WHEN THE NEWS HITS THE FAN: PREPARING FOR THE INEVITABLE
BY TIM BIRR
The following is excerpted from the author`s book Public and Media Relations for the Fire Service, soon to be released by Fire EngineeringT.
It was nearly closing time, and the bartender cast a wary eye at the group in the back booth. They had come in around eight o`clock and had been drinking heavily ever since. The group was made up of large, athletic-looking men, several of whom had grown more belligerent over the past hour. The whole group had become loud to the point where other customers had moved away from them.
As the bartender looked up at the clock and idly began wiping a glass, he suddenly heard shouting and the sounds of breaking glass and furniture from the back of the bar. A brawl had broken out in the back booth.
A police dispatcher answered the bartender`s call for help on the second ring. When asked if he could describe the men involved in the fight, the bartender said, “Most of `em are all wearing the same T-shirts. They`re navy blue with some kind of cross design on the left chest and Metro F.D. on the back.”
Bad things do happen to good departments, if for no other reason than that they`re staffed by fallible human beings. Citizens complain, equipment breaks down, controversies arise, normally good employees do dumb things, bad tactical decisions are made, and sometime the ball just bounces the wrong way. Like people, even the best of organizations have an occasional bad day.
At the same time, the best way to avoid bad news is to prevent bad things from happening. Those concerned about a fire department`s relations with its customers and constituents need to be constantly vigilant about the organization`s training, discipline, and other forms of institutional maintenance.
How much impact bad events have on fire departments has a lot to do with how the events are handled when they occur. The most realistic attitude a fire service manager can take is to accept the notion that bad news will happen and plan in advance for how to handle it.
Advance planning has several key components: maintaining positive media relations, identifying potential problem areas, and knowing the rules ahead of time. Let`s look at each of these areas.
MAINTAINING POSITIVE MEDIA RELATIONS
Your relationship with the media is critical before, during, and after a crisis. In advance of a crisis, a reputation for being candid, helpful, and honest can give you an edge that will stay with you when things go sideways. One of the things ongoing public relations efforts do is build a reservoir of goodwill against the inevitable controversy or departmental misstep. It doesn`t mean that the media won`t cover the story and ask hard questions, but it does mean that you`ll certainly be given a chance to tell your side and, in gray areas, you may get some benefit of the doubt. It`s much easier to deal with bad news when you`ve established credibility and are on a first-name basis with the people writing the stories.
On the other hand, if your department regards reporters as annoying busybodies and rarely returns their calls, the coverage may be less than sympathetic. In fact, the first you may know of the problem may be when it appears on page one, with six paragraphs worth of quotes from an outraged citizen and a concluding line to the effect that “city fire officials did not return calls Tuesday afternoon.”
It`s also important to maintain a positive relationship during the crisis. All reporters have horror stories about public officials who are readily available when the news is good and disappear when things go bad. Nothing can test you more than trying to be helpful and polite to people who are reporting information that will publicly embarrass your department, but it`s important to maintain your composure and poise. If you lose your cool, you lose whatever control you have of the story. We`ve all seen people get nervous, defensive, or openly hostile on camera, and we`ve all come away with negative impressions. Remember the adage, “Don`t argue with people who buy ink by the barrel or videotape by the case.”
At the same time, if you think coverage of the story is truly unfair (a judgment that you should make only after thoroughly and objectively weighing your own obvious biases), there are a few things you can do. First, determine whether the story contains errors in fact or whether you`re upset about the tone. Factual errors are fairly simple to correct, especially if you have documents that show that the story varies from the truth. Story tone is much more subjective. Veteran reporters will tell you it`s not uncommon to do stories about controversial issues and have advocates for both sides complain about the coverage. Ironically, this can sometimes mean that the story was pretty well balanced.
In either case, if you want to follow up, your first step is to talk directly to the reporter who produced the story and calmly explain your concerns. Reporters are no different from the rest of us, and if we`re unhappy with something they`ve done, they`d rather we talk to them directly than go straight to their boss.
If you and the reporter fail to come to some kind of understanding and if you think it`s important enough to pursue further, write to the editor and news director. Outline your concern and summarize your contact with the reporter. Do not do this in anger. Be as objective as possible in composing your complaint.
You also need to keep some perspective. The story will eventually die, and you`ll still have to live with the media. Don`t burn bridges, and don`t give in to the temptation of taking shortcuts with the truth or any other facet of media relations. There will be other days and other stories on which you and the media will have to work together. Like a marriage, your relationship with the media will have its ups and downs. There will be squabbles and times when one party will really upset the other, but the focus should be on maintaining the long-term relationship.
It`s also important to maintain relationships after the crisis. Media relations can be sabotaged in many subtle ways. Let`s say Channel 7 does an embarrassing story on the off-duty altercation described at the beginning of this chapter. All of a sudden, dispatchers are always too busy when someone from Channel 7 calls. Department members refuse to speak with the station`s reporters. Given time, the friction increases. Every chance the department gets to snub Channel 7, it does. Every time Channel 7 gets to take a shot at the department, it does so with barely concealed glee. Don`t trade short-term vengeance and satisfaction for long-term losses.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL PROBLEM AREAS
The second phase of planning for a crisis is anticipating what kind of bad news could come out of your department. For most departments, this includes losing buildings and, in the worst case, firing people. It also includes personnel problems, mechanical breakdowns, code enforcement controversies, poor response times, and emergencies for which the department wasn`t prepared. You need to think in advance about how you might respond to each of these situations. For example, if a piece of apparatus were to break down at a critical time, would you be able to quickly develop statistics showing how rare such breakdowns are or detailing the number of miles or hours of operation that have passed without incident? Would you be able to gather and summarize information on your department`s apparatus maintenance program and explain briefly and in nontechnical terms what your organization does to prevent equipment breakdowns?
