As I sat at the controls alongside the pilot, high above the island, I asked him how difficult it was to fly a small plane. He had me place my hands on the wheel in front of me.
“Got it?” I nodded, not sure what he had in mind. I soon found out: He released his controls, turning around to converse with my friend in the back.
I was flying the airplane.
Almost immediately we began to lose altitude, and the plane gradually veered toward the great expanse of Lake Huron. I was an aviator for all of about 15 seconds, at which point the real pilot, chuckling at my terrified expression, regained control.
We were never really in danger, of course. But the pilot was the only person in that cockpit who knew how to read the gauges, what actions to take and how to land us safely. My lack of knowledge and skill quickly deflected us from our goal.
In working with the news media, a lot of organizations are doing what that pilot did—turning over their messaging to unskilled, uninformed strangers, rather than flying the airplane themselves.
A wise friend and PR colleague has often said, “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.” We see it happen time and again, when organizations face major questions from reporters and respond with … silence. And so the media turn to others they deem experts, usually people who know far less than they think they do. That leads to rumors becoming facts, speculation becoming certainty. It also carries great risk of angering or unsettling important audiences, from investors to policymakers to employees.
The hijacking of one’s story is far more difficult to resolve after the fact. Indeed, an organization may have to live with the falsehood forever, despite every effort to correct it.
(While not an example of a company stonewalling the media, it’s refreshing to see how the makers of Tide laundry detergent turned a spoof article published in The Onion into a bit of video fun that benefits their brand. Read about it here.)
Organizations need to own their issues and their message. They must quickly take back control of the airplane from self-appointed copilots—or, ideally, don’t give it up in the first place. Even if there are sound business and legal reasons for not commenting on some topics, a thoughtful and strategic communication plan can help manage speculation and discredit the ill-informed soundbites of others.
It’s all about keeping the plane in the air.