Dr. Mehmet Oz is in crisis communications mode. He has been making headlines in the media as medical colleagues criticize him for advice he gives and things he says on his syndicated television program.
His hometown newspaper, the New Jersey Register, asked for my opinion on how Oz has begun to attack his critics. You can read the full article here:
When a crisis comes, you can communicate or remain silent. My advice is that if the crisis is the result of criticism and you feel the criticism is unfair, then defending yourself by attacking your critics is a strong tactic. Oz has been on the attack against his critics, sighting that they have ulterior motives.
If the media tell the story of your critics, you must reach out to the media to tell your story. Too many executives caught up in a crisis or controversy in the media, believe in the flawed old adage that, “You should never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” (I address this in Lesson 7 of my book Don’t Talk to the Media Until…).
Here are 5 ways to address critics:
1) Call a news conference and point out the flaws in their statements.
2) Write letters to the editor to all publications that publish erroneous criticism from your opponents. Keep the letter to about 150 – 200 words.
3) Post a longer version of your letter to your own website.
4) Think carefully before taking your fight to social media. The haters can get ugly fast and make the problem worse.
5) Never underestimate the power of taking out ads in major publications so you can print your full letter.
Don’t let a critic hurt your brand, your reputation or your revenue.
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Pitching a story to the media is hard. Today I’m making a presentation to a group of public relations students at Loyola University in New Orleans. They want to know about secrets to pitching stories to the media. Their instructor wanted me to share my perspective since I have been both a working journalist in print, radio, and television, as well as a working public relations strategist for more than 20 years.
Lesson 1: Who you are matters. The more famous the better. The Kardashians and their team are pros at publicity and notoriety. Jenner’s notoriety from reality TV makes him a ratings getter. Did you hear that? A ratings getter. The ratings sweep period is beginning and ABC News knows that the celebrity persona of Jenner will bring in viewers. If you have to pitch a story to the media, you need to pitch it in a way that draws viewers to television, listeners to radio, readers to print, and visitors to the web. If your story helps to grow the media’s audience and advertising revenue, then you are more likely to get coverage. It is easier with celebrity status. If you are not pitching on behalf of a celebrity, then you must demonstrate that your story will attract a large audience for the media outlet.
Lesson 2: The power of the tease. There has been a mystery about whether Jenner is transitioning to become a woman. It is tabloid fodder, but tabloids wrote the book on building a readership centered around celebrities, innuendos, and rumors. Jenner’s story is a perfect match. In Jenner’s case, the mystery makes it easy to tease the interview program, which further drives buzz and ratings. My cynical side says Jenner and his team have carefully crafted the mystery so they can spin off a reality program about Jenner without the Kardashians.
Lesson 3: Timing. The LGBT community has worked aggressively for nearly 20 years to make stories about being gay a front page story in every publication in the world. Their goal has also been to add gay characters to television programs. They LGBT community has mastered media relations. First came stories of gay males, followed by stories of lesbian females. In most cases, the community worked to identify high profile people to tell their story. Again, a gay celebrity has more clout than a non-celebrity. Ellen’s coming out on her sitcom marked a turning point in the movement. I noted to my wife just two years ago that I was expecting a shift in story telling to the transgender topic since the L and G story lines of LGBT were fading. Shortly there after Orange is the New Black became a hit and Lavern Cox made the cover of Time magazine. The T story is the hot story now. The bi-sexual story line will soon follow after the transgender story line has played out.
Lesson 4: Be opportunistic in pitching your local media. If you are in public relations or represent a cause, brand, person or company that has a transgender connection, today is the day that you should be pitching your story to your local media. Local media love to be copy cats. Friday night’s 10 p.m. news on ABC stations will all feature a recap segment about the Bruce Jenner interview. All that is missing for them is a localized version of the story. I can hear the anchor now saying, “And while Bruce Jenner captured America’s attention tonight, we would like to introduce you to a local man who has a similar story to tell.”
Here are some examples of people or organizations who could be pitching a local version of this national story to the media:
Local LGBT support groups
Local man or woman activist who is transitioning
Local university expert on the topic
Local surgeon who does reassignment surgery
Local plastic surgeon who does cosmetic surgery for transitioning individuals
Local boutique that might serve transgender customers, with things such as clothing, wigs, make-up, etc.
…the list could go on.
Pitching is very much about relevance, ratings and timing. It isn’t easy, but it is fun to observe and learn from when it is done right.
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Lesson #2: Great quotes are seldom spontaneous. They are best written by a professional writer and then practiced relentlessly by the spokesperson until they appear to be spontaneous.
Lesson #3: It is important to parse every word of a great quote. Parsing words is the difference between a bad quote, a good quote, and a great quote.
On the day in question, Mitt Romney was trying to make the point that the middle class needed help. Many articles provided his entire quote, but the headlines took the entire quote out of context.
