Emergency Preparedness and Response

Tips for Speaking to the Press After an Environmental Emergency

Luckily, no one is seriously injured and the facility and community emergency response plan work smoothly and efficiently. But you get “burned” in the press for the incident. Sound familiar?

The media will play an important role in monitoring Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) releases. First of all, media representatives are likely to be members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). Second, they will be monitoring the progress of the law’s implementation and the development of the local emergency plan. Third, and most important, the media will be at your door when the data is disclosed that a nasty chemical is stored or used at your facility or that you release significant quantities of toxic substances into the community.  

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Cultivate Media Relationships

Respect and credibility are earned, not assumed. The relationship between the press and the newsmaker is often antagonistic because of a lack of familiarity with the people and with the topic. Of course, sometimes it is antagonistic because of these same two factors.

A key ingredient in effective communication with the press is professional familiarity. Prepare a list of press, local officials, and active citizen contacts. The company spokesperson should cultivate relationships with these people so that open, honest, and informed dialogue can prevail. Moreover, these contacts will provide the company spokesperson or other management officials the opportunity to more fully appreciate the perspective (e.g., audience, deadlines, interests, and slant) of the press. Phone calls to local press, open houses, article suggestions, and social interactions can all be used to cultivate these important relationships. Define these elements in the plan, be sure to schedule facility open houses, and periodically mail important facility news information to local press and public officials as part of your public relations program.

Develop an Interview Policy

The company should define how interviews will be conducted in the event of an emergency. The best plan of attack is to conduct a press conference session that will include a statement to be followed by brief (2 to 3 minutes) interviews with important media representatives.

The media should know that you will have a press conference and/or field questions at a certain time. This action prevents the media from badgering you with questions as you try to perform your company or emergency response duties.

The meeting should be in a safe, designated area. This area should be familiar to everyone; be sure each member of the press knows its location.

Interviews and press conferences should be scheduled to meet the deadline demands of the media, and the meetings should be held on time. However, be sure that the spokesperson does not conduct interviews until he or she is fully briefed on the situation.

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Do’s and Don’ts for Interviews

When offering guidelines and suggestions for conducting effective interviews, there are two approaches: how to conduct a good interview or how not to conduct an interview. Here are both approaches in the following interview guidelines for the facility spokesperson:

  •  Don’t tolerate questions about unrelated issues; stick to the subject matter.
  •  Always consider every microphone to be on.
  •  Remember that you can’t win fights with reporters.
  •  Be prepared—jot down facts to have them handy.
  •  Be repetitious—it is necessary to get the point across.
  •  Relate to the listener’s or viewer’s level of interest. If the spill necessitated evacuation, discuss the exposure risk relative to chemical or nonchemical risks that citizens are exposed to daily. Do not use overly technical jargon.
  •  Never bluff—be honest and truthful. If you don’t know the information, say so and promise to get back to that person.
  •  Project energy, self-assuredness, and enthusiasm.
  •  Maintain control—you have the facts; you have the story.
  •  Do not release names of injured or dead people until relatives have been notified.
  •  Do not comment on the degree of seriousness of injuries.
  •  Be open and honest, but know when to shut the door.
  •  Treat media with courtesy and respect.

Interviews are just the beginning when it comes to crisis communication. See tomorrow’s Advisor for more help with managing the media after an environmental emergency.

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