Enquiring minds want to know. It is becoming common practice for the media to sue to obtain what they call "public information." My hometown newspaper has done this when they have hold of a National Enquirer-type story whose juicy details are not available in the public domain. Recently, a faculty member at the local university resigned in the wake of alleged sexual misconduct, and the newspaper wants the details. In an article on the resignation yesterday, they reiterated, "The (paper) still has a lawsuit pending against (university) seeking more information, arguing the public's right to know outweighs the right to privacy in this case."
What does the public really have a right to know? [Personal note: I am wondering if newspapers are really lobbying as champions of public protection, or on behalf of their subscription rates.] We live in a culture where news is 24/7 and privacy is off limits. When the media masquerade their intentions to get more eyeballs under the umbrella of public rights, how do we approach our response as communicators? As George Costanza knows, when worlds collide, they blow up. Worlds Collide (from Seinfeld)
Lawyers are Right...Sometimes
When a news piece hits the public eye that involves privacy issues, special attention needs to be paid to governance and compliance. This is where the lawyers come in. If a lawsuit (or a potential one) is on the table, legal advice needs to be sought on how to respond to media inquiries or social media onslaughts. Here's a quick look at some basics that should be in your crisis communications plan when the worlds of privacy and public information collide.
1. Who's in charge here? Who is the designated spokesperson in this situation? I'm not in favor of this being a lawyer as they tend to speak legalese, which turns people off. They should, however, have the primary seat at the table where the talking points and messages are crafted. If a lawyer is the face of a situation, guilt can be automatically assumed. Be careful when choosing a spokesperson.
2. Know what you can and can't say...legally. I use the word legally here because sometimes lawyers stretch this boundary. They would much rather you say, "no comment," which is a death sentence to your reputation. Know what you can say, and say it. Just make sure you are addressing the safety and privacy of everyone involved. Make it known in your messaging that your intent is to protect the people involved first and foremost-- above your organization's or the public's interests. In the above case of the university professor, there are alleged victims involved in the story. Make it clear in your language that all potentially injured parties are your priority. Know your state and federal information laws.
3. Separate the wheat from the chaff. All information in a story is not important to the end goal of being informed. Sordid details of sexual encounters may sell papers, but they are not important to public safety or protection of victims. They are just sordid details the media wants. The general public will respect your efforts to protect those involved if they are communicated genuinely.
4. Make sure you have a crisis communications plan in place that includes media training for potential spokespeople. If you don't want to go the route of hiring a professional consultant for this task, I would recommend a thorough reading and replicating of the book, When the Headline is You, by Jeff Ansell.
5. Make sure you respond to media inquiries promptly and properly. Remember that our news cycle is 24/7. Getting back to the media on Monday for a Friday afternoon inquiry during a crisis won't work. Your convenience is not a concern to them. They'll find somebody to talk to other than you. One of the most important things to remember in a crisis is that you want to be the messenger. Give the media a reporting schedule and stick to it. Make it sensitive to any deadlines they have and respond to individual inquiries as thoroughly and quickly as you can.
6. Make sure your crisis communications plan addresses social media usage. Chances are if there's a sniff of a crisis, it shows up in social media first. Make sure you have an active monitoring program and presence in place to get out in front of any situation. Do it now, before you have a crisis. Sometimes, listening is your best defense. You will learn when it's time to add to the conversation, address concerns, take it offline, or just keep listening. And remember Amber Naslund and Jay Baer's good advice from The Now Revolution: address the crisis where it starts. If the conversation blows up on Twitter, you want to be there to answer questions and concerns.
When the worlds of privacy and public information collide, it can be tricky. This is just a basic list of suggestions. What have you done to prepare for a media onslaught, social or otherwise?