Print Interviews Are NOT Conversations

When being interviewed by a print journalist—in which the final article is words printed on paper or words printed on a screen—spokespeople should remember that they’re not there to engage in a conversation.

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In my experience, if they do, they should be prepared to accept greater risk. By trying to be conversational with print journalists, rather than focusing on answering questions clearly and concisely, spokespeople dramatically increase the odds of being misquoted or quoted out of context.

With print interviews, more context (i.e. longer answers) equals more risk. Period.

With interviews by print journalists, the route to the end audience is always indirect. Even if it’s a solitary blogger writing the story, he or she takes the information gained during the interview and reshapes it to a finished product hours or days after the interview has ended. Conversational spokespeople read the finished articles and often think to themselves: “That’s not quite what I had in mind” or “that’s not quite accurate”—even as a result of positive interviews or those for which there is minimal risk.

If it’s a potentially negative story, the impact is magnified. I’ve seen conversations with print journalists lead to weeks of damage control. I once had someone in a media training session tell me about a two-part less-than-complimentary quote in a finished print article. This spokesperson recalls the two parts of the quote being separated by about 15 minutes of "conversation.”

The fundamental skill of pausing, answering and stopping is the best skill to apply during print interviews. Messages should be woven in strategically, which generally means sparingly.

Print journalists have to teach themselves about a topic before they can turn around and teach others with an article that, we hope at least, is factually correct. Journalists can improve their accuracy by asking more questions per minute during interviews, which brings us right back to the critical skill of stopping once spokespeople have clearly and concisely answered the question.

Pause-answer-stop provides protection. It facilitates greater accuracy in the finished story. And it is more strategic, because the journalist simply has fewer long answers from which to draw quotes.

Bridging the Gap Between Truth and Transparency

During his presentation to the World Public Relations Forum on May 29, 2016, Eric Bergman stated his view that public relations professionals have an opportunity to carve out a new area of practice globally and become more trusted advisors to clients. To do this, PR professionals need to bridge the gap between truth and transparency, and virtually eliminate the focus on bridging to messages.

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Bergman covered three topics during his presentation. First, he defined a number of terms. Second, he provided examples of how it is possible to be truthful, but not transparent. Third, he demonstrated how the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely not only builds better understanding, but brings together truth and transparency.

Bergman began by defining four terms: lying, deception, spin and transparency. Quoting philosopher Sissela Bok, he explained that lying occurs when someone makes a statement that they believe to be untrue at the time they said it, even if that statement ends up being true at a later date. Deception occurs when someone creates an impression from the facts that they themselves do not believe, even if the facts are true.

“The best definition of spin I’ve ever seen was from a paper by John Mearsheimer to the American Political Association,” Bergman said. “He defined spin as arranging facts in way that portrays the individual or organization in the most positive light.”

A resume, for example, is a perfect example of spin. “If the facts are correct and the impression left by the facts is correct,” Bergman explained, “there is nothing wrong with spin.”

Bergman then defined transparency in three words: ask me anything. This means answering as many questions as possible, but clearly and concisely. “If someone stands in front a group and answers 1,000 questions clearly and concisely in two hours, can that person lay claim to transparency?” asks Bergman. “Of course. I have nothing to hide, so ask me anything. But if they barely pay lip service to the question and bridge to what is important to them or their organization, can they lay claim to transparency? Probably not.”

Bergman concluded the first section by pointing out that the bridge between truth and transparency is the question and answer process. “To protect themselves from lies, deception and spin, people ask questions, and that trend will only accelerate,” he explained. “People want answers. As communications professionals, our objective should be to counsel our clients to provide answers, not ignore questions and talk about what’s important to the organization.”

In the second section of his presentation, Bergman explained how it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. One example he often uses to explain the difference is of a real estate agent showing a customer a potential home. The customer asks: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent replies by saying: “Talk of school often reminds me of school taxes. Did you know that this is one of the lowest assessed areas in the region? Imagine all the money you will be able to save for your child’s post-secondary education.”

What would the customer’s next question be? Most likely: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent then replies by saying: “School time is important, but so is after school time with your family. Did you know this property is adjacent to a conservation area? In fact, you will be able to open your back gate and walk right into it. It’s like having all of the beauty and tranquility of the country and convenience of the city.”

Is the real estate agent being truthful? Yes, if the taxes are low and the conservation area is outside the back gate. The agent cannot be faulted for lying or deception. He or she is focusing on perceived benefits of the house to leave the customer with the best possible impression.

But what impression does this leave with the customer? How does not answering a simple question impact the relationship? Bergman believes that most people would be left with the impression that the nearest school is 50 miles away.

Bergman concluded this section by pointing out that the public relations profession would better serve clients if it understood the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. He believes the skill of answering questions can be embodied in three words: pause-answer-stop. Pause and think; answer the question asked and only the question asked; then stop talking.

Bergman concluded his interactive hour by stating: “It’s important to understand the definitions of lies, deception, spin and transparency and that it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. If someone believes ‘ask me anything’ is a reasonable working definition of transparency, then answering questions in clear, concise terms is the bridge that gets us there from the truth.

“As a profession, we would better serve our clients if we helped them bridge the gap between truth and transparency, rather than telling someone asking a question that something else is important. The tactic of bridging to messages has become an outdated paradigm in an information-driven world, and we would better serve our clients if we embraced that fact.”

For more information, Eric Bergman can be reached at 416-410-3273, through his website at www.presentwithease.com, or by e-mail at fwiw@me.com.

