Crisis communication resources to help you protect your revenue, reputation, and brand.
Effective crisis communications when “it” hits the fan.
By Gerard Braud
So in the last lesson, we talked about not letting facts get in the way of a good story. The secret is to keep it simple.
When you go through media training (which I enjoy teaching more than anything in the world and I would still do every day even if I won a $200 million dollar lottery)… when you go through media training you are always taught the concept of identifying your “3 Key Messages.” In other words, what are the 3 most important things you need to communicate during your interview with the reporter?
But what is a key message?
Is it a bullet point?
Is it a talking point?
Is it a set of words that incorporate more spin than truth?
Is it a set of verbatim words that incorporate both truth and quotes?
In my world, it is a set of verbatim words that incorporate both truth and quotes. But many media trainers teach only bullet points and talking points. I call this the myth about 3 key messages.
Let’s put this in the context of a U.S. political candidate in a debate with his or her opponent. The moderator of the debate might ask a question such as, “Please give me your thoughts on education.”
The candidate, whose strategist may have determined that the key messages should only be about energy, the economy and international relations, is left with nothing to say. Hence, the candidate will BS his or her way through 50 seconds of a 60 second answer, then conclude by saying, “education is important and you can get more details on my website.”
That is such bull.
When you give a spokesperson or executive only bullet points and talking points for an interview, you give them license to ad lib. Have you ever seen anyone who can truly ad lib well? They are few and far between. The person who ad libs is doing what? They are winging it. What did we learn in Lesson 2? When you wing it you crash and burn.
In my world you should start an interview with 3 key areas that you want to talk about. For each of those areas, you should have learned and internalized several pre-written sentences that are also very quotable sentences. Then, each of those 3 areas should have 3 key messages of their own, that are well written, internalized and quotable. And conceivably, each of those 3 key messages will have 3 more messages to go with them.
Think of your conversation as a large live oak tree like you see in the south. Picture that tree with a huge, study trunk and 3 large branches. In my training programs, I teach the executives what I call my tree trunk message, which usually consists of 2 sentences that anchor the entire conversation. These are the first words out of your mouth when the reporter asks the first question. These first two sentences provide context for the conversation you are about to have. Both sentences must be quotable. The first sentence serves virtually as a headline that sums up your organization’s vision, value, mission and belief. The second sentence points to the 3 key areas that the spokesperson is prepared to talk about. The second sentence begins the foreshadowing process that we talked about in lesson 6. It is this type of foreshadowing that will help the reporter develop his next question for you.
Next, I write 2 more sentences for each of those 3 large branches that grow from the tree trunk. Can you visualize this large oak with 3 large branches? The sentences must again be highly quotable. These sentences add a few more overarching facts and point to other important areas that you may want to talk about. Again, you are foreshadowing other areas that you are prepared to talk about.
Again, this is a technique that I usually take half a day to teach in my “Kick-Butt Key Messages” workshop. But if you can visualize a tree with a large trunk and 3 large branches, you begin to understand how the conversation grows. Then add 3 limbs to each of the large branches. Then add 3 twigs to each of the limbs. Then add 3 leaves to each of the twigs. Draw it out if necessary to fully visualize the tree. Ultimately, just as a tree sprouts limbs, twigs and leaves, your conversation needs to sprout additional sentences with slightly more detail.
In our visualization, the leaves represent great detail while the tree trunk and 3 branches symbolize very basic facts.
If you invest time to populate your tree with verbatim, quotable sentences that you internalize, your next interview will be the easiest interview ever.
Basically, your populated tree has created a full conversation and an interview should be a conversation. It should tell a story.
Additionally, our tree analogy has prepared us to tell our story in the inverted pyramid style – the same style reporters use when they write.
Is this easy? No.
Does it take preparation? Absolutely.
How much preparation? An interview is as important as any business deal. If you could attach a dollar to every word that comes out of your mouth, would you make money or lose money?
Bottom line – know what you want to say, know it verbatim, and be prepared to tell a story.
