'Never tell a journalist it's not a story': Daily Mirror editor Peter Willis offers crisis comms tips

Is the CEO or PR best to face the cameras in a crisis? How do PRs get into journalists' good books? Daily Mirror editor Peter Willis gave the lowdown at PRWeek's Crisis Communications conference on Tuesday.

Asked what advice he’d give a PR facing a journalist who is acting aggressively, Willis said: "Journalists are going to ask difficult questions and the important thing is to just be pleasant, not patronising.

"I think one of the worst things I hear is when I’m told it’s not a story. We’ll decide if it’s a story. That really puts you on your guard and rubs people up the wrong way."

Interviewed on stage by BBC comms director John Shield, Willis discussed the importance of having "a relationship with the journalist before a crisis erupts".


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"My own experience as a journalist is, it’s a lot harder to write about people you like in a negative way. If you don’t know them then you can just go for it, to be frank."

He urged PRs to "strike up a friendly conversation" with journalists, even if it’s "just a few minutes on the phone". Willis added that legal threats can be "counter productive... particularly if you feel the legal threats are because they’re hiding something".

Taking a journalist out to lunch is less relevant now, Willis argued, given the lack of time that journalists (and PRs) have these days.

"Now it’s more about supplying content," he stated. "We’re all desperate for things to put online - which is 24/7 really - and also in the paper too. That’s the best way to build a relationship, I’d say."

In addition, publications are "crying out" for great video content, he said.

Asked what makes a good spokesperson, Willis replied: "People who are experts, and live and breathe their brand or whatever they are representing.

"That makes a massive difference. It comes across on camera as well. If they defend themselves in the case of a crisis you can sense they are honest, you can connect with them, and they’re a human being.

"If we feel we’re being stonewalled, we will react against it."

CEO or PR pro?

On the subject of whether CEOs are better media interviewees than PR professionals, Willis said the former "probably have more answers, or at least people know they’re in charge".

"It’s about how camera-friendly your PR is, really. I could argue whether Michael O’Leary is the right person to go on and represent Ryanair, and tell everyone they’ve got to pay to go to the toilet, but that’s a different strategy."

Willis was asked if it’s ever fair to publish a story before the protagonist has had a chance to comment.

"If there’s a very clear accusation and there’s evidence that that’s correct, then that’s fine.

"We have to take absolute care in what we put up, and we always do. It really depends on the circumstances. Clearly if it’s unverified, we wouldn’t, and we do correct stories that are wrong as quickly as possible."


Read next: BA must change its comms processes after Sun journalist calls response to IT meltdown 'risible'

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