Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis

It’s not often that we have an event with two distinct crises at its core, but the issue of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”—the 13 male dentistry students at Dalhousie University—has provided us with just such a case.

On one side, we have Dalhousie University. When questionable Facebook posts by fourth-year dentistry students were made public, the president chose to instigate a process of restorative justice. It wasn’t until he faced a mini-revolt from faculty members in the new year that he banned the male dentistry students from clinical practice, and scheduled separate classes for them.

From the university’s perspective, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

On the other side, we have 13 male dentistry students.

These young men are in serious crisis. Somebody needs to explain to them that things won’t get any better by crawling into a cone of silence. News reports are indicating that ALL male dentistry students of Dalhousie’s class of 2014 will need to prove they are of sound ethical judgement (i.e. they were not a member of the infamous Facebook group) to any provincial registry before they can practice their profession.

In other words, no proof, no license.

Silence is not an option for these young men. They need to go public, take responsibility for their actions, discuss the foolishness of their behaviour, apologize to everyone involved, and convince the world that this one lapse in judgement will never be repeated in the future.

I don’t only say that as a crisis consultant. I say it as a parent of two young people who are almost exactly the same age as these fourth-year dentistry students.

As I’ve always explained to my kids, people make mistakes. Young people sometimes make more than their share. Their old man has made more than most.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from all the fence-mending I’ve done in my life, it’s that while the mistake is important, what you do after the mistake is absolutely critical.

In the case of these 13 fourth-year male dentistry students, silence is not an option. If my son was involved, I’d like to think we’d already have our news conference behind us and be moving forward together.

With me standing beside him, supporting him, loving him, and helping him salvage as much dignity as possible from an extremely difficult situation.

Is Tom Mulcair a Q&A Hypocrite?

Perhaps I’m jaded, but in my world when people do exactly that for which they criticize others, they’re hypocrites. And Canada’s official leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, may be just such a beast.

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For the past few years, Mr. Mulcair has constantly criticized Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for not answering questions. “We’ve asked the prime minister a precise series of questions,” he often says, leaving the impression that it is completely unacceptable for someone to not answer those questions.

Yet in numerous media interviews I’ve observed, Mr. Mulcair does exactly the same thing. He almost never answers a question directly. In fact, sometimes it seems he wouldn’t answer a simple question if his life depended on it.

And it negatively impacts his credibility.

I first became aware of this during a radio interview featuring Mr. Mulcair in November 2013 while I was riding my motorcycle home from a media training session in downtown Toronto. I was listening to CBC radio (it’s a Gold Wing with a premium sound system—and heated grips and seats, thank goodness!). Mr. Mulcair was being interviewed about the expense scandal in Canada’s senate shortly after three senators were suspended.

Mr. Mulcair was waxing eloquently about how the prime minister refused to answer simple, direct questions during question period in the House of Commons. The prime minister was avoiding questions. He was sidestepping questions. He was waffling. He was obfuscating.

Just after Mr. Mulcair made his point that the political party he leads, the New Democrats, believe Canada’s senate should be abolished, the interviewer asked an obvious question: “Don’t you think that suspending these three senators is a good start?”

Folks, it’s a closed question requiring either a “yes” or a “no.” And, based on Mr. Mulcair’s worldview, the answer should probably be “yes.” Was there even a hint of a yes or no in Mr. Mulcair’s answer? No. So the interviewer asked again. And again. And again. Until she finally gave up.

Honestly, he came across as a hypocrite.

This past week, I was watching CTV Newsnet when Mr. Mulcair was interviewed by Sandie Rinaldo. To lead off her interview, Ms. Rinaldo quoted Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who says he supports the capacity of Canadian troops to defend themselves. “Do you agree with that?” she asked Mr. Mulcair.

Is this an open or closed question? Closed. The first thing out of Mr. Mulcair’s mouth should be a yes or no. Instead, he ignores the question and says:

“What I do know is that in September and October I asked the prime minister a whole series of questions—very specific questions about what our troops were doing.”

Huh? Isn’t he criticizing someone for not answering specific questions by not answering a specific question?

But wait, it gets even better. “But it seems our troops had no choice but to defend themselves,” Ms. Rinaldo said. “Isn’t there an allowance for that?”

Again, a closed question. Yes or no would be good to hear, especially from someone who criticizes others for not answering specific, direct questions.

“When you’re involved in a firefight it’s because you’re involved in combat,” Mr. Mulcair answered, in his attempt to bridge to his message and tell us all what’s really important, “which Mr. Harper told Canadians we wouldn’t do, and that’s the problem.”

This doesn’t pass the sniff test on a number of levels. If I was a member of Canada’s armed forces, I’d be miffed. You mean to tell us that we shouldn’t defend ourselves, regardless of what the politicians say in their squabbles with each other?

It also illustrates the absolute foolishness of staying on message. As I’ve said many times during interviews and in my media training program, politicians are the only ones who could possibly get away with this tactic (but why would they, when a better alternative is available?), which I believe is an outdated paradigm in an information-driven, media-savvy world.

Mr. Mulcair has until October 19—the date of Canada’s next federal election—to get it right. His predecessor did, probably because he knew he was fighting his last fight.

Mr. Mulcair should go back and watch Jack Layton’s interviews prior to the last federal election. Jack provided a refreshing perspective on treating audiences with dignity and respect. More often than not, he answered questions clearly and concisely, and communicated effectively.

I believe Jack’s performance is a huge reason why Mr. Mulcair currently resides at Stornaway, the residence of Canada’s official opposition.

If he hopes to stay there (or potentially move up in the world), he should gain insight from Jack’s cogent example, and learn how to answer questions as a means of treating audiences with respect, and ultimately managing interviews to strategic gain—without exhibiting the same behaviour for which he’s criticizing others.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Sets the Standard for News Conferences

For many years in my media training workshops, I have strongly encouraged those I’ve been teaching (and their public and media relations advisors) to answer journalists’ questions clearly and concisely. 

Mr. Media Training

My personal and professional belief for more than 20 years has been that bridges should be built over rivers and canyons, not used to get from a journalist’s question to “what’s really important.”

Today, Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), proved the effectiveness of this approach during the news conference in which he announced that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been banned for life after audio of his racist rant went viral.

During the Q&A portion of the news conference, Mr. Silver clearly and concisely answered all questions from journalists.

Some of those questions were relatively straight forward. Others, like the bombshell posed by Lisa Guerrero of Inside Edition, were extremely complex:

“The word you used specifically was ‘outrage’. You said that you were personally outraged. Yet many people believe that they have known for years that this man is a racist slumlord and the NBA hasn't done anything until today. Can you please answer why?”

His response: “I can’t speak to past actions other than to say that when specific evidence was brought to the NBA, we acted.”

Bottom line? If you want to build bridges, become an engineer. If you want to help your clients navigate the reefs and shoals of an information-driven social-media world, teach them to answer questions clearly and concisely, starting with the invaluable skill of pause-answer-stop

Click here to view the news conference

Media Training No Help to Toronto Mayor

(Editor’s note: Originally published a year ago (December 2012), the lessons here bear repeating. Who says that there’s no advance warning of a crisis?)

On a recent trip out of town, a participant at one of my media training sessions asked me whether I thought my program would help Toronto mayor Rob Ford. 

Toronto mayor Rob Ford

I said I didn’t think so. And the reasons are quite simple. 

Regardless of whether you come from the traditional school of media training—which teaches people to stay on message and constantly bridge to messages—or a more balanced approach (which I advocate), which teaches spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, every media trainer I’ve met agrees with Mark Twain:

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and newsprint by the tonne. Or, in today’s vernacular, don’t pick a fight with someone who has unlimited bandwidth and millions of daily dedicated eyeballs. 

In September, 2012, Rob Ford and his brother, Toronto councillor Doug Ford, took to the radio airwaves to spend an hour criticizing Toronto media for their coverage of a variety of issues—the mayor’s economic development trip to Chicago, how he was allegedly using his office’s resources to run the football team he coaches, and his request to speed up road repairs near his family business. 

And the brothers were criticizing Toronto’s journalists even before the mayor called the head of the Toronto Transit Commission to ask about buses for his football team, or an Ontario Supreme Court judge ruled that the mayor was in conflict of interest. 

