The phone call that interrupted the otherwise routine HR meeting wasn’t for Tracie Patten. The reaction it prompted from her co-worker, however, is one she’ll never forget.
“Her face turned white and she started writing frantically. Then she said, ‘Is she still alive?’ and I knew we had a problem.”
That problem, Patten quickly learned on that cold February day in 1998, involved a Techneglas employee being hit by a train as it was moving along the railroad tracks that run through the South Side factory’s grounds. It resulted in the first fatal accident in Techneglas’ 97-year history. The employee, Patricia J. Goodwin, died en route to the hospital.
Patten, who had only been working as Techneglas’ manager of corporate communications for a few months at the time, didn’t panic at the prospect of dealing with the fast-emerging crisis even when a television news crew arrived with the ambulance. Techneglas had an emergency response plan and Patten, as well as the other managers involved in the plan, knew exactly what to do.
“Everyone sprung into action,” she recalls. “Our general manager was spokesperson and he began talking to the TV camera. Our VP of manufacturing issued a prepared statement to media not on site. We issued postings to all departments and info center boards [located at every major entrance in the plant]. Two of us went to the hospital.”
People moved fast, but they did so with level heads.
“They were even as smart as to lower the flag to half-staff in front of the plant,” recalls Bill Patterson, president of Reputation Management Associates, who spent 22 years as a journalist before he began counseling companies like Techneglas about how to protect their image during crisis situations.
“When the employees saw that flag, they knew what had happened. And what was the impression to them? This company really cares. Sometimes it’s the little things.”
Techneglas’ prompt action may have helped prevent a media circus from developing in the wake of this workplace tragedy. In fact, media coverage was brief just the television report that day and a short article in The Columbus Dispatch the following day.
“From our perspective, we had a terrible, fatal accident; they covered it; then they moved on to the next accident,” Patten says.
Had Techneglas not been prepared to handle media inquiries, however, the coverage may have dragged on for days and caught the attention of more media outlets as reporters were forced to dig for details the company could not or would not provide on its own.
“When you say, ‘No comment,’ or hang up the phone, what do reporters do?” Patterson asks. “They become even more inquisitive.”
Often that leads to reporters sticking microphones and cameras in the faces of any employee, neighbor or passerby they can find who may have witnessed the crisis unfold or simply have an opinion they’re willing to share about your company. That can be dangerous.
“Exxon is the ultimate, classic screw-up,” Patterson says, noting that the oil giant’s initial decision to ignore the media following the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska 11 years ago virtually ensured the situation would turn into a public relations nightmare.
“The media’s job is to report things that happen,” Patten says. “If you want to fight it, you’re just going to have misinformation out there.”
Being prepared is essential to avoiding negative publicity. And while it’s virtually impossible to set forth a plan to address every possible scenario that could touch your company, having a general crisis communication plan in place could save you a great deal of grief.
“To not have a plan is to be naive enough to say no one in your family could get in a car accident or be involved in a fire,” Patten says. “You hope that you never use it, but if your company doesn’t have one in place, you’ve just upped your odds.”
Here, then, are six basic rules to follow when dealing with the press during a company crisis:
Don’t hide from the media. Greet it head-on.
“Acknowledge that media is part of every crisis and work with them,” Patten says. “Don’t resist them.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t control the scene. Although only one media outlet showed up at the Techneglas accident site, managing that one television crew proved to be a group effort.
“The emergency response team saw a cameraman trying to get around the train to film this horrific site,” Patten explains. Since the cameraman was filming from a public street, Techneglas employees could not order him to leave. So instead, “they built a human wall and tried to block it off,” she says. “I just thought it was very distasteful. There’s a line between reporting and going for shock value.”
The human wall prevented the cameraman from crossing that line. Aside from that incident, Techneglas worked amicably with the press to get as much information as the company was certain about to the public as quickly as possible.
The same held true at Bob Evans Farms in 1993 when executives there were faced with a multitude of media inquiries following a police search of two properties owned by the company’s CFO, which turned up marijuana plants, bagged marijuana and equipment to grow marijuana.
“We were honest about it and handled it right away,” says Mary Cusick, vice president of corporate communications for Bob Evans Farms. “If we have executives involved in a situation that’s the opposite of our image or what our company stands for ... that’s something that never would’ve been tolerated.”
Keith Bradbury retired as Bob Evans’ CFO a week after the search.
“There was no stonewalling. They did all the interviews. What else can you do?” Patterson recalls of the Bob Evans incident. “When you take that first step, you solve 80 percent of the problem.”
Only use one spokesperson.
