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Media Crisis Survival Guide

8 Management Tips on Protecting Your Brand in a Media Crisis


A photo of a panic button on a computer keyboard

You don't have to hit the panic button when faced with a media crisis, if you plan your strategy now.

Photo © David McGlynn / Getty Images
A media crisis can hit a print, on-air or online company without warning. Plan now for a media crisis so that when it happens, you are ready to take action to protect your employees and your media brand.

Media Crisis Tip #1: Controlling What the Public Says about You

You're the publisher of a newspaper that's just printed a scathing expose on the poor academic standards of the most popular university in your state. You knew your reporting would ruffle feathers, but now you face a public backlash from your readers, who expected you to support this cherished institution.

The fastest way for your audience to express its displeasure is to turn to social media. You need a social media policy so that employees know whether the should delete posts that blast your company. Chances are, you already block posts that contain offensive language or threats, but your workers need to know how to handle posts that contain false accusations or inaccuracies.

Beyond social media, examine your website. As part of your comments policy for your site, you may want to instruct employees to turn off the comments, if that's possible, across your entire site to stop angry users from having access to post.

Media Crisis Tip #2: Handling Unfavorable News Coverage

A TV station parts ways with its popular, but aging anchorwoman because of a failure to negotiate a new media contract for her. The station wasn't willing to meet her salary demands.

Unfortunately, the anchorwoman has used her clout in the community to organize a news conference to claim she was fired because of her age. She threatens an age discrimination lawsuit.

As a station manager, your instinct may be not to respond to her bogus claims. But silence may signal guilt in the public's eye.

It is better to issue a simply-worded written statement, denying the discrimination while saying you weren't able to come to terms on a media contract. That will tell your audience she wasn't fired, and that you had hoped she would stay. A written statement protects you from having to answer questions, which you probably can't answer because of your human resources policies.

Media Crisis Tip #3: Deciding Who Can Speak Publicly about Your Company

As a media manager, it is vital that all employees know who can speak publicly about your business. Failing to set rules will have major consequences in a crisis.

A morning DJ is the most popular radio personality in town. On Saturday night, he's arrested for soliciting a prostitute.

TV and newspaper reporters find out and start calling the radio station. Your naive weekend announcer picks up the phone and is hit with a barrage of questions. Dazzled by the interest, he tells reporters that your DJ has always had a shady past, drinks on the job and recently left his wife.

Suddenly, your media crisis has gotten a lot worse. Even though you work in the media industry, employees must be told they can't speak for the company. Any public comments have to come from you.

Media Crisis Tip #4: Calming a Protest

Faced with high costs and declining revenue, the newspaper you publish has decided to drastically cut back on the number of comic strips it will print. It simply can't afford to carry them all.

Rabid comic page fans, some dressed up as characters from their favorite strips, mount a loud protest in front of your building. You thought they'd leave after just one day, but they've gathered every day for a week, prompting the TV stations to rush to the scene to interview them.

While the TV cameras are recording, go outside to offer the protesters some sort of compromise. Tell them that you were going to cancel some comic strips in two weeks, but now you'll make it two months. Or say that you'll print a survey in your newspaper to find out which strips are the most popular and keep those, while dropping others.

The TV cameras will show that you aren't mean-spirited. If the protesters are shown rejecting your efforts, viewers will become more sympathetic toward you rather than them.

Media Crisis Tip #5: Surviving a Boycott

While protesters want to actively engage you to get you to agree to their demands, boycotters turn their backs to you. Their faces may not be known to you as they plot your downfall.

You're the manager of a network affiliate TV station. The network has made a tawdry, sexually charged teen drama the centerpiece of its fall schedule. Some community groups are pressuring you not to run the program, which you must run as part of your affiliation agreement.

So they've mounted a campaign to get viewers to boycott your station. There's even a "Don't Watch Channel 6" Facebook page, and someone's passing out bumper stickers with the same message.

It would be easy on you if the show failed in the Nielsen ratings, but unfortunately it's now a modest hit at the national level. Once you get your own sweeps numbers, you'll be able to see if the boycott is having any impact on your station.

In the case of Three's Company, Soap, NYPD Blue or most shows that push the boundaries, eventually the outrage subsides. If not, develop a media advertising campaign or community outreach program to highlight the positive aspects of your station.

Media Crisis Tip #6: Managing Layoffs

Media layoffs are becoming more common, not only because of the shaky economy but also because companies are having to reinvent themselves to face 21st century competition. As painful as layoffs may be for any company, at least you can prepare yourself for this crisis.

Issue a press release as the layoffs are happening to briefly explain why they are a necessary, yet unfortunate part of business. Too much explanation will simply lead to phone calls from reporters questioning your judgment -- like, "Why can't you cancel the community Christmas parade you put on each year and keep two employees?" You don't need to start that type of discussion.

Do say in your press release that you are providing employees with severance pay and benefits, if you're able to do that. At least it shows that you aren't just cutting people loose without caring for them.

Media Crisis Tip #7: Responding to a Union Walkout

In some parts of the country, key people working for a media company are also union members. As with any union, there are periodic dangers of a strike or walkout.

It's a delicate situation, where every word you utter will be interpreted as either a sign of weakness or of unwillingness to compromise. Be careful with what you say.

It's best to let written statements do your talking, so you don't accidently say something you'll regret. The points you'll want to make should include that you care for these union members who are a valuable part of your business and that you hope they can get back to work soon. Otherwise, let negotiators handle any comments.

Media Crisis Tip #8: Refuting Claims of Media Bias

During an election year, candidates are sometimes ready to pounce on any supposed example they see of media bias. They realize media outlets aren't always popular, so it's easy for them to play the victim to jump-start a sputtering campaign.

Your TV station wants to do a story profiling the candidates for mayor. You've interviewed three of the four candidates, but one keeps putting you off -- the mayor himself, who apparently doesn't think he should be bothered with speaking to your reporter.

After many failed attempts to interview the mayor, you decide to run the story without him. Your news anchor explains that you'd made several attempts at speaking with him, just to be ignored. Predictably, the mayor accuses you of bias as a way to manipulate the media.

Hit this phony claim head-on. You may want to appear on TV yourself to lay out in detail how the mayor avoided you. Point out to viewers that the mayor can choose not to be interviewed, but he can't be allowed to make false accusations without being held accountable. You may burn a bridge with the mayor, but maintaining credibility with your audience is more important to your brand.

Every company is eventually faced with a media crisis. While it's sometimes tougher for media companies to weather these storms, preparing yourself is the best way to survive.

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