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How to deal with the news media during the COVID-19 crisis: opinion

Dealing with the news media at any time is stressful for many in the aged care sector, let alone during a major crisis. But by understanding the media better, their requirements and how to avoid a few invisible traps, encounters with reporters can be turned from perceived threats into major opportunities.

What does media need from you?

All media need stories that will interest their audiences. That’s why if something big happens at your village or facility, they will cover it. Suspected cases of Coronavirus or positive tests certainly fit into this category.

In the early stages of this, you have an opportunity to take control of the story because media will come to you first. But if you refuse to talk to them or offer TV or Radio reporters a brief written statement only, they will need to find other sources. These sources may be less than sympathetic or get things wrong, while your points will get minimal coverage. If you don’t talk at all, they will say you refused to comment. This makes it look like you’re not in control of the situation or don’t care.

What’s the answer?

The answer is to communicate with them, but you need to know how to do this properly. The big difference with media is that unless you are talking to them in a live broadcast interview, their stories will only include snippets of what you say. The same goes for any written material they receive.

The key to control this is to be brief and only share information that could comfortably stand on its own if selected by media to use as the focus of a story. This goes for all communication because reporters have a knack of finding anything you send to your community, while they also keep an eye on social media sites.

Here’s an example. You may send an email message to your community with a focus on empathy for your residents and what you are doing to keep COVID-19 away. But at some point in that email, you may say something like, “While we understand this is a tough time for the families of our residents, we dispute claims that we haven’t acted quickly enough and the virus could already be here.”

Guess what part of that could interest media? They could quote the second part of that statement alone and base the whole story around your denial. You would be far better to focus on what you have done and keep it positive.

You need a clear message

The best thing to do with any major issue is to create a clear three-point message and stay focused on that with all of your communication, including emails, social media posts and media interviews. That doesn’t mean you say nothing else, but that’s your focus. An example message for COVID-19 could  be the following.

  • Our thoughts are with our residents and their families
  • We are doing all we can to keep Coronavirus away
  • The health of our residents is our absolute top priority

Why can’t I just send media a statement or get them to email me their questions?

If we are talking about a local print reporter that you know well, this can sometimes work. But usually a media interview is a far better option. Firstly, if it’s radio, they will want your voice on tape, and if it’s TV, they will want your picture. If they can’t get that, they’ll need to find someone else (Perhaps a concerned relative).

Secondly, if you know how to manage a media interview, you can continually come back to your key points so that there’s little else for the reporter to use in the story. This may sound hard, but believe me, it’s easy once you know how and practice. Basically, it’s fairly simple to work out the questions they will ask. Then you answer them as briefly as possible and transfer back to one of your points with what are called bridging techniques. You also package up your points in ways that make them extremely attractive for the reporter to use.

In contrast, it’s difficult to make your points the focus of the subsequent story if you get a number of questions sent through. It also gives media the ability to pull snippets from each answer to put a story together that is completely out of context.

In a nutshell, by understanding how you lose the power of context with media and mastering the art of the media interview, you can literally turn any media encounter into a fantastic opportunity to get some important messages across.

Pete Burdon trains Aged Care leaders how to handle the news media. Check out his Coronavirus video at PeteBurdon.com.

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