Jonathan Spencer

Bridge-building before the crisis

We’re not getting out of the Prime Minister’s way, because we are not in it, stresses the editor of the Sun / By Jonathan Spencer

We’re not getting out of the Prime Minister’s way, because we are not in it, stresses the editor of the Sun (one of the UK's leading tabloids) on the phone in a spat over helicopters and flight plans during a frenzied election campaign. As a press officer, I found myself opposite the editor on a visit to what was then News International. Her feisty power-play still lingers as a heady remnant of brusque media relations.

Tantrums and tones are more cordial face-to-face. Journalists are less scary across a desk, or a lunch – even through a glass darkly.

I wasn’t visiting the Sun on a story. This was rapport-building, putting faces to names; frankly, making better use of my time as a press officer when government communications treads water during pre-election purdah.

But that’s the point. Journalists come at us in a crisis – out of nowhere. You don’t know them, they don’t know you – and yet they are as reliant on your engagement as you are on them for their accuracy and understanding.

Of course, Navigate Response is your front line for media calls in a crisis. But can you – should you – take stock and invest in some proactive media relations? Do editors know you and your company exist – before your ship beaches, or collides with another vessel? The shipping story might be reported more contextually if rapport can be developed with the right journalists.

Raising a CEO’s profile can build a company’s brand confidence; people call for your comment because you know your stuff. And when the moment comes, it’s the same rapport which transmits on camera in a crisis. Journalists find it harder to be negative about the people they like.

The crisis is still a crisis, but a journalist or an editor can be an asset in correcting a narrative if you’ve built a bridge before bridges are blown.

Most journalists have little time to move far beyond a keyboard. But then again, most haven’t seen a ship close up. Their perspective is often second hand. Having something to show them – interest them – say a new ship system on the bridge with the Master – might give them a feature. You might impress them with your fleet operation. So, when the casualty comes you have a bank of goodwill.

What editors need in a crisis is content: factual accuracy and quality go-to people for informative comment. A shipping company has expertise by the tanker load. So why not let the best of it surface?

Some years back there was heated criticism over the British Army’s SA80 rifle system. When modified, and the A2 version then rigorously trialled, the media were invited to have a go. We flew them down to a range near Salisbury Plain in a Chinook. Not so much a bang, bang club, more a clinic – to pretty much silence the cynics.

And I recall the RAF going one better. They put the Sun’s defence correspondent up in a Eurofighter Typhoon. The aircraft had been dogged with soaring costs and was four years overdue.
“You think that’s impressive? Well watch this.” And with the quickest of jerks he flipped the jet – and we were flying supersonic upside down... wrote the air-sick reporter. At twice the speed of sound, that’s the most fun a journalist can have sitting down! In PR terms, it’s as good as it gets.

Through a glass darkly – well, with care we can offer a different perspective, reflect some mind-blowing facts and ground any criticism. 

A visit to a ship or a port is enough to excite most journalists. Put a journalist in high-viz and hard hat and see the dividends in future coverage.


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