For startup and high-growth companies, learning that a reporter is sniffing around and asking hard questions can be bone-chilling. Perhaps you have heard from investors that a reporter has called. Perhaps the reporter messaged employees on LinkedIn. Typically, the client instinct in these instances is to go fetal and speculate about worst-case scenarios. We’ve seen this time and again, and it is almost always the wrong crisis management approach. Here’s the right one: call the reporter.
Why? First, the reporter is the only one with the information you want – which allegations she has heard about you and what she is investigating. You will not get this from anyone else. You might get tidbits if people share with you what the reporter has asked, but those will be mere slices of the pie at best, and misleading and wrong at worst. Moreover, the reporter has likely called far more people than those who have told you she called.
Second, if the reporter shares what she has heard about you and what she’s investigating, you’ll either be able to cut her off at the pass and educate her about what she’s gotten wrong or you’ll be able to begin preparing to address what she’s gotten right. The reporter is not your enemy, she’s your friend: she’s letting you know what adversaries are saying about you and, maybe, telling you things you may not have known.
Third, your call creates a record of openness and cooperation, laying solid groundwork to object to editors should the reporter try a list-minute request for comment just before publication. While most reporters will provide story subjects sufficient time to comment, some don’t and try to sandbag their targets. Reaching out to the reporter early helps prevent that from happening.
Importantly, this should be a call and not an email. Calls build relationships; opening with an email signals fear and distrust. Your internal communications lead or outside PR or crisis communications firm can make the contact. You can later follow up that call with an email confirming what you’ve heard, but put a voice to the name that first time.
Notably, clients often resist placing this call because of two understandable but misplaced fears: (1) they worry that calling the reporter commits them to answering any questions she asks; and (2) they worry that they’ll “feed the beast” and cause a reporter to publish a story she otherwise was not going to write. Both are canards.
This call is only about intelligence-gathering and not about answering questions. Whether you do the latter is a later decision; for now, see whether the reporter will share what she’s investigating. You actually want the reporter to ask questions on this call – the more questions she asks, the more you know.
Moreover, placing this call does not tell the reporter anything she does not already know and, therefore, doesn’t bring the story any closer to publication. The reporter assumes that the people she’s calling are telling you she’s calling. The reporter won’t be surprised you called her; she’ll be surprised it took you so long.
In the end, if you find yourself making a crisis communications decision from fear, the odds are it’s not the right decision. Reporters don’t write because investigatory targets call them. Reporters don’t expect you to answer every question they have when they first have it (even though you might). Reporters expect you to be interested in stories about you and to advocate for yourself. Make sure you do.