What Would You Say?


Editor’s note: Over the course of 2023, there was a series of incidents that highlighted the importance of having a solid crisis communication plan. We saw a potential mass shooting averted at an adventure park in Colorado. Several incidents over the summer involved children, and the park responses did not match the seriousness of the reported details and injuries. 

In 2024, you should assume that any untoward incidents that happen at your operation will be shared across multiple media. To help you gain as much control over the story as possible, we’re revisiting this article from 2020. It outlines how to limit your exposure to negative publicity. 

OK, so you’ve had a serious incident. Local media wants to talk. Maybe they called. Maybe they just showed up, cameras ready. What to do?

Here’s what you SHOULDN’T do: go into that situation unprepared. If you don’t already know what the press is going to ask—and why—and if you don’t already know how they’re likely to play the story—and why—you’ve already got two strikes against you. Try to avoid swinging at junk.

Here’s the truth: Reporters don’t care about the wonderful things you do. They don’t care about your investment. They don’t care about the kids—those wonderful kids—that you teach to love and embrace challenge in the outdoors. They don’t care about the jobs.

The Battle for Eyeballs

Well, that last part is only partly correct. 

They do care about jobs—their own jobs, and the jobs of their friends and colleagues back in the newsroom. Fact is, much of the news media, especially local, is struggling these days. So, every ear or eyeball a media outlet can garner, be it in print, online, or broadcast, is incredibly valuable.

Here’s a frightening stat for you: Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on Facebook, and more than half of those folks use Facebook as a news source. This is why every news item you read online has links to share that news to Facebook, Twitter (now X), and other social platforms.

Desperate for eyeballs, conventional media outlets now use social media platforms as a distribution tool, in hopes that you’ll share and click through stories shared by “friends.” The goal is to generate more views and clicks on their content. The outlet may get only a fraction of a penny for each click, but considering that many newsrooms are less than half the size they were a generation ago, those fractions become pretty important.

So what makes people want to click through? Punchy headlines. Sensational tales that tug on heartstrings. People are simply more likely to click on stories that either play to base instincts or support existing biases.

Challenge course incidents can trip both triggers. Stories of serious injuries—regardless of source—often play to base instincts, and many people think that screaming down a zip line is just plain nuts to start with.

If It Bleeds, It Leads

The decades-old news media mantra—“if it bleeds, it leads”—is simple to understand: Bad news is of greater interest to the masses than good news, so the first story on a newscast or on the front page of a newspaper is almost always about something tragic, violent, destructive, etc.

Sad to say, when we learn of people getting hurt doing something that we personally think is stupid, it can reinforce our own sense of superiority. Need evidence? Look no further than the number of views the countless “fail” videos on YouTube garner. As a species, we humans may have replaced public executions and gladiatorial combat with horror flicks and the NFL. One could argue the latter are more civilized, but they prove that humans maintain a taste for the tawdry.

So, understand this: When the media shows up to cover a serious incident, their goal is to make that story as appealing as possible, to as big an audience as possible. Odds are good that you’re not going to be pleased with the result, even if you handle it flawlessly.

It’s when you don’t handle it flawlessly that things can get really ugly—and, potentially, expensive. If you say the wrong thing, or don’t say the right thing, you can come off as callous, cold, uncaring, and even negligent, even if you did everything else right.

The Key is Preparation

Successfully managing interviews—especially difficult ones—is really a matter of preparation. You want to walk into an interview knowing:

1. what you’re going to be asked

2. how you’re going to answer

3. what you HAVE to say             

4. how you want to be quoted

5. how long the interview is going to last

6. what questions you can punt.

The last two are actually fairly straightforward. YOU determine how long you can make yourself available to the reporter. It’s called “setting the clock.” I always recommend setting at no more than five minutes to start. In a breaking news event, you probably won’t have much more than five minutes’ worth of information anyway. If you like the way things are going, though, you can always give reporters a little more time. But if you set the clock too long and don’t like the tone of things, it’s tough to back out.

