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.

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.

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!)

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