Picture this: within the premises of a prestigious international educational institution in India, a child is brutally murdered. The grief-stricken parents are traumatised, questioning if it is all just a terrible nightmare.
And now imagine a video message released by the school’s top management just four days after the incident, with them taking no responsibility. Instead, they assert that the “school should not be held culpable of a crime where it is itself a victim of unfortunate circumstances” or declare resolutely that “they will not succumb to false allegations.”
The unsettling event that unfolded in the autumn of 2017 sent shockwaves not only across India but also captured the attention of international media outlets like the BBC and Reuters. As a journalist reporting on this horrific incident from ground zero, I was distressed seeing the helplessness, grief, and fear experienced by the parents who lived through this trauma. The subsequent police investigation uncovered significant security lapses within the school, prompting numerous concerned and angry parents to question the safety of their children in that environment.
Unsurprisingly, every media outlet soon picked up on the findings of the investigation and wanted to question the top boss over his persistent messaging: “to not blame the school (or him) unjustly.” Not only was his video statement perceived as ‘unapologetic and arrogant,’ with no commitment to support the distraught family, but it was challenging to even obtain the management’s response to crucial ongoing developments. This, coupled with several initial contradictory statements, further eroded trust and credibility in the institution.
The outcome? Relentless negative coverage against the school management, damages the brand’s reputation.
As a leader, there are key lessons to draw from this example. What often eludes many executives, including the CEO of this esteemed institute, is the significance of cultivating a positive and constructive relationship with journalists prior to the onset of a crisis. Leaders who adopt this proactive approach find themselves better positioned to weather storms when needed.
- Establish trust and credibility: Proactively engaging with journalists builds trust over time. So, when a crisis strikes, the journalists you already know are more likely to see you as credible and believe they can trust the information you are providing – even if there are misjudgements in your communications strategy in the heat of the moment.
- Foster a positive image: Establishing good rapport with the media can also help highlight your organisation’s initiatives. This not only contributes to a positive public perception, but also helps shape a favourable image of your organisation with journalists. Consistent engagement, gaining positive coverage in non-crisis situations, acts as a buffer during crises. People are more likely to give your brand the benefit of the doubt when there is some established profile.
The trust, credibility, and positive associations developed in calmer times serve as invaluable assets when facing challenges and crises in the public eye. By building a good rapport with journalists, the CEO of the school could have mitigated the deluge of negative coverage they received over this horrific incident, and minimised reputational damage. The CEO could have got the public on the school’s side.