While the demand for interviews may be great during a crisis, letting more than one company representative speak with the media opens the door for inconsistencies in information.
In the Techneglas situation, although the general manager conducted live interviews and a vice president wrote the press release to send to other media, a third employee was with both the GM during his interview and the VP when he composed the release to be sure the same message was being conveyed.
In the Bob Evans situation, Cusick handled all media inquiries. Had the crisis involved a specific restaurant in the Bob Evans chain, however, management there would’ve been expected to speak directly with the press.
“It seems contradictory to have to wait for a corporate voice from Columbus, Ohio, to address an issue in Florida,” Cusick explains. “We work with the general managers and go through different scenarios and come up with the mean, hard questions media would ask. It’s important to prepare your management teams for that because the perception of your company can be built upon one particular, high-profile incident.
“It’s really important to be thoughtful about what you say so it’s as clear and succinct as possible in a crisis situation.”
Never go “off the record” with a journalist.
“Do you remember that tape of Connie Chung [interviewing Newt Gingrich’s mother]?” Patterson asks. “My motto is to trust no one.”
In a crisis, there is already too much confusion, he explains. Telling a reporter some information “off the record” and other information “on the record” can only add to that confusion.
“Tell a reporter only what you want to see on the front page of the local paper,” Patterson recommends.
And it’s better to say something than nothing at all.
“The story is going to be told,” Patterson says. “The point is, are you going to get your quote in there? Are you going to be able to say, ‘Our heart goes out to the family?’ If you don’t say it, it’s not going to get in the story.”
It’s not just what you say, but how you look.
Being prepared to deal with the media is not as simple as having all the facts, although that certainly helps. Presentation is important, too especially when dealing with broadcast media.
Hanging your head when you speak, stammering for words, even looking nervous can detract, if not overpower, your verbal message.
“When that light goes on and the camera is in your face and they start asking tough questions and you have basically 10 seconds to explain, are you ready for that?” Patten asks.
Techneglas makes sure its corporate officers, as well as plant managers, safety managers, environmental managers and, of course, communication managers, get annual media training to familiarize them with such things as interview techniques, proper on-camera presentation and what to do and say when you don’t know the answer to a media question.
Preparation is paramount, agrees Cusick. After all, if your chosen spokesperson isn’t comfortable addressing the media, it will show.
“They get stressed about talking to the media and they have this crisis going on at the same time,” she says.
“The easy thing for them to say is, ‘No comment,’ and we don’t want them to say that,” adds Tammy Roberts Myers, director of corporate communications for Bob Evans Farms and a member of the Bob Evans crisis team, whose job it is to gather and disseminate appropriate information and resources in the face of an emergency.
“We work with them to come up with appropriate answers. We remind them about body language and the need to pay attention to that, particularly with TV interviews. It’s an ongoing battle for training ... but teaching them about the media helps alleviate a lot of that fear.”
If employees are involved, treat their families well.
Failure to do so can quickly result in negative publicity and even lawsuits.
At Techneglas, the emergency response team quickly located Goodwin’s daughter, who was also a Techneglas employee but not on duty at the time of the accident, and took her to the hospital. Patten even made phone calls from the hospital to Goodwin’s other relatives when Goodwin’s daughter was unable to make those calls herself after learning her mother had died.
Although Goodwin’s daughter later filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to recover damages related to her mother’s death, Techneglas was not named in it; Consolidated Rail Corp. was the sole defendant.
“You have to do the right thing,” agrees Myers of Bob Evans. “The best thing you can do is keep in mind how you would want your family treated in a similar situation.”
Show compassion even after the crisis has passed.
Some media will follow big stories for days or even weeks. That’s why it’s important to show what your company is doing to help employees, neighbors or whomever was touched by the crisis cope with its aftermath.
At Techneglas, counselors were brought in not just to talk with employees who witnessed the train accident and the security guard who had to go to the scene, but to help anyone who was having difficulty dealing with the associated stress caused by the crisis. Patten says these so-called “after shock” meetings were well attended.
In addition, Techneglas paid special attention to the emotional needs of Goodwin’s daughter, Patten says, since the company didn’t want to lose her as an employee.
“We worked with her in counseling and gave her the resources and time she needed,” Patten says. “She did come back to work.”
In addition, since Techneglas’ crisis involved a worker’s death, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the company and recommended Techneglas install more warning signs around the railroad tracks. Techneglas went one step farther there, too.
“We put some additional fencing up as well,” Patten says.
“Perception is reality,” Patterson concludes. “You can affect public perception, but you have to be aggressive and take on the media.”
Nancy Byron (email@example.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.