Handling Awkward Media Questions: Tips for When Gas is Poured on a Baseball Field

Your company is in a bind. Something or someone somewhere has acted in a way that embarrasses the brand. Perhaps it’s an executive or an influencer who’s gone badly off-script. The most recent example is Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Or maybe a product or service is the culprit. Perhaps you're in the midst of a product recall.

It's also possible your brand was dragged into a crisis. Take Southwest, American and United. Since the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in Ethiopia and the subsequent grounding of the fleet, passengers are flooding these airlines with questions. Southwest took it hard the other day. Normally a model brand, it inadvertently placed  737 Max safety cards in the seat-back pockets of a recent flight. Passengers were panicked.

Bad decision-making also can be the cause of an issue, like the folks who used gasoline to dry a wet baseball field before a recent high school game.

After such messes occur, often it's the communicator who is expected to clean up the situation. So what do you do when your device pings and it’s a journalist calling? The question, of course, is, “Why did your people pour gasoline on the baseball field?”

We asked communicators for tips about handling media during tricky situations.

No 'No Comment'

We achieved consensus quickly on one point. "The worst thing to do is not respond," says Meredith L. Eaton, director, N. America, at Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

Aubrey Quinn, MD of Clyde Group argues that communicators should "remove the words 'No comment' from" their vocabulary.

 The media "may be asking all the questions you’re not prepared to answer, and you’d likely prefer to just not answer your phone or claim you never got their email. But don’t," Eaton says. Even if you have nothing to say, stay in close contact with the press. "Let media know you’ll do your best to send out information or updates within a specific timeframe," she adds.

It’s acceptable to say you need to get back to a reporter, Quinn says. This is so when a journalist catches you unprepared. "Ask for the reporter's deadline, and put together the official statement or response." She speaks from experience. A reporter blindsided her, requesting a statement about felony charges filed against a CEO only hours before.

A press call, even during a bad situation, "is an opportunity to share your statement and get in front of the narrative," Eaton says.  Conversely, an ignored question allows the journalist to seek an answer elsewhere, "from someone who you don’t know, and don't know how they’ll respond."


Anne Potts, MD/EVP, Racepoint Global,  mentions a hallmark of today's PR: "Focus on being as transparent as possible," she says.

Promptness is critical, too, says Amanda Ensinger, media relations practice lead at Inspire PR Group.  "In this 24/7 news world, the media needs answers quickly to meet deadlines. Companies need to do what they can to be candid and transparent," she says.

The media seeks accurate and useful information. "Companies should provide details specific to the incident and relevant background information...that will put the situation in context," adds Potts. This not only helps during the awkward situation, but will help the company's reputation afterward.

Another tip: “Staying in contact with the reporter after the story runs and keeping her updated on the situation is a great way to remain engaged and forge a relationship," Ensinger continues.

Still, communicators should be especially careful when addressing questions during awkward situations, notes Eaton. "Disclose only what can be shared at that point...and remember, there's no such thing as off the record."

All of our interviewees said that companies should have pre-written statements or rough outlines to use in awkward situations. “Ideally, your organization has a...plan that you can turn to when reporters call. This should outline who and what to say in various scenarios to media as well as other critical stakeholders,” says Quinn.

For Ensinger, “Providing the media with an initial written statement is the best course of action. This keeps them looking at you for the most relevant and accurate information."

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein