Should you decline a sensitive media interview?
6 March 2017, Blog
The Weekend Word – 6 March 2017
I was listening to Radio 4’s In Touch programme this week when the presenter said that Greater Manchester Police (GMP) had declined an interview about a blind man that it had mistakenly tasered as they thought his walking stick was a gun.
Despite issuing a statement to the programme that it had regretted the incident and the blind man had said he wasn’t going to make a complaint, acknowledging his walking stick could have been mistaken for the gun, the police force still decided not to participate in an interview with the programme.
Yes, naturally the police force would have been asked some awkward questions about the incident. And yes the presenter would have referenced similar incidents involving a GMP and taser guns in the past few years, including a fatality and another blind man whose stick was mistaken for a samurai sword.
However, as the latest victim had not made a formal complaint, it gave the police force the perfect opportunity to talk about their approach to using a taser and weighing each situation up in the name of public safety. Moreover, a recent poll undertaken recently by the Police Federation of England & Wales had revealed that almost three quarters of us supported the police carrying tasers – something that could have been referenced.
I respect our police force hugely and feel often they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but avoiding an interview in this way just plays into the hands of those who are fiercely critical of the way they act. When an organisation declines an interview in the majority of cases it sends out a message that it has something to hide, doesn’t care and is out of touch with public feeling. The only real exception should be if there is a court case pending on an incident that the media want you to talk about.
In the era of more open communications we now live in, due to the rise of social media, organisations need to accept that the days of saying “no” to media interviews and hiding behind “no comment” are largely over. The public Indeed want to see a human face, which conveys that you actually give a damn. Indeed, to be seen and heard even if the situation is a sensitive one might even win you plaudits.
So how should you handle a sensitive interview?
- Prepare, prepare, prepare – make sure you understand your reputational risks and think what the journalistic is thinking. Don’t think they can’t possibly ask any of the questions that you hope they won’t do. Create a comprehensive Q&A and evidence your answers wherever possible, this will give a resilience to your reputation.
- Apologise or sympathise where obvious or appropriate. Don’t give the impression that lawyers are governing the way you speak to the media. There are ways to be apologetic and, critically, to be sympathetic to a situation without admitting formal liability.
- Be in control of any media interviews. Remember you are delivering your messages using the interview as a delivery device. Start with your main point on the situation at hand and generally taking charge by being polite yet firm throughout. A great example of taking control was the CEO of Merlin Entertainments after 16 people were injured, some severely, on its Smiler Rollercoaster at Alton Towers a couple of years ago. Despite some heavy-handed questioning, particularly from Kate Burley at Sky, it was extremely well handled. Firstly they put the victims first and acted sensitively. The company wholeheartedly said sorry to the victims and their families. It acted responsibly and closed the park and put more safety measures in place on similar rides at Alton Towers and in their other theme parks. They contacted all of the victims and publicly accepted responsibility – irrespective of blame – and confirmed compensation and quickly released funds to those most affected, to assist with their rehabilitation
- Get on the front foot and use the situation that you find yourselves in to launch an initiative which learns from the lessons that it has generated. With the taser incident, the GMP could have looked at leading on a collaboration between the police forces in England and Wales and charities representing blind people, such as RNIB and Action for Blind People, to look at how best to avoid such a similar incident happening again in the future. By being proactive and doing something about what happened wins PR brownie points and provides an opportunity to say that something positive has come out of the situation when taking part in a sensitive interview.
So next time your organisation is asked to take part in a sensitive media interview, think of how you will be perceived if you don’t.