The full quote said, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor — we have a safety net there,” he said. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich — they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
A well written, well practiced, and well delivered quote with parsed words might have said, “The poor of our country have social programs to help them. The rich have their wealth to support them. But the middle class may be the group most in need of help from Washington and if I’m elected, I’ll work to help the 90-95 percent of Americans who are considered middle class.”
According to my parsing, each part of the quote can stand alone as a fair statement with no negative impact:
“The poor of our country have social programs to help them.”
“The rich have their wealth to support them.”
“The middle class may be the group most in need of help from Washington and if I’m elected, I’ll work to help the 90-95 percent of Americans who are considered middle class.”
5 lessons for all spokespeople:
1) It is important to parse words.
2) It is important to write quotes before you plan to deliver them.
3) It is important to break down the sentences of your quote to make sure each thought can stand on it’s own without being taken out of context.
4) It is important to undergo frequent media training.
5) It is also important to remember that, “Someone is going to edit what you say. It might as well be you.”
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The New York Times called me Friday for a comment about Rand Paul’s hostile interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. When the Times starts calling for observations, that means the political season is in full swing. Reporter Alan Rappeport does a great job covering candidates and the things they say in his blog, First Draft. I wasn’t available when he called, but he did get some good insights from my friend and colleague Brad Phillips, who some of you know as Mr. Media Training.
You can learn a lot about your own media interview do’s and don’ts during campaigns, especially the presidential campaigns. We’ll take sometime this week to look at a few lessons.
For all of you who are spokespeople, I encourage you to first watch the NBC Today Show interview. Here are my observations about how it went:
Question one was background. It went smoothly.
Question two was about Iran negotiations. Guthrie tried to interrupt Paul 2:05 into the interview and Paul successfully interrupted to say, “Let me answer the question,” to which she did and the answer by Paul was a good one. However,
Lesson 1: To all spokespeople – the reporter has the right to interrupt you if it appears you are dodging the question. In this case, I think Paul was adding context, which many reporters don’t want to hear.
Lesson 2: Add context when you can. But if you look at the video, Guthrie appears embarrassed by the interruption. That isn’t good for Paul.
Lesson 3: Don’t embarrass a reporter on live television.
Question three was Guthrie at 3:03 into the interview asking Paul about issues that she said he changed his mind about over the years. On her third example at 3:16, Paul interrupts in a way that I believe crossed the line into being combative. Paul feels she is asking a biased question. Guthrie continues despite his talking over her. She completes the question by talking over his interruption, then he, in my opinion, comes across as being condescending as he begins to lecture her on how her question should have been phrased.
Lesson 4: Do not be condescending to a reporter. When a spokesperson reaches this point, things will always get uncomfortable and combative.
Lesson 5: As a spokesperson, you have the right to rephrase a question, but you should not think that lecturing a popular reporter on live television is a wise move.
My suggestion for any spokesperson at a time like this is to allow the reporter to finish their question, then to simply reply, “I cannot agree with the premise of your question.” The spokesperson should then state the facts as he or she believes them to be true.
Instead of the response I suggest, Paul initiates an argument that sounds much like a husband and wife who seem to be debating something that neither has heard correctly.
Lesson 6: When two people speak at the same time like this, neither can hear the other clearly.
From the perspective of control, Paul is completely controlling the interview. However, he is embarrassing Guthrie to the point that the loyal viewers who love and adore her will learn to hate Paul. For Paul, he gained control of the interview’s direction, but at what cost?
Brad Phillips told the New York Times that a spokesperson must remember, “The reporter is the conduit to the audience you want to reach out to.” This echoes the lesson I write about in Chapter 1 of Don’t Talk to the Media Until… which is that in an interview, you are not talking to the media, you are talking to the media’s audience.
All of you who serve as spokespeople must walk a fine line when getting combative with a reporter, especially in a live interview on a high profile program like the Today Show.
Lesson 7: Making the media your enemy and being combative usually backfires. Making the media fall in love with you because you give great answers and sound bites always works. Just ask the young Senator from Chicago who ran for President and now sits in the White House. His quotes were always strong and that goes a long way.
The bottom line is that as a spokesperson, you have a right to provide context and to correct errors or misstatements. However, doing it right requires you to remember that, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
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This lesson really could end with just that phrase: Never speak off the record.
Speaking off the record has been taboo among the wisest media trainers and public relations sages for decades, but rarely do I teach a media training class in which I don’t get asked if it is okay to speak off of the record. Furthermore, the question is usually asked by someone who thinks speaking off of the record is a good idea.
Let’s go back to 7th grade. Johnny likes Suzie. Johnny confesses to Suzie’s best friend, Mary, that he likes Suzie. Johnny admonishes Mary not to tell anyone. Within an hour the entire 7th grade class knows Johnny likes Suzie.
Now that you are an adult, do you think the rules and practices of confidentiality have changed? They have not.