As for questions you can decline: Saying “no comment” in response is always interpreted by reporters (and their audiences) as an admission of guilt. But if you set some ground rules—I call them “Cans and Can’ts”—prior to answering the first question, you can actually remove a fair number of questions from the table before they’re asked.

Here’s an example: 

Say that your incident involved an equipment failure. Realistically, it can take days—even weeks or months—for reasonable forensic analysis on that piece of gear to produce concrete results. It is NOT unreasonable to tell a reporter, “I’ll tell you what I can, but I can’t answer any questions about what caused this to happen. We want to know the answer as much as you do, but we won’t know until the engineering analysis is complete. That’ll likely take a while, and I’m not going to speculate.”

Similarly, you are under no obligation to discuss specific employees and their actions. Just as smart organizations are circumspect about offering references to other potential employers, it’s generally best to limit discussion of employees to their tenure and not get into any subjective information about their performance.

There’s a lot more to this concept, but that’s the idea. Remember: if you take any lines of questions off the table, you must have a solid reason for doing so.

Must-Air Points

Now, let’s return to those first four preparation keys.

When I media-train people, it’s an eight-hour process at minimum. Much of that time is focused on items 1-4 in the preparation list. Learning to anticipate questions helps you craft good, tight, straightforward answers that don’t open the door to bad follow-ups. It helps us to avoid being surprised—and it’s when we’re surprised that we’re most likely to have something damaging tumble from our lips. If we do a good job of anticipating questions, we can prepare good answers even for the questions we’d rather not be asked.

Say what you want to say. There are also certain things we want to make sure the reporter hears—stuff that we want in the story. They’re called “Must-Air Points,” because they’re the things we want to make sure make it through the edit. In a bad news situation, we always designate one of these Must Airs (three is the target, four at most) as

an expression of concern and compassion. Generally, an expression of your commitment to the well-being of your guests is a second Must Air.

The challenge is that those are both heavily prone to cliché. For example, nobody will believe, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.” Nor will they be moved if you say, “Safety is our top priority.” Be genuine and avoid canned expressions.

Note that Must-Air Points are not so-called “talking points.” Many folks enter interviews with talking points, but in breaking news situations, talking points are a fool’s errand—and a waste of time. Talking points are things you’d like to get in if you can. In a bad news situation, you likely can’t. Talking points are optional. Must-Air Points are essential.

Plan to Be Quotable

Which brings us to the quotes—and, specifically, misquotes. Having been involved in this line of work for 30 years now, I can tell you this: misquotes (and selective editing to take things out of context) do occasionally happen, but the truth is that most misquotes are actually misTAKES made by the spokesperson.

Many spokespeople—especially untrained ones—walk into interviews essentially ready to wing it, reeling out answers and hoping they’ll be quoted in a way that they like.

But what the spokesperson likes and what the reporter needs are often two different things. Understand this: if you rattle on in response to a question, you increase the odds that something attention-grabbing will fall out of your mouth, which doesn’t help you. It might even hurt you.

Plan what you say. You want your quote to be colorful and interesting and in support of your goals for the interview. This is why planning how we want to be quoted is so important. It’s something of an art, and it’s an involved piece of media training. At the very least, rehearse your statement(s) until your words flow smoothly. 

There’s Training for That

Our industry understands the value of training staff to ensure the safety and enjoyment of our guests, which ultimately leads to business success. One incident could derail that success if it isn’t handled properly with the media, though, so you might want to add media training to your training budget. Plan to do this training for more than one person so you have backup. Incidents tend not to respect vacation or work schedules.

If you understand how reporters actually work and why they ask what they do, you can learn to anticipate their questions. The process succeeds just as well with good-news stories as with bad ones, so you’ll likely get a better result the next time a reporter calls you to ask about the fun stuff you offer. 


About Author

Skip King has been managing crises and high-visibility incidents for more than 25 years. He serves as crisis communications counsel to the Outward Bound organization, and has provided crisis and issues management support in a variety of other industry sectors. He authored the National Ski Areas Association’s Crisis Management Guidelines, and has provided crisis communications training, planning and support to many winter resorts. His company, Reputation Strategies LLC, is based in Yarmouth, Maine. Info: www.reputationstrategies.com

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