Ex-Senators Coach is a Polarization Pro

After a disappointing hockey season for the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League head coach Dave Cameron was fired. During his subsequent media exchange with the owner, Cameron proved to be a polarization pro.

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In announcing the firing, Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Senators, made pointed remarks about Cameron’s coaching style.

“It was inconsistency and some stupidity,” said Melnyk, pointing to Cameron’s decision to start rookie goalie Matt O’Connor in home opener Oct. 8.

“I go back to the very first game. You put in the second goalie. What was that about? On opening night and the guy gets clobbered. It’s not fair to him, not fair to the fans. Just a lot of little tiny mistakes that all of a sudden escalate and get serious and get in people’s heads.”

A natural reaction to polarization is to meet the opposition head-on. Imagine John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and previous head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, reacting to the comment if it was made toward him. He likely would have used colourful language to tell Melnyk that until he learns to skate and shoot a puck his opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

Instead, Cameron took a more effective approach to handling polarization. He remained logical and professional, using Melnyk’s open hostility to pull people to a more reasoned perspective.

“He can evaluate me all he wants, my coaching, he can fire me, I understand all that,“ Cameron said in a news conference on April 14, 2016.

"There’s no reason for being hurtful. We’re human beings, at the end of the day.”

About 25 years ago, I developed a “Managing Polarization” model to help my clients navigate their way through issues effectively.

Polarization arises as a result of issues, and the dictionary defines an issue as "an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.” When someone “takes issue” with an individual or organization, they are mapping out the boundaries of that dispute.

Theoretically, the opinions toward any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile at one end to openly supportive at the other. Those with no opinion can be found somewhere in the middle.

As you move toward the outer edges of this spectrum to openly hostile or openly supportive, you move from a logical perspective to an emotional perspective.

When dealing with a group or individual who is openly hostile in an emotional way, it is essential to remain in the supportive but logical side of the spectrum. Allow others to explore your logic by answering questions and keeping your answers short. The more questions you answer, the more transparent you will be. By being objective, you allow their hostility to push people toward your perspective.  

Dave Cameron is a case in point. He faced negative opinions from the organization and fans. It is no secret that the Ottawa Senators did not have a particularly successful season and a lot of the blame ends up with the coach. Even if you agree with Melnyk’s opinion, as a human being it is difficult to take his side when he is on the openly hostile end of the spectrum and belittling another human being.

Cameron implemented the Polarization Model flawlessly. He is truly a polarization pro.

A Case Study in Apology

Perhaps the one benefit of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi affair is that it provides insight into how and why apologies could and should be made by individuals and organizations facing a crisis.

Sometimes saying sorry is the only option. And when an apology is given, it should be brief, contrite and from the heart.

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Jian Ghomeshi was recently acquitted on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking by an Ontario court judge in March 2016. He then faced a charge of sexual assault against a coworker at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and was due to appear in court in June, but the charge was dropped when he apologized to his accuser, Kathryn Borel, in court on May 11, 2016.

When the story first broke, Mr. Ghomeshi publicly stated his innocence in a Facebook post. He came out swinging, as the expression goes. He placed the blame on his accusers and stating that he has been “framed” by a jealous ex-girlfriend.

I’ve written and spoken about that post numerous times over the past couple of years. As someone who has spent about 60 per cent of his life in public relations, I found the Facebook post somewhat repulsive.

It was spin gone bad. From the first paragraph, my personal and professional BS detector was off the scale. As another expression goes, don’t BS a BS-er. I’ve seen it so many times in my career; an individual or organization does something stupid and tries to spin their way out. Then, when they have no other choice, they admit their mistake and issue a half-hearted apology.

Except this case was a bit different. Instead of a half-hearted apology, there were two apologies that seemed whole-hearted and sincere—one from Mr. Ghomeshi and one from the CBC.

Mr. Ghomeshi’s, fuelled by an excellent lawyer and one-and-one-half years of therapy, seemed contrite and from the heart. It probably didn’t hurt that he has been spending significant time with his mother, who he seems extremely reluctant to disappoint.

The CBC admitted that its behaviour toward Kathryn Borel was deplorable. It publicly apologized through its PR person (an apology from the CEO or chair would have been better, especially on news stories carried by its own network, but we’ll take what we can get).

Personally, I believe everyone should be given a second chance. But if either Mr. Ghomeshi or the CBC steps over a similar line again, justice should be swift and brutal, whether delivered in a court of law, the court of public opinion, or both.

However, imagine each had issued their apology earlier. Would that have better salvaged the reputation of each? Perhaps. But the fact that both apologies seemed genuine will likely work in the individual’s and organization’s favour.

When the apologies were finally issued, both Mr. Ghomeshi and the CBC realized that good crisis management can simply mean saying sorry and meaning it. And this case demonstrates how to do so effectively.

A Crisis is Like a Heart Attack

During the past 30 years, I’ve used a heart attack analogy to explain to management groups why effective crisis communication is less about communication than it is about sound decision-making.

“Let’s suppose that the pressure of meeting with you today causes me so much stress that I suddenly collapse from a heart attack” I tell them. “I don’t know about you, I’d be tempted to call that a crisis in my life.”

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But if we examine that crisis, we’d find that it’s made up of two components.  

The first is an emergency. With luck, someone administers CPR. Someone else calls 9-1-1. With their help, I make it to the hospital. There, under the care of professionals, I become well enough to go home.  

The second component begins when the emergency ends. This is when the issues begin to emerge.  

A Crisis is a Turning Point
The dictionary defines a crisis as a “turning point.” In medicine, a crisis is the point at which a patient takes a turn for the better or the worse.  

After my heart attack, the turning point is reached if I get my act together: regular exercise; a better diet; fewer stressful meetings with management groups.  

If I don’t change my lifestyle—if I don’t make better decisions—I have not yet reached the crisis. Another emergency is almost certainly just around the corner.  

Just as a crisis in medicine can be traced to an illness, an injury or any combination of the two, a crisis in public relations can find its roots in an issue, an emergency, or a combination of the two.  

A crisis occurs when issues escalate out of control. Media attention leads to public scrutiny. The organization goes on trial in the court of public opinion.  

The crisis point is passed if the resolution of the issues underlying the crisis leads to positive change—a healthier lifestyle for the organization after its analogous heart attack. If there is no positive change, the turning point has not been reached. Another organizational “heart attack” is probably just around the corner.

A Case in Point
Volkswagen is a case in point. The crisis occurred when it was discovered in 2015 that 11 million Volkswagens had diesel engines with altered software that made them appear to emit fewer emissions than they actually did.

At first, Volkswagen appeared to make the right decisions. The president was fired and a replacement named. The company announced that more than two million diesel Audi vehicles had similar issues; it was “coming clean,” so to speak. Volkswagen admitted the problem and said it would fix the software in all the affected vehicles.

But a fascinating New York Times article pointed to two different decision-making issues that may very well lie at the core of Volkswagen’s problems.

The first is what occurs at the boardroom table. The article highlights Volkswagen’s power struggles and boardroom issues, pointing out that a culture of stretching the rules begins at the top.

The second is the attitude of engineers, which the article labeled as “arrogance.” Why should the company meet emission standards, they are reported to have argued, when electric cars in the United States are charged by burning fossil fuels?

If Volkswagen manages to address these two underlying causes of their organizational heart attack, the company has a chance of salvaging its reputation. If not, another emergency is just around the corner. If the company doesn’t address its decision-making issues and embedded arrogance, we could very well be witnessing the death of yet another brand.

One Simple Question
Against this backdrop, effective leaders (and the management groups with whom they work) know that carefully answering one question (and following up with action, not just words) is the key to successfully resolving virtually any crisis and protecting their organization’s reputation.

“What are we going to do to ensure that a similar emergency never, ever happens again?”

Whether you’re having a heart attack as an individual or organization, answering that question is the key to ensuring that issues are resolved and another emergency is not just around the corner.

Cost per Practice Interview Should Be a Media Training Metric

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Media training has been half of my core business for about 25 years. And, in that time, I can safely say that one aspect of training has had more value than any other—to the organization, to the public relations team, and to participants.

Practice interviews.

During training, participants may obtain value from theory provided. They may obtain value from watching good and bad examples in others—whether those examples are pulled from the outside world (i.e. BP, Volkswagen, or others) or are examples they witnessed during training when colleagues have gone through practice interviews.

But there is no question that the greatest value they receive is when they themselves are interviewed, recorded, and critiqued.

They know how they felt. They know the decisions they made during the practice interview. They know the things they said. And if they’re given insight into how they can improve the next time they face a real situation, they enhance their chances for success.

With that in mind, and assuming that media training is virtually a commodity (and I know of at least one large, national PR agency that considers it to be such), it makes sense that the program that offers the lowest cost per practice interview is the program that provides the highest value per dollar spent.

For example, let’s suppose you are planning to purchase media training for two executives, who have committed to a three hour session (a half day). You’ve done your due diligence and you’ve narrowed your choice to two potential media training consultants.

In the first consultant’s proposal, which charges a fee of $2,500, each executive will be interviewed twice (four practice interviews in total). In that situation, the cost per practice interview is $625:

$2,500 ÷ 4 = $625

Your second consultant’s proposal also charges $2,500. However, the second consultant commits to eight interviews (four for each executive) during the same three-hour time frame. Each executive has twice as many opportunities to practice their skills is a safe, controlled environment (as opposed to doing their third interview with a real journalist in the real world).

The cost per practice interview is $312.50:

$2,500 ÷ 8 = $312.50

Let’s look at another example.

Suppose you are preparing to organize a full-day session for six people, for which each consultant is planning to charge $3,500. Again, the first consultant plans to interview each person twice, for a cost of $291.67 per practice interview:

$3,500 ÷ 12 = $291.67

The second consultant commits to interviewing each person four times, for a cost of $145.83 per interview (or twice the value):

$3,500 ÷ 24 = $145.83

Certainly there are differences in theory and approach in media training. Some executive teams might work better with one consultant over another.

But when you’ve narrowed the field and you’re seeking quotes, make sure you identify the commitment to a number of practice interviews.

Divide the total number of interviews into the number of dollars the training will cost, and compare the numbers.

If everything else is equal, the consultant with the lowest cost per practice interview provides the highest possible value.

And that consultant should be the one working with your spokespeople.

If You Didn’t Like It Then … Why Do It Now?

An experience in San Francisco a few years ago opened my eyes an interesting irony that exists in the media relations industry.

In 2009, I had just finished creating and testing my At Ease With the Media online training program. Around that time, I attended the IABC world conference in San Francisco. While in the Bay area, I decided to schedule a few sales calls for my newly-completed online program in a relatively safe environment.

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One of those meetings was with the director of media relations for a national professional association. Going to the meeting at Fisherman’s Wharf even became a bit of an adventure; it may be the only time I will ever ride a cable car to a meeting.

During our discussion, the director revealed that he was a former journalist. A minute or two later, I asked him what his biggest pet peeve was when, as a journalist, he was interviewing someone. He barely hesitated, then replied: “When spokespeople didn’t answer a simple question directly. I couldn’t stand it when all they talked about were things that were important to them—when they kept going back to their messages.”

Later, I let him pick a module from the online program to sample. He chose "Working with Reporters.” This module discusses creating win-win outcomes with journalists—helping the journalist by answering questions clearly and concisely on one side, while seeking strategic opportunities to influence specifically identifiable audiences along the way.

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Towards the end of the meeting, I asked: "Can we do some business together?” He replied: “I don’t think so.”

When I asked why, he replied: “Because you are not as message-driven as we are.”

Well, folks, if you pushed me with a feather at that moment, I would have fallen off my chair. I immediately started to wonder how many other former journalists have done exactly the same thing.

I didn’t get the sale because I didn’t know how to overcome the objection without offending him by pointing out the obvious irony. I have since learned to overcome this objection because I have encountered it many, many times.

Win-Win Outcomes

Call me crazy, but I believe that spokespeople can be taught to answer journalists’ questions clearly and concisely as a means of communicating effectively with them, helping them complete their stories accurately, and enhancing working relationships. (It is, after all, called “media relations.”)

I also believe that gaining a strategic communication advantage is not mutually exclusive to the skill of answering questions. As I’ve witnessed during thousands of media training sessions I’ve delivered over the past 34 years, spokespeople can be taught to seek, identify and capitalize on strategic opportunities during interviews while helping the journalist and protecting themselves along the way.

In fact, the most effective media relations programs are constructed on the concept that it is possible to answer questions clearly and concisely while gaining a strategic communication advantage.

Research shows that win-win outcomes are the foundations on which communications excellence is constructed. And media relations is no exception to this rule.

In an information-driven world, can your media relations program be constructed on excellence if your spokespeople are only taught to talk about what is important to them?

Forgive me for pointing out a potential irony, but couldn’t that be the part that’s mutually exclusive?

In a Crisis, Secrecy is Your Worst Defence

In a crisis, it is difficult to know whether or not information should be released. With privacy legislation lurking in the background, and lawyers often heavily involved, it can be easier to hide behind a shroud of secrecy than be transparent. But my advice to my clients when they are facing a crisis has always been: “When in doubt, let the information out." 

A perfect case in point is a recent article in the Toronto Star that reported Toronto’s student transportation fleet has been in 1,157 collisions with 20 injuries during the past five years. To make matters worse, nearly 80 per cent of those accidents were deemed preventable — which simply means they did not need to occur at all. 

school bus crisis communications

When confronted with these grim statistics, the school boards claimed they were unable to identify how many accidents in which each transportation company has been involved because of privacy legislation. 

According to Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, “They’re not our vehicles, they’re not our drivers, so that’s not our information to provide." 

But Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with Blakes who represents The Star, said the legislation contains a “rarely invoked” clause that allows public bodies to disclose third-party information if it’s in public interest. 

But even after being made aware of this clause, Toronto school boards refused to release the accident statistics of the transportation companies serving them. Is it not in the public’s best interest to know what companies are getting in more accidents than others? I’m sure any parent would feel it is, regardless of whether their children are attending an elementary school in Toronto now, have attended school in the past, or will attend in the future. 

In this situation, child safety should be the Toronto Student Transportation Board’s top priority. Rather than hiding behind privacy legislation, they should be open and transparent, encourage each school board to evoke the disclosure clause, and release the number of accidents in which each transportation company has been involved.

If they hide behind privacy legislation and one more child is injured — which, statistically, is only a matter of time — the issue may grow beyond manageability. 

Releasing the statistics will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of the transportation companies and their drivers. Once accident rates are revealed, these companies will face public scrutiny, ultimately forcing them to change driver behaviour and set higher safety standards.

This is the right thing to do in terms of public interest. Let’s be honest. Eighty per cent preventability is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to child safety.

When dealing with any crisis, transparency is always the best option. By being transparent, companies will prevent bigger problems in the future. 

And, as I always say: “When in doubt, let the information out.”

_____________________________

Eric Bergman

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

Perhaps It’s Time to Embrace "No Comment"

As I was listening to CBC radio while driving to a media training engagement a few weeks ago, a featured story inspired me to consider that perhaps, as an industry, we should start using “no comment” as part of our professional lexicon.

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Immediately after having that thought, I was aghast. I have been a member of this industry since June 14, 1982. During the past 33 years, I can never remember a time in which I would not have cringed if I heard any spokesperson say “no comment” when asked a question by a journalist.

However, I am starting to think I should get over that involuntary reaction. As I sit here three decades later, I must admit that saying “no comment” would potentially have more value than the repetition of meaningless key messages. At least “no comment” is relatively honest and potentially less insulting to the readers, listeners and viewers.

The CBC story that inspired this thought involved a Nigerian priest, an Ontario woman, and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The woman had accused the priest of raping her while he was visiting the southwestern Ontario church at which she was an administrative employee. In 2004, police issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest, but he had already returned to Nigeria. The victim was assured by the CBSA that her rapist would never be allowed back into the country.

However, she later learned that he had returned to Canada in 2013. The victim contacted her local  member of parliament and the CBSA to try and discover how and why an accused rapist was allowed back into the country.

After a seven-month wait, she received a brief e-mail from her MP’s assistant a few weeks before Christmas. The letter apologized that the priest had been let into the country, assured her that appropriate action would be taken, and then wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  

After being contacted by a CBC journalist, a spokesperson for the CBSA replied via e-mail to say: “The agency won’t comment on specific cases, but the safety and protection of Canadians are its top priorities.”

