Managing Media During a Safety Incident

Contributed by Safety Management Group

The call interrupted your sleep, and you were on your way to the worksite seven minutes later. You knew that there had been some kind of chemical leak and that at least three workers had been hurt, but the caller didn’t share much else. As you get closer, the sky is ablaze with red flashing lights from the half-dozen emergency vehicles on the scene. When you climb out of your truck, Jerry waves you over and briefs you on the small spill and the minor injuries that sent three workers to the hospital as a precaution. As you walk toward the actual site, that reporter from Channel 8 tries to ask you a question, but you’re in a hurry and you brush her aside.

An hour later, everything is under control — or so you think, until one of the guys turns up the volume on his laptop. “… unable to get confirmation, but what we’re hearing is that at least six workers have been seriously hurt and there may be at least two fatalities.” You’re stunned as she continues her report. “We’re hearing that a deadly chemical was released, and nobody is telling us whether the adjoining neighborhoods and Lincoln Elementary School may be in danger. Company officials and firefighters on the scene have refused to comment, so we’re not sure how great the danger may be.” Bob the weatherman is on next, describing the current winds and using a graphic to show which parts of the city may be in the path of the leak.

A relatively small safety incident has just become the morning’s major news story, and your site’s neighbors are waking up to the terrifying news that deadly chemicals are heading their way. Dozens of hysterical parents won’t send their kids to school this morning.

Sure, the truth will come out soon. But even if every report and article that follows is 100 percent accurate — which is highly unlikely — the damage has been done. Your well-managed site is now seen as a toxic time bomb, and it’s only a matter of time before a local politician publicly demands a shutdown. Your company’s hard-earned reputation in the community is shot. And it all happened because you refused to talk with a reporter.

Welcome to the world of 24-hour media. And whether you hate it or just accept it as a sign of the times, it’s a reality you have to deal with. As the news business becomes more competitive and aggressive, and as the public gets faster access to developing stories through online sources, reporters are racing to present stories faster than ever. If they don’t have time to be thorough or verify the accuracy, what’s the big deal?

When you’re planning for safety at your worksites, you study the potential hazards workers will encounter, and you take steps to minimize those hazards. You spend a great deal of time considering scenarios and making sure everyone knows how to respond. That way, if an incident does occur, the potential for injury or damage will be reduced. You need to be just as thoughtful and proactive when it comes to managing the media aspect of an incident.

The most important thing

It may seem obvious, but you need to remember that the media needs stories, and will cover your emergency whether or not you like it. You can resent that and fight them, or you can take steps that will allow you influence how the story is covered and improve the likelihood that the details will be accurate. Whoever speaks first tends to control the scope and content of the conversation. If you wait for the story to get out and then try to correct the record, you’ll have less credibility with the public.

Do not delay

In the scenario at the beginning of the article, you lost control of the story when you refused to talk with the reporter. You were focused on the safety of your team, but your instinctive action was interpreted by the reporter as hostility and a refusal to cooperate.

Suppose you had stopped and introduced yourself to the reporter, told her that you were in a hurry to assess the scene, but wondered if she had any questions. After you answered those basic questions, you promised to get back to her as soon as you had more information. Her initial report would have sounded more like this: “A company official tells us that there was a chemical spill in one area of the site, and three workers were taken to the hospital with what appear to be minor injuries. The spokesman said that crews are taking normal precautions, and they don’t believe the surrounding community will be affected.”

Limit who speaks for you

Long before an incident occurs, your management team should know who is authorized to speak to the media, and who your primary spokesperson should be. If multiple individuals are talking, something will get confused, and innocent confusion can look like deception to a reporter. Ideally, your spokesperson should be a member of your company’s leadership team.

Make sure that whoever you choose as the spokesperson doesn’t have a quick temper. Emotions run high in crisis situations, and an angry or nervous spokesperson will make your company look bad. Reporters love conflict, because it catches the attention of viewers.