Speaking off of the record is triggered by either an incentive from the spokesperson or a suggestion from the reporter. It usually happens when the interview reaches an impasse because the spokesperson knows that if he says more, his comments will compromise a relationship or expose confidential information. Sometimes the spokesperson would like the information to be known publicly, but not be associated with him.
When the discussion reaches an impasse, the reporter might suggest, “Would you be willing to tell me off the record?” Sometimes the spokesperson might initiate the agreement by suggesting, “If I tell you, can we keep it off the record?”
The inference is that once spoken, the reporter will simply sit on the information as though it helps paint a clearer picture of what is perhaps an incomplete story. Don’t believe it. Don’t do it.
A reporter will always, in some way, use the information. Perhaps in their report they’ll say, “confidential sources tell us,” then share the information. Anyone close to the topic can likely do enough deductive reasoning to trace the information back to you, which ultimately damages your reputation. Sometimes the reporter dangles your information in front of another source as an incentive to get the other source to say “on the record” what you would not say “off the record.” To me, it all adds up to bad ethics.
Some individuals will share information off the record as a way to get a reporter to attack an opponent or competitor. This often happens in politics and the corporate world. Again, to me it is bad ethics. If you have charges to level, say them for the entire world to hear and be prepared to back up what you say. If you can’t back it up, you shouldn’t be saying it.
Back in my days in journalism school at Louisiana Tech University, my mentors taught that as a reporter, if someone told you something off of the record, your only choice was to take that information to the grave with you. Using the information to pry information from someone else was unethical. Furthermore, we were taught that as reporters we should not ask anyone to go off the record, because someone else might tell us the same information “on the record.” If someone told us the same information on the record after we first went off the record with a prior source, the prior source might very well think we compromised his trust or confidence.
Speaking off the record creates a bevy of problems and sets the stage for a variety of ethical pitfalls, all of which can be avoided by always speaking only for the record.
Akin to speaking off the record is when a reporter will ask you to speak on background. This infers again that your comments will better help the reporter understand all of the facts, and in many ways infers the reporter will not quote you. It subtly implies confidentiality but really means the reporter will in fact use the information to garner more facts from another source.
I don’t like the vagueness of “speaking on background” and I would advise you to avoid this practice as well.
If you believe something and you have the proof to back it up, then say it. If you can’t prove it or support your position, then hold your tongue.
Let good ethics be your guide.
In our next lesson, I’ll tie up everything with some concluding thoughts.
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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.
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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.
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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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The events in Ferguson, MO warrant the need for community leaders to activate their crisis communications plan, if they have one. But the power of Black Twitter, amid the protests, presents an amazing crisis communications and public relations case study.
Generally, protesters win the public relations battle against any establishment during a protest. Those on the offense present their case more passionately – sometimes with accuracy and often with a heavy dose of one side of the story. Those in government or in business generally hunker down behind lawyers, rules and restrictions, offering far less information to the media and the community. The lack of facts creates the impression that the establishment is hiding the truth.
Then there is the issue of the media and how they cover the story. Are the media fair to both sides?
A story by Laura Sydellon NPR’s All Things Considered examines the power of social media in a crisis. The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown began trending on Twitter among blacks after the media showed a picture of shooting victim Michael Brown, which the black community felt misrepresented him. Using Twitter, the black online community pressured the media to select a new photo. According to Sydell’s report, Twitter is such a prolific communications tool in the black community that a huge segment of the Twitter audience is now known as Black Twitter.
Listen to Sydell’s report and study the Twitter hashtag. Consider how your company or government entity would manage their crisis communications in the future when they are faced with a protest that goes viral.
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Trend #2: Breaking News is Broken and there is Nothing Breaking
The phrase “breaking news” used to describe events that were “breaking” at that very second, such as a fire or explosion. Sadly, today news stations slap the moniker on whatever the first story of the newscast is, even if the event happened hours before.
This makes your job harder because your little crisis might get portrayed as a much bigger crisis. You can’t afford to linger in your response and allow the media to blow things out of proportion.
Social media trends are taking precedent over real news. The Today Show and GMA feature their special rooms where they focus on what’s trending. Local stations are wasting valuable airtime repeating fluff on social media.
When you pitch a news event in the future, you’ll need to make it more visual and trend-able.
An increasing number of events are getting news coverage simply because they were captured on video. These days, if a tree falls in the woods and it’s not on video, it is not news. But if someone gets video, it may be on the news.
IF someone captures compromising video of your executives, employees, or a mishap, be ready to respond with the speed of social media and not the slow pace of traditional corporate communications.
News stations are increasingly reporting what people think and feel about various topics on social media. This makes your company face tougher scrutiny than ever, potentially damaging reputation and revenue.
The time is now to rethink your social media and crisis communication strategies.
The phrase “has not confirmed” has been used over and over in recent broadcasts, specifically 187 times on Morning Express with Robin Meade (Source: IQ Media). These news releases are unverified rumors, repeated from source to source.
This means you need a skilled staff or vendor who can monitor online content every minute of the day and well-trained spokespeople to fully address your scenarios.
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