In our next lesson I’ll ask you the question I ask often when I talk to people who use lots of jargon, corporate speak and acronyms. The question is, “What does that mean?”
By Gerard Braud
One day, as a joke in the newsroom, I uttered the phrase, “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” We all laughed. A colleague was pushing for a story to make the evening news, but there were lots of holes in the story and I (who in lesson 3 emphasized that it’s all about me) wanted my story to be the lead story. I won and got the lead story. The colleague’s story was killed.
Over the years we used the joke several times daily just to raze each other. But then we began to realize that way too much of what made the news at our TV station and at those of our competitors, made the news regardless of the facts. Ultimately, it was one of the reasons I left the news business after a great 15-year ride.
But let’s be honest. How many news stories are filled with facts? The truth is, not a lot. Newspaper stories will always have more details than TV and radio news reports. But TV stories, especially, are driven by visual images. The example that I always use is that if the story is about a brown cow, I need video of a brown cow. If I have no video of a brown cow, I can’t put the story on the evening news.
Another example I always use is the mixed metaphor that says, “If a tree falls in the woods and it is not on video, is it news?”
When I used to cover hurricanes in the ‘80s and ‘90s I was always upset when I didn’t have video of something blowing away. I needed the visual on video to tell the story.
I laughed a few years ago when there was a news report about a landslide in Japan. A highway traffic camera captured trees sliding down the side of a hill. It was only news because there was dramatic video. Trust me, as a guy who has worked around the world and extensively in the Pacific rim, there are landslides all over the world every day. This one happened to be captured on video and therefore became news.
As I mentioned in lesson 4, a print reporter will likely write only a 12-20 sentence synopsis, a radio reporter is only writing 6-8 sentences and a TV reporter is only writing 10-12 sentences.
The average person tries to give way, way, way too many facts in a news interview. Take this comment with a grain of salt, but the reporter doesn’t really care about you or the facts. Sure, they seem interested in you, but their report is more important to them personally than your facts.
A news report is a puzzle. Certain pieces must fit exactly together. In a TV report, quotes make up 1/3rd of the story. The lead and the conclusion together make up 1/3rd of the story. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but can you guess how much room we have in the story for your facts? In a TV news report, that equals 4 sentences. In a print report that equals 8-12 sentences.
If there is no room in the story for a bunch of facts, why would you spend so much time giving lots of facts to the reporter?
So, in conclusion for this lesson… don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
In our next lesson we’ll explore the media training myth about 3 key messages
By Gerard Braud
I find it unbelievable that in the 21st century we still find executives who don’t want to take on a reporter or news outlet that has wrongly damaged their reputation.
The traditional way of responding to a media outlet that makes a factual error is to ask the management for a retraction. But sometimes the issue is not always factual but a difference in your point of view. If a newspaper does a hatchet job on you, the correct way to respond is to always write a letter to the editor. The letter should be short and to the point, with about 200-400 words. In some cases, you may want to ask 3rd party supporters to also write short letters on your behalf.
Yet I still find executives who say, “We’re not going to respond. Just let it die. You can’t get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” That statement was wrong 50 years ago and it is even more wrong today.
In the past, a negative story may have run on TV or radio once or twice for 60-90 seconds, then it was gone. In the past, a negative story appeared in the newspaper for just one day, then the paper was thrown out, never to be seen again.
But the internet has changed all of that. Today, those negative stories live on in archives on the internet forever. Additionally, media websites are among the highest ranked websites on the internet because their information is deep, the site is constantly updated, and it is perceived by search engines as highly credible. The media sites are so highly ranked that if your organization or name is mentioned in a news report, the media website could come up as a higher ranked site on the internet than your own site.
What this means is that if I do an internet search for your name, or that of your organization, I may see and read the negative things written about you on a media website before I read the positive stuff about you on your own web site.
So what do you do?
Well, just as always, if it is a newspaper that has damaged your reputation, you should write a letter to the editor as I’ve outlined above. That letter to the editor now becauses part of the online archive linked to the story. That way, in the future, when people stumble across the story they will immediately find your point of view as well.
