Papal story highlights need for media relations flexibility

"If you don't exist in the media, for all practical purposes, you don't exist" - Daniel Schorr, commentator, National Public Radio.

"If you don't exist in the media, for all practical purposes, you don't exist" - Daniel Schorr, commentator, National Public Radio.

Assume you'd spent months planning an important media event for last Friday with both national and local coverage anticipated. Then, with only 96 hours until the big day, you learned that Pope John Paul II's funeral would be held then. Would you have been prepared to swiftly orchestrate whatever changes were necessary?

Would you have known what factors to consider in determining whether to go ahead with the event, scale it back, postpone it, or, dare I say, cancel it? It's an important issue, as Schorr's potent comment above suggests.

Since the media has been concentrating their resources on papal events (by one count, 35,000 stories were written on the Pope in the 24 hours after his death, 10 times the number of stories written immediately after George W. Bush's re-election), they may scarcely note your event - if they cover it at all.

The papal story serves as a wake-up call, illuminating why it's critical to develop a media relations preparedness plan for any major event your organization is planning, especially if the national media are involved. Several companies adopted such a media-focused crisis-control readiness plan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks disrupted so many media programs for weeks.

While the Pope's death hasn't interrupted media coverage on the scale of 9/11, it continues to have repercussions on media relations. Expect those disruptions to continue until after a new Pope is installed. Many first-hour blocks of the network morning shows, the nightly news programs, and cable news networks, for instance, will continue to devote coverage to the continuing papal events. Many guests normally scheduled during a typical news environment are being and will continue to be scrapped for Vatican scholars. That explains why immediately after Pope John Paul II's death, several vendors canceled all media tours.

Major news events - from geopolitical and economic upheavals to scandals and Mother Nature's idiosyncrasies (i.e. tsunamis) - seem to be occurring with increasing frequency. That's another reason why a strategic media relations preparedness plan is a must for PR pros, as any event that dominates the media for even a week has a huge impact on media relations work.

Here are 10 tips to deal with the current challenge and help you prepare for when the next major news occurrence disrupts your own media event:

1. Evaluate your existing and future communications programs on a daily basis, especially national programs scheduled for the immediate days to weeks ahead. Determine if they need to be canceled or postponed.

2. Case-by-case assessment. Evaluate programs and events in local markets around the country individually, since local media need to continue a mix of coverage focused on local angles.

3. Prepare executives or clients for lowered or altered expectations. Let them know how the landscape has changed and how it will likely impact coverage of upcoming events and programs.

4. Soft-sound the media, making any interaction with them very flexible.

5. Review messaging of all spokespeople to make sure those messages aren't inappropriate in the current environment.

6. Anticipate vendor difficulties. Stay in close contact with them and discuss with company officials or your clients the benchmarks that will determine when, and if, a media event, tour, etc., must be postponed.

7. Begin to plan all the options appropriate to move your program forward once you've spoken to the media and your spokesperson. Satellite feeds can perhaps substitute for media tours, etc. Recognize that some areas - fashion, beauty, food, entertainment, among others - will be the first to return to their favored topics, but note that even outlets like The Hollywood Reporter published stories related to the Pope's passing.

8. Consider opportunities where your company or clients can add insight and information regarding the ongoing news event. Morning network shows, cable news, and local print and broadcasts continue to look for experts who can add value on related topics and issues

9. Use this time for careful planning and assessment. Are there alternative programs and strategies that could be developed quickly? Sound out news organizations and reporters who will likely respond to your message when things return to normal.

10. Consider activating non-media focused projects, such as web-based programming, influencer activities, and direct-to-consumer initiatives.

While it's important to tailor media relations' responses to each specific major news event, it's vital that PR pros craft a media preparedness plan that takes into account the possibility of the next big news event, even as the papal story continues to unfold.

  • Nicholas Scibetta is SVP and director of Ketchum's communications and media strategy network.

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