Well, knock me over with a feather. Isn’t that obvious?

If anyone at the CBSA does not take the safety and protection of Canadians seriously, they should seek alternate employment. Likewise, if they do not have the moral fortitude to say that they take every situation seriously enough to investigate — without admitting whether a breach of protocol occurred in this specific case — to ensure a situation like this never happens again, at least have the courage to be honest and say “no comment.”

In cases like this, please do not insult our intelligence by expectorating meaningless key messages that overstate the patently obvious.

Be honest. In future, just say “no comment.”

Separate Print From Broadcast

One of the most important considerations in dealing with journalists boils down to one simple question: Is this a print journalist, or a broadcast journalist?

In this post, we’re going to briefly compare print versus broadcast, and focus on succeeding with print interviews. During later posts, we’ll focus on broadcast, namely sound bites and live interviews.

Print journalists are those whose stories have to be read to be understood. It includes words printed to paper, certainly, but also includes words printed on-screen. Bloggers and tweeters are perfect examples.

Broadcast journalists operate with the spoken word. Their stories have to be heard to be understood. Television and radio are included in this mix, as are podcasters, videobloggers, and virtually anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account.

Difficulties arise when the spokesperson doesn’t understand that what works well with one doesn’t work well with the other.

With print journalists, the information provided in the interview must go through the journalist, an editor, and a headline writer before it’s read by the end audience—the people the spokesperson would like to influence for his or her “win” during the exchange.

The route to the end audience is always indirect. As information goes through those stages, it changes. And it does so very quickly.

To be successful with print media, spokespeople need to be clear, concise and focused in their answers. Answering the question and stopping is desirable more often than not. Smart spokespeople recognize that most questions can be answered in ten words or less.

That way, when messages are inserted to influence end audiences, they rise to the top. They are not surrounded by clutter that may or may not be used by the journalist.

To recap: Pause-answer-stop is your primary tactic. When you expand your answer, only do so with the intention of talking to an end audience. And the audience you address should be consistent with the question asked.

That’s how messages are woven in, not driven home.

In Praise of Pitching

I read with interest Andre Beaupre’s article entitled 7 Reasons why it’s time to retire ‘pitch’ and ‘pitching’ and I must respectfully disagree with his perspective. I don’t believe these words date or harm the PR industry.

The word “pitching” arises from comparisons to baseball. The pitcher is on the mound and pitches the ball to the catcher.

If you’ve ever witnessed such an event, you know that the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher and the process repeats itself. It is, therefore, two-way by its very nature. The pitcher does not have a large bucket of balls from which he (or she) keeps throwing, without any regard for whether the catcher actually catches.

But what people unfamiliar with this exchange may not know is that the pitcher does not blindly throw fastballs, curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls or changeups to the catcher without a thought of what the receiver is expecting. The catcher first gives the pitcher a sign to indicate what he (or she) expects to receive.

Competent media relations practitioners understand what journalists need or expect to receive, and tailor their pitch accordingly. What harms us is not the word, but the behavior of exuberant individuals within our profession who keep firing pitches from their large, limitless bucket.

I don’t believe the word “pitching” damages our reputation. What is infinitely more damaging to our reputation is when we train spokespeople to keep firing the same messages from the same bucket, regardless of whether the journalist is even remotely interested or listening.

So let’s not focus on the word. Let’s focus on the approach, and make all of our exchanges with journalists two-way, with the expectation of creating win-win outcomes from which everyone benefits.

In this, I agree with Mr. Beaupre. Two-way exchanges are the foundation on which long-term relationships of lasting value can be constructed.

A Case Study in Media Relations Success

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

In the this part of my conversation with Wilma Mathews, ABC, author of Media Relations: A Practical Guide for Communicators, she provided an example of a media relations initiative that demonstrates the importance to linking behavioral outcomes to media relations inputs.

A staff writer at Arizona State University received an assignment from the archaeology department to write a news release to promote an upcoming lecture: a local attorney, as an amateur Egyptologist, was only the second person to go into an Egyptian tomb.

Wilma told me this writer often takes what many would consider to be an unusual approach to media relations. “She knows her media, so she never does follow up calls to the reporters she sends material to,” Wilma explained. “She knows whether they’re the right ones to get the release.”

The communicator got two hits from her release. One was in a calendar listing in the local newspaper. The other was to a reporter who likes to write human interest stories.

“Without any prompting, the reporter turned this story into a front page of the Sunday leisure section, including two color photographs over three-fourths of a page,” Wilma says. “A lecture that would normally bring in 25 brought in almost 200 people.”

There is no AVE for this program. And the circulation numbers would be small by most media relations measurement standards, because there was only one newspaper’s circulation to include.

However, in many ways, this example represents the tried and true in media relations, and the importance of measurement over evaluation. To be successful, it’s important to understand the needs of reporters and only target those journalists or media outlets who would have an interest in your program, your product, your service or your candidate.

After going through that process, if your media list ends up being only five outlets — but they’re the right five outlets — you can achieve success with what would be considered to be an extremely low AVE, if any AVE at all.

Wilma pointed out that the Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research defines impressions as “the number of people who might have had the opportunity to be exposed to a story that has appeared in the media.”

“It’s taken almost as a fact that if you have a million impressions there’s an assumption that a million people saw it and read it,” Wilma said. “You can make numbers do anything you want. But the real bottom line test is: Did your audience do what you intended them to do?

"You can have all the impressions in the world, but if nobody showed up for that dinner to raise money — and your job was to help improve attendance at that dinner — then you’re just not doing your job.”