In the case of radio and TV, you should place your comments on the media outlet’s blog on their website. Please be aware that other web users and opponents may verbally attack you and your comments once they are on the media outlet’s blog. You need to be ready to clearly state your case.
Additionally, you may wish to place a response on your own website and blog. Blogs are highly valued by search engines and will help counter the negative comments from the original story.
Finally, don’t take it personally. Your response is as important as a business decision, as we outlined in lesson 2. Hire professional PR writers to help if necessary. They will take the issue less personally and likely choose better words that may temper any anger you are feeling.
In our next lesson we’ll explore why the facts don’t matter.
Here’s a new warning about the Swine Flu. Beware if you work in an organization where everything is quickly going back to normal and you’re being told to cease all communications related to the Swine Flu.
The reality is the Swine Flu doesn’t appear to be spreading at catastrophic pandemic rates, but in the world of media relations, crisis communications and employee communications, you should be doing 2 things:
First continue writing any unwritten communications you may need to eventually issue as it relates to the swine flu.
Secondly, convert everything you have written into templates that you can easily access and use for similar disasters… everything ranging from other pandemics, to bio-terrorism to mass casualty events… and definitely have your messaging ready should the Swine Flu escalate in the near future or later, during the 2009 flu season.
Swine Flu is a classic smoldering crisis that would involve communications about precautions, policy regarding infections, infection notification, death from infection, and all clear communications. In Tuesday’s Swine Flu teleseminar I’ll be getting into each of these more in depth.
Also remember my admonition to you just 2 weeks ago when this story broke – now is when you should be requesting the time and budget you need to establish a holistic crisis communications plan and system. PR people often fail to be opportunistic. Trust me, people in other departments, like Risk Management, are being opportunistic. Not only are they being opportunistic, but they’re also preparing for the future because pandemics affect the profits of companies when workers can’t work.
Classic crisis and post crisis behavior is for organizations and individuals to say, “Wow, I’m glad that didn’t happen here.” Then they return to normal operations and do no further planning until the next crisis. Numerous surveys indicate that after events like Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech shootings, most communications departments and most organizations did nothing to prepare for their own crisis of a similar or lesser magnitude.
Always remember that the worse time to write messages about a crisis is when you are in the heart of the crisis. The best time to write messages about a crisis is on a clear sunny day when emotions are low and logic is high.
By Gerard Braud
I want you to think for a moment about the last interview you did with a reporter. The reporter asks you a question then you start talking. Think very carefully now – what were you wondering the entire time you were answering the question?
In most cases, my media training students will confess that the entire time they were talking, they were thinking, “I wonder what the reporter is going to ask me next.”
Well here’s a little confession – Most of the time while I was a reporter, the entire time people were answering my question I was wondering what I was going to ask them next.
This means that in most interviews, both people are distracted, wondering what the next question will be and therefore neither is really concentrating on what the current answer is.
Therein lies the biggest problem in most interviews and therefore the greatest opportunity.
Here is what you need to know about reporters to fully understand how the interview will go down. In most cases, the reporter has no written, prepared questions before the interview. And chances are, the reporter has not done an extensive amount of advanced research.
If you are dealing with an investigative reporter or a television network news magazine, you can expect the reporter has done more research and has some specific questions to ask. But in your average interview for your average story I would estimate that 80-90% of the time, the reporter is going to make up the questions on the spot when the interview begins.
The interview will start with “soft” questions, designed to help you relax and get into your comfort zone. As the interview progresses, the questions will become more direct and possibly more negative.
But here is the big secret – How you answer the current question will dictate what the next question is. Even more specifically, the words you use at the end of your answer will often be used by the reporter to craft the next question.
In other words, the reporter will mirror your language right back to you in a form of a question. For example, if my final words are, “…the challenges we’ll face next year will eclipse the challenges we face this year…” what do you think the next question will be? The reporter will ask, “What are the challenges you expect to face next year?”
To test this theory, watch a TV news anchor talking to the reporter who is live on the scene of an event. The anchor will ask a question and the reporter will repeat part of the question back to the anchor as part of their answer.
