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.

media training in san francisco

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.

media training meeting via cable car

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?

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.

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.

Dalhousie's Dumbass Dozen Creates Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, no proof, no license.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Bridging and Staying on Message are Destined to Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some lessons to be learned here.

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

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

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

Custom Post Images