20 Jun A press conference in crisis
By Joe McLeod
A press conference in crisis: Lessons from the Congressional baseball shooting
In the wake of the shooting at the baseball field last week that critically injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and wounded three others, law enforcement agencies across the nation will evaluate this incident and fine-tune their tactics in case (God forbid) a similar scenario takes place in the future.
This is also an opportunity to examine the messaging side of a crisis to discover what worked and what traps to avoid when interacting with the media. About three hours after the shooting, the Alexandria Police Chief, Capitol Hill Police Chief, FBI Special Agent in Charge and the Virginia Governor held a press conference to relay the latest information of the incident. However, little was revealed that media wasn’t already aware of, which led to frustration.
Most reporters are well meaning, but a crisis generates an urgency for the truth along with as many details as possible – immediately – which often conflicts with the methodical pace of most investigations. In that urgency, emotions are high and the questions can turn hostile if the messaging is perceived to be hollow. The goal of crisis communications plan isn’t to please the media, but rather to inform and reassure the public while safeguarding the reputation of your agency. Here are five takeaways from last week’s presser.
1. Don’t begin the press conference until you have details. Obviously, it’s an ongoing investigation and there are things that can’t be revealed at the moment. But if that’s going to be the answer to every question, hold off until you have the green light to disclose some specifics. It’s ideal to get information out quickly, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you invite a barrage of questions with no answers.
2. Offer at least one piece of breaking news. Give reporters facts they don’t know or confirm something that has been rumored or speculated. This didn’t happen at the VA presser and tensions mounted. Later, when President Trump made a statement live to the nation, he revealed that the shooter had succumbed to his wounds and died. That alone was gripping information. Remember, reporters want the story but they need the soundbites and headlines.
3. Be confident, calm and reasonable. Aggressive reporters will test you on all of these fronts, so it’s important to keep your composure when the human side of you wants to lose it. Don’t be combative. Questions, especially follow-ups, will probably be challenging, direct and at times confrontational. It’s rare that spokespeople can exchange barbs with reporters and come out looking like a winner – even if they win. The FBI Special Agent in Charge did a great job remaining cool while taking the heated questions.
4. Don’t be derailed. Reporters want headlines, especially in a crisis. They can lead you into making an unplanned statement that could grow legs and become its own story. When asked about gun control, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, “That’s not what today is about.” But when pressed, he took the bait and made several statements about guns, including this one: “We lose 93 million Americans a day to gun violence.” He meant to say we lose 93 – not 93 million – Americans a day.
5. Have an exit strategy. There are several cues that indicate a press conference should end. When you begin giving the same answers to the same questions and when you’ve exhausted all the information you can deliver, it’s time to make a break. This should be done assertively. Assure the media you will provide more information as it becomes available. Questions will continue to be launched as you’re walking away, but don’t let them lure you back to the microphones. Get the heck out of there.
Joe McLeod is the co-owner and managing partner of McLeod Communications.