Control the site

Immediately choose a place at which you’ll speak to the media. It may be an office trailer, it may be the tailgate of your pickup truck, but whatever location you choose should be easily accessible and far enough from the actual incident to minimize interference. Videographers and photographers will want to get as close to the action as possible, but keep in mind that your site is probably private property, so you can control who goes where. If you do allow them to shoot on the site, make sure they’re escorted by someone who can keep them out of harm’s way and ensure they don’t get in the way of responders.

Focus on the facts and don’t speculate

Although it can be a tense situation, it is important stay focused on the facts. Reporters know less about the situation and your business than you do, so if they veer into areas that are questionable, steer them back into factual questions. When you’re asked questions, respond and don’t elaborate. You’ll actually appear to be more credible and knowledgeable if your answers are short and definitive.

If you don’t know the answer, don’t make something up. Don’t provide hypothetical examples or answer a reporter’s hypothetical questions unless you want to make the situation worse. Answer with the facts and what you know to be true. If you don’t have enough information to respond to a reporter’s question, it’s okay to say “I don’t have that information at this moment, but I will get it for you as soon as I can.” To a TV viewer, that appears to be helpful, rather than evasive. (And make sure you do get back to the reporter.)

“No comment” is not an acceptable answer because it appears that you do know but are refusing to share. If you can’t comment, give a reason. “I don’t have information about the specific chemical that was involved, but expect to know soon.” “I’ve just arrived on the scene and need to get a better sense of what happened before I can answer that.” “We don’t know what caused the incident, but our first priority is ensuring everyone’s safety. After that, we’ll begin our investigation.”

Express concerns about people

When incidents affect people, be sure to show that you care about them right away. Statements such as, “We’re eager to find the cause, but our first priority is making sure that our workers are safe and making sure our neighbors are aware of what’s happening.” If an incident has led to injuries or fatalities, don’t ignore them. “We are extremely saddened by these tragic losses, and our hearts go out to the families of our workers.” Statements such as this establish that your company is made up of people who care about others.

Don’t underestimate situations

In your well-meaning efforts to calm the community, you may try to minimize the situation. “It was only a small spill.” “We think the injuries are minor.” “I don’t think there was much damage.” The danger in doing that is that things may actually be much worse than you initially realize, and if that’s the case, it’s going to look like you were either hiding something or lying about the situation. If it takes a month to clean up what you characterized as a small spill, the media isn’t going to believe anything else you say, and they’ll make sure the public doesn’t, either.

Never, ever, ever lie

If you’re caught in a single lie or misstatement your public image will be shattered. Even worse, the media will wonder what else you’re lying about, and will dig more deeply into your operations. If you consistently tell the truth, you won’t have to worry about being seen as a liar.

Talk directly to the viewers

When you talk with a reporter, you’re really talking to that reporter’s audience. People in the public are looking to that reporter for information about a scary situation, and if you can calmly and clearly provide facts, you’ll reduce their fear. When you do speak, remember that those people won’t understand jargon or complex language, nor will they know what a specific piece of equipment is called. Answer as if you’re explaining the situation to a fifth-grade field trip.

Challenge when necessary

If the reporter has the facts wrong, provide a correction firmly and confidently. Like it or not, the public will assume that the reporter’s take is accurate. If you don’t correct the information what’s being said will be accepted as factual. Don’t lose your temper or become argumentative, but make sure accuracy prevails.

Reporters aren’t your friends

No matter how well you may know a reporter, and no matter how friendly he or she seems, remember that the working relationship is inherently adversarial. That doesn’t necessarily mean “hostile,” but it does reflect the fact that you have different objectives. The reporter wants to get information that will make the story compelling, while you want to protect your company’s reputation and ensure that any coverage is accurate. And never speak “off the record” unless you’re willing to see your comments as the headline in the next morning’s newspaper.

You can blame the media all you want for what you perceive as negative or sensationalistic coverage, but in most cases, how a story is handled depends to a large extent on your company reacts to the event and deals with the media. It’s up to you whether you create positive impressions or damage your public reputation.

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