7 tips for addressing the media in a crisis related to COVID-19

David Wagner
(Senior Advisor, Parthenon Japan)

The onset of global pandemic COVID-19 means many organizations must decide whether and how to engage the media.  Central to that decision comes how exactly to approach the media and with what messages. That produces the question:  What are you selling? Safety? Client focus? Business continuity?

All of this leads to the issue of key messaging development.  Releasing key messages in a timely and effective fashion can limit any potential damage.  Not doing so can lead to an endless stream of nightmares in which the media controls the process often ending in permanent damage to an organization.  Whatever you are selling in the COVID-19 crisis, keep your messages concise and impactful.

The decision to engage the media involves a variety of issues worth consideration.  Among the critical questions that should be asked:

  • Why is the media being engaged?
  • What is the goal of engaging the media?
  • What types of media should be targeted? (Traditional (print, TV, radio) and/or social media?)
  • Who should be the spokesperson(s)?
  • What information needs to be included?
  • What are the messages to be delivered prior to, during, and after an incident?
  • How can messages be delivered effectively?
  • What questions can we anticipate?
  • What headlines do we want to see and how can we make them happen?

In a crisis, time is not on your side.  That is why proper preparation in advance is highly advised.  This includes a proper spokesperson to deliver key messages.

A crisis spokesperson must consider critical issues from many perspectives.  For instance, is the audience worried and in need of reassurance? Are they sanguine and in need of a warning? Are they angry and in need of calming?  


Here are 7 ideas for preparing your crisis spokesperson:

1. Tell what you know when you know it

Investigations and study take time, but time is not on your side in a crisis. Even though there are things you cannot say or do not know, tell what you know when you know it. If you fail to do so, you invite speculation and a void that will be filled by others who may not know the full picture.

2. Decide what you’re going to say and who is going to say it

What you say and who you select to say it speaks volumes about your business’s ability to handle the crisis. While the facts of what happened are important to get out, so is the context in which those facts should be viewed.

Seek to put facts in context, with an eye toward the bigger picture of what it means, especially for those harmed in any way by events. Give your key stakeholders an understanding of the crisis from your perspective.

Be careful to limit the number of people speaking for the company so you can be sure of what’s being said and to whom.

3. Tell the truth

Messaging is not “spin.” Your key stakeholders have to know they can count on you to tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant that truth is. 

Even if you are not at liberty to tell all or you simply do not know all the facts, make sure what you do say is reliable and trustworthy. (An acknowledgement that you do not know all the facts does not absolve you from relating the truth of what you do know.)

4. Acknowledge the bad

It is important to acknowledge people’s anger or frustration, even when not accepting blame for wrongdoing. Avoid the temptation to minimize objections and complaints. Let people have some kind of forum to be heard, and let them know you’re listening.

5. Make sure you are reaching your audience

The media has never been as diverse and as diffused as it is now. That means it is harder than ever for businesses to reach their stakeholders through one central means of communication.

Determine the myriad ways you’ll reach your target audience well in advance of a crisis. That means well-thought-out media lists, as well as temporary and timely company Web sites available to the media and to the general public, and, if resources allow, coordinated advertising and marketing campaigns.

6. Keep your employees informed

Do not neglect your own company’s internal sites or newsletters (if they exist) as a vital resource for your own employees. As best you can, monitor what’s being said and written about the company so that you can choose how and when to respond.

7. React appropriately

There will very likely be factors beyond your control that affect your ability to handle the crisis. Do not promise solutions you may not be able to deliver on. At the same time, make sure to vet your proposed solutions so that your response is not viewed as too little, too late.


When to react?

A crisis is sometimes determined by those outside an organization, but not always. If you think your business and your reputation are in danger then it is time to act, whether or not the problem is widely known or acknowledged by your employees and/or your customers.  Waiting for the media to report on it is a bad strategy. That is when it is easy to lose control of the process.

Crisis situations are messy by nature, often unfolding at a pace that makes careful and considered response difficult. Sometimes, they stem from unforeseen events, and in retrospect some could have been predicted, but always they present a test of leadership skill and preparation. Communication is key.

Times of crisis represent turning points for business health and reputation, often leaving both potentially damaged. If handled well, though, a crisis response can actually enhance reputation and spur some needed dialogue and change.

Specialist Profile

David Wagner
Senior Advisor, Media Training & Crisis Communication

David Wagner has unparalleled experience as a media training and crisis communication consultant. Sought after by Ambassadors, Fortune 500 executives, and government organizations, David has worked with more than 550 organizations across Japan as well as throughout North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Known as a go-to consultant for global media training, David is an expert in fine-tuning message delivery for MNC executives as well as global PR strategy for Japanese firms and the Government of Japan. His expertise has been sought by organizations including Google, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, Nasdaq, the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office, and the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

David’s extensive career includes leading Japan-based communications training teams at Kreab and Edelman. He has also authored 24 books on business communication and media relations, and was creator and host of two national TV series on global business skills for Japan’s national broadcaster NHK. David holds an M.A. degree in Japanese economic and political system from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

A native of Denver, Colorado, David served as communications advisor to the Democratic National Committee during the 2018 US elections.