When the Press Calls

One of the times in business life when people are most unprepared and vulnerable is when a member of the media calls about a news item. This frequently happens in the construction community when there has been a major disaster, such as a building fire, collapse or other failure.

On such occasions, it is not unusual for a news reporter to awaken a contractor from a well-deserved sound sleep in the early morning hours and ask: "Is it true that as general contractor for the new Walk a lot Shopping Center which just collapsed killing 43 people, your company decided not to install the anchor bolts for the connections between the foundation walls and structural steel frame as required by the plans, specifications and city code and, as a result, increased your company's profits on that job by $500,000?"

In the present calm of your office, take a few minutes to think about what you would say or your employees should say to that reporter if such an occasion may arise.

To meet this kind of a situation, I have developed the following rules:

Rule One: Don't answer "no comment." Members of the media have pencil boxes full of techniques to convert simple "no comments" into "plead guiltys" in their stories.

Rule Two. Recognize that the reporter is doing his or her job and accord them the respect they deserve as people responsible for providing news-worthy information to the public.

Rule Three. Don't attempt to prove that you know a lot about the situation. You will not be graded on your answers!

Rule Four. Don't try to either curry favor with or annoy the reported - neither approach is likely to produce a favorable response or treatment.

Rule Five. Supply the reporter with requested factual information if you are certain of its accuracy. Reporters can usually get facts from other sources, but the effort requires precious time. You are more likely to get balanced treatment by assisting with factual information and the story will more likely be accurate.

Rule Six. Don't volunteer a bunch of information. For example, during a building fire someone told a reporter that the owner had just made plans for extensive remodeling. Media stories about that fire made it appear that the owner was relieved in having found a source of funds to pay for the remodeling-insurance.

Rule Seven. Don't express opinions unless you have thoroughly studied all of the circumstances. In the above-mentioned scenario, it may have been determined during construction that there was a better method of making the connection involved. If the contractor had told the reporter that his company would certainly not have left the anchor bolts out, discovery of the true facts might have hurt the company's position-at least in the media.

Rule Eight. It is probably better to be very candid with a reporter. There is absolutely nothing wrong with truthfully saying

"This is the first I have heard about the situation, and I can assure you that our company will make a full investigation of the circumstances. I am saddened by the loss of lives and injuries", or

"We have just learned about the collapse and therefore have had no opportunity yet to look into its possible causes", or

"So far our investigation into the causes of the collapse have indicated that our company is blameless", or

"That building was completed several years ago, and it will therefore take some time before we can locate the records and people involved to investigate what occurred during construction. We naturally intend to fully investigate the matter."

When the reporter's inquiry deals with a recently-filed lawsuit, it is well to state something to the effect that

"We have not yet (or have just) received the suit papers and are studying the claims,"

"Our investigation to date discloses that there is no merit in any of the claims against our company."

Rule Nine. Don't refer the reporter to your lawyer unless your lawyer has requested that such calls be referred. Some news stories make it sound like the handling of the matter by the lawyer implies an admission of guilt.

Rule Ten. Never say: "It's none of your damn business!"

Rule Eleven: Rarely say: "I'm sorry, it's all my fault!"

Rule Twelve. Right now it would be wise to discuss this issue with other personnel in your company so that they likewise will have an opportunity to think about their comments to the press if contacted-before it's too late. You may also wish to give them a copy of this Brief to study.

Time spent considering what to tell reporters when they call before that occasion arises makes good sense and may prevent your looking like a bum, or worse.