There are three or four conditions on which media training could help Mr. Ford. First, he has to realize that he is not above conflict of interest guidelines. Second, he has to wait his turn like everyone else. Third, any media training would need to convince him to stop talking once he’s answered a question (which is generally where he, like most other spokespeople, gets into trouble). 

Finally, stop picking fights you simply cannot or will not win. 

(Editor’s note: And when the stuff really does hit the fan, come clean with EVERYTHING before the wire tap evidence becomes worldwide news. As the Toronto Sun aptly put it in yesterday’s headline: Wire, Wire … Pants on Fire!)

P-A-S: The Most Important Step

After more than 20 years of examining the concept, and after teaching it successfully for that period, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question and stop talking. 

pause-answer-stop

First of all, it offers protection. If you’ve ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer that question and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to “shut up,” the net result is exactly the same.) 

Does your legal counsel tell you to P-A-S because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility. 

Does the lawyer want you to P-A-S so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that’s a bit tougher to answer, the lawyer tells you to P-A-S so you can protect the organization. 

If this advice offers protection in a court of law, why wouldn’t it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print reporter, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team or a board of directors? 

It can. And it does. 

But beyond that, P-A-S enables someone to communicate more effectively. Quite simply, by asking more questions the person receiving the information can create better understanding. 

Some time ago, my wife and I decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor. 

One evening, I went to Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question. 

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question. 

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I bet I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son, who was 18 years old at the time, remarked as we were walking out of the store: “Dad, that was amazing. I can’t believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions." 

Actually, I didn’t ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions — which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not P-A-S. 

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn’t achieve his organization’s objectives. However, that’s short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, my local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I’m even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. 

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you’ll deliver? Want to build rapport with community groups? Teach yourself the same simple tactic: 

Pause. Answer the question. Stop talking.

Control the Interview? Dream on!

There are many PR agencies, consultants and media trainers that still advertise that they can teach spokespeople to control an interview.

When someone says that to me, I have three words: Have a seat.

I’ll be the journalist. You be the spokesperson. At the end of four or five minutes, you tell me how in control you actually felt. 

But “playing journalist” aside, let’s examine controlling the interview from the perspective of three basic challenges: print, sound bites and live broadcast interviews.

With print interviews, spokespeople may be able to influence the interview, but they cannot control it. And they certainly have no control when the reporter puts down the telephone and sits at their computer to write the story. 

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had conversations with spokespeople who thought they controlled the print reporter, only to read the final article and complain that they were taken out of context. Of course they were. When you try to control someone, you talk more, not less. More talking equals more context. More context equals more risk. Period.

With sound bite interviews, the TV or radio reporter needs about eight to twelve seconds of the interview to insert into the story. Again, I’ve heard of many instances where spokespeople refused to answer the reporter’s question over and over—driving home what’s important to them or their organization—only to achieve one of two outcomes. 

First, neither they nor their sound bites were not included in the story. When this happens, spokespeople waste their time and the journalist’s. What impact will that have on the odds that the organization’s next news release will be picked up by that journalist or that news outlet?

Second, the journalist picks a portion of a statement the spokesperson said, which is usually the absolute last snippet the organization would like included in the story. “They didn’t pick the right one,” is the common complaint I hear. 

No kidding. Think the journalist is sending a message about who’s in control? But let’s be realistic. If you don’t want them to pick it, why say it in the first place?

Finally, we have live interviews, whether on television or radio. It doesn’t matter whether these interviews are live to air, or recorded and played later. These are interviews in which questions and answers are aired together with minimal editing or no editing at all. 

Everyone hears the journalist ask the question. Everyone knows that the spokesperson ignored it to talk about what’s important to them. Politicians are masters at this (if you call limiting your success being a master).

With the polarization model we teach in our media training program, it’s easy to demonstrate that this outdated tactic does not lead to any opinion change among those watching or listening to the interview. In other words, success is limited to only reinforcing positive opinions for, or negative opinions against, the spokesperson’s perspective. 

Why someone would accept an interview and employ tactics that limit their success is beyond me. 

So the next time you are approached by an agency or consultant who tells you they’ll teach your spokespeople to control the interview, we have one word of advice: Run!

Instead, look for those (and they are growing in number) who believe in managing exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes. They won’t tell you that you can control the interview. But then again, you never could. 

