Dealing With the News Media During a Crisis

By Steven Fink

One of the most difficult aspects of properly handling a media-driven crisis in the franchise industry is knowing how to respond when multiple interests are at stake. The frustration for a multi-unit franchisee escalates when, for example, a crisis affects one specific unit half-way across the country, but the news media treat the brand name in such a cavalier manner that your customers think the crisis is affecting all other units in the chain.

In a crisis, should franchisees talk to the press or not? Will matters improve if they do, or deteriorate? What advice/restrictions should franchisors inculcate with franchisees about media relations during a crisis?

Before continuing, an important caveat: What follows are generalizations and each franchise operation is different. Use the advice that follows merely as a guideline, but be prepared to pick and choose what seems to work best for you, or consult a professional crisis management consultant to help you make those decisions.

Franchisors should have clear, unambiguous rules about who speaks to the media – during a crisis or otherwise. It usually is in everyone’s interest to limit that authority to the franchisor, who should have professional communications people either on staff or on retainer. Since the franchisor will usually have the deepest pockets, as well as the broadest horizons for all concerned, it stands to reason that this command be vested at headquarters.

However, with that authority comes the responsibility to fully support the franchisees if they find themselves in a crisis situation. Telling a franchisee not to talk to the press, and then not stepping into their shoes to handle the task when the franchisor is needed, is not only wrong, but depending upon the terms of the franchise agreements, may be actionable.

Even though franchisees are told not to talk to the media, the media will still try to buttonhole them. Count on it. What should the franchisees do? You don’t want them to run away from a reporter or a television camera and have that image broadcast on the evening news. Should they smugly say, "No comment?" We always tell our clients that "no comment" is actually a Latin phrase meaning, "Guilty as charged."

There are, however, many ways for a franchisee to effectively say "nothing" without giving the appearance of evading legitimate questions. Phrases such as, "I wish I could answer that question, but the person you need to talk with is [name of franchisor’s head of communications], whose number is such and such. I’m sure s/he’ll be able to answer that," or "I really am not sure of that information and I don’t want to tell you anything that may be inaccurate. However, if you give me your name, telephone number and deadline I will try to have someone get back to you by then." And be sure you do, too. Don’t make promises to a reporter that you cannot or do not keep.

This takes practice – for franchisors as well as franchisees – and we train and role-play our clients in mock crisis scenarios so they are more prepared for the unexpected.

Franchisees should certainly answer simple, factual questions (e.g., How long have you owned this franchise? Do you have other units? Where is the franchisor located? And so on). Not answering these questions makes a franchisee look stupid and like he or she is hiding something.

Do you let a TV camera crew film inside your unit? Usually, no. Let them film outside, and do your interviews outside, too. Why? Inside would be too disruptive, and you don’t want the media to bother your patrons while they are eating or conducting business. Why let them film outside? Why not? You have nothing to hide, do you? Can they interview your customers? Never inside. Outside? You can’t really stop them, nor do you want to. The media will do it with or without your help so why antagonize them? But you can certainly say, "If my customers want to be interviewed, that’s all right with me, but please don’t harass or coerce them, and please don’t block traffic."

In crisis situations affecting one unit, the franchisor should inform all franchisees of what is going on and prepare them for possible questions from customers and the media. Talking points should be prepared and circulated swiftly. Franchisees should be instructed to report back to perhaps a rumor control hotline number at the franchisor’s offices if they hear anything troubling. They should be given the name and 24-hour contact information for the person who will speak to the media. And, that person had better be available.

Finally, and most importantly, never lie to the media.

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Steven Fink is president and CEO of Lexicon Communications Corp., a Los Angeles-based crisis management consulting firm, and the author of Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable. He represented Jack in the Box following its fatal E. coli outbreak, 7-Eleven/Southland Corp., and Carl Karcher of the Carl’s Jr. franchise chain.