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The Right to Know

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 08:15

Anyone who has been in the eye of a media storm will agree that the old saying, "any publicity is good publicity", no longer applies. Managing the media is an important element in protecting your brand and reputation. Lesley Parker reports.

The Pan Pharmaceuticals crisis in 2003 was one of the biggest product recalls in Australian history. About 1600 products, made by Pan for various brands, were eventually cleared from the shelves amid allegations of manufacturing malpractice.

By rights, natural health products company Blackmores should have been able to heave a sigh of relief that none of its products were sourced from Pan and that its health supplements had the tick of approval from the industry regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

Instead, the business found itself in the midst of a "media storm" as the complementary medicines sector as a whole came under fire.

"All our [industry's] detractors came out of the woodwork," recalls Executive Chairman Marcus Blackmore. "The biggest challenge for us was to counter the media dominance of our critics by supporting our industry."

Within hours of the news that the TGA was suspending Pan's licence, Blackmores had held its first crisis meeting and committed extra funds to print, radio and store advertising to reassure consumers that its products were safe.

Equally important, Marcus Blackmore and senior management were also speaking to radio, TV, and newspaper journalists; those seeking comment from them as managers of a high-profile natural health business, and those they approached themselves.

"The chief executive and I did a number of radio and TV interviews, and we actively sought those," Blackmore says.

Even with all the other pressures on them, they knew they had to make time to speak to the media and they knew senior management - not anonymous spokespeople - had to be the face of the company.

The ultimate result was that while Blackmores lost 20 per cent of its customers in the first week of the crisis, sales the following month were double their usual level. And many of these new customers stayed, meaning a permanent lift in market share.

It was a textbook case of how to handle the media in a time of crisis.

Still, the Pan Pharmaceuticals product recall also illustrates how a media storm can engulf an entire sector, and how you won't always see the black clouds gathering.

Gerry McCusker, author of Talespin: Public Relations Disasters - Inside Stories & Lessons Learnt (Kogan Page, 2005), says that's why it's imperative for any company - big or small - to at least think about media and crisis management, and preferably commit a policy or plan to paper.

"Overseas research by one crisis management firm concluded that 80 per cent of media disasters could have been avoided," he says. "Why weren't they? Because most companies don't believe a PR disaster can happen to them."

And it's too late to start thinking about how to handle such a crisis once you're in one, says McCusker, a PR consultant.

"The first 24 hours are absolutely critical in shaping perceptions and dictating how the issue will run from then on. If you don't have anything in place prior to the game kicking off, then you're playing catch-up."

Manufacturer MasterFoods was praised for the way it handled a massive product recall in New South Wales , after the Snickers and Mars bar brands were targeted in a chocolate contamination scare in July.

In an effort to help manage the recall, MasterFoods was fast to set up a hotline, was open with the media, and placed full-page advertisements in major newspapers.

Media skills coach at communications consultancy Red Agency, Antoni Lee says there are three broad situations that may draw a business into a media storm: natural disasters and other forms of mayhem completely outside their control; product or machinery fault; and human error or mismanagement.

"So the reality is, unless you're the perfect organisation, with perfect managers and perfect machinery and perfect employees, this could happen to you," says Lee.

Communications and issue management firm Jackson Wells Morris has worked with some of Australia's biggest companies - including James Hardie, Boral, and AMP - but Chairman Keith Jackson agrees that a business of any size can find itself in the media eye.

"The very nature of issues is that they're generated out of relationships with stakeholders, and every business has those," he says.

Jackson's advice is: be prepared. Think about who your stakeholders are (suppliers, customers, regulators, even the neighbours), what their interests are (a good quality service or product, clean air, peace and quiet), and therefore what issues might possibly arise.

That analysis should, first, allow a business to keep those relationships in good working order by foreseeing and avoiding issues. But, second, it allows a business to react quickly and positively when and if an issue does arise.

So, what should you do at that awkward moment when a journalist's call is put through to your office or, worse, you are confronted by TV cameras at the front door? It may be the first you've heard of the customer complaint or allegation of corporate malpractice - is "no comment" a legitimate response?

