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When the going gets tough: managing your reputation through the media

By Magnus Carter

Magnus Carter

Magnus Carter

Crisis: What Crisis? – The Sun journalist who originally wrote this headline helped bring down the Labour government in 1979, following the ‘winter of discontent.’ This despite the fact that the man ostensibly quoted – Prime Minister Jim Callaghan – never actually used the words.  The problem is that when it comes to crisis, public perception is the reality, regardless of the facts.  And this applies just as much to your business as it does to politicians.

If public perception – in the Callaghan case, much influenced by the media – can bring down a government, it can also ruin the reputation of a business and seriously undermine its future prospects.  Studies suggest that just doing the right thing in a crisis is not enough – you have to be seen to do the right thing, and heard to say the right things.  In other words, business recovery can often be as dependent on how you communicate as how you actually tackle the problem.

A good crisis communications plan is about making sure all stakeholder groups hear what they need to hear, when they need to hear it.  At the heart of this process is the media – by which I mean not only traditional media like newspapers and magazines, but also new media – blogs, social networking sites and so on.  The media are often seen as a threat, especially when the going gets tough, as in the Callaghan case.  But they are also an opportunity.  In fact, the media provide the only universal means of communicating with all your key stakeholders at once – and in some cases, it can be instantaneous.

That word ‘instantaneous’ is important.  People like me, involved in the world of crisis communications and planning, used to talk about something called ‘The Golden Hour.’  This was the period between the crisis first becoming apparent to you and the time when the traditional media might be clamouring at your door.  During that time, you needed to start taking action and also decide what to say about it.

Now, thanks to satellite TV technologies, You Tube and Twitter, that Golden Hour has dwindled to nothing.  In 2001, the interval between the first and second aircraft crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York was 17 minutes: the second impact was live on UK TV.  On a smaller scale, when Weston-Super-Mare pier burned to the ground in July 2008, the first video pictures of the blaze were on You Tube within 20 minutes of the call to the fire brigade.  During the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010, despite severe censorship of traditional media sources, instant news of discontent on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere spread worldwide via Twitter.

Buying Time

The last thing you want is to provide misleading or incorrect information, or to say the wrong thing.  You will be tempted, therefore, to wait before responding to demands for comment, or to negative gossip on social media sites.  And of course, you do have a choice about whether or not to respond.  But, as the historian and humourist C. Northcote Parkinson put it: “The vacuum caused by a failure to communicate is soon filled with rumour, misrepresentation, drivel and poison.”

The danger is that even if you don’t communicate, it won’t stop others doing so – and those ‘others’ may include employees of your own or your client’s organisation.  For instance, secretaries, receptionists and security personnel are at the heart of the gossip-machine and that needs to be taken into account in establishing your media protocol.

So, what to say?  There’s a ‘magic formula’ which can be adapted to any type of crisis, or indeed to any kind of critical comment about you and your organisation.  The messages are based on the acronym CARE:

Sympathy for the point of view of protesters or for families of bereaved, for example.

Your audience needs to know you will be doing something, even if it is only an internal inquiry.

For example that lessons will be learned and/or that you have a good safety/security record and contingency plans.

You will notice there is no informational content in this formula – no facts to get wrong, and therefore no need to delay in saying these things.  It should go without saying that these words do need ultimately to be supported by your actions.  But the words themselves demonstrate that you care and that you are in control, and so positively influence perceptions of you, no matter what has gone wrong.

Journalists and the new breed of citizen-journalists who write the blogs and Twitter entries or upload videos on You Tube can be a downright nuisance.  They call at all the wrong times.  They ask all the wrong questions.  They will appear to get in the way of efficient and effective crisis handling.

However, case studies show time and again that a positive, rather than defensive approach to media communications helps to ensure the best outcomes to crises, even if they are found to be of your own making.

So, to sum up:

  • Always include media and other communications issues in your crisis plans and exercises.
  • Always grasp the opportunity to communicate, however painful it may seem.  Use the CARE formula to buy yourself time and positively influence perceptions.
  • Be a reliable source of information – stick to the facts, not speculation – but in addition, acknowledge stakeholders’ concerns, have something to say that will reassure them.


Magnus Carter, MSc, MCIPR, is a former journalist and broadcaster who established Mentor Communications Consultancy Ltd in 1998 to train and advise organisations on media handling and crisis communications.  He is the author of ‘Handling the Media!’

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