"You're Just Blowing Smoke"

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

To help shed some light on what the state-of-the-art in media relations measurement should be, I thought I’d turn to Wilma Mathews, ABC, a long-time colleague and friend, and author of Media Relations: A Practical Guide for Communicators. Wilma has been practicing media relations for … well, let’s just say quite a few years.

When it comes to media relations evaluation and measurement, Wilma says our industry is certainly better off than it was even five or ten years ago. For many years, media relations practitioners relied on the simplistic output measures of counting clips and adding up circulation.

From there, the process evolved into impressions which, from her perspective, means pretty much the same thing as circulation and viewing audience. Next, the advertising value equivalency (AVE) was born, which she points out is a term that’s not even listed in theDictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research.

“But over the years, as PR people, agencies and companies have gotten a little savvier, they’ve said that what we’re asking you as media people to do is sell a product, get people to come to an event, change their minds or vote for someone,” Wilma explains. “In short, we’re asking you to change behaviour of a certain audience. And that’s a little harder to do than counting clips.”

She believes the AVE was adopted as a matter of convenience (and I suspect she would say something similar about Media Relations Rating Points). It was a simple way to state some perceived value of media relations to management groups. But to her the AVE is a completely abstract number that has no correlation to any activity because advertising and media relations simply cannot be compared.

“You control everything about advertising,” she explains. “You control nothing about the editorial side of the media. But (the AVE) was a way to say to clients ‘if you had purchased advertising, it would have cost you X amount of dollars, and we prevented you from having to do that.’ And it sounded good at the outset.”

She makes a clear distinction between evaluation and measurement in media relations. “You can evaluate your media relations work and still not measure whether or not it worked,” she explains. “In other words, if a media relations practitioner wanted a positive story on the front page of the business section with a quote from their CEO — and they wanted it to appear before the product launch — if they got all of that it says their process worked. It says nothing about whether that helped sales.”

To her, measurement is the end outcome — from an attitudinal or behavioural perspective. Did people buy the product? Did they vote the way you wanted? Did they form an opinion or change their minds?

“If that didn’t happen and all you’ve got to show for it is advertising value equivalents or impressions,” she points out, “you’re just blowing smoke.”

MRP Alone Not Good Enough

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

I’m going to say something that could be perceived as sacrilegious among Canadian media relations practitioners.

I’m not a fan of Media Relations Rating Points (MRP).

For those who don’t know, MRP is a uniquely Canadian innovation. It is a relatively simple and inexpensive system for measuring publicity.

Anyone can download a free Excel spreadsheet from www.mrpdata.com, and for a relatively inexpensive subscription fee, can generate audience reach data, which is supplied by News Canada.

At the end of your campaign, you insert the names of newspapers, magazines, blogs, radio stations and television stations that picked up your story. The basic spreadsheet also has cells available for tone (whether positive, neutral or negative) and five other potential criteria that media coverage can be scored against, such as exclusivity of the story, the use of a picture, or prominence in the publication or newscast.

My complaint is not about the tool. My concern is about how it’s being used. And, quite frankly, it’s leading to a laziness among Canadian media relations practitioners in the way they evaluate the effectiveness of their communication programs.

During the past six months, I have judged some of the most prestigious awards programs in this country. I coordinated the media relations category for IABC’s Silver Leaf awards last fall. I participated as a judge in the media relations category of this year’s CPRS Toronto’s Achieving Communication Excellence (ACE) awards. This past weekend, I participated as a media relations judge in IABC/Toronto’s OVATION awards program.

I have been judging media relations entries at local, national and international levels since I coordinated the entire Silver Leaf program in 1992.

Over the past few years, I have witnessed a distinct deterioration in the discipline of media relations measurement since MRP was first introduced. Increasing numbers of entries at all levels are only submitting MRP “results” as their sole source of evaluation.

Honestly, that’s not good enough.

Our profession is about outcomes, not inputs. I have no qualms if your client is happy with MRP data as a sole source of measurement. As someone who has operated a successful business for the past 25 years, I understand the concept of giving clients what they want.

But if you’re asking your peers for evaluation in awards programs (or in portfolio submissions toward earning your ABC or APR designations), MRP alone isn’t good enough.

It’s not enough to say that 16,000,000 people may have been exposed to a message at a cost of one-third of a penny each. Did they get the message? And how did it influence their attitudes, opinions and behaviour?

Did the program reinforce existing positive opinions? Did it encourage audiences to form opinions? Did it neutralize negative opinions? Did the media relations campaign move specifically-identifiable audiences to action in ways that support the organization’s objectives? And how do you measure all of the above?

In my mind, finding answers to those questions separates a practitioner from a professional.

If you want to use MRP, fine. But please don’t try to convince a fellow professional that MRP alone is good enough.

Quite frankly, it isn’t.

The More Pitching Changes … The More it Stays the Same

by Mary Ann McCauley, ABC

I make it a point to attend at least two discussions annually where reporters and editors share their thoughts about working with media relations practitioners. While media outlets are changing, the ways in which reporters want to be pitched isn’t changing.

Their preferred first contact is still email. At a HARO (Help a Reporter Out) webinar in February, reporters made it a point to say that they do not want to be pitched via Twitter, phone or fax.

Their rationale is that an email with a short, straightforward description of the story idea and why it is of interest to their readers/viewers gives them the best opportunity to make a decision. They don’t mind a follow-up call as they are deluged with emails daily but, as has been the case since time immemorial, do not call when they’re on deadline.

