So, what do I say when I don’t have all the facts and the media show up?

By: Jim Stanton, President, Stanton Associates, Vancouver and Toronto

 Many organizations are busy creating Business Continuity Plans. The part missing is often making sure that a proactive, strategic communications plan is prepared for each of the phase of business continuity.

Read the following sentence and remember it. When things go wrong, the organization that contacts the media first sets the communications template. Everyone else is in reaction to what you say. It is critical to get out with your messages, even if you don’t know exactly what happened.

I have been involved in the communications process of many major events such as; plane crashes in Nova Scotia, propane explosions in Ontario, floods in Manitoba, health issues in Saskatchewan, SARS in Toronto, Kananaskis G8 Summit in Alberta, fires in British Columbia and the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

It is important to remember this, the media are storytellers and they need to be engaged in getting your story out to the public. The key to success is that simple phrase, “engage the media.” You are not talking to them; you are using them as the conduit for your messages.

Rick Hillier, former Canadian Chief of Defense Staff said, “Without the media, we cannot tell our story. We need to engage them in what we are doing.” Hillier backed this comment up by allowing any Canadian service person to speak to the media, without pre-clearance by a public affairs officer, about his or her area of expertise. This openness has connected the Canadian public with their armed forces in an incredibly positive manner.

One unifying theme I have learned is that no matter how well executed the emergency plan, if the organization does not have a commitment to timely, clear, concise, simple communications, the event can spin out of control.

Until recent times, most organizations left the responsibility of communications in a grey, undefined area. It was not on the operational radar screen and was one of those things that would “get done when needed.”

Increasingly we are seeing spokespersons for emergency organizations getting out in front of the media quickly and delivering crisp, clear messages – they are engaging the media in a much more effective manner.

So, what do you say when you don’t have all the facts, perhaps you don’t really know what happened, are caught off guard because the media finds out before you do or you don’t want to jeopardize the incident?

Firstly, train your spokesperson. While some folks have a natural ability, speaking to the media in times of uncertainty, takes training and practice. Also, don’t depend on a single spokesperson – have a backup for them in case the event goes on for an extended period of time.

Secondly, make sure you “brand” your organization. Say your corporate name with frequency. Don’t just say, “We,” “Us,” “Our,” etc. Position yourself for TV shots in front of your corporate logo, wear identifying corporate clothes, badges, hats, etc. People want to hear from you and you need to make sure that in the din of messages your voice resonates.

Where possible, use your most senior spokesperson. When Maple Leaf Foods realized their product was killing Canadians, they used their President, Michael McCain as the designated corporate spokesperson. McCain’s honesty and consistency of messaging resulted in people believing what he was saying. Maple Leaf Foods has rebounded and has recaptured its market share. Mr. Mc Cain was nominated by Canadian Press as Chief Executive Office of the Year for his handling of the listeriosis crisis.

Similarly, when the New Westminster, BC, police face a gun incident in a school they took a proactive stance to manage this serious threat. Media Relations Officer, Sgt Ivan Chu said, “When the school was locked down, we took a pro-active approach to the media and parents with up-to-date information every 15 minutes. I used two local radio stations as my conduit for radio information to keep parents informed as well as traffic rerouting.  Parents were directed by radio that we had set up an information center where they could get up-dates every 15 minutes, as well as counseling services.” “In the end,” Sgt Chu said, “parent could not say enough good things about how we handled the situation.”

These two followed the principles that I know work in times of uncertainty which I am going to share with you now.

There are eight fundamentals that people want answers to in times of uncertainty:

  1. What is really happening?

In times of uncertainty and stress, rumors abound and you need to get out quickly with clear messaging. If you don’t know, speak about process, tell folks you have activated your plan, you are aware of the situation, and tell them to listen to the media for updates as more information becomes available.

  1. How will this affect me?

People need answers to this very critical question(s). You need to craft messages to address this concern.  Remember people will be concerned not just about themselves but about their children in school, parents in extended care facilities, partners working in another location, etc.

  1. What are you doing?

Here’s where you can give messages of reassurance to give people confidence and direction. It is important that you say the name of your organization frequently so your community knows you are taking care of their needs. Give them phone numbers, websites, Facebook references to go to for information.

  1. What do I need to do?

Keep your message clear and simple.  Match them to these eight fundamentals.

  1. Specific and detailed instructions.

One of the first things that goes in times of stress is short-term memory. People don’t know they don’t know. For example, you cannot simply say, “We have issued a boil water advisory.” You need to give people step-by-step directions in the simplest terms, with illustrations if possible, on how to do this.

  1. When will things get back to normal?

Your publics will want to know when the road will reopen, when they can access bank machines, where can they get sand bags, etc. Make sure you have specific messages to match the needs of your audiences as the event unfolds.

  1. Reassurance.

Folks want to know things are being managed in a professional and competent manner. Speak to your planning, the state of your response, give frequent updates, etc.

  1. Voices of authority they can trust.

Use your most senior spokespersons that are recognized subject matter experts. For example, you need to use a senior firefighter if the issue is one involving fire response. Similarly, if it is a health issue you need a doctor to be the spokesperson.

Notice that nowhere do I talk about blame. People do not care about blame, what they care about is what you are doing to resolve the incident.

Lastly, I want to speak about engaging the media in a creative manner. Get to know your local media now, enroll them in your emergency planning. Bring them along on training exercises. They live in your community when things go wrong and they will be here after. See them as partners in messaging.

Let me tell you that if you craft messages to meet these eight fundamental concerns, you will address the concerns of your citizens and will be successful in engaging the media and your public.

Recent events have seen these principles used successfully by Maple Leaf Foods when they were confronted with the listeriosis crisis. They use one, articulate spokesperson, admitted that they were in error, accepted responsibility – including legal implications – and when the dust cleared, they had not only maintained public confidence in their product they had gained a larger market share that before the crisis (See the study done with Leger Marketing and McMaster University at

Contrast this with the disastrous fiasco at BP and their total mismanagement of the publicity surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a case study for how not to do things.