You can run, but you can't hide (from reporters)

 Image: istockphoto.com

Image: istockphoto.com

You've been ignoring their calls and interview requests for two days, but here they are, a throng of reporters, in person, demanding your company's side of the story. They're shouting questions at you, following you as you walk down the street. You can feel the giant TV camera lenses focused on you. The bright lights are searing your retinas. Your heart feels like it's in your throat. Your mind is racing as you search your memory banks for the right thing to do or say -- but to no avail. You feel like a caged animal. Your 'fight or flight' instinct kicks in. You need to make a split second decision:

A) Stand your ground and make a statement, or...

B) Make a run for the escape hatch.

While answer 'a' seems like the obvious answer, there's no shortage of examples of spokespeople opting for the latter alternative...pulling jackets over their heads, hiding under desks, jumping into their cars and driving away, putting their hand over the camera lens, etc.

It's a knee jerk reaction made in a nanosecond and under intense stress. Rather than making the story go away, however, the 'run and hide' tactic almost always makes the situation worse. 

A few days ago, FC Barcelona President Sandro Rosell found himself in an impromptu media scrum with reporters following the sale of David Villa to Atletico Madrid. Rather than address the questions, Mr. Rosell tried to evade  the reporters by heading into the bathroom. In his haste, however, he didn't seem to realize he was headed into the women's bathroom. 

The video has more than 150,000 views on YouTube and has generated a fair amount of media coverage over the past few days. All because Mr. Rosell wasn't willing or prepared to speak with the media.  

Rosell isn't the first (or last) person to suffer embarrassment by trying to evade the media. Stephen Duckett, the former head of Alberta Health Services, tried to dodge a media ambush in 2010 by telling reporters he was unable to answer their questions because he was...(are you ready for it?) eating a cookie. For more than two minutes, this accomplished, veteran health professional continued to lob that half-baked excuse at reporters while they followed him, cameras rolling the whole time. 

The infamous 'I'm eating my cookie" video has been viewed more than 350,000 times to date. The incident cost Dr. Duckett his job, has been immortalized as its own separate entry on his Wikipedia page and was turned into a mash-up video featuring Sesame Street's Cookie Monster. The Cookie Monster video itself has been viewed more than 150,000 times.  

Having a group of reporters firing questions your way can be an intense, uncomfortable situation, particularly if the story has the potential to cast you or your organization in a negative light.  

So, how would you fare? 

In the end, it all comes down to preparation. First, come to terms with the fact that in the event of a contentious issue, if you're not responding to the media's calls, there's a distinct possibility that they're going to hit the road in search of you. Knowing that this is a possibility, and given the fact that your company should likely be making some type of statement, spend a few minutes in advance figuring out what your most important messages will be. And take time to determine (again, in advance) what your two or three nightmare questions might be and devise a strategy for dealing with them.  

While it's impossible to prepare for every eventuality, you can prepare for 'categories' of media interactions. The category addressed here would be of the unplanned scrum, ambush or impromptu press conference variety. If you've done your homework in advance and have your messages at the ready, then you should be able to face the press and make your statement. If you haven't done your homework and you're not ready to face the music, then try to create a break (if possible), buy yourself some time and figure out what you're going to say.

In the case of Dr. Duckett, how different would the outcome have been if he had simply stopped walking and given them a thoughtful, relevant response to their question? Failing that, what if he had stopped walking, placed the cookie in his pocket and said something along the lines of this:

"I agree with you. This is an important topic and it warrants a response from our organization. I'm just in the process of leaving a meeting, as you can see, and I'm late for another meeting that's just started across the street. Having said that, I do want to speak with you. Here's the number of my communications director (he then hands reporter a business card with the number on it). Please call [name] and have him/her set up an interview anytime this afternoon after 2:00 pm. I do wish I could be more accommodating right now. However I was not aware you would be here and I do have a prior commitment I need to run to. I apologize for any inconvenience and I look forward to providing you with a more fulsome response later today."

Would the reporters have cut him some slack and taken the offer of the interview later in the day? Possibly. But even if this exchange described above had made it to the evening news or YouTube (which is unlikely, because it's not very controversial), Dr. Duckett would have come across looking like a polite, accommodating professional.

So. If you're dealing with a contentious issue, the media is calling your office for comment and you're sticking your head in the sand hoping they'll go away, don't be surprised if they show up unannounced. Invest some time to craft your story in advance. Then, when the reporters show up, instead of feeling like your only options are to hide behind a cookie or duck into the ladies room, you'll have something valuable to say that helps to serve your organization's best interests.