Vol. 13 No. 7 • Oct./Nov. 1999
Cover Story •
In Crisis Is Opportunity:
Making the Best of a Public Relations Problem
by Lani Yoshimura
Media from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and from as far away
as France were attracted to the controversy as national interest in the
Internet issue intensified. For a time, the presence of the media, the
tabloid flavor of local press coverage, and the relentless activities of
the parents group were the ingredients for a public relations nightmare.
The following article, written out of this experience, offers tips in dealing
with the media in a difficult situation.
Be Prepared to Face the Media
For most marketing or PR librarians, interacting with the press is a routine matter. Libraries send press releases on a regular basis to announce storytimes and book sales. Local television news crews may drop by to do segments on things like the success of a library adult literacy program. But what can you do if the media comes knocking at the door to investigate a story that puts the library in the headlines in a negative light? For those on the front lines during a controversy, you may feel like you are in the state of crisis, but it's more than that. You have the perfect opportunity to do what librarians do best—talk about libraries and what they do.
Talking with the media in the midst of a controversy can be a daunting experience, whether you’re facing a reporter from the print media, radio, or television. The best insurance for success is to be prepared and practiced. I’ll outline two ways to prepare and give examples for each.
Statements and Sound Bites: Reporters love to quote you, so having a stock of simple yet memorable statements and sound bites is a must. The statements or sound bites should be a short sentence or two that clearly and even cleverly conveys an idea, principle, or action. To make your list more versatile, build it around the philosophies that form the foundation for libraries: access, privacy, parental and individual responsibility, and the public forum. Memorize several of the quotes so that they are on the tip of your tongue. It’s likely that the reporter may use one or more of them, and they will be indispensable when your mind goes blank from fatigue. From time to time, review and update this list so that your statements are always fresh and topical, and practice using them so that your interview seems natural.
The Crib Sheet (Fact Sheet): Even seasoned talk show hosts depend
on cue cards to get them through a broadcast. The crib sheet helps you
organize your thoughts by drawing together, on a single page, the basic
information and message you want to communicate to reporters and to the
public regarding an issue.
The actual preparation of the crib sheet is a valuable exercise and may help you gain some perspective on the issues. After you have completed it, use it as a tool to help keep you focused on the facts and the real library issues when responding to questions from the public and the media. Under pressure, you may become exhausted and easily distracted, and this sheet will help you stay on track and will remind you what points you still need to make. Above all, it will enable the library staff to speak with one voice so that your message is clear and consistent.
On a single page, organize the information for the crib sheet from broader issues to specific information. Customize it to fit the specifics of the controversy. The most useful elements to include are: the key points of your Materials Selection Policy, other pertinent library policies or procedures, a list of what the library is doing about the issue, and how you benefit the community. It also helps to include a few relevant statements or sound bites and anecdotes at the bottom or on the back of the sheet. (See sample layout.)
Once the crib sheet is prepared, print it out on colored paper so you can easily find it on your desk, and put it near your phone. Another trick is to fold it into a tent shape by creasing the page in thirds so it will stand up on your desk. Have these crib sheets handy wherever you may be taking calls from the press, or at the reference desk where your staff may be talking with someone about the issue in person or on the phone.
To help respond to questions from patrons about the controversy, adapt the information from your crib sheet to create a fact sheet that staff can give out at the public desks. The information on the fact sheet should be written neutrally and should include a brief summary of opposing viewpoints. After all, libraries are public forums. Interested patrons will appreciate the fact sheet, and it will help the staff deal with questions as they arise.
Provide media training for staff, volunteers, and members of the library commissions and boards. Your local TV and radio stations may offer sessions on dealing with the media designed for public agencies. If your agency has a public information officer, ask him or her to organize training.
Engage a friend or colleague to role-play a press interview with you. For your practice session, choose a controversial issue like Internet access or R-rated videos, then invent a scenario. Develop a crib sheet for that scenario. Practice answering both routine and more difficult questions (like the tabloids might ask). In preparing for a media event this way, your friend can act as a sounding board for you to test a variety of responses.
If you are in the midst of an actual controversy, ask a trusted friend or colleague to evaluate your performance with the media. Then you can learn from your actual experience.
Most of the time, a visit from the press is routine and positive, but staff still need to know the procedures to follow. Just as you run fire or evacuation drills at your library, an occasional media drill helps to prepare your staff for problems that might arise.
In the event of a library controversy, give your staff, members of your
Friends group, and commissioners the tools to parry questions from the
community and the press. For example: “I’m glad that you are taking such
an interest in the library,” or “I’m flattered that you asked for my opinion.
Let me give you the phone number of the community librarian. I know she
would be interested in speaking with you ...”
Library Controversy: Key Points
Materials Selection Policy: Key Points
What are the pertinent library policies or procedures?
What is the library doing to respond to this concern?
Look Before You Leap, And Think Before You Speak
Resist the urge to leap right into the ring at the first sign of a controversy. Most complaints are resolved without press involvement by talking to the critic and offering him or her a receptive ear.
In the midst of a controversy, inaccurate or incomplete information may appear in the form of letters to the editor or columns in the newspaper. Should you respond or should you let it go? Or better yet, should you let someone else like a knowledgeable library patron or library commissioner respond? If the controversy has been going on for a long time, consider that any statement by you or a library supporter will offer another forum for the challengers. Generally, over a long period of time, too much exposure and excessive repetition can have a negative impact on your message, so let them rant on alone!
