When the media comes calling

by Rebecka Freels

The trucking industry shares its workplace with the public and tractor-trailers are de facto rolling billboards for the company that owns them. Such risk exposure and visibility puts fleets in a tough place should a high-profile incident take place at roadside.

Regardless of who is ultimately responsible, a carefully thought out crisis communication plan will help fleets stay on the right side of the media, customers, employees and other key stakeholders.

In the court of public opinion, reputation is a perishable commodity.

In today’s age of outrage culture, the risk of harrowing headlines and social media, even the very best organizations can instantaneously be vilified. Public opinion is an elusive and fragile commodity. It is hard to move people toward a strong opinion on anything.

Moving them away from a viewpoint is even harder. In spite of this, PR disasters can sometimes (not always) provide an opportunity to build credibility with key audiences. Here are some things to keep in mind to tackle a PR crisis:

Plan ahead: If you don’t prepare, the hit you take will be far worse than it needs to be. A shoot from the hip approach rarely works. Arm yourself with a crisis communications plan.

Stay connected: It’s smart to establish positive relationships with the community and media as part of your approach to business. Be involved in supporting good causes, hold an open house and make your company leaders available to comment on the state of the industry. Establish a strong and positive profile and reputation for your organization before it is created for you.

Identify your crisis team: It is vital to identify who will form the organization’s crisis communications team. Ideally, the organization’s CEO will lead the team and be the spokesperson. A communications advisor, legal advisor and other key members should be an integral part of the crisis communication’s planning team.

Practice: Organizations hold fire drills to ensure emergency equipment is working properly and everyone knows what their role is in a crisis. Same goes for a communications plan – test it periodically to ensure the plan is still relevant and reflects organizational changes.

Key messages: A key message is a statement you would say if you only had 10 seconds in which to say it. It’s what you want the audience to remember. The organization’s crisis communications team should regularly review key messages to see if they need to be revised or updated.

They aren’t your friends: Journalists should not be confused with helpful allies or friends. They have a job to do and that job is to create compelling news stories. They are looking for quotes and clips that encourage emotional investment from viewers and readers. If handled well, this can work to your advantage, if not, it can be disastrous.

Be the first to share the details: A vital part of crisis management is telling your story. Don’t let anyone else tell your story except you.

No comment: During a crisis, it is human nature to clam up. While it may seem prudent not to say anything, this kind of reaction can land an organization in public relations hot water that is potentially damaging. If you don’t like the question being asked, you don’t have to answer it. But you must respond. Reply with a bridging statement such as, “I can’t speculate on the reasons for this, but what I can tell you is…”. Or, “So what is important to remember is…”.

Driver as spokesperson: Drivers and other front-line employees who have just been through a traumatic incident should not provide comment to the press. Part of the planning process should include developing a policy on employee interaction with the media.

Be human: Your audiences will be looking for a human response, an acknowledgment that demonstrates your organization cares about what happened. When bad news breaks, organizations need to say something even if, initially, it is just to acknowledge the unfortunate event that happened and that the organization is deeply saddened by its occurrence.

Tell the truth: Don’t try to minimize an unfortunate incident or sweep it under the rug. Never blame anyone for contributing to the situation, and don’t reveal the names of anyone killed or injured. Taking responsibility is not the same as accepting blame.

Say what is going to happen next: Managing bad news, in part, means trying to minimize the length of time your company is in the headlines. If you are cooperating with authorities or launching an internal review, make sure you say so.

It’s not always possible to completely avoid a crisis, but you can manage the overall impact by planning ahead, crafting well thought out key messages and by showing the organization’s human face.


Rebecka Freels, former CTA and OTA communications director, operates a Calgary-based marketing, communications and events practice with clients in the transport industry. Reach her at Rebecka@beyondwordscommunications.com.

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  • Ms. Freels provides very valuable communications planning advice in this article. I would add two things. If you are not well versed with the press and have the opportunity, ask for questions in writing and respond in the same format. This gives you the time to craft the right message and makes it less likely for your answers to be misinterpreted. As well, I recommend using a professional to help with the communications; crisis time is not the time to practice your public relations skills.