A crash course on handling public-relations crises, dealing with the media and developing strategies for generating positive publicity
By Stacy St. Clair
As the worst crisis in the history of the Elk Grove Park District, Ill., began to unfold, executive director Barbara Heller had to attend a funeral. A 42-year-old Chicago man had been charged with videotaping young girls as they showered in the suburban park district's locker room. Reporters, Heller had no doubt, would be calling her employees seeking comment and details.
Heller wanted to be in her office overseeing the taxing body's response to the arrest, but the funeral prevented her from getting to work until the afternoon. Her only option was to trust her staff would heed the protocols put in place for such emergencies.
She later would learn the procedure was followed to the letter. And in doing so, her agency's handling of the situation now is hailed as textbook example of managing a public-relations crisis.
"We consider Elk Grove the poster child for handling a negative situation well," says Gail Cohen, communications and marketing manager for the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association. "Barbara Heller did an amazing job."
Heller's suspicions about the media onslaught proved accurate the moment she arrived at the park district office. Television trucks and print reporters were camped outside the building, interviewing patrons and demanding answers from tight-lipped employees.
The media knew the man had been charged. They also knew of a similar incident a few months earlier that had never been made public. In the first instance, a girl reported seeing a snake-like lens peeking under a stall. She told a parent, who confronted the man.
The man, who was never identified, fled. It was the first—and until the arrest, only—report police received about a voyeur. A description of the subject was given to police, but neither authorities nor the park district issued a press release about it.
Officials decided to withhold details of the incident because they didn't want to needlessly worry the public. The Elk Grove Park District historically did not release information on alleged incidents that could not be substantiated.
The long-standing policy, however, mattered little to the reporters investigating the story. They began to suggest the district had made a grievous error when it opted not to inform patrons. They wanted answers.
Heller, however, did not fall victim to the journalists' demands for immediate answers. Upon returning from the funeral, she went into her office and planned her response. Among her first acts: sending an e-mail explaining the situation to employees.
"I have a long-standing policy that no employee learns about something impacting the park district from the morning paper," says Heller, who has overseen the Elk Grove Park District for the past eight years.
She then began working on a statement. She memorized the response, reading it aloud to make sure she could recite it without looking down at the paper. She also coordinated her reaction with the local police department, ensuring both agencies would be sending the same message to constituents.
When she felt ready, she called the reporters in one at a time. The press pool—which included TV stations from the country's third-largest market and writers from two of the nation's largest newspapers—could have intimidated a less-prepared official.
Heller, however, was unflappable. She stayed calm and on-message throughout the interviews. She explained the situation thoughtfully and carefully.
"We praised her in our newsletter to our members," Cohen says. "We thought she handled the situation beautifully."
Heller bolstered her defense by having the local police chief issue a statement saying the park district had done all it could. The two read each other's press releases before they were issued and talked about what they would discuss with the media.
"We wanted to make sure we were acting in concert," Heller says.
Both she and the chief explained how police patrols were stepped up at the facility following the first incident. They stressed that district personnel made mandatory locker-room checks every 10 to 15 minutes, as well.
The police chief's public backing of Heller's initial response proved invaluable.
"That was really wonderful," Heller says. "The press was trying to make a whole new train wreck out of it, but we let them know there was never any proof of [the first incident] happening. We were never able to corroborate it."
The Illinois Parks and Recreation Association also stepped forward in support of Heller. The organization's deputy administrator Tom Ford sent a letter to several newspapers, praising the district's actions and suggesting the man would not have been apprehended if Heller hadn't responded vigorously to the initial complaint.
"Next to moving her office into the locker room, we can think of no practical action Heller didn't take," Ford wrote in his letter to the editor. "The Illinois Park and Recreation Association stands with our member Barbara Heller. Her employees may well have saved hundreds of individuals from being victimized in a similar way."