Entering into a long public debate when there is negative press is usually counter-productive. You may end up trying to extinguish all kinds of fires that your critics (and the press) love to set. You will not change the minds of your critics, and you do not have to convince your supporters. Speak factually, honestly, and positively to the undecided.
If there is time for planning, decide who will respond when the press calls. Is this a local issue or is it systemwide? Who in your library is authorized to answer calls from the press? Or should all the calls be directed to library administration? Making this decision early on enables staff members to do their jobs and activity in the library to return to near normal.
Library champions may rally behind you to write letters of support and
letters to the editor. If your supporters organize and are not part of
another organization like the Friends of the library, make sure that they
select a name for their group. Some newspapers will not recognize a group
unless it has a name, so their voice may not be represented in important
articles about the library controversy.
Advice for Dealing with the Media
In the event of a controversy, the single item you should review is Arch Lustberg’s video, Using the Media to Your Advantage. ($150 from Library Video Network, 1-800-441-TAPE or http://www.lvn.org) In less than an hour, Lustberg gives you practical advice on how to successfully handle the press and turn a hostile situation into a positive one. He also gives you tips on looking good on camera, using body language, and responding to tabloid-type questions.
As you become more comfortable handling the press you will not rely on your crib sheets and quotes as much, but it’s good to have them around just in case you need them. For instance, during a television interview it’s usually not possible to use the crib sheet unless you are making a prepared statement to the press. Sometimes, you can make a sheet with the key points in big bold letters and post it behind the cameraperson or interviewer so only you can see it.
Another thing to remember, on camera and off, is to keep your sense of humor about you. If you have that, then you’ll seem more relaxed during interviews, and you’ll also be able to laugh at things once in a while and retain your sanity as well.
And realize that you have more control over an interview than you might imagine. At first you may be reluctant to ask reporters for a break or a change in the location of the interview. But you want to be at your best, so make suggestions that could put you more at ease. Often the locations selected by the camera crews tend to be disruptive of normal library service. Plan ahead by scouting out the best locations in and around your facility to hold a press conference or conduct an interview.
While we recognize freedom of the press, you may have to remind press crews that you expect them to behave professionally in the library. Whenever photographers and camera crews enter the building, ask them to honor privacy codes: For instance, they should ask permission before they view another person’s screen or take their photograph. We have witnessed reporters and TV camera crews approaching youths at several Internet terminals and taunting, “Do you know how to find porn?” Also watch for photo setups that do not reasonably reflect what actually happens in the library, and if you feel that this is the case, call the editor to voice your concern.
Even when you feel at ease and feel you have just given the best interview
of your life, remind yourself that the press is not your friend. Ultimately,
there is no such thing as “speaking off the record,” and if you do not
want to see or hear it in the news, keep it to yourself.
The Hostile or Difficult Interview
How you handle yourself throughout a controversy may be more important than how clever or articulate you are with the press. The perception that you are open, calm, reasonable, and competent is a strong image that may prevail over your words. If your behavior is defensive and your statements are negative, then that is how you and the library will appear to the reporter and the public.
Looking relaxed, friendly, and professional is important, and as Arch Lustberg advises, if they offer to put makeup on you, let them do it. But your physical appearance will be of no help if an interviewer unnerves you with hostile questions.
The key to handling a hostile question from the media is in making a graceful transition from the question back to issues important to the library. Make the transition, then say what you want to say. Deliver your message. Focus your answers on the positive aspects of what the library is and what it does. Another strategy is to reframe the hostile question so that you can answer it from the library’s perspective.
When responding to a hostile question, resist using jargon and buzzwords, or repeating ideas or words that may validate the negative image of the library that has been painted by its critics. During our Internet challenge, the local press first identified the issue as one of access, then rapidly changed it to one of Net porn. The staff responded with statements about what the library offers to help families use the Internet, the positive effects of the Internet on library service, and its popularity with patrons.
Stick to the high road. Emphasize the ideas that are the foundation
for library materials and services: access, privacy, individual/parental
responsibility, choice, and the public forum. You can never go wrong with
responses that are based on values.
In Crisis Is Opportunity
Tell the library story wherever you go. This is your mission and your message. Regale your audience with anecdotes about how libraries have changed people’s lives and explain the underlying principles that guide the profession. This is powerful material for a speech, casual conversation, or an interview.
You never know where your support will come from in the event of a controversy. For instance, many other agencies share similar privacy policies. Form coalitions with these agencies and individuals. Enlist them to write letters to the editor and letters of support and to speak at public hearings. These individuals can articulate what the staff cannot say about themselves, library policies, and services. They can relate compelling stories about the effect that the library has had on their clients or themselves.
Remember that your staff members are library ambassadors. They stand at the public desks setting the tone for library service and carrying out library policies. In their personal lives, any one of them might be called upon to talk about the library or to correct misinformation. Routinely discuss philosophical issues with all your staff, because in talking about their jobs, they will carry the library message to their friends and families and into the community. How well you have trained them and how much you involve them in all aspects of the library will determine the extent of their support for the library during a controversy.
Interestingly, the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two symbols:
danger and opportunity. There is opportunity in every crisis. Another way
to put it is, as any movie star’s publicist will tell you, even negative
publicity can be made of gold.
Lani Yoshimura is the community librarian of the Gilroy Library, a member of the Santa Clara County Library. For the past 3 years, she has been at the center of a very public and difficult library controversy which was heavily covered by the media. She holds an M.L.S. from San Jose State University in San Jose, California, and has worked with public libraries and communities for nearly 30 years. She is a past chair of the California Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and was a member of the team that created the “Intellectual Freedom Handbook for California Libraries.”
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