Crisis Communications: The Insider’s Guide for Dealing with “60 Minutes”

Hard-nosed interviews and judicious editing made “60 Minutes” the gold standard of broadcast journalism, and the pioneer of the “gotcha” interview. These types of interviews are so tough that many crisis communications pros advise their clients to refuse doing them altogether.

As a former producer for “60 Minutes” and other CBS News magazines, I rarely give that advice, especially during a crisis. Since reporters interpret silence as a tacit admission of guilt, open communication is the smart approach. But these types of interviews require preparation on an entirely different level. Here is an eleven-step strategy to limit risk and leverage opportunity when engaging with the media in high-stakes or crisis communications situations.

  1. Don’t ignore reporters. Avoiding confrontation is not a strategy, it’s a failed tactic. Refuse to comment and you set yourself up for an ambush. As “60 Minutes” proved, “ambush journalism” makes great TV. Don’t give them the opportunity to make you look like you’re hiding.

  2. Ask questions. What’s the story? Find out what they’re after. What do they know? To whom have they spoken? Press hard enough and you should be able to get a sense of where they’re going — if they are pursuing objectivity, or they already have an agenda. The more you know, the better you can assess your risk.

  3. Partner with your legal team. Communicating during a crisis unnerves many a corporate counsel. Their job is to protect the business from litigation, your job is to protect your brand, but you have to work together. There IS risk in NOT communicating. Bad news can destroy your market value, make you a take-over target, or worse, put you out of business. Frame communications in these terms and your legal team will be more likely to collaborate. You need them in order to understand the legal landscape. Is there potential litigation or other issues that could lead to additional damaging public disclosures? It’s safe to assume that reporters can, and will, find out everything there is to know — so you need to find out first.

  4. Do your due diligence. Think like an investigative reporter. Understand what you are dealing with, even if it means hiring a private investigator. Demand full disclosure from all stakeholders and work closely with your communications pros. The more you – and they – know, the better you can manage the story.

  5. Determine: What’s in it for us? Is there any upside to cooperating with the news media? If the answer is no, the best strategy is to work with legal to carefully craft a registered letter that clearly lays out your position, details the complexity of the situation, and underscores that any attempt to simplify the story could lead to irresponsible journalism. The letter becomes a surrogate for an interview. They can’t say you refused to comment; they have to quote from the letter. But remember, they are likely to pull out just a few sentences, so review your letter in that light so that your remarks can’t be taken out of context.

  6. Complexity is your ally. “60 Minutes” stories (and other shows like them) are morality plays, good vs. evil, with the correspondent as hero. For reporters, complexity is a nuisance, but real life is complex and filled with nuance. While we normally advise clients to “keep it simple,” in a crisis communications situation, one successful tactic is to overwhelm them with detail. Educating reporters on the complexities and intricacies of your story forces them to adhere to their primary legal obligation: fairness and accuracy. Make sure they understand every fact that supports your story. Remind them to paint this picture in living color.

  7. Focus on context and narrative. While complexity can be a key to your defense, be careful. The information you share must create context and directly support your larger narrative. Use caution to ensure the information you disseminate cannot be cherry-picked and used against you.

  8. Encourage transparency and accountability. Reputation is a valuable commodity. Transparency is a virtue. The reward for demonstrating honesty and integrity is that it rebuilds credibility. If your company has made mistakes, accept responsibility. Be accountable. Tell the world what you are prepared to do to make things right. Americans appreciate candor and they love a redemption story.

  9. The three Cs. Candor. Composure. Confidence. The secret most aggressive reporters don’t want you to know is simply this: The person answering the question has the power. If you look and sound uncomfortable when questioned, you look and sound guilty. You need to speak with candor and display composure and confidence. Getting there means steeling yourself by preparing for the toughest possible questions, then rehearsing responses until you can answer without thinking. You need to be authentic, and authenticity is not spontaneous. It requires preparation and a lot of practice!

  10. Don’t go it alone. The stakes are too high, for your company and for you. Engaging with “60 Minutes” or any reporter when you’re in a crisis likely puts you on a playing field unlike any you have ever experienced. They make the rules, and change them to suit their needs and/or agenda. You are at a distinct disadvantage. To level that playing field, you need the advice and counsel of experts with specific experience in the big leagues.

  11. Advocate. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. While you can’t set boundaries on the questions they ask you can negotiate other issues. Such as, the length of the interview. They may ask for an hour. The longer your subject is in the chair the more dangerous the engagement can be. Offer 15 minutes and don’t settle for more than 30. You can also discuss the way they shoot the interview. “60 Minutes” believes there is nothing more interesting than the human face under duress. That’s why they favor the tightest shot on TV, framed chin to forehead. Insist they always include the subject’s shoulders in every shot and you avoid unflattering shots that can make anyone look guilty.

Legendary “60 Minutes” Correspondent Mike Wallace had a poster in his office that read, “What are the four most frightening words in the English language? Mike Wallace is here!” While “60 Minutes” started it, today there are many reporters who can intimidate and push interview subjects over the edge. They turn interviews into the TV equivalent of a lie detector test.

But if you understand the rules of the game, and are prepared to play to your highest potential, you can turn even the most daunting crisis communications challenge into a win for you and your company.

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