Many organisations have a media plan as part of their communications strategy – but this does not always include a media policy.
A media policy will identify who can talk to journalists, who can make public statements on behalf of an organisation, and on what subjects.
Those that have a policy generally have more effective media relations, achieve more for their money, and are better able to manage risk.
The reasons why are simple: having decided what executives can talk to journalists, and developed clear guidelines on the areas they can discuss, spokespeople can be better supported in their role.
A major risk that executives face if they don’t have clear policy guidelines is being seduced into commenting on other areas of the organisation, or on general issues affecting other areas, rather than focussing on their own key messages.
While it may be that nominated line managers can talk to the media on their area of expertise and responsibility, at the same time it also needs to be made clear what they cannot comment on.
There are also times when it is better for line managers not to be involved with the media, which is why a policy that involves the PR department or consultant is sensible.
All executives authorised to talk to the media should understand the “do’s and don’ts of talking to the media” and, where appropriate, undertake suitable media training.
Another benefit of nominating who can talk to the media is that money and effort isn’t wasted on media training for people not cleared to talk to journalists.
A media policy is particularly important with public companies. All executives need to be aware of the difficulties caused by giving out price sensitive information or making exaggerated claims. Indeed they need to be aware that such hyperbole could be a criminal act.
With listed companies, executives should be on guard against throw away comments about financial details or recent successes of other company operations that they have picked up through executive meetings, unless such comment has been expressly approved. They are much less likely to do this about their own area of responsibility.
Many executives find it hard to simply say “I don’t know” or “It’s outside my area of responsibility” when talking to journalists but they must understand their limits when talking on behalf of an organisation or its services – particularly in the financial services area.
Wherever possible there needs to be a system within an organisation to channel media queries to those who are authorised to speak on behalf of the company.
When talking to the media, executives also need to be sensitive to client relationships. We’ve seen examples where executives inadvertently make comments to journalists that include client confidential information, and even unintentionally take credit for developments by their clients.
Good media training, a clear media policy, and sensible and experienced PR support, make such issues much less likely to arise.