Instead, they will teach your spokespeople to control themselves, which is the best risk management tool you can buy.

Talking Like A Leader – General Tells It Like It Is

by Sue Johnston, MBA, ABC, MC, MMC

We’ve seen it too many times. A leader finds his or her organization in the middle of a mess and tries to minimize its seriousness. Out pop the weasel words, euphemisms and positioning in a bid to convince the world that things are not as they seem. It fools nobody. When ‘spin’ enters, so do doubt, speculation, suspicion and mistrust. 

So it was refreshing to see the way Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, handled a serious issue facing his organization in a YouTube video that aired publicly. No spin. No positioning. Instead, we got a sincere delivery of a message that matters - along with a stern warning.

On June 13, Morrison met with the news media and also recorded a three minute video for members of the armed forces – and the public. His messy issue is that army and state police are investigating a group of military men who produced and circulated videos the general described as “highly inappropriate material demeaning women.”

With the investigation ongoing, the general can’t share details. But he can share his views. “If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention to every value the Australian Army stands for.” He’s appalled and won’t tolerate such behaviour. His stance and his speech have won praise in Australian and international news media. 

Why is his message so powerful? He makes it easy to understand. Morrison conveys his ideas clearly, using unambiguous language anyone can comprehend. He shows us he means what he says. His tone and manner reveal his emotions and touch ours. Finally, he invites others to help. 

1) Clarity of message 

“Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.” 

In both his statements, Morrison answers questions and speaks honestly. He shares the facts as cleanly and clearly as he can. Without compromising the investigation, he anticipates and tries to answer the questions a reporter, soldier/employee or member of the public might have.

He leaves no doubt that there are consequences for the sort of behaviour under investigation. No cushion words, no euphemisms, and definitely no nonsense. He is clear and concise. There’s no opportunity for misquotes or misunderstanding. Women are and will always be in the military. “If that does not suit you, then get out.” It doesn’t get much plainer than that.

2) Language and emotion 

“If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it. No one has ever explained to me how the exploitation or degradation of others enhances capability or honours the traditions of the Australian Army.”

Morrison touches emotions. He doesn’t conceal his anger. It shows in his tone and his serious demeanor. There’s no need to pound the desk or shout. Other emotions, disappointment, shame, pride and hope show in his words. This CEO is not a charismatic spokesperson – he doesn’t need to be. He gets the message across with honesty and intensity.

This is a general speaking to soldiers and he deliberately uses the word ‘courage,’ an essential trait for soldiers. They are willing and trained to risk life and limb to defend their country. But he challenges them to show ‘moral courage’ and face a different sort of risk – emotional risk. 

3) Call to action

“I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values and I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” 

Morrison not only lets his troops know that the army won’t tolerate degrading behaviour, he invites them to help in fighting the systemic problems. “Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army and the environment in which we work.” 

At the time of writing, the video has had 1,315,659 views on YouTube. Dozens of news articles and blog posts applaud Morrison’s no nonsense stand against offensive behaviour. It’s too soon to know whether this communication will, ultimately, lead to behaviour change in the Australian army. But the buzz it created has put a lot of eyeballs on a serious issue in Australia and elsewhere. 

Did the general do a good job with this talk? How so? Or not? What did he miss? What did we miss? Share your thoughts. 

_______________________________

Sue Johnston helps organizations and individuals communicate for results. She is dedicated to the belief that a real conversation is the most powerful business tool we will ever have.

Sue Johnston

Located in southwestern Ontario, Sue works with leaders and emerging leaders to develop their skills as authentic, confident communicators. The focus of her training and coaching is face-to-face communication, from media interviews and presentations to conversations with employees, clients and colleagues. 

A professional communicator for 30 years, Sue worked as a TV and newspaper reporter and editor in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and London. That led to opportunities as a corporate writer and communication consultant in Canada’s banking industry, where much of her time was spent helping executives step out from behind the slide-shows and newsletters and really talk to people. 

Today, Sue combines her journalist’s skills, her corporate communication experience and her business training as a communication trainer and coach to help clients achieve peak success.

Sue is licensed to deliver At Ease With the Media.