Other tips they offered are not new to the veteran media relations pro and include:

  • Be direct in your subject line. “Story idea: …..”
  • Get to the point immediately. 
  • Provide context. Why is this news? Is it part of a broader trend?
  • If it is time sensitive, provide the news hook. Why is it timely?
  • If it is an exclusive, say so in the subject line and mean it.
  • Know what they write about.
  • Know their deadlines and respect them.
  • Send fact sheets and links to appropriate web sites rather than news releases.
  • Offer your content experts as future resources. Again, be brief but tell the journalist why this person will be a good resource on specific subjects.

The reporters also offered a few “do not’s” that we need to respect, including:

  • Do not pitch a story that is similar in subject matter to one just published. Instead, do your homework and research recent articles by that reporter before you pitch.
  • Do not attach a news release unless the journalist asks you to do so. If you must send a release, embed it.
  • Do not fail to honor an exclusive promise. This will burn your bridge with that reporter.
  • Do not call to pitch a story.
  • Do not fax to pitch a story.
  • Do not send a book or other products. Most media organizations have policies about receiving gifts. Books won’t get read. Rather, send an email about why the book or product is of interest to readers/viewers.
  • Do not try to embargo news. Emails containing embargoed news are deleted without being read.

One big no-no not mentioned by this group but one I usually hear is – never call to ask “Did you get my release?” If you feel compelled to call after distributing a release, which most journalists say they don’t want anyway, call with some additional, pertinent information not contained in the release. Better yet, choose one or two key journalists and email them the release before it goes out for mass distribution. Of course, this technique can’t be applied to major announcements of publicly held companies since that would violate SEC and other national regulations.

If you are unfamiliar with HARO, go to www.helpareporter.com and sign up. It is a free twice- daily list of stories reporters are working on and seeking content experts. I have had some success in placing stories through this venue.

Off the Record? Not Today

On January 24, 2011, a number of Toronto city police officers conducted a campus safety information session at York University’s Osgoode Hall. During the session, one of the officers suggested that a safety tip for women is to not “dress like sluts” if they wished to avoid sexual assault.

The next day an article appeared in Excalibur, York University’s community newspaper. The article quoted Ronda Bessner, assistant dean of York’s Juris Doctor Program (Osgoode Hall is York’s law school).

In the old days (i.e. pre-social media), the officer would have apologized and been reprimanded, and the story would have died. In the world of social media, the issue took on a life of its own, was bandied about in blogs, broke through the clutter, and became an international story three weeks later.

There are two lessons here. First, it is becoming more difficult for all journalists to break through the clutter, so their desire to do so will become increasingly more important than their desire to maintain a relationship with a single spokesperson—i.e. you.

Second, in an age where anyone with a smart phone can become a news photographer or anyone with a URL can become a blogger, poor decision-making and inappropriate behaviour have fewer and fewer places to hide.

We repeat: Nothing is ever off the record. Period.

Crisis Management is NOT Crafting Messages

As a “profession” of communicators and public relations practitioners, it’s time we came to grips with an important reality.

Crisis management (and, by extension, crisis communication) is not about crafting messages. It’s about influencing behaviour—specifically the behaviour of the individuals, executives and/or leaders whose actions or decisions led to the crisis in the first place.

For example, consider the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. When the former radio host was fired from his job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), he immediately took the initiative with his now-infamous Facebook post.

Step one in the standard crisis communication handbook is to get in front of the issue. Check. Step two is to control the message. Check.

(I can’t believe people still use this playbook to attempt to control the message. In my media training program, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years that the only thing you can control is what you say. That statement was true with newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in the early 1990s; it is doubly true in a world dominated by social media.)

Ghomeshi’s post (now removed from Facebook) portrayed a downtrodden radio host whose sexual habits were at best misunderstood and, at worst, a fascinating form of cultural discrimination.

The post was well-written. It laid out his logic, and managed to tug at the heartstrings of fans. It received thousands of likes in a few short hours. In short, I have no doubt that some consultant somewhere (i.e. at Navigator, Mr. Ghomeshi’s agency at the time) was patting him- or herself on the back for crafting a well-designed message.

But it was a pile of crap. And any senior PR practitioner worth his or her salt would have pointed it out to him.

Mr. Ghomeshi is now facing multiple criminal charges of sexual assault. While it is up to the courts to ultimately decide whether the sexual acts were as consensual as Mr. Ghomeshi claimed in his post, there are a couple of lessons for those of us, as “professionals,” who help organizations steer their way through issues, emergencies and crises.

First, get to the truth

We are not lawyers. We have no obligation to represent individuals (or organizations) when they are lying through their teeth. In fact, we probably shouldn’t represent them because, if we do, there’s a high probability their stink will stick to us.

(As an aside, I have long yearned for the day when the media know to dig deeper because the PR agency has fired the client early in the crisis. When that day arrives, I believe we’ll finally be able to call ourselves a profession.)

The first step in any crisis is to ask tough questions behind closed doors to determine what is true and what isn’t. We need to look executives in the eye and determine whether they are honestly attempting to deal with the issue, or if they are looking for some form of spin to save themselves from the poor decision-making that got them into trouble in the first place.

If they are unwilling to answer our questions, and we’re an outside consultant, we should get up and walk out until they are. If we’re an internal consultant, we should polish our resume and start sending it out. It’s only a matter of time before it’s needed.

Second, help them understand the consequences of the truth 

This element of crisis management has two sides: the consequences of not telling the truth to the outside world; and the consequences of telling the truth.

In my three decades of experience, by the time a crisis reaches this point, there is a short-term game and a long-term game.

