8th June 2015

Top 10 Tips for Handling the Media During a Crisis

In the aftermath of the terrible accident at Alton Towers recently, when several people were left with life-changing injuries during a ride on the £18 million Smiler roller coaster, investigations are taking place into how it could have happened.

Shares in Alton Towers immediately dropped and the theme park reopens today after taking the decision to close for a few days. Spokespeople for Merlin Entertainments, which own Alton Towers, find themselves under scrutiny by the media, who will be keen to flag any areas of perceived incompetence in their response to the tragedy.

Nick Varsey

Nick Varney, CEO of Alton Towers owner Merlin Entertainment, fronted the media response, issuing an apology, but was criticised for an error of judgement in suggesting that safety on rollercoasters isn’t a major issue, rather than it shouldn’t be.

Many brands can find themselves under a negative spotlight for various reasons from time to time, so crisis communications is a service offered by every good PR and marketing organisation.

During its 13 years in business, Tangerine has advised many clients, either by way of crisis planning, or in times of need. Although circumstances differ, there are certain best practice protocols that brands should follow to limit commercial or reputational damage.


Tangerine company founder and chair, Sandy Lindsay offers her top 10 tips for handing a crisis:

Top 10 Tips for Handling the Media During a Crisis

Agree your ideal outcome – in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, resist the urge to panic – get key people round a table, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, and agree where you’re heading with this issue; then you can all arrive there together

Own the crisis – if you’ve acknowledged it’s your crisis, ensure you take and keep ownership of it.  If you don’t, someone else will – usually the media (or nowadays, social media) – and the real facts will be overlooked and/or distorted

Get ahead of bad news – if something has happened, but it’s not yet leaked into the public domain, ask yourself two questions: 1) are we 100 per cent sure this won’t leak? and: 2) are we 100 per cent sure that if it does, we won’t be accused of trying to effect a ‘cover up’, which will be far more damaging than the issue itself?  If not, get ahead of bad news and be the ones to break it

Take responsibility – while some lawyers will urge us to keep quiet, nothing diffuses a situation quicker than someone ‘owning up’.  However, with litigation trials on the increase, there’s possibly a middle ground.  We could say something like: “Our experts are telling us we are not to blame.  But at present, we feel as if we are and, until someone confirms differently, we’ll act as if we are, and do all we can to put things right.”

There’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ – some journalists will encourage you to talk to them ‘off the record’, ie they won’t report what you’re telling them.  In fairness, most journalists will keep this agreement, but there are also those who won’t and you won’t have any comeback should the worst happen – by then it’ll be too late

It’s OK to cry – in the middle of a crisis, especially one involving casualties or even something less dramatic but still upsetting, such as job losses, most people (especially men) feel they have to remain wooden and uncaring to show professionalism.  On camera, this type of so-called professionalism translates into: ‘I don’t care’; showing emotion does not have to mean we’re out of control, just that we care

But it’s NOT OK to lie – many companies have made mistakes, gone through crises and survived.  Not many companies have made mistakes, lied about them, been found out and survived – only American Presidents can do that.

Always act like every interview is your first – with so many TV channels and radio stations, in the event of a major incident, it is likely you will be interviewed by several media.  But remember – people will only be listening to one radio station or watching one TV news channel so I’ll only see your interview once.  Therefore, every single interview you give has to be as interesting, empathetic and inclusive of your key messages as the first

InterMEDIAry – the media are not the enemies.  In the event of a huge issue, you’d turn on the radio or read a newspaper to learn more about it.  So you can’t complain when journalists turn up to your issue to communicate it to others too.  They will be there, so work with them. Think of them as the best and fastest way to get your messages out to people who need to hear them

Never EVER say ‘no comment’ – no comment means: ‘we’re guilty – write whatever you want about us!  And being unavailable to comment means the same.  There’s always a way to say very little – if you need to – without saying ‘no comment’