Under pressure? Stick to the facts.

by Ken McEwen, Ken McEwen Public Relations

The recent capture and shooting of Osama bin Laden has provided a reminder of one of the most important principles of supplying information under the full glare of the media spotlight.

The initial reports were that the ‘world’s most wanted man’ had been armed and used his wife as a human shield while resisting capture.
This early account proved to be inaccurate in a number of ways and the White House media machine found itself having to make a number of corrections.

At a daily press briefing White House spokesman Jay Carney was forced to acknowledge there had been inaccuracies in the original accounts of the raid. Bin Laden had not been armed and he had not used his wife as a shield. His wife had not been killed, but had been shot in the leg. It was another woman in the compound who had died.

White House
White House - forced to acknowledge inaccuracies

Explaining these inaccuracies, Mr Carney said they had given “a great deal of information in great haste”.

As any crisis management practitioner knows, the pressure of providing information in great haste makes it all the more important to have a clear policy of dealing only in verified facts.

Inaccuracies in the official version of any news story are bound to raise questions about the reliability of the news source. If the initial information is wrong, inevitably it feeds the rumour mill and encourages conspiracy theories and conjecture.

But, at the same time, it is important to establish yourself as a credible source of news at the earliest possible stage.

The last thing you want is to lose complete control over the story, by staying silent. In that situation journalists, desperate for any comment, will seek out a third party who may be only too willing to give their version of the story – one that may be slanted to further their particular agenda.

Recognising this dilemma of needing to respond rapidly but not issuing any news until it is fully verified, prudent organisations have a well-honed crisis management procedure.

Stick to the facts
This article appeared in the summer edition of IoD Scotland magazine

A good example are the oil and gas operators in Aberdeen. As early as possible they will issue a statement to establish their credibility as a source of news.

That first statement may simply refer to an “incident” on a particular installation, giving the time, the location and the basic ‘quick facts’ about the installation. But, it establishes them as a credible source of news.

No facts are given until verified. That sounds reasonably easy to achieve when written down on paper. But, when you have journalists clamouring on the phone – or maybe even doorstepping your office, or your home – it is all too easy to find yourself straying into areas of conjecture.

One can imagine that the White House might, in retrospect, wish they had stuck to the known facts and released the news in stages only once it was verified.
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