may be a spill, an enforcement action, a long, complex permitting matter, or the negotiation of rules or legislation. All of these require a different approach. I have found the least effective approach to the media is “no comment.” To the public, that means: “We’re guilty, but we don’t want to admit it.” So what is a better approach?
In a complex permitting matter, you need a robust outreach effort to the both the public and the media even though you can’t control either. But control is not the issue; influencing their perception about you is. Communicating is. Getting your story out is. Reducing their hostility, whether perceived or real, is.
I’ve always felt that you should talk to people before you need to ask them for something. You need to establish relationships. You need to explain your project, simply, accurately and repeatedly. You need to visit the media, not just wait until it comes to you; usually the media comes to you when you have a problem. It’s nice to have some media when you don’t have a problem. The media is looking for a story; making an executive available for an interview can be viewed as a newsworthy (and appreciated) by the media. The messages: economic benefit, minimized environmental impact and green and/or sustainable features. Permitting projects are like take-home exams—you get to prepare and tell your story without a deadline. You should take advantage of the opportunity.
If you have experienced a spill or a traumatic event (such as a fire or injury), there will be press inquiries and the coverage will be negative. If you do not have a public affairs officer on staff, or if you do not have an outside public affairs consultant, your plant manager, by default, will become your press officer. It is important for you to have a policy about what to say. A little bit of anticipation and planning can go a long way to being able to put your best foot forward even in a difficult time. It is one thing to say “no comment” if asked whether you expect to expand employment; it is another thing if asked whether a fire or spill has released toxic substances in the area of the facility. Someone has to be prepared to deal with issues such as “risk” and “safety.” Those are loaded terms and can quickly, one way or another, give a wrong impression. Regardless, the media is your megaphone to the public. You are not “just” talking to the media; you are talking to the public.
When talking to the media, or to an agency to which an emergency report must be given, it is always important to have the facts straight—to the extent that you understand them at the time. Regardless of accuracy, you will be stuck with whatever you say initially. If you are unsure whether 25,000 gallons of petroleum was released (as compared to 2,500), then make that clear. Make sure that you comply with all time requirements for spill reporting, but report what you know and qualify what you only think you know. Make sure that the information on your Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know (EPCRA) annual reports (which typically are filed with local fire departments) are updated and accurate. First responders rely on that information and their safety is at stake; further, that information is invaluable to whoever talks to the media or a regulatory agency.
Perhaps because, as a law student working in a Governor’s Office, I had the opportunity to work with the press corps, and perhaps because the Executive Secretary was a former newspaper editor, I got to know the media at a young age. I was taught how to properly prepare a press release. [Yes, even a lawyer can learn to do it.] We would go out of our way to relate to the media and provide information, including during trips around the state when we would always visit the nearest weekly newspaper. Years later, when negotiating mining rules with environmental groups, local governments and Native American communities, we invited the press to attend negotiations. Most reporters were not interested; one, however, was and he became the “historian” of the negotiations—and added badly needed credibility to the negotiations. What better way to demonstrate that private negotiations (between environmental groups and business) were not “secret” than to invite the media.
Dealing with the media is an art and not a science; but staying in touch with the media and being prepared to deal with it is a necessity. And you need to be good at it. Prepare for the expected, but also anticipate and prepare for the unexpected. Don’t overlook the ability of your lawyer to deal with the media. In American society, the media may not be your friend; but it doesn’t have to be your enemy. You should not look upon it as your enemy and you shouldn’t let it become your enemy.