Expert Interview

How to manage a crisis… an interview with Phil Hall, The PHA Group chairman


A media crisis can come at anywhere and anytime. If handled in the wrong way it can be hugely damaging to your profile and the reputation of your business. In this interview we talk to leading crisis PR expert Phil Hall about how he would advise a client in the midst of a media storm.

Q: Can you give an example of a typical crisis management situation?

A: Whilst all situations are different, generally speaking, many of the rules for dealing with a crisis remain the same. It’s all about getting to the root of the story, understanding the facts and making sure you can balance the story or, in some cases, prevent it from being published in the first place if it is fundamentally untrue, libellous or clearly not in the public interest.

Q: In what sorts of ways can you help manage a crisis?

A: There are many stories that we have kept out of the media (online and offline). The truth is journalists sometimes get it wrong and sometimes there are legal reasons why they shouldn’t publish a story. Sometimes it’s because the story is vindictive and there is a whistle-blower who is acting in bad faith. What we do is make sure there is balance in the article and ensure the facts are correct to mitigate from any lasting damage to the company or the individual involved.

Q: When it comes to dealing with a media crisis are there any generic tips you would give to somebody caught in the eye of a media storm?

The first and most important thing is that people need to be prepared for a media crisis. Most individuals or organisations know where the issues are within their company and addressing these issues is critical. If you ignore them or try to sweep them under the carpet the media will pick up on this and you will expose yourself for further criticism.

The second area to be aware of is not to say “No Comment”. Using this phrase effectively confirms everything the journalist is putting to you. What we tend to suggest to clients is to let us speak to journalists, because we have relationships with them and we can find out precisely the nature of the allegation is. However, just to say no comment is never the answer.

Q: If you are in the midst of a media crisis and you’ve been asked to do a media interview, how can you prepare for that interview?

A: The very first thing you can do to prepare for an interview is to make sure you can address every single question they could possibly ask. We normally help clients prepare these lists and it is really important to think like a journalist and develop questions around all possible areas and subjects. There is nothing worse than being caught out and stumped on a question and so you really must go through this process thoroughly.

It’s also important to insist, if it’s a crisis, that the interview is done ‘live’. If you do a pre-record the producer can edit the interview and twist it and turn it to however they want it to appear. Remember a pre-record means you will lose an element of control to tell your side of the story in a way that is unfiltered and unpackaged.

It is important that you take control. You can certainly do media training to help give your answers the right tone, the right sort of balance and the right sort of anecdotes to help you illustrate your point. All these things are very important when you are facing tough questions from a journalist.

Q: How would you advise a client to deal with an ‘out of the blue’ phone call from a journalist they are not expecting?

A: The worst scenario is when a journalist catches you cold on the phone. In this situation I’d always advise making an excuse and ask them to speak to one of your expert advisors, or someone who is used to dealing with the media. If you let them know you will get back to them then you can buy yourself some time and also avoid being trapped into saying something that might damage your reputation.

Remember to always be polite and try asking the journalist to send you an email detailing the story and the questions they want to ask you.

Q: Journalists often use the expression “off the record”. Is this a phrase that can be trusted? Does it really exist?

A: My opinion is that “off the record” does not exist for private individuals. When you are speaking to the media do not talk off the record and instead assume everything you say could be reported. For a media advisor, however, it is a little different. We are speaking to those journalists every day of the week, we have trust and a close relationship with many of them and sometimes we can talk and brief them off the record. But do not do it yourself.

Q: How has reputation management changed in the digital age?

A: Ten years ago you could have a story running in a newspaper and it was the old adage “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”. This is no longer the case and nowadays a negative story can stay online forever.

Q: What can you do about a negative story online?

A: You can get stories taken off the internet and we’ve certainly had a lot of success with that. You can get balance on those articles or even get the headlines changed if they don’t represent the true detail of the story. So there is a lot that can be done, but you have to employ an expert to do it.

Q: How can you actually get a negative story stopped or pulled?

A: If a negative story is completely inaccurate, libelous or slanderous of an individual then it can be stopped. For example, if somebody has been accused of embezzling money and that story is online you can get that story pulled if you can prove it is wrong. Frankly, you can sue, but in my experience it’s far more advantageous to the clients if you can get that story removed.

One example would be when we had an article about a surgeon who was appearing before the general medical council. After the first day’s hearing a newspaper ran a vicious headline summing up the evidence. He was later cleared and so we went back to the newspaper and had the story taken down on the basis that the headline that now existed was not fair and proper. It’s all about balance and most media outlets in my experience will listen providing you approach them in a fair, balanced and proper way. If you go in just threatening them, many of them will just dig their heels in and make it more difficult for you. If you can engage and negotiate many of them will play fair.

Q: What are the frustrations you face as a media advisor?

A: The first thing that a media advisor needs are the full facts. The worst thing is when a client tells you half the story and the journalist comes back to you with some facts and details you never knew existed. This is very, very difficult so you’ve got to have the full facts.

My advice would be to have your media advisor at the top table so when there is a crisis they are in those conversations. Don’t just hand down the crumbs and then expect him or her to pick up the pieces and stop the damage. You’ve got to get them properly engaged so that when they are talking to the journalist they can really bring facts and detail to the argument.

Very often journalists will have half-baked stories and so it is very important for the media advisor to speak to them and talk through the details of the story.

Q: We’ve talked about how to react to a crisis, but what can you do to prepare for one?

A: One of the things you can do to mitigate against a crisis is to build relationships with the key journalists. Most organisations or individuals know which journalists or publications are likely to be the biggest threat to them. For instance, the big financial institutions are going to be worried about the Financial Times maybe or the Telegraph. You’ve got to have a relationship with them. There is no point turning up in the middle of a crisis and expecting a journalist to be friendly and thoughtful towards you if you’ve had no relationship with them in the past.

Whether you are a business leader, politician or individual it’s very important to build relationships with journalists, be open with them, be transparent and give them stories. Remember their currency in the end is stories and if you give them material they can work with they are going to be more friendly towards you. On the other hand if you are someone they’ve never met they are hardly going to be co-operative in trying to alleviate some of the damage that they are likely to do with the story they are writing.

For more information or to contact The PHA Group directly for impartial advice visit our crisis PR page or call us on 0207 0251 353

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