The specialists' advice is that honesty is almost always the best policy.

Caught on the hop, don't tell the journalist to go away (or words to that effect), or hold a hand up in front of the camera, or put your jacket over your head.

"First of all, find out exactly what they want," says Keith Jackson. "The journalist needs to be engaged in a conversation. Somebody's got a complaint, you need to know more about it, and you need to see if there's evidence to support it - that's the first and rational step.

"At that point a decision has to be made about whether it's in your interests to then pursue the conversation, or whether you want to just call a pause and say, 'I need to investigate this further; I'll get back to you in the next hour or two'.

"That's the right of all of us; journalists don't have a pre-emptive right to get us to do something or say something if it's clearly not in our interest to do that," Jackson says.

Having said that, completely backing away from the issue - or not getting back to the journalist quickly - can be construed as guilt or an admission.

"In not being open, you are in fact inviting somebody to speculate about your motives, about the facts, about the events that might have occurred," says Jackson . "And the speculation is unlikely to be endearing.

"It's better to be transparent, within the boundaries of your own interests and within a moral judgement that says people have a right to information if they will be harmed by not having it," he says.

Gerry McCusker agrees, but cautions against including speculation in your comments. "How much is the right thing to say? You have to stick to the facts as you know them. You've got to say, 'What we know today is this...' You've got to be pretty factual or your words may come back to haunt you."

Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) President Robert Masters says managers need to remember that they are only one source of information for the media; if they're not willing or able to talk, journalists will look elsewhere.

"A journalist once said to me that they could find out more from the cleaner than from the company spokesman, and so they preferred to get their information there. If you're not prepared to speak, you can come unstuck very, very quickly."

In that regard, Antoni Lee says staff need to know who can and can't speak to the media. "It might be one paragraph in an induction manual telling you what to do if you take a call or are approached by the media - but if you don't have that you're unfairly submitting anyone who answers the phone to a level of communication they're not geared up for.

"This media demand for news can work for and against your organisation's legitimate communication objectives," Lee says. "It's up to you."
Under fire

After an overnight fire destroyed the nudie drinks factory in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood last year, there were employees to rehouse, systems to restore, a new factory to find - but one of nudie founder Tim Pethick's first actions was to call a contact at radio station 2UE.

"That was about 3am, and our first interview was at 5.30am on the Mike Carlton show," says Pethick. "From then on, it was a continual round of media. I spoke, basically, to anyone who wanted to talk to me.

"The reason for that was that after the fire we had a whole bunch of stakeholders we had to communicate to, many of them external to the organisation: all our debtors, all our creditors, all our outlets, and all our consumers, who were going to see nudies disappear off the shelf.

"And the only way we can communicate to all those external stakeholders quickly is to use the media."

Pethick says he was comfortable with the way the fire was reported, even though news reports raised the issue of industrial sabotage when this was something he had dismissed.

"The TV, I think, asked did I suspect that the fire was started by a competitor. My response was that this is not the Roaring '20s in Chicago; I don't believe that in Australia competitors burn down each other's factories.

"That was picked up by all the media; when you answer a question in the negative like that they almost run with it as a sort of positive affirmation!

"But, really, I thought the reporting was fine. Some people got some facts about the business wrong, but at the end of the day it didn't really matter; the bottom line was that the key messages - that there's been a fire, but we're coming back - got across very effectively."

Handling the media

  • Be open and honest: acknowledge the situation and say what you are doing about it.
  • Avoid a "no comment" - the vacuum will be filled by others.
  • Don't rely on your reputation speaking for itself.
  • Use a credible spokesperson - the CEO or the responsible manager.
  • Respond quickly: journalists work to tight deadlines.
  • Don't think you can "control" the media.
  • Don't treat the media as the enemy - build relationships and trust.
  • Don't take corporate criticism personally.
  • React maturely to misinformation.
  • Have at hand basic communication materials such as fact sheets and contact details.