Nancy Lesic knows a thing or two about dealing with the media in a crisis situation. In late 1995 and early 1996, after Art Modell announced he was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Lesic was a key player in the fight to save the Browns.
At the time, she was Mayor Michael White's press secretary. She directed media relations for all city departments and managed communications programs for economic development projects such as the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the Browns campaign was by far the most extensive of her career.
"We launched an aggressive campaign designed to put national attention on the issue of franchise relocation," Lesic recalls. "We met with community leaders, political leaders and private sector officials to devise a strategy to put maximum pressure on the NFL and on legislators -- in Maryland and Ohio and on Capitol Hill.
"The media blitz was heavy," she says. "Press events were held almost daily over a three-month period -- either in the form of protests from loyal Browns fans, lawsuits filed and disclosures about Modell's secret dealings with Baltimore and how he deceived Clevelanders."
Lesic left the White administration earlier this year to found the Cleveland office of Columbus-based HMS Success Public Relations. The firm provides a range of services to business owners, including image campaigns and media relations.
Explains Lesic, "Our role is to support clients with professional services that project and protect the client's reputation; build public and opinion leader support for the client's services and products; clarify and promote the client's position on public issues; and create an increasingly receptive legislative and regulatory climate."
While she doesn't expect her clients to suddenly find themselves engaged in a battle with the NFL any time soon, handling crisis situations is an issue business owners must prepare for on a regular basis. Whether it's massive layoffs, a stock price tumble or a product recall akin to Bridgestone/Firestone's most recent problems, Lesic says there are four key areas business owners must recognize when dealing with the media.
Build a relationship with the media
"Get to know the reporters who are covering that specific beat and try to develop a relationship that will endure over time," Lesic suggests. "That means connecting with the reporter on a somewhat regular basis, not just calling upon him or her to pitch stories or complain about errors."
The time, she says, will be well spent because it will provide insight of what kind of news the reporter is interested in. Your view of what's news as a CEO may be vastly different than what the reporter thinks readers would be interested in.
"If you take the time to understand what the reporter considers to be important, you'll be better able to shape your news in such a way that it is of value to the reporter and you'll have more success in telling your story," she says. "The frequency of having routine, informal discussions with reporters will depend on the level of interaction the organization has with the media, but a quarterly lunch would be a good bet."
Understand the cynics
"Let's face it -- reporters are a cynical bunch," she says. "Maintaining integrity is the biggest factor in successful media relations, and it's not difficult to accomplish."
To that end, Lesic says business owners must be candid when talking to reporters.
"Certainly not careless, but candid," she says. "Respect the reporter -- even if you think the questions are obtuse. The reporter is probably not stupid, but slyly trying to get to a specific fact or answer."
Finally, return calls promptly.
"Respect reporters' deadlines," she says. "These will go a long way in achieving that 'benefit of a doubt' that you may really need one day in the face of a controversy or negative story."
Never let down your guard
"I can't stress coordination enough," Lesic says. "I've seen, time after time, entities react too quickly to put out the fire and cause themselves more problems, some virtually insurmountable. Take the necessary time, while keeping deadlines in mind, to investigate the situation fully."
And, she warns, don't unequivocally deny anything without inquiring about actions of other members of the organization.
"I don't mean to sound like a cynic, but don't come to conclusions like, 'That's absolutely false' or 'We're absolutely right' or 'We're absolutely innocent' without checking all the facts," she says. "Expect that reporters will know the answers to the questions they are asking."
Above all, don't respond prematurely.
"You shouldn't respond to a lawsuit filed if you haven't read the filing yet."
Don't bite on "what if" questions
"There are many instances in which the entity in question may be 100 percent blameless, but I'm trying to stress the importance of coordinating with your colleagues and with your advisers," Lesic says. "I suggest bouncing statements off of others who you respect."
In responding to a crisis, be sure to consider the consequences of your statements -- legally, internally, politically and to your stakeholders.
"At the same time, recognize that you have a responsibility to stakeholders in providing information," she says. "But be certain the information you are providing is accurate. And, be diligent in following up as necessary with new information as it becomes available."
The bottom line is that the groundwork for dealing with a crisis situation can be built long before any problems occur.
"A company's image can't be changed overnight," Lesic says. "Most companies who suffer some harm to their reputation haven't built up what they stand for."
And, when something goes wrong, they are extremely susceptible to rumors and other attacks.
"Before something like that happens, it's important that the company establishes their reputation," she says. "And they should establish policies on dealing with the media, government and others. In those policies, they should be open and cooperative to the extent that they can be.
"It's integral to developing a reputation as being a trustworthy organization." How to reach: HMS Success, (216) 696-7686
Dustin Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of SBN.