The family business employing Ms. Norton received extensive coverage concerning a shareholder dispute.

Family feuds are fascinating to the American public, particularly when the family doing the feuding owns a prominent business. Family feuds over businesses have been the plot of many best sellers, so it’s not surprising that when reporters get wind of division in a family they come looking for the story.

Nevertheless, family business owners often are caught by surprise when they receive the inevitable phone call from a local reporter. Because they were unprepared, they may say things they later regret. That’s why it is critical for families to have a crisis communication plan in place before it’s needed.

First and foremost, owners should realize that they do not have to speak with a reporter. Reporters make their living getting information. They can be both friendly and charming and are professionals at getting people to believe that they must answer questions and return calls. That is simply not true, no matter how charming or adamant a reporter may be.

Second, owners should let communication experts handle the media. If the business is large enough to have a corporate communications department, questions should be forwarded there. These communication professionals can follow-up and act as a liaison between the owner and the reporter. Crisis communication experts also are available to help owners manage the press during crisis situations.

If owners engage in conversations with reporters and are asked uncomfortable questions, acceptable responses can include:

  • I prefer not to speak about that at this time.
  • That is a personal and private family matter.
  • That information is confidential.
  • I have no comment.
  • I don’t comment on rumor or speculation.

Try to find out when the story is scheduled to appear so that you can avoid being blindsided by the article. Sometimes, the story is run the next day, but at other times, the story may not be published for days or even weeks. No one wants to be blindsided by friends or neighbors who may have read or seen a story about your business before you have.

You should also ask the reporter who else he or she has contacted. Good journalists seek balanced reporting, presenting both sides of the story.

In summary:

  1. If you prefer not to speak with the reporter, you don’t have to. You may refer the reporter to your corporate communications department or to a public relations consultant.
  2. If you choose to speak with the reporter, realize that whatever you say may be quoted. Reporters usually abide by an intricate set of rules about what is off the record or background. Few business owners know these rules so if you don’t want to see something in print—don’t say it. Everything in an interview or casual conversation should be considered ‘on the record’ no matter what the reporter says.
  3. Advise shareholder relations and corporate communications if you have spoken with a reporter. Often a follow-up on a story is necessary, possibly solving any problems the owner created. Dealing with the press usually is not a job for amateurs.