In the short term, not fully disclosing the truth may mean the issue will fade after a time. After all, the world has a relatively short attention span. But it’s only a matter of time before all those problems hidden under the bed or in the closet are brought into the open again by social or traditional media—or both—and lead to irreparable damage to an individual’s or organization’s reputation.

Think I’m kidding? The following statement was found in a recent article about Dalhousie University that had nothing to do with the recent debacle at the university’s school of dentistry:

“Dalhousie also recently began inquiries into the behaviour of 13 male dentistry students after they were linked to a Facebook page containing sexually violent content about women.”

Because of the way it bungled bringing out the truth, Dalhousie can expect reporters to “bridge” to that problem for years, if not decades.

Over the long-term, disclosing the truth is generally the only option that enables the organization to protect its reputation. We need to help our clients understand this concept before we can help them communicate.

Third, help the world understand the truth

This is the communication part of crisis management. The organization must come clean, apologize for its actions if necessary, make reparations where possible, and help the world understand what it’s doing to ensure a similar problem never emerges again.

There you have it; three guiding principles that can help solve any crisis.

Two-thirds of this solution has nothing to do with communication. In fact, if you attempt to communicate without identifying the truth and its consequences, you’re attempting to spin your way out of a problem. If that happens, don’t be surprised if the crisis lingers and the organization’s reputation ends up in tatters.

And the stink sticks to those who engineered the spin in the first place.

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin

For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

Lying by Sisela Bok

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.”  To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”

In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.  

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.  

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.  

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.  

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.    

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.  

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.

Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS, is arguably the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage issues and crises, and coached spokespeople, for more than 30 years.

To learn more about his media training program, At Ease With the Media, please click here.

My Reservations With "Key Messages"

My career started on June 14, 1982 (where did all those years go?). I can’t exactly remember when I began hearing and using the term “key message,” but I suspect it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. 

Today, the expression “key messages” is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere! Everyone uses it in virtually every context—but especially in media relations. 

And, although our profession coined the term “key message,” it’s a phrase I could just as soon do without. 

The reason? It implies that success occurs when someone can remember the key messages, rather than apply the information the messages contain or take action on them. 

Emphasizing key messages focuses on communication inputs, rather than seeking appropriate attitudinal or behavioral outcomes. In other words, the mistaken perception most people have (including many in our profession) is that the more you hammer home your key messages, the more effective they become. 

Yet we all know that nothing could be further from the truth. 

There are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication. The best of both lead to win-win outcomes. 

Should you have a plan when negotiating? Of course. But if that plan bears no resemblance to reality at the bargaining table, what should you do? Stubbornly stick to the plan? Or adapt?

The same applies with messages. You should have a plan, and ideas to carry out that plan (i.e. key messages, although broader than what that term implies) should be prepared. 

But if the questions asked do not fit the messages prepared, what should you do? Stubbornly bridge to your messages? Or adapt? 

If you’re a strategic communicator, or a strategic spokesperson, you should adapt.

And therein lies my problem with “key messages.”

Perhaps Dalhousie's Dentistry Students Should Step Up

If you’re like me, and you’ve been following the issue that erupted this week at Dalhousie University, you have to be shaking your head.

image

On Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broke the story that a dozen dental students at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were participating in a Facebook page under the name “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” and using that forum as an opportunity to post sexually explicit comments.

And folks, these were not your everyday sexually explicit posts (to the extent, at least, that we can say there is such a thing). Chloroform was mentioned in a number of them. One provides two names and asks: “Which one would you rather hate f——k?”

Yes, Facebook took the page down last week. And yes, there were only 12 members of the page. But in today’s world, in which many of us were recently introduced to the term “hate f——k” by a former radio star with the same organization that broke the Dalhousie story, one knuckle-dragging neanderthal moron is too many.

Twelve is truly a dumbass dozen.

University president Richard Florizone has said the university “has a responsibility” to ensure it’s free of harassment. As the father of a young woman who graduated from a Canadian university two years ago, I couldn’t agree more. But does the president take that responsibility seriously?

Obviously, he hasn’t read the latest crisis communication handbook. Folks, he wants 48 hours to consider his response. And he almost promises to announce a plan of action by the end of the week.

Huh? Or should I say: duh?

Then we learn that Dr. Florizone first got wind of problems in the school of dentistry last summer. He was approached by the president of the students’ union with allegations about sexual harassment and he referred them to the campus Office of Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention.

The complaint went no further when that office explained that anyone making a complaint must provide their name.

Referring the complaint may be a requirement of his office, but if the president didn’t conduct his own quiet investigation, especially when the Jian Ghomeshi incident broke, does he deserve to still be president? That’s a question the university’s board will need to address when the smoke clears and the dust settles—and the damage to the reputation of a 200-year-old institution is assessed.

As Caroline Sapriel so eloquently wrote in this week’s Communication World Insider, the first step to managing a crisis is anticipating one. The second step is mitigating it.

What has Dalhousie done? The president got wind of problems four months ago. Now that they’ve surfaced, fourth-year dentistry exams have been postponed until January.

Wonderful, rather than taking a relaxing breather during the holidays, those who weren’t involved now have the stress of unfinished exams waiting for them in the new year. Let’s punish everyone who wasn’t involved.

(But don’t be surprised if the university puts a positive spin on it by saying that students will have more time to study.)

While the writing was on the wall for this crisis, those of us who counsel executives know that we (both external and internal consultants) can only lead a leader to the wall. We can’t make him or her read what’s there.

More’s the pity, I say.

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