Important Tools for Effective Crisis Communication: The Hows and Whys of a Media Holding Statement

Crisis Communicator Blog - Beuerman Miller Fitzgerald - New Orleans

We’re starting a new series of posts that briefly outline the most important tools for effectively communicating about a corporate or institutional crisis. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at processes, protocols, lines of authority, documentation, internal stakeholder communication and more.

For now though, let’s take a brief look at what a media holding statement is (and isn’t!) and why it can be among the most effective weapons in your crisis response arsenal.

Speed Kills

When crisis strikes, the most common instinct is to respond quickly, both operationally, to resolve the issue and limit potential damage, and in terms of communicating, so that stakeholders who may feel at risk can be better informed (and perhaps, feel more at ease).  But while full disclosure may be a laudable trait, the reality is that jumping out in front too early with too little verifiable information may not be in your best interests.  In point of fact, it could be hazardous to your liability and credibility as the issue fully plays itself out.

That’s where an intelligent and limited-scope media holding statement comes in.  Holding statements are designed to help convey the basics, without saying everything you think you know about the situation at hand.  Communicating, just for the sake of communicating may do more harm than good by putting information in the public arena that may be inaccurate or misleading.

Additionally, over-communicating could serve to bring far more attention to your issue than is actually warranted if you really don’t have your hands around the degree of public knowledge or stakeholder intensity about the issue, thereby increasing your exposure and creating far more headaches than you’ve mitigated.

A good media holding statement is just what the name implies: A fact-based statement that is held until it is needed or until the media inquires. Fundamentally as well, it is designed to hold the media at bay while more facts emerge and the situation (cause, risks, potential for evolving or resolution) becomes more clearly understood.

But make no mistake. We’re not advocating for a second that you stonewall the media on what you know to be 100% factual or important to the health and well-being of the public.  Clearly you have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that people and the environment are protected.  But you’re under no obligation to speculate on important issues such as cause, fault, liability, the ultimate extent of the damage or specifically how long it might take for the issue to be resolved.

A good holding statement also serves to give the media (and your stakeholders) an informed and authorized single source for future information, as well as the important and basic facts such as:

 *   What time the incident occurred

 *   Where

 *   Known impacts as verified by your company, the responding agencies or authorities and your legal counsel

 *   Any important health and safety alerts, again as verified and vetted by the agencies and your legal counsel

 *   How to get on-going access to factual updates (a website, Twitter, press spokesperson, etc.)

But just as important as what the statement includes is what it doesn’t: speculation, rumor, unverified third-party comments, estimates of what might happen next or how long the situation might take to resolve itself, finger pointing, admissions of wrong-doing, or overly excessive apologies that might lead the public and the media that you’re pleading guilty to something you haven’t even been charged with yet!

The bottom line is that a well constructed media holding statement can serve many important purposes in the early stages of a crisis response. But it is only designed to position your incident and response in an accurate and limited manner and as a potential precursor to more detailed and informative statements to come.  After all, once you say it, you can’t take it back.

Next time we’ll take a look at the importance of monitoring and documenting what’s said through social media channels about your incident, and how doing so can help protect your reputation in the near term and your liability a bit further down the road.

For information regarding BMF’s crisis response and reputation management services, or to discuss this topic further, please contact Greg Beuerman at gbeuerman@bmfcomms.com.