In Praise of Rather's Rules

If you’ve read many of my posts, chances are you know that I’m not a big fan of staying on message.  Personally, I believe staying on message can be used as one of a number of defensive strategies, but it has become an overused and outdated paradigm in an information-driven world.

media training quote

I make the assumption that most media relations practitioners have, as one of their ideal end states, a desire to build some form of relationship with reporters.  Without communication, you cannot build a relationship with anyone.  And, if you don’t answer someone’s questions in clear, concise terms — whether the person asking is a spouse, partner, significant other, parent, child, neighbour, boss, co-worker, colleague or reporter — chances are you are transmitting, not communicating.  

But, having said all that, there are specific situations in which a spokesperson may reasonably choose not to answer a question.  To understand when this is acceptable, we turn to what are known as “Rather’s Rules.”  These guidelines for answering questions have been attributed to television reporter Dan Rather.  I first encountered them during a discussion on the old Marketing & PR Forum on CompuServe in the mid-1990s.

Basically, Rather’s Rules state that there are three acceptable answers to every question that someone can be asked.  They are:

  • Yes, I have the answer, and here it is.
  • No, I don’t have the answer, but I’ll get it for you.
  • Yes, I do have the answer, but I cannot discuss it at this time.

It’s easy to see that waffling, sidestepping, obfuscating and evading are not anywhere to be found on this list, nor is the overly simplistic advice of “stay on message.”  If your organization is interested in pursuing excellence in its communication activities — and is striving to create two-way symmetrical communication wherever and whenever possible — you should have no problem accepting the parameters outlined by Rather’s Rules.  

There are a number of specific situations in which a spokesperson would deliberately choose the third option, to not answer questions, even though he or she knows the answer.  These include situations in which the question directly relates to:

  • A case currently before the courts.
  • Union negotiations that are under way, in which a news blackout has been imposed.
  • An emergency, in which next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
  • Securities legislation, which would be breached if the question was answered.
  • Confidentiality for employees, customers, members or others.
  • Another aspect of privacy of information legislation.
  • Sensitive competitive information.
  • Issues of national security.

It’s clear from this list that choosing to not communicate by not answering someone’s questions is relatively straightforward.  If a spokesperson at an accident or disaster is asked about who was injured or killed, it’s acceptable for that person to say “I cannot answer any questions about casualties until all next-of-kin have been notified.”

The line is not so clear when it comes to situations in which a spokesperson would choose to deliberately avoid questions.  That will be the topic of my next post. 

Why Bridging and Staying on Message are Destined to Fail

There is a single word that explains why constantly bridging and staying on message are doomed as media relations tactics: convergence. That is why At Ease With the Media embodies the modern approach, rather than being message-driven.

At Ease With the Media teaches spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes—assisting the journalist on one side while supporting the organization’s objectives on the other.

Spokespeople understand the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. They learn to strategically influence audiences through the journalist, but are flexible and adaptable to the journalist’s needs along the way.

Of course, they are taught to always protect themselves and their organization at every step.

As the embedded interview illustrates (if the interview isn’t visible at the bottom of this article, click here to go to the TV network site), prior to convergence, a spokesperson could get away with repeating the same thing over and over, especially when answering questions from a print journalist or providing a quote for a newscast.

Today, however, the rules have changed. A single article on a website can contain both the print article, which provides detail into the issue, and the actual unedited interview with the spokesperson. In this format, it becomes obvious that the spokesperson is avoiding all questions by stubbornly repeating the same thing over and over.

There are some lessons to be learned here.

If your media training consultant focuses on constantly bridging or is mired in staying on message, find someone else to work with. Your spokespeople and your organization deserve better.

The results of a modern approach are clear: better relationships with reporters, improved strategic outcomes, and effective risk management.

Finally, if you provide media training that focuses on constantly bridging, please continue to do so. Those of us who have moved beyond that paradigm will be happy to chip away at your customer base.

Linking Objectives to Outcomes

This is the third instalment in a series on media relations measurement.

In this second part of my conversation with Wilma Mathews, ABC, I asked her where we needed to be as an industry when it comes to the strategic use of media relations.

How do we develop objectives for a media relations campaign? How do we evaluate whether we’ve achieved those objectives? In a perfect world, how should people approach those challenges?

