Communicating with news media

Serious incidents are likely to attract the attention of the news media, particularly if a well-known organisation or person is involved, or if there is a fatality. Successfully handling media enquiries is both an art and a science. There are skills which will assist and there are guidelines which, if followed consistently, will present the story in the best possible light. It is not difficult to think of circumstances where media have been poorly handled, and the public perception of an organisation, person or activity has been adversely affected.

It is sad but true, bad news sells papers and attracts television viewers. Think about holiday stories; it is the disasters which are interesting, not the wonderful relaxing holiday where everything went perfectly. So it is with news media.

There are a number of basic rules in dealing with the media which will significantly reduce the chance of damaging publicity. These include:

  • There must be one point of contact for the media—one and one only.
  • This person must be sufficiently senior to have the authority to speak on behalf of any organisation involved, having a sufficient breadth of understanding of the total operation, as well as the specific incident.
  • This person must be capable of remaining calm under pressure. The ability to ‘think on their feet’ and retain a caring attitude is important.
  • Never present facts without checking they are accurate.
  • Never tell untruths or lies—you will be found out. The consequences of having to retrieve a situation from misleading the media will be vastly more difficult than if the factual situation was explained in the first place.
  • If the answer to a particular question is not known at the time, offer to find out the relevant information and get back to the representative. Make sure you do.
  • Never ‘go to ground’ and refuse to comment. The media will conclude there is something to hide. If the media believes there is a story there, they will say so. How can you expect your point of view to be broadcast if you do not explain it?
  • If information must be withheld, always give the reason (e.g. next of kin have not yet been notified, doctor’s orders, etc.).
  • Be polite and answer questions simply and factually, avoiding speculation or conjecture.
  • Never speculate on blame or responsibility. Stick to the known and verifiable facts.
  • The objective is to have a one-day story and avoid a series of headlines over days or weeks. To achieve this, as much detail as possible must be provided as early as possible, subject only to protection of those directly involved and legal considerations.

Handling the media well requires practice, and it is easier to practice when the going is good than when the going is tough. If you are part of a high profile organisation, establishing good relationships with the media before something goes wrong will be a great help. This includes releasing stories of interest and making contact with journalists who cover your field of operations. If relationships are already in place, and your organisation has a reputation for being helpful and truthful, you will be in good stead if something goes wrong in the future.

Debriefing and counselling
The benefits from debriefing after a serious incident are now firmly agreed by all who have examined recovery processes in survivors. The extent and who is best to handle it will depend on the seriousness of the incident. The more serious, the greater the need for professional assistance. The sooner after the incident that debriefing commences, the better. Most psychological research suggests that debriefing and counselling commencing within one or two days is the most effective after fatalities.

What the media will want to know

  • What happened
  • Where it happened
  • When it happened
  • Who was involved—names, personal data not only of injured but also rescuers
  • Why it happened
  • Background on the organisation—the activity, safety records, etc

Ours is a society which denies death, and unexpected sudden death, without illness to prepare us, is hardest of all to cope with. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1970, 1974) is one of the most respected authors on this difficult subject and is well worth seeking out.

The possibility of a fatality in an adventure program is a reality that must be faced. All responsible programs must be completely and adequately prepared to deal with this possibility. The tragic effect on so many people will never be erased or forgotten.