The instant nature of today’s news: Will your organization be ready when CNN calls?

My hometown newspaper, The Oregonian, reported today that a small airport in the small Oregon city of Hillsboro was the site of a bizarre helicopter hijacking attempt yesterday (July 3). The incident ended when police shot and killed the would-be hijacker.

The last paragraph of story caught my eye because it contains an important lesson for communicators in today’s news media environment.

The paragraph says a general aviation intern at the airport was doing a perimeter check and when he got back to the office, the phone rang. The intern hadn’t yet been informed about what had happened at the airport, but CNN already knew and was calling to ask for information!

A similar situation happened to me years ago. A CNN reporter called me to ask for information about an explosion that had supposedly taken place at one of my company’s locations. I hadn’t yet heard about the incident so I immediately started researching what had happened.

I quickly found out that there had been an explosion, but it was not at one of my company’s offices. A bomb had gone off at another company’s location. I called the reporter and gave her the correct information. And therein lies another lesson that I’ll get to shortly.

When the news media calls, chances are pretty good that the first person the reporter will speak with will be either a secretary or receptionist who typically answers your organization’s phones. In another scenario, the news media will roll up to your company location in person and the first employee they will encounter might be a security guard.

So my question for you is: when that happens, will that person know who to refer the reporter to or how to reach you immediately, even if you’re not in the office? Will that person know they should NOT start speaking to the reporter about the story because they will be quoted, even if they don’t have accurate information?

If you can’t answer “Yes” to both those questions, you need to take some steps immediately to rectify that.

In terms of the second lesson, it’s this: Just because a reporter calls to ask you for an interview, even if it’s someone from a well-regarded news organization such as CNN, do NOT assume the information they have is accurate. Don’t go into crisis mode until you can verify their data is correct.

It might not be your company’s plane that crashed, your organization’s employee who embezzled $2 million from customers, your restaurant chain’s fault six people reported incidents of food poisoning or your agency’s responsibility to ensure that bridge was structurally sound.

It might be someone else’s, so don’t start issuing apologies and promises to set things right until you know for sure you’re at fault.

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