Her advice was simple on the surface, but represents the complexity of media relations specifically, and organizational communication in general.

“People need to approach media relations by understanding what it is that your client needs to get done,” she says. “Too often, the client’s needs are misinterpreted to what we can do from a media standpoint, whether it has anything to actually do with solving the problem or not.”

She says that one of the challenges that many practitioners have with measurement is that they may start with a great objective — such as increasing the number of people who participate in a weekend run for cancer research from 10,000 to 12,000 — but their evaluation focuses only on the media clippings they generate. They forget to go back and count the number of people who actually participated in the run.

This goes back to her belief that there is a clear distinction between evaluation and measurement in media relations. Counting the clippings is a form of evaluation around the process. Determining how many people participated in the run is a measurement of outcomes, and therefore success.

“You cannot claim success if you are not measuring the right thing,” she says. “And this slides over into the issue of ethics.”

Wilma believes that it is incredibly unethical to tell a client that a campaign was successful because it generated a million impressions when the objective was to get more people to participate in the food drive, vote for a candidate, or other potential outcome.

There are those who may try counter her argument by saying that it was the client who wanted those media relations results — such as being a guest on certain television programs or being above the fold on the front page of the business section. Therefore, according to codes of ethics governing public relations (whether PRSA, IABC, CPRS or CIPR), the media relations practitioner has done his or her job.

“If that media plan is solely about getting the boss above the fold on the front page of the business section and nothing else, then that’s ok,” she replies. “The objectives may be that (the client) is looking for media support for the product launch, and (the media relations practitioner) will write an objective that says they want to generate 1.5 million impressions.

"You can get impressions. That’s the easy part. But those impressions may have no correlation to a bottom line.”

And without bottom line measurement, the job is less than half done.

The Illogical Logic of Not Answering Questions

Reporter Eve Lazarus described how she had sat through a media training session arranged for a young jewelry designer who had won an award for designing a right-hand diamond engagement ring.  The designer’s employer believed the award would be a good way to generate free publicity.  But before unleashing the young designer on unsuspecting reporters, media training was arranged.

In the article, Lazarus listened to a consultant provide the following advice during the media training session:  "Get your message out, don’t let a reporter interrupt you, try not to speak too quickly and try not to get off track with what you are there to talk about.

media training quote from Eric Bergman

“They are going to ask you a question, you are going to answer with your key message, they are going to ask you another question, and you are going to have a second or third key message.”

Hmmmmm.  Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t understand this logic.

The company has good news to share.  They are cranking up the media relations machine to get reporters interested in their story.  They’re hoping the editors will respond by sending out a reporter, which will then result in “free” publicity for the firm.

When the reporter begins asking questions (which is, after all, what reporters do for a living), the spokesperson is going to ignore their questions and keep driving home key messages.

It sounds like an interesting way to develop relationships with reporters.  You get us interested so we’ll ask questions.  When we ask them, you rudely ignore them and keep parroting key messages that would look better in an advertisement than a feature article.  I wonder what will happen the next time the organization (or its agency) sends out a news release.  If you were the editor, what would you do?  I’d delete it in less time than it takes the average consultant to say “key message.”

Must Be A Moral Gain

I will be the first to admit that there are times when you might want to ignore the question and reply with a message.  However, I believe that these times should be extremely limited and there should be a moral gain (which often comes primarily as prevention of a moral loss) for the organization or the individual.

For example, suppose you are the plant manager for a petroleum refinery and you’re asked a straight forward question by a reporter:  "Do you pollute?“  Of course you pollute.  After all, you’re running a refinery.  If you don’t pollute, the products you manufacture certainly do.  

A media training quote from Eric Bergman

However, I can easily make the case that there is a moral gain to be had by both the individual (the ability to make mortgage payments by NOT performing a career limiting move) and the organization (no possible erosion to community trust or the stock price) by sticking to the message: "Our facility has always adhered to all environmental rules and regulations in our operations.”

But what moral gain can there be when you’re approaching the media with a positive story and you ignore their questions?  At best, this approach is confusing; there is no connection between sender and receiver in what is fundamentally a communication process.

At worst, it is downright rude.  And it certainly isn’t a solid foundation on which long-term relationships with reporters can be constructed.

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