Heller, too, considers her district's response to the negative incident successful. Her employees perfectly executed a process established years earlier in the event of a crisis. The procedure, among other things, outlines who should be notified about the situation and who should serve as the spokesperson.
In almost all instances, Heller is designated to speak to the media on the district's behalf.
"It's very important to have your leader front and center," Heller says. "Some people during a crisis want to run and hide their heads in the sand. You can't do that."
Elk Grove's policy also forbids employees from talking to the media during such situations. This ensures the district speaks with one voice and the most accurate information is released.
The rule, however, was tested during the voyeur incident. With Heller at the funeral and temporarily unavailable for comment, reporters began calling employees for information. Dozens of staff members were called, and all, it appears, declined to speak with the media.
"The press was really breathing down the necks of our employees," Heller says. "And no one talked. There is so much going on during an emergency, nothing would be worse than having people start popping off."
Heller also resisted the urge to let the press release speak for itself. She knew her patrons would want to see her on television and in the paper. She wanted to assure them the district was not ignoring their concerns.
"I felt very much that I needed to say something," she says. "It's important in a situation like this to say something and let people know you're responding to the problem."
If Heller seemed confident before the cameras and tape recorders, it's because she had trained herself to be so. She recited her response aloud before meeting with reporters and had spent years honing her public-speaking skills.
It's vital, she says, for recreation managers to articulate their position in times of crisis. In order to do this effectively, she recommends regularly speaking in front of large groups. Making presentations at board meetings or seminars is a way to glean invaluable experience, she says.
Even the most articulate speakers, however, can falter if they don't know how to handle hostile inquiries. Managers should practice interviewing techniques, as well. Ask a colleague to give a mock interview, throwing tough questions at you and challenging your organization's positions.
"Interviews are a lot different than giving presentations," Heller says.
Responding to the problem, however, does not mean providing immediate solutions. Reporters repeatedly pushed Heller to say how her park district would improve security. She declined to give specific answers, rather than commit herself to something that may not have worked.
Instead, she promised to meet with police and park officials to discuss the situation. The group later decided to reconfigure the locker room and add more prohibitive signage. The press was notified of the meeting, but none of the TV stations or big newspapers reported about it.
This, of course, brings Heller to one of the most important things to remember in times of crisis: This, too, shall pass.
"Take the heat for about 24 hours," she says. "After that, they don't give a rat's [rear end]."
No matter who you are or how well your organization is run, negative press can find you. The key is to remain focused and professional. Here are a few simple do's and don'ts for managing a media crisis.
Don't bury your head in the sand: Avoiding the problem will only make you look guilty. The public—your patrons and stakeholders—will want answers and may judge more harshly if their questions are met with stony silence.
Do remain media friendly: As much as it may pain you, making phone calls to the media must be a top priority. Hold a press conference if necessary. Some people, however, find it easier to stay on-message in one-on-one interviews than with a gaggle of reporters shouting questions.
Don't lie: If you do one thing during a publicity crisis, tell the truth. Lying or intentionally misleading your patrons or the media only will cause more trouble. If journalists discover you've lied to them, they'll have even more negative things to write. In that case, your crisis will deepen rather than fade from the front page.
Do show leadership: The president, manager or executive director of your organization should be front and center during the crisis, and protocols for the rest of your staff should be in place and followed to the letter. While a spokesperson can help craft the message or provide reporters with background information, the public will want to hear from the leader. The leaders' voice, without question, will carry more authority and credibility than anyone else's at the facility.
Don't say "no comment": Like it or not, "no comment" always seems like a confirmation of the allegation. Instead say "We're looking into the situation" or "I cannot release that information at this time" and then provide a brief explanation why. It essentially says the same thing, but appears less obstructive.
Do remember this too shall pass: Negative publicity is never an enjoyable experience, but news (both good and bad) has a shorter life span than a fruit fly. In most cases, the problems will disappear from the headlines—and people's memories—within a few days.
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