Telling your story - before the media tells it first

Tell your story before the media does

How to avoid #fails and own goals by being proactive and shaping the narrative.

For some organisations, the default position is to stay out of the media spotlight. They celebrate their successes or (attempt to) hide their mistakes within their own bubble of staff, customers and stakeholders.

That should be the best way to avoid potential issues and interview slip ups in front of a camera, right? Well, not quite.

The media will report when there’s a story, and the lack of willingness by the characters to be involved doesn’t make it any less of a story - if anything, it does the opposite. If you have high-profile clients, projects or leaders, or if high dollars are involved, that story becomes even more attractive.

A 101 principle of crisis communications is not to leave an information vacuum. When an issue or incident arises, whatever information you fail to provide will be made up in people’s minds (and newspaper headlines) based on assumptions. What are they trying to hide?

Case in point was when the Australian Bureau of Statistics was forced to take down its census website in 2016 during the first online data collection, dubbed the infamous #censusfail. When the website crashed on its first night with little to no explanation issued, the Federal Government had to defend false rumours of a hack at press conferences the next day.

The reputational impact was not helped by Malcolm Turnbull tweeting that filling out the census was “v easy” just hours before it was taken down, or the Federal Minister of Small Business Michael McCormack’s overly scripted “duck and weave” interview on 2GB nine days later.

Malcolm Turnbull census tweet

More recently, 12 of the world’s biggest soccer clubs announced plans to create a stand-alone European Football League, via a website statement. It was a communications ‘own goal’, the football community slammed the decision for not being in the best interest of fans, and a media narrative ensued of a money-hungry few raging ‘war’ on the spirit of the game and its historic traditions.

This was mostly met with silence from the clubs until all six of the English teams tumbled out, domino-style, a mere 72 hours later. Only then did we see owners, like Liverpool’s John Henry, attempt to mitigate the damage with a full apology and “we hear you” to fans.

European Football League

Disengaging from open conversation, or not being forthcoming with detail, often tends to set off new flares in the public discussion and media reporting of an issue. You also lose the opportunity to control the message, or at least ensure some balance in coverage.

So, what does a proactive and effective approach look like in a crisis situation?

In May 2020, AirBnB reduced its workforce by 25 per cent due to the impact of COVID-19. It communicated this difficult news directly from Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky in a thoughtful and compassionate message to all employees, which was then shared publicly online. Praised for its empathy and leadership, AirBnB did not shy away from putting out its messages before media coverage was published. Subsequent reporting framed the move as a sad impact of the pandemic and included direct extracts of Chesky’s message.


Putting your version of events out proactively - even when it is bad news - helps to shape the narrative that follows. And the same principle applies to positive media opportunities.

One of our clients is the largest provider of funding for a single medical specialty in Australia, the Passe and Williams Foundation, yet it is likely you have not heard their name.

When announcing its latest round of funding, we supported the Foundation in proactive media relations resulting in features on Sunrise, Channel 9 and 7 News, as well as prominent trade publications. In the years prior, there was no mention of the Foundation in the media, even when their funded projects were in the spotlight.

Our top tips for effective, proactive communications are:

1. If there’s an issue, always be open, honest and on the front foot.

3. Fill an information vacuum immediately to avoid rumours and assumptions.

3. Don’t take the public (or media) for fools - they will always see through someone trying to “spin” their way out of a crisis. If there is a core problem, fix it.

4. Remember that any communication you share internally, can be leaked externally.

5. Share your successes with the media to build reputation, and relationships.

Interested in reading more about managing your reputation? Download a free copy of Icon Reputation’s e-book.

Written by Amanda Cirillo


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