Mary the Anchor: “Bob, it sure looks like a disaster zone out there…”
Bob the Reporter: “It sure is a disaster zone out here Mary…”
I’ve developed a system for crafting answers that foreshadows the things that I want to talk about in an interview, followed by a “cliff hanger” or a sentence that creates some suspense. The trick is to always stop short of giving all of the details about something and to make the reporter want to know more. You want to make the reporter ask you a logical follow up question.
This technique makes life easy for the reporter because they never have to think very hard about their next question. You, therefore, are controlling the interview and the questions. The reporter is just following along.
I teach an entire workshop on crafting these “Kick-butt Key Messages.” Unfortunately, time here doesn’t permit me to teach the entire program. You would need a half day to truly learn the technique and system I use. But in the meantime, observe news anchors tossing questions to reporters on live locations and in your next interview try to create a few “cliff hangers” that will make the reporter ask you the logical follow up question that you want.
And finally, in lesson 3 we talked about creating quotes. In every interview you need to talk in sound bites and quotes. Often reporters keep asking questions because while they may already have enough facts to write the story, they don’t have a good enough quote to put into the story. And here is a big secret – the faster you give the reporter a good quote, the sooner the interview will end.
In our next lesson we’ll explore the old myth that you should never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
By Gerard Braud
There is much debate about whether the media are biased; especially whether there is a liberal bias. If you truly want to explore that subject, I suggest you read the book Bias by Bernard Goldberg.
It has been my experience over the years that much of what is perceived as bias is really the result of the following:
• Editors send reporters out of the door armed with only partial facts or rumors
• The reporters and editors have misconceptions or misperceptions about you or your issues
• A competitor or opponent of yours has approached the media and only told them half of the story
• Ignorance by the reporter
All four of the above result in the reporter calling you, asking for an interview, and asking you negative questions, putting you in a defensive posture.
Let’s break it down.
Partial facts are usually the result of rumors and innuendos. We all share rumors every day. “Hey, you know what I heard today…?” In the newsroom, a reporter or editor turns that rumor into a research project and must confirm or refute it. “Hey Gerard, I heard a rumor today that… Why don’t you go check it out?”
That rumor would become my assignment for the day. If there is a rumor that the mayor is on cocaine, then I try to prove that the mayor is using cocaine. If he is, it is a story. If he isn’t, then there is no story. If the rumor is that the married congressman has a girlfriend, then I try to prove the congressman has a girlfriend. If it is true, I have a story. If I can’t prove it, then there is no story.
You may not like it, but it is the nature of the business.
The next issue is very similar; it’s the impact of a misconception or misperceptions. Often this is purely subjective. Perhaps you are proposing a new development, but something just seems shady. Then the news report may likely reflect a tone of skepticism. The reporter may even seek out a 3rd party who is willing to cast further doubt on your project or credibility.
On the issue of opponents — I’ve watched many opponents make compelling cases and provide an enormous amount of supporting material and a hefty helping of innuendo. In the U.S. they’re often called “opposition groups” while around the world they are called “NGOs,” which stands for non-government organizations.
Usually the members of these groups are very passionate about a specific issue and those issues may be considered liberal issues. If a member of one of these groups makes a compelling case to a reporter, they could trigger a news report about you or your company. The reporter may come armed with reams of documentation supplied by the opponent, placing you in a defensive position. The resulting story could portray you in a very negative light.
And the final issue is ignorance by the reporter. Sometimes reporters just get the wrong idea about something and pursue it as a negative story. For example, most reporters look at steam belching from an industrial facility and think they are seeing pollution. Hence, they may do a story about industry polluting and fill the report with images of the stack belching what looks like smoke.
When you are faced with a situation like this, you need to apply all the tricks from lesson one, which includes explaining everything to them in simple terms the way you would explain it to a 6th grade class at career day.
Chances are the media are not “out to get you.” But somebody else may be out to get you and they are letting the media do their dirty work.
In our next lesson we’ll talk about how you can predict what questions are reporter will ask you in an interview.
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