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.

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.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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