One of the greatest challenges facing any public relations professional is dealing with a negative situation that has attracted the interest of a TV “news magazine.” The King of that Hill, of course, is “60 Minutes” although I understand there are comparably popular shows overseas. Few of us like hearing from the staff of “20/20” either. Sure, both shows have positive feature stories as well, but I believe most Crisis Managers associate the name “Mike Wallace” with the word “interrogation.”
That said, are there “bad news” situations when it’s worth voluntarily risking an appearance on such a show? When even the best media training is often not enough to keep the piranhas at bay? I invite my readers to submit stories of their experiences with such programs, including lessons learned. The following is a case history of a time when I not only voluntarily cooperated was the interview subject, and survived. It was a very personal kind of crisis management and, hence, I’m temporarily switching to a first-person, versus third-person narrative.
News of the raid and details of the kidnapping ordeal leaked to the press and I appeared at a police-managed press conference delivering messages on behalf of the family. Within a day, a prominent TV tabloid news magazine contacted me, said they were going to do a re-enactment of the kidnapping as their feature coverage, and asked if Ryan or another family member would take part in an interview. Concurrently, an attorney for the kidnappers attempted a nasty strategy he held a news conference in which he inferred that Ryan had been part of his own kidnapping, as proved by the fact that, after being released from the box, he had only been handcuffed and could have walked away from the private home where he was being kept captive.
I met with the family and attorneys and told them that, if we didn’t respond to the tabloid show, they could portray Ryan as culpable to some degree — which was not only damaging personally, but could actually influence a jury pool, which no doubt was the intent of the kidnappers’ attorney. By now, I truly FELT like a “friend of the family” and was incredibly relieved that Ryan was safe physically, although he would need counseling for some time thereafter.
I submitted to an interview which drew out the story of the kidnapping as I had developed it during hours of conversation with Ryan and law enforcement officials, trying to make it a compelling narrative. I talked about how threats of death had paralyzed Ryan and made him afraid to do anything which his kidnappers hadn’t expressly said was OK. Such programs thrive on high drama, so I “played it up.” All the media training I have taken and given over the years was employed to keep pre-agreed key messages flowing in response to any question I was asked.
It worked. The narrative was strong enough that my interview was used as the “voiceover” for the re-enactment, cutting back and forth from shots of the interviewer and I to re-enactment scenes. The defendant’s attorney was interviewed and made his insinuations, but they were given much lower visibility and story placement, sandwiched between my interview and televised police statements from the original press conference which clearly painted a picture of Ryan as victim.