Working at the sharp end…. – by Robert Ballantyne

Crisis management in a 24-hour rolling newsday…

It used to be easy. The phone would ring; the questions would be asked; the answer would be “when is your deadline – can I call you back?” And whatever the question, and however general the answer, the urgency of the spokesman’s response would be tailored to a news deadline in late afternoon, three or four hours away – time enough to collect and deliver a measured response.

No more. These days, news is much newer than that, and much more urgent. Online newspapers react quickly; 24 hour rolling news has an insatiable appetite; a cool “no comment” creates a vacuum filled by speculation, gossip and Twitter. Pause for breath and the communications bus will leave without you.

There are golden rules to keep one step ahead of the news maelstrom. They sound simple, but they can be tough to deliver when a breaking story gets to the front of the news locomotive. And they are as old-fashioned as Dad’s Army and the Boy Scouts.

Be quick – but don’t panic…
Be prepared – and be accurate…
And be nice – it pays dividends…

Many in PR, particularly at the sharp end of corporate, have been journalists in a former life. They are used to keeping up to speed; they read the news daily, often hourly; they have their wits about them.

So they should find it easy to put themselves in the position of the guy/girl on the other end of the phone…… Reporters are, by definition, more rushed than ever; working to be first online, or first on the air, feeding the 24-hour news dragon.

When it comes to unexpected news breaks, preparation helps. And you can prepare….

In particular, know your clients. Nothing irritates journalists more than internal advisers who know less about their clients than an external media specialist. It takes work; so do the work… You need to know what they do, and where; and who they are – the CEO and FD at least, if not all the non-execs. It helps if you can remember corporately where they are coming from, and where the analysts think they are heading….And were they in the news recently? You read the cuttings – didn’t you?

You also need to know your journalists. In the volatile world of 24 hour news, writers come and go – but they are usually around long enough for you to make an effort to get to know them, by buying a drink or lunch away from the pressures of the news agenda. Establishing a mutual respect is the key – and getting the story right every time is the key to that respect.

So know your journalists – but don’t expect acquaintance or friendship to save you if you screw it up for them… Let’s face it – they are understandably pressured, working to a newsdesk manned by more senior (and grumpy…and often Scottish, as I recall) news editors who brook no excuse for delay and simply won’t take no for an answer. For them, as for you, no comment is a failure…they just need some straight talking as quickly as possible.

Straight talking, of course, is the hardest thing to deliver, when the unexpected happens and the situation is still unfolding. Facts may be thin on the ground. You may be managing upwards to a client who is still struggling to establish the sequence of events, far less produce a coherent statement describing them. You may be flooded out with questions and bereft of sensible answers.

In that event, do not bluff. If you don’t know, say so – but also say you will find out, sharpish…

And be nice. Be reasonable. It’s not difficult. But it does require a certain amount of patience. You will be asked the same questions time after time, often by reporters from different parts of the same media group (the BBC is particularly prone to the Hydra-headed inquisition model). Be as patient with the young trainee from Radio Humberside as you are with the experienced heavyweight commentator from “the Six” or “the Nine”. But don’t be either overawed or provoked by anyone.

And remember – journalists will write what they think is the best line, no matter what you say. You will frequently find that the most pressured and ill-tempered reporter writes the most reasonable copy. And the gentle persuader you thought you had won over may give you and your client a roasting in print. C’est la vie.

It’s a free country. It’s a free press. And long may it remain so. As they say – we’re all in this together, so let’s try and get it right.

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