By Phil Hall, Crisis PR and Reputation Management Expert

While every media crisis situation is different there are a number of fundamental principles that can be applied to most situations. Of these, the most important tip I could give you is to be prepared for a crisis. While sometimes a media storm can be the result of a tragedy, whistleblower or something completely unforeseen, in my experience most crisis situations can be planned for.

Perhaps your company is restructuring meaning there will be a possibility of redundancies. Perhaps a senior representative is due to step down. Perhaps there is an issue with one of your products which needs to be recalled. Whatever the issue, with the proper crisis planning it is possible to avert a full scale media storm and, in most cases, contain it.

In this article I have suggested my top ten tips for protecting your company from a crisis. For more information you can also download our free eBook 'How to handle tough media questions' (bit.ly/WhzeGb).

Tip 1: Prepare for the worst

Most senior executives in an organisation will know where there are potential issues. You must address these head on! Sweeping them under the carpet or just ignoring them could hugely damage your brand’s reputation in the long run.

For instance if you have received threats from a former employee, don’t ignore the issue and hope it will go away. That individual could start a blog, go to the press or launch a campaign that could damage your reputation.

You need to know the full facts and make sure you have covered every possible outcome.

Tip 2: Bring your media advisors in from the beginning

One of the most frustrating things from a Crisis PR perspective is when a client brings their media advisor in at the last minute.

If there are any potential issues of concern it is vital you discuss them with your crisis comms team from very beginning. It’s also important you make them aware of the full facts. Just like when a lawyer defends a client in a court room, when a PR representative defends an individual or organisation in the courtroom of public opinion, if they don’t have the full facts this could seriously damage the argument.

Tip 3: Develop a Q and A document

Once the main issues have been identified you need to cover every potential question you could be asked and make sure you have clear and concise responses.

Again it’s worth developing these with someone with a media background who can think like a journalist. If your marketing team develops questions, for example, you may find the questions do not test you enough.

The importance of this process can’t be overemphasised and having a Q and A that can be circulated to senior managers will also allow you to keep your messages consistent.

Tip 4: Media training

Just because your spokesperson is an excellent public speaker, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will be a great media interviewee.

Broadcast interviews, in particular, can be very short and if your spokesperson doesn’t know how to convey your key messages and handle tough questions then they could cause more harm than good.

If you don’t have strong media experience we would strongly recommend training. If you know you are likely to face a media grilling then it’s so important to go through that experience before you go on camera for the first time. Ideally your trainer should be a former journalist who won’t pull any punches… you will thank them later!

Tip 5: Find the right spokesperson

You should identify your crisis communications team and chief spokesperson well in advance of any potential crisis. It’s worth noting that your best spokesperson isn’t necessarily your CEO or Chairman.

You should also always identify more than one spokesperson in case your chief commentator is unavailable for an interview.

Tip 6: Identify your crisis comms team

While your spokesperson will represent you in the public arena, you also need to identify your crisis comms team - this is the team of individuals whose duty it will be to safeguard your company’s reputation in the eyes of all stakeholders including your staff, investors and customers.

It’s critical that all members of the team have a specific role and that they are clear on that role in the event of a crisis.

Your main team players will include the companies CEO/top executives, media spokesperson/people, PR agency/manager, operations manager/customer services manager, legal advisors, human resources director, finance representatives, digital/social media representatives.

Tip 7: Establish a process for gathering information

In addition to ensuring that your crisis comms team have clear and defined roles, you should establish a process whereby the chief spokespeople can gather all the information they would need quickly.

This will include full details of the media enquiry, story, publication or programme. Critically it will also include full details on the facts, your company’s positions and all relevant information.

In a crisis timing is everything. If you do not respond quickly and effectively you could lose control of the situation.

Post Crisis Reaction

All the above tips refer to planning for a crisis, but what happens when you get the phone call? How do you respond? What do you say? How do you protect your company’s reputation?

Tip 8: Don’t say “no comment”

In the event of a media crisis one of the worst things you can say is “no comment”. While this is the instinctive reaction of many, especially those without media training, it’s a phrase that should be avoided at all costs.

As a statement this immediately infers guilt and also means you are effectively giving up your right to put your side of the story across and balance the story.

Tip 9: Don’t comment without knowing the full facts

If a journalist calls you out of the blue and puts an allegation to you the most important thing to remember is not to comment then and there. As described above avoid saying “no comment”, but also don’t shoot first and ask questions later.

Instead ask the journalists for the full details of the story and say you will get back to them with a full and frank response (or that your media advisor will).

This tactic will allow you to buy time to get the full facts and avoid drawing you in to making a comment that later proves to be inaccurate.

Tip 10: Communicate with your stakeholders

In the midst of a media storm the temptation is to focus on the interview and think about the public’s reaction, however, this is just one of your stakeholders. You also need to think about your investors, supporters, members, suppliers and, most importantly of all, your staff.

Before making any public statement you should aim, where possible, to communicate with your stakeholders first. The way you communicate with them will vary.

In today’s digital age it’s not just about sending out an email. You need to think about how you communicate on your website, social channels and internal comms channels.

Extra Tip: Stay Calm

In a media interview scenario, as a general rule of thumb, if you stay calm you will win the argument, however, if you lose your cool you will definitely look guilty.