Get in the habit of looking at other organizations in the media hot seat and ask yourself how you`d respond under the same circumstances. If those organizations are fire departments, you may well have to respond to local “Could it happen here?” inquiries.
KNOWING THE RULES AHEAD OF TIME
Fire departments must know the rules before bad news or a crisis hits. Policies that spell out who speaks for the department and what information will and will not be disclosed must be in place. For example, in the hypothetical situation that begins this chapter, it is possible that disciplinary action will be taken against the firefighters involved in the off-duty altercation. But can you release specifics about discipline, or does that constitute personnel information that cannot legally be disclosed? It`s going to depend on department policy, which should be based on local public record laws.
Based on the experience of many organizations, a number of considerations are involved when your department falls into a bad-news situation:
The media will do the story with or without your help. You`ll probably like the results better if you get to present your side.
If it`s obvious that a bad-news story is going to get out, an organization is usually better off if it breaks the news before reporters do. You`ll be in a much more defensive posture if you`ve sat on a scandal for three days before the Daily Bugle comes around to confirm rumors it heard elsewhere. It`s hard to give yourself a black eye, but if you`re going to get hit anyway, you can be in a better position if you do it yourself.
Have someone do fact-finding to determine what information has been confirmed and what is just gossip and rumor.
If you stall, stonewall, lie, or attempt to cover up a situation, you only make the situation worse. It gets back to what Mom taught you: Tell the truth and confess. The citizens may think you`re inept, but at least they`ll still trust you.
The best way to end a bad story is to disclose as much as possible as quickly as possible. The natural temptation is to disclose as little as possible and hope that the rest of the bad news doesn`t get out. That never works. If the story is one that has attracted a lot of media attention, you`ll just find yourself in front of the TV night after night as anchors breathlessly report, “Eyewitness News has learned that ….” and “Contrary to what fire officials said Wednesday ….”
If the situation involves lawyers, work closely with your own. Attorneys need to understand that it`s possible to win a case in court but still lose in the arena of public opinion. Often the first advice an attorney gives a client being sued is to say nothing. The problem is that the civil complaint filed in a lawsuit is a matter of public record, so what appears in the paper the day after it has been filed is paragraph after paragraph of allegation and accusation, with the concluding line: “Fire officials refused to comment on the matter.” There are problems with this: It makes your public think you`re guilty, and it gives the other side a free throw.
Do express concern when bad things happen, and explain in general terms what`s being done about it. You can be concerned about a situation without having to determine whether anybody is guilty or innocent (“The department is extremely concerned about the allegations of sexual harassment at Engine Company 23, since we strive to maintain a harassment-free workplace“) and, at the same time, explain what is being done (“Chief Smith has appointed a five-member board of inquiry that will investigate these allegations and report back within two weeks”). Outline what additional actions will be taken (“The results of this inquiry will be released to the media after the report has been presented to the chief, and disciplinary action will be taken if it appears appropriate”) and explain why no additional comments will be made at this time (“What we have at this point are unsubstantiated allegations, and it wouldn`t be appropriate to comment on them further until such time as they can be verified and investigated”). If appropriate, it doesn`t hurt to review actions taken to prevent something bad from happening (“Over the past year, all members of the department have participated in mandatory training exercises designed to educate them on the issue of harassment and to help them understand how to prevent it”).
Don`t let yourself get drawn into a negative “ain`t it awful” reaction. If the situation allows, focus on what steps have been taken to prevent an incident from happening again (“Effective immediately, our procedures are being changed, and no department vehicle will be left unattended with the keys in the ignition”).
Have background materials prepared on the different parts of the department, including their history, the work they do, and how they`re staffed. If, for example, a situation arises involving the hazardous materials team, it can be useful to give reporters information about when and why the team was formed, how many members it has, the kinds of training its members receive, what equipment members carry, and how many calls the team responded to last year.
Don`t overlook internal communication. It`s easy to get distracted by inquiries from reporters, elected officials, and citizens, but don`t forget to ensure that the department`s members are kept informed about what`s going on. They have as much right to know as anyone else and are often key communicators on and off the job.
Finally, stick to the basics. Be accessible to reporters, tell them what you can, and have sound reasons for whatever you have to hold back. There`s a lot to be said for telling the truth and doing the right thing. n
n TIM BIRR, a member of the fire service since 1975, has been a member of Tualatin (OR) Valley Fire and Rescue since 1995, where he serves as division chief and manages media, community, and intergovernmental relations. He previously was a member of the Eugene (OR) Fire Department, where he served as a firefighter-EMT, lieutenant, and captain. He began serving as the department`s first public information officer in 1979 on a part-time basis and served for nearly a year as acting public information director for the City of Eugene. He was vice president of IAFF Local 851, a media consultant for the U.S. Fire Administration, and state editor of the Oregon Professional Fire Fighter magazine. A freelance writer, his articles have been published in numerous fire and general interest publications, including a “My Turn” column in Newsweek. For a year, he hosted a television talk show on health and safety issues for a local Group W affiliate. He is